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Imagining Peggy

By Edgar Allen Beem

Don Snyder doesn't seem like a guy who would believe in ghosts. As a former journalist, college teacher, and author, he is skeptical by profession. Still, he is a haunted man. As he sits in his garage, sneaking a smoke and talking about his new book, a troubled, faraway look clouds his pale blue eyes.

He worries, he says, that the book isn't good enough. "It can't be good enough, because it's about my mother," he says.

Peggy Snyder died when she was just 19, days after giving birth to Don. His book, Of Time and Memory, is an attempt "to return my mother to this world while my father is still here," says Snyder. But, he adds, "it's such a little story. There's nothing sexy about it. It doesn't have the elements a book needs to plow through the publishing world today. I wonder how will it ever make its way."

Snyder would seem to have few other worries. At 49, he has the rugged good looks of an aging athlete, despite the thinning hair and thickening trunk of middle age. The garage he smokes in belongs to a large 18th-century house he shares with his wife and their four children on the road to Prouts Neck in Scarborough, Maine. Here, behind the tall lilac hedge, are all the trappings of middle-class American life: a van and a basketball hoop in the driveway, a hockey goal and a sailboat in the yard, a golden retriever tied up out back, a collection of sports equipment and woodworking tools.

Just another baby boomer success story. But, like all stories worth telling, Snyder's involves a few reversals. The most public one - a failure he transmuted into success - was his failure in 1992 to win tenure at Colgate University, where he was a popular teacher at the Hamilton, New York, campus.

Unable to get another job in academia, Snyder turned to food stamps and day labor to feed his family. He worked as a caretaker, house painter, and carpenter's assistant for three years, writing all the time about the trials of a life he felt unprepared to lead. Then, in November 1995, Harper's magazine published an excerpt from his journal.

That cover article became the nucleus of Snyder's most successful book. The Cliff Walk, published in 1997, turned his economic and literary fortunes around. His tale of being unemployed in the downsizing '90s struck a chord; the book was excerpted in The New York Times Magazine, and Snyder appeared three times on Oprah Winfrey's top-rated TV talk show.

The commodity Snyder found himself peddling so successfully was loss itself: loss of his job, loss of income, loss of the privileged life of a college professor, loss of self-respect, loss of identity. But it wasn't new territory: The subject of loss, even before Colgate, had been Snyder's life's work. In his first nonfiction book, A Soldier's Disgrace, published in 1987, he sought to restore the lost honor of a Maine man who was the only US officer convicted of treason after the Korean War.

In his new book, Snyder goes back to his beginnings, seeking to recover the mother he lost when he was a newborn. Of Time and Memory is his parents' love story and the story of his mother's tragic death. It is his mother, today, who haunts him.

Snyder was born in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, in August 1950, but when Don and his twin, David, were only 16 days old, their mother died of complications from childbirth. Their father eventually remarried and moved the family to Maine so that he could study for the ministry at Bangor Theological Seminary.

Don Snyder grew up a moody kid, but an outstanding baseball and football player. He went to Colby College, just down the highway from Bangor in Waterville, and graduated in 1972 with a degree in English.

He then embarked on a career in journalism and letters, editing the Bar Harbor Times, reporting for an alternative weekly in Portland, and writing freelance articles for newspapers and magazines. His goal, however, was to write books.

"I had written two practice novels in 1978 and 1979, and I was hooked on writing novels," Snyder says. He wanted to go to the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, where, he reasoned, he could both hone his craft as a writer and earn a master of fine arts degree. That might open the door to college teaching, a career that would support Snyder while he wrote books. But he needed help getting into Iowa, he says. Then, in Boston, he met novelist Richard Yates. "I had loved his Revolutionary Road, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, and The Easter Parade. We became friends, and he got me into the Writers' Workshop."

