This is a story that hits close to home for my family. When I was in second grade my parents and I moved to Minnesota, where my mother's family resides. Mom sat me down late at night and told me that I had a half-sister somewhere. The time was right for her to share her secret so that I would not find out from family gossip. The secrecy and shame I imagine she endured as a girl of 15 haunts me, and perhaps it is why I am such an active advocate for comprehensive sex education and reproductive justice. We've been reunited with my sister and her family for over two decades and now my beautiful family is much larger. Still, I'll be bringing tissues when I experience the show this weekend.
Watermelon Hill It is based on ideas from Shadow Mother: Stories of Adoption and Reunion by Linda Back McKay. Last year I took a writing class at The Loft called "Write Now!" where I first met Linda. She was a talented instructor and generous with her time to help her writing students improve. She agreed to answer some questions for my Artfully Engaging readers. I hope you find her words as touching and insightful as I have.
How do you identify as an artist/writer?
Linda: As a poet, I am a reporter working to make sense of this world through my own set of filters. I try to access the qualities of humility, appreciation, empathy and gratitude in all of my writing and teaching, no matter how deeply I must dig.
What is your involvement in the process of staging Watermelon Hill at History Theatre?
Linda: I acted as Creative Consultant for the first staging. This time I'm less of a consultant and more like a member of the family. Since I have almost no theater background, I'm always thrilled when someone asks my opinion. It's all a compelling process.
The personal stories of unintended pregnancies are often treated as emotional family secrets by women and their families. As a nonfiction author how do you navigate the challenges of making private stories public?
Linda: These women wanted to tell their stories. There are many other women, many of whom I have met, who are too damaged to talk or even think about what happened to them. It's important to know that we were told to never "tell."
What inspired you to write Out Of The Shadows?
Linda: My first nonfiction book was Shadow Mothers: Stories of Adoption and Reunion. Out of the Shadows is the updated version. My subjects are women who placed their babies for adoption in the 1960s and were eventually reunited with their adult children. Working on Shadow Mothers taught me how to tell real stories in an honest and intimate way. When I think about people reading these books, I see friends sharing a bottle of wine curled up in front of the fire taking turns reading aloud to each other.
Out of the Shadows includes the original stories, new stories, essays by an adopted mom (Margaret Hasse), an adoptee who was "found" (Kate St. Vincent Vogl) and a more recent birth mom (Ethna McKiernan) and additional content. It also contains updates of several of the stories, documenting how the reunions have developed over the years.
Linda: It took me five years to write the first book and two years to compile the second. It's difficult work because I write the stories in the first person, which is much more emotional and painful. I find I have to take it a little at a time. But I believe in this work (as you can probably tell) and I'm happy to do it. It's strange to have one's life be an open book, but there you have it.
Do you find writing to be cathartic?
Linda: What's important to me is that Out of the Shadows, like Shadow Mothers, as well as Watermelon Hill (the play) has brought healing and peace to many people, including women who have been damaged by these experiences, their families and friends.
Linda: When Shadow Mothers was published, I knew it was my job to bring it into the world. I did everything I could and gave many radio interviews across the country. One of these was on the "Mid-Morning Program" hosted by Kathryn Lanpher. Ron Peluso, Artistic Director of the History Theatre in St. Paul, heard that interview and was moved to contact me. That was the beginning of the first production of Watermelon Hill by playwright Lily Baber Coyle. Ron directed the first production in 2001. Now, 15 years later, it's being brought back, which is very gratifying. I'm hoping many more people will be able to see the production this time. It's absolutely amazing.
Linda: I say yes to every opportunity. I try to stay connected with other writers and the literary community. Like the theater, we all tend to support each other when we can. I've been fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time. As the great Deborah Keenan has been known to say about publishing, "It's a crap shoot."
What else would you like to share?
Linda: Another time I seemed to be in the right place was a couple of years ago when my poem, "Carousel" won the Motionpoems contest, was made into a gorgeous film by Pixel Farms and was projected across the facade of the St. Paul Union Depot. Talk about colossal! I would like to leave people with one of the life lessons I taught my children: You can't win if you don't enter.
Be determined. Be out there. Don't give up. Expect rejection (so you don't get too crunched up) but rejoice at acceptance.
Ticket Information: Watermelon Hill
Watermelon Hill at History Theatre
Written by Lily Baber Coyle
Directed by Anya Kremenetsky
March 19 through Sunday, April 9, 2016
$20-$38 with discounts for seniors, students, children, and groups.
About the play:
The play tells the story of three “shadow mothers” who find themselves at the Catholic Infant Home for unwed mothers. It’s 1965, a time before the sexual revolution and a time of crisis for many young women. This “home on the hill” was run by Catholic nuns and is a place of secrets, mystery, faith and birth.
Watermelon Hill explores the women’s experiences as they toy with their maternal fantasies and try to conceal their attachment to the babies they must give away.
30 10th St E
Saint Paul, Minnesota 55101
More Ways to Engage:
Social Media | Join the Facebook event for Watermelon Hill.
Behind the Scenes | Afterthoughts Discussion Series on Sun, 3/20 at 4:00 p.m. will feature Playwright Lily Baber Coyle and author Linda Back McKay. Free.
Special Event | Adoption: Sharing Our Stories on Sat, April 2, 6:00 p.m. Poets, playwrights and authors share stories about adoption, being a birth mother and their connection with Catholic Infant Homes. Featuring St. Paul’s Poet Laureate Carol Connolly with Linda Back McKay, Lily Baber Coyle, Ethna McKiernan and Kate St. Vincent Vogel. Free.