Suzanne LaFetra

All I want for Christmas is… a Pushcart Nomination!

December 16, 2008

A little pre-holiday thank you to Santa for the lovely gift this month: a Pushcart nomination. No one in the non-writing world cares a fig about this, but for we wannabes, a Pushcart nomination is the perfect present. Perhaps someday I’ll get to stand up, a la Sally Fields, tears streaming down my face and shouting, “You like me! You really like me!” into the mic, but for now, I’ll just say, “It’s an honor to be nominated.”  

The Troubles

 ”What’s your most important memory [of Ireland]?” and he said, “How people
who are so nice and lovely individually can be so disagreeable collectively.”
Desmond Fennell, A Connacht Journey

         Tooling through the bucolic countryside of Northern Ireland, it’s tough for an outsider to imagine “The Troubles” that have shaken this part of the Emerald Isle until recently. Copper beech trees splay their dark purple leaves across rolling farmland dotted with black-faced sheep. The peaty, fiddle-filled pubs brim with friendly men in tweed caps and wide-bosomed women serving champ and foamy Guinness. Kind of like the way my marriage was going until recently. (more…)

Anguish makes Art: a little lesson from Frida

July 17, 2008

My kids and I were standing in front of The Two Fridas at the San Francisco Musuem of Modern Art. I knew that I was mostly going for me, that I wanted to drink in all of Kahlo’s anguished, sensual, visceral paintings. Last time I’d seen her work in person was 19 years ago in Mexico City, when I knew a lot less about anguish and art and love. Back then, to me, Kahlo’s worked seethed with passion, sexuality, fecundity.

Holding hands with my six- and eight-year-old, her work struck a different nerve. We took in the larger-than-life canvas depicting two images of Kahlo, complete with hearts, veins, and bloody wedding dress.

 Why does she look so sad? and Look, you can see inside her heart, my kids said.  I read to them from the program and when I got to the part where Kahlo described The Two Fridas as a response to the heartbreak over her divorce, I had to pause.

“Go on, Mommy,” my daughter said. “Keep going.” But I couldn’t, not for a couple of moments. My own divorce will be finalized this month. Now I understand first-hand how heartache could prompt 49 square feet of canvas devoted to the anguish of change.

I haven’t written much since my marriage fell apart. I let freelance work dribble away, the stream of publications nearly dried up.  A manuscript about my love affair with Mexico has been tucked into a file drawer for nearly two years. But over the past month or so, I’ve felt the little sputter of a spark inside, that tiny flame of creativity re-igniting.

Kahlo suffered immeasurably, and painted her way through a rich but agonizing life. Taking a lesson from her, it seems the least I can do is to use my own small anguish to fuel that precious flame.“Go on… keep going.”

It’s no 7′X7′ masterpiece, but blogs are hanging one’s words out there for the world to see. My small attempt at art, I suppose, heart exposed, wearing my virtual bloodied wedding dress.

I promise– the posts will be cheerier sometimes. Stay tuned.

Brevity:The Journal of Creative Nonfiction

December 15, 2007

I’m honored to have a piece in the esteemed Brevity. Read Nine Days and you’ll know why I’ve been busy doing things other than writing…


San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Magazine

December 14, 2007

For Day of the Dead this year, I wrote a short piece for My Word.

Every year my altar is different, and every year I wonder what it will hold in the future. What losses lie ahead?

To read the essay, click here:

A new short story in Pearl

November 8, 2006

Pearl is one of those old gems of a literary magazine. It’s been around since the mid seventies, and has included writing from bigwigs including Charles Bukowski. I’m honored to have a short story, Catch and Release, included in the current issue.

Catch and Release

She always noticed her father’s hands; the blunt, short nails, the left thumbnail deeply ridged, the pale hairs sprouting from the back, lying down like complacent soldiers. “No, Erica. Not like that.” He had taken the fishing rod from her. “Use a blood knot instead. It’s stronger.”

“You wind it through five times on each side, then poke each end through the hole here.” Her father twisted the filament of fishing line. “They go through opposite sides, Erica, never together. Got it?” (more…)

Silent Night

September 20, 2006

DING ding DING ding DING ding. The Salvation Army bell ringer swings his brass bell.
Angela darts past, weaving through the shoppers toward her Chevy Malibu in the parking lot.
Flash of badge.
“You’ll have to show me the receipt for that, ma’am.”
Shit. DING ding DING ding.
Angela crinkles something the pocket of her down jacket. DING ding DING ding. She balls up the Christmas list.

Strange Fruit

Dirty laundry should be washed at home.

Mexican proverb


You have to be careful with laundry in the tropics; you can’t let the tiny rusty spring in the clothespin touch the fabric or your stuff’ll be stained forever. I pin the wet sheet to the line and stand back. Clean. It looks clean.