Halfway through that first school year in Iowa, Snyder married Colleen McQuinn, whom he had met in the summer of '84 while walking on Scarboro Beach. A student at the University of Maine at Farmington, McQuinn had been working as a chambermaid at the Atlantic House, a venerable seaside inn; she was on the beach, looking for sand dollars, when she first said hello to Don Snyder. When McQuinn had finished her studies in England, where she was an exchange student, she married Snyder and moved to Iowa City.

Life seemed to be on track for the Snyders. In 1985, their daughter Erin was born; two months later, Snyder sold his first novel, Veterans Park. After he graduated from the Writers' Workshop, with a James Michener Fellowship for $15,000, Snyder got a one-year job teaching writing at his alma mater, Colby, and the couple earned room and board as a faculty family-in-residence. In 1987, the Snyders' second daughter, Nell, was born, and Snyder sold his second novel, From the Point.

The following year, the Snyders spent the winter in County Wicklow, Ireland, where Don finished From the Point; he dug potatoes to pay the bills and peat to heat their rented cottage. He then accepted a one-year teaching appointment at the University of Maine at Orono. While he was back, living in his old hometown of Bangor, his son, Jack, was born, and A Soldier's Disgrace was published.

Snyder's march toward maturity and security seemed nearly complete when, in 1989, he was hired for a tenure-track position in the English department at Colgate University. The Snyders bought a roomy old house just off campus and settled in. In his third year at Colgate, however, Snyder came up for tenure - and failed to get it. Suddenly, with three preschool children, and a fourth child on the way, he had no job.

Exactly why Snyder was turned down for tenure was disputed when The Cliff Walk came out, in 1997. In the book, he attributes his termination to downsizing, though he believes his candidacy was sabotaged by a jealous colleague. Some of his fellow professors pointed to his failure to publish another book while at Colgate and to his sometimes unconventional teaching methods.

"I knew it was all over the day I taught Leaves of Grass by having the theater department make me up as Walt Whitman," Snyder says now. "I brought a bottle of Jim Beam to class and recited some of Whitman's Civil War poems. The students applauded at the end of class, but outside in the corridor, afterward, some of my colleagues gave me looks that said, `This guy should be teaching in high school."'

Colgate gave Snyder a year to look for a new job, but the market was flooded with MFAs and PhDs, and he couldn't snare another college teaching position. Instead of turning to high school teaching or college administration, as some failed candidates for tenure do, Snyder took his young family - now including baby Cara - to live during the off-season in a summer cottage at Scarboro Beach.

It was there that the young father first felt the full weight of never having known his mother."Until the velocity fell out of my life, and I found myself standing still rather than moving forward," Snyder says, "I had never really looked back. But now I began to look behind me. As a father with four small children, I would walk into a room and find myself asking, `Who are these people? Where did they come from? Where did I come from?' I knew my mother was in all of them to some degree, and I began to assemble what little I knew about her."

The journey toward Of Time and Memory began one winter night in 1997 when Cara, then 6, had a fever, and Snyder went rummaging through the attic with her in search of a favorite doll. In the wee hours, father and daughter came across an old black-and-white photograph of his parents. Snyder told Cara that his mother had died when he was a baby. Then he told his daughter something he had never told anyone else - that his mother used to visit him when he was a little boy, waking him from sleep and appearing at the end of his bed in a column of white light.

At the time, Snyder hadn't known that the mysterious woman who visited him at night was his mother. Then, when he was 9, a snapshot fell from his father's wallet at the beach, and Snyder realized that the woman in the picture was the woman in his room. It was the first picture of his mother Snyder had ever seen.

Now, having shared this secret with his daughter, Snyder decided it was time he understood who his mother really was, how she died, and why no one in his family had ever talked about her when he was growing up. He returned to Pennsylvania to interview friends and relatives, research hospital records, and talk with anyone who could fill in the missing past.

The facts were stark and few. Peggy Lorraine Schwartz married Dick Snyder in November 1949 in Hatfield, a small town in the Pennsylvania Dutch region north of Philadelphia. Dick Snyder worked at a local print shop, Peggy Schwartz as a telephone operator. Nine months after the wedding, in August 1950, Peggy Snyder died from preeclampsia after giving birth to twin boys. She was only 19.

