I found the granola bar when I was cleaning out my closet a few weeks ago. It was tucked in the side pocket of an old backpack, forgotten on the top shelf behind the concert t-shirts that I can’t bring myself to part with. I last used the bag on a trip to Boston. Summer of 2007, I think, but I’m not too good with dates. Could have been earlier, could have been later. I was going there to attend the Solstice Writers’ Conference at Pine Manor College. A briefcase had been too reminiscent of my life as an accountant, so I took a backpack instead—royal blue and embossed with a giant letter S. (My daughter’s initial.)
It’s late afternoon when I get off the plane in Boston. My two writing friends meet at the airport—the Swede from Sweden and Ace from Cape Cod. We drive through one of the Boston tunnels that seems on the verge of springing a leak and twenty minutes later, could have been more, could have been less, we arrive at Pine Manor. The 60 acres of wooded grounds are green and rolling and Starbucks is within walking distance. At the stone building with a REGISTRATION sign planted out front, we cross our names off the list, loop our nametags around our necks and study our itineraries. The conference director points us toward our dorms—yes dorms. Just like in college. Chipped laminate dresser, sticky tile floor, lumpy mattress.
Once settled, we join the rest of the attendees for orientation. The conference administrator escorts us to the library, points out the lecture hall and walks us through the cafeteria. At each stop along our tour, one of the attendees unfolds a small wooden chair, the type you might take on a camping trip, and sits until we continue to our next destination. Then she stands—slowly as if her joints ache—and refolds her chair. She’s in the non-fiction class, she says.
We go to lectures in the morning and attend breakout classes in the afternoon. I am in the novel class. The Swede and Ace are in short story. My class runs long almost every day, so my friends wait for me outside in the car, sometimes calling my cell phone that I have set on vibrate. It buzzes in my blue backpack. I look around, as if wondering who forgot to turn off their phone. “Where the hell are you?” they yell in tandem when they leave me messages. And when I finally emerge, my blue backpack flung over my shoulder, we go to eat at the Cheesecake Factory. It’s our favorite place, though we never order cheesecake.
After dinner, we go to readings and enjoy cocktails with the other students and writers. There are poets and novelist, agents and editors. The non-fiction writer doesn’t need her portable chair because there are large armchairs and cushioned window seats. All of us stay up too late, sleep too little, awake just in time to get breakfast in the campus cafeteria. No to-go coffee cups, which is why we are thankful for the nearby Starbucks.
For six days we attend lectures, participate in class, enjoy the readings We have a free day midweek and we go to Boston’s North End. We visit the Old North Church where we sit in the pew labeled for visitors and wanders. We walk until we can find a cigar shop, because someone wants cigars, and then we settle in a small café where we drink Chianti and eat salad made with strawberries, candied pecans and silky goat cheese.
On the last night of the conference, some of the students host a small party. The woman with the portable chair invites me to stop by. She made pie, peach I think. She must be local, must have gone home on our day off and baked it in her own kitchen. Ace and the Swede go back to their rooms, but I go for pie. It’s raining. I have a slice, sip white wine, but I don’t care much for it. (The white wine, I mean. The pie is delicious).
I chat with the non-fiction writers, many of whom I haven’t met yet even though it’s the last day of the conference. Most are writing memoirs. The woman with portable chair is among them. She is dying, she tells me over pie. She had cancer in the 70s, and the treatment that saved her then is killing her now. She is nearly done with her memoir, but has been struggling with her last chapter. How does one end a memoir about dying? But she is quite excited, because during the conference she has found her ending. As her death has drawn near, she has begun teaching her husband how to prepare his favorite foods. She’ll write about the two of them together, in their kitchen, dicing, sautéing, kneading, blending. She is happier knowing he will be able to fix his favorite dishes when she is gone.
Everyone packs up the next day to head home. From the small two-story dormitories, attendees drift outside, haggard after a long week, dragging their suitcases behind, tossing them in their trunks. The writer with the portable chair waves. “I thought you might get hungry, since you have a long flight.” And she hands me a chocolate chip granola bar. I let my blue backpack slide off my shoulder, tuck the bar in a side pocket and say thank you.
I don’t remember her name and don’t know if she ever published her book. If anyone out there attended the Solstice Writers’ Conference, perhaps you remember. I’d love to find her on Amazon and to read her story. I’d love to pass on the title so all of you could read it. And to finish my story, when I was done weeding out my closet, I returned the backpack—the granola bar still tucked in the side pocket—to its spot on the top shelf behind the concert t-shirts that I just can’t seem to part with.