Up Up and Away

September 14, 2006

Raging Gracefully: smart women on life, love, and coming into your own

“Lucky earlybirds, you get to see the balloon inflate,” the driver says into the rearview mirror. I’m on vacation with my husband—just the two of us– for the first time in the four years since our kids were born. This weekend, there are no blocks to pick up, no carrots to chop, no garbage to take out.

I just got the advance copy of this new anthology, to be released next month. My story, Up Up and Away is about a balloning adventure and trying to revive a sputtering marriage. You can order a copy at


Cheating the Reaper: When ritual becomes reminder

October 31, 2004

San Francisco Chronicle (original article link)
Sunday, October 31, 2004

Mommy, will I be able to talk when I’m dead?”

After our cat died last winter, my 3-year-old began his exploration into the deep cave of mortality. He asked why his friend Jordan’s mouse was in heaven and our cat was not. He asked if our buried kitty would grow in the garden like a flower. He asked if I was ever going to die. And then, “Mommy, will you miss me when I die?” For a moment, I could not talk.

When the concept of death and my own child collide, I am sharply aware of why death is locked up in nursing homes, creepy movies and euphemisms. The slightest whiff of mortality, when it comes drifting toward my own children, is intolerable. My brain slams shut, unwilling to let the reality in. But of course, all people will die. Even my kids.

This past spring, my son had a slight fever, and I kept him home from preschool. At naptime, his breathing seemed strange, so I sat beside him for a few minutes. And then, I watched my son die. Right in front of me. I watched him breathe out, in, out … in … out … … … …

And then nothing.

His face hadn’t changed, but his eyes looked at me without seeing. Vacant. It no longer resembled my son. I believed that my baby was dead.

Reflected in his unseeing eyes flashed the life he would never have: the swimming lesson he’d never take, the graduation gown he’d never wear, the stormy river he’d never kayak across, the grandchild he’d never nuzzle. I witnessed it all, in a microsecond, before I scooped him up and called 911.

A first aid course from Camp Fire Girls a lifetime ago flooded into me, as I tilted his head back, checked his mouth for obstructions, pinched his nose, and puffed oxygen into my boy’s lungs. Once. Twice. Again. Pause. … nothing. His lips were blue. Again. Breath. Pause … His face now the color of a bruise. Oh God, I sobbed. Breathe. Again. Again. And again. Please, Oh please, breathe!!

And then he coughed. And vomited. And began to breathe. With my still- unconscious son cradled in my arms, I raced outside to meet the sirens that were already screaming toward us.

A few hours later, my husband, son and I sat together in the hospital, my boy sucking a Popsicle, my husband filling out forms. The doctors discharged us with reassuring smiles, and we left armed with nothing but a bag loaded with Motrin and Tylenol. He was fine, they told us. A febrile seizure. Nothing to worry about.

Everything is different now. It’s like looking at one of those optical illusion pictures. At first, it looks like a young woman, but squinting at the negative black space, you discover a witch lurking in the very same drawing. And once you see the witch, you can never unsee her.

In my 20s, before children, I lived in Mexico. I visited a small cemetery once, on Nov. 1, the Day of the Dead. A local band belted out a circus-like polka, the music drunkenly dipping and swirling around the crowd. Marigold arches towered overhead, and flickering candlelight illuminated those who had come to honor their dead. Children chased each other around headstones, and a baby curled into the warm curve of a mother’s reboso-draped breast. On that night, death came festooned in golden cempasúchitl flowers and smelled of steaming tortillas. In the Mexican graveyard, death seemed only a colorful, mysterious visitor, and I was not afraid.

Day of the Dead has been a gentle reminder of mortality, spurring me to enjoy my life. But the day I clamped my mouth over my son’s, blowing life into his stalled body, death ceased to be a quaint set of rituals. This uninvited death does not smell of yeasty breads shaped like bones and sticky skeleton candy. Death wiped its filthy boots right outside my door on that day, as I understood that my child’s connection to life is as slender as a spider’s silk.

This year, as every year, the quieting of the birds and the last ovation of fall’s fiery plumage mark winter’s arrival. And on the day after Halloween, I unfold my embroidered tablecloth, and arrange a sugar skull among the pictures of the family ghosts as I prepare an altar for El Dia de los Muertos.

But this year, the ritual has another dimension. If my son had not begun to breathe, my altar would be crowded with a picture from his birthday party, round moon face smeared with Spider-man cake. His wide blue eyes would stare out at me, his spirit linked to my world only by the thinnest trail of smoky incense.

I am haunted by that image, but I build my altar. I light one candle after another until everything is illuminated, the dead and mortality, the young woman and the witch. My son bounds into the living room. He plucks orange petals from a peppery marigold and scatters them across the photograph of our cat, who died on Christmas Day. He licks a sugar skull as we admire our altar. I watch my little boy in the glowing candlelight, then crouch down and hug him tightly, so tightly, that for a moment he cannot breathe.