Even today, half a century later, preeclampsia (also called toxemia of pregnancy) remains a mysterious complication of pregnancy. Essentially, a pregnant woman seems to have a toxic reaction to the fetus, which leads to elevated blood pressure, fluid retention, possible kidney failure, and, as in Peggy Snyder's case, cerebral hemorrhage. Medical science does not yet understand what triggers preeclampsia, which is the leading cause of maternal mortality in the United States and claims an estimated 75,000 lives worldwide each year.

The most startling revelation of Snyder's research was that his mother could have chosen to live. It seems she was advised to terminate her pregnancy because of the risk that preeclampsia posed to her own life, but she refused. "When I say she died needlessly," Peggy Snyder's doctor told Don, "I mean she could have lived if she had been willing to lose you and your brother."

Don Snyder's twin, Dave, an ordained Lutheran minister and the director of Habitat for Humanity in Portland, Maine, confirms what he calls the "conspiracy of silence" surrounding their mother's death, but he does not see anything malignant about it. "This was the way families dealt with trauma back in the 1950s," he says. "The conventional wisdom of the day was to move on. There was no point dwelling on the past, because it was too painful. So we continued on with life as if nothing had ever happened. Today, we understand that's not the way to do it, but Don and I got the message very early."

Dick Snyder, Don and Dave's father, is now retired and living in Collegeville, Pennsylvania. He says he was just following the counseling he received after his young wife died. "My pastor said to me, `Dick, you have to live for the living. You have those two boys to raise, and God will help you find a way,"' he says. "So we did the best we could. When I remarried, my wonderful second wife took over. The boys knew their first mother had died, so we told them they had two mothers - one in heaven and one here on earth. We didn't dwell too much on the past."

Don Snyder's response has been to dwell, in his writing, almost entirely in the past.

A Soldier's Disgrace tells the story of Major Ronald Alley, a Bar Harbor man taken prisoner during the Korean War. On his return, Alley was accused of collaborating with the enemy and was court-martialed for treason. Snyder became convinced that Alley had been unjustly accused, but he was unable to get Alley's conviction overturned posthumously. A pair of novels, Veterans Park, published in 1987, and From the Point, published the following year, deal with coming of age in the turbulent 1960s.

Of Time and Memory is a return to nonfiction, but Snyder had few facts to work with. "I had no wish to invent my mother, but to reinstate her," he writes in the book. He does, however, blend known fact and imagined detail as he seeks to bring his mother to life in words. In one sequence, for example, Snyder tries to imagine what his mother's nurse was thinking when his mother left the hospital with her baby boys (the nurse died just two days before Snyder tried to get in touch with her):

"Each family driving away with a new baby is a love story. But Anna Hartman knew that my father's love story was ending. She tried not to let it touch her too deeply, but it was no use. As closely as we can feel another's fear, she felt the fear of this young mother. The terrible fear that men never really feel the way a woman does when she asks in her sorrow: Who will care for my children when I'm no longer here?"

"A person who only lives 19 years doesn't leave behind a whole story," Snyder says. "She leaves behind a collection of moments. My father could only remember nine things about my mother. So I had to illuminate and enlarge those things to make a whole story." Snyder calls this blend of fact and fiction "writing along the line of truth."

"For me, the first thing I had to do was discover the truth of her love story with my father and the truth about her death," he explains. "Then I drew a line of truth and placed everything I knew to be a fact on that line, the line I was going to walk. Then as I wrote, I believe, I am allowed some liberty as long as I am illuminating that truth. Nonfiction prose is not journalism, but if you create, invent, or imagine moments that change the truth, that's unpardonable."

No matter how Of Time and Memory is received, however, no one will be harder on Don Snyder than he is on himself. His own title for The Cliff Walk, for example, was American Sob Story. Even after the book was praised, he couldn't imagine why anyone would care about "another baby boomer out of work."

His love-hate relationship with writing has persisted. On the jacket for Of Time and Memory, for instance, he calls himself a caretaker and house painter. He also makes garden benches in his garage and sells them on his lawn. There are times when he thinks he would be happier - and a better husband and father - if he just stopped writing. He isn't even sure, now that Of Time and Memory is finished, that he wants his father to read it. "It's just too sad," he says.

But novelist Colin Harrison, deputy editor of Harper's magazine and a friend of Snyder's from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, says: "This book is what Don's been waiting his entire life to write, and it's a heartbreaking story. What a burden to come into the world when the birth of a son requires the death of his mother. Don's been writing around, above, and below that question his whole life. In everything he's written, there is always this longing and emptiness he has turned his face toward for as long as possible before looking away."

In January of 1978, Snyder was sitting at his desk in the offices of the Bar Harbor Times when he spotted a dark, distant figure coming toward him through a snowstorm. He watched the man walk the entire length of Cottage Street, but as soon as he saw Ronald Alley, he knew that the man was coming to his desk. Alley was coming to ask the young newspaper editor to tell his story, to help exonerate him. But Ronald Alley died a few days later, before Snyder could interview him.

"My life turned in that moment," he says. "I felt that it was part of my destiny to write his story. I've always been inclined to follow things like that."

Snyder brings this belief in destiny to most of his writings. He writes out of a sense of duty. "Our lives proceed in one direction for so long, and then we take a half-turn in another direction, and the whole purpose of our lives is suddenly out there in front of us," he writes in Of Time and Memory. "I believe this now. I believe we are even given glimpses of our destiny ... my destiny was to know my mother."

In the case of his mother's story, destiny took on a spiritual dimension. He says he felt guided in writing Of Time and Memory, as though channeling his mother's voice. "I think all of us, when we're putting ourselves to a task that is meaningful, find spiritual connections to that task," Snyder says.

So, was the woman who appeared in light at the end of his bed an apparition, an angel, a hallucination, a dream? "All I know is that when I was 9 years old, and that picture of my mother fell out of my father's wallet, I knew that woman had been in my bedroom," he says. "I believe in things you can't explain a lot more than I believe in things like 401(k) plans."

"The way that life goes on after a loved one is lost seems to be almost as sad as the loss itself," writes Snyder in Of Time and Memory. One of the things he often does to beat the blues is bodysurf at Scarboro Beach. The mile-long sweep of sand is bracketed at one end by condominiums that replaced the old seaside inn where he met Colleen and at the other by the exclusive Prouts Neck summer colony. A mansion he helped build - a job chronicled in The Cliff Walk - stands alone on the outermost point. While his children play in the sand and surf, Snyder sits on the beach, gazes out to sea, and talks to a young blind man, one of his former students, about writing and about Ireland.

Ireland is out there, invisible across the ocean but vivid in Don Snyder's mind; his current work in progress is a suspense novel set in Northern Ireland. Like two of his earlier novels, the new book is written from a woman's point of view. The female voice, Snyder says, may be "one of the ways I've been searching for Peggy all these years."

As he was writing the final chapter of Of Time and Memory, Snyder heard his mother's voice tell him that if he went to Ireland, he would finally understand why his father had never told him about her. So when the IRA bombing in Omagh shattered the peace accord in Northern Ireland in August of last year, Snyder jumped on a plane the next day to attend some of the victims' funerals. Standing in the rain, at the grave of a young woman who was pregnant with twins when she was killed by the terrorist bomb, he got his answer.

"It was pouring rain in this ancient churchyard. The gravestones were all black with soot and age," Snyder says. "I went to her grave and lit a cigarette. Before the match was out, it came to me. Of course! My father had to forget Peggy in order to love us."

The waves break against the sand. Children shriek in the cold surf. The sun beats down. And Don Snyder has that troubled, faraway look in his eyes again.

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