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Vermont Quarterly

Family Heirloom

Family Heirloom cover

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Family Heirloom

All families have their iconic stories. Celeste León ’87 and her sisters knew their singular tale, a true episode from their father’s childhood, well. 

Growing up in the small village of Maunabo, Puerto Rico, one of fifteen children in his family, young Ramon León had a vision one day that he must buy a lottery ticket. The number—14,167—came to him in startling clarity. It carried the promise of realizing fantastic dreams for himself, his family, and his community. Beyond saying that vision had unlikely consequences and many twists and turns before its full realization, let’s not spoil the story. 

While Ramon León handed this tale down to his children, his daughter Celeste has put it in print with the publication of Luck is Just the Beginning, Floricanto Press. Though the actual roots of the story itself seem the stuff of myth or magical realism, León has begun from that point and taken a deeper leap into fiction with her novel. 

Celeste León studied physical therapy at UVM, where she also excelled as a distance runner, earning New England titles and a place in the Catamount Sports Hall of Fame. Her path as a writer began more than ten years ago when she read James McBride’s memoir The Color of Water. Inspired to dig into her own rich vein of family history, she resolved, “I’m going to write a book about Dad.” 

Online writing courses, conferences, and the support of a circle of writers near her home in Truckee, California helped her develop. She gained traction when she sold a short story to the Chicken Soup series and won some awards for others. “I’m not naturally good at writing, so I diligently studied the craft,” she says. “It’s been life altering.”

León balances two eleven-hour days a week as a physical therapist with her writing. She credits her husband for his support of her literary life and her middle-school daughter for helping her negotiate technology. “It’s a wonderful balance of family, creativity, and career,” she says. 

León’s original intent was to write a memoir of her father’s experience. Bolstering her own childhood memories of the story, she filled notebooks and cassette tapes with her father’s recollections. She traveled to Maunabo, absorbing the setting and interviewing cousins. And she read deeply in Puerto Rican history and fiction by Puerto Rican and other Latino authors. 

Five years ago, León’s manuscript morphed from memoir into fiction with its roots in the true story. “It gave me the liberty to embellish,” León says. “And that’s where the fun and my imagination came in, adding some characters and villains.” 

She broke the news to her father that the work had turned into fiction and that “as the protagonist, he does things he may not like,” León says. “I explained that in good fiction, characters are layered, vulnerable, and not ‘perfect.’” She assured her father, who recently turned ninety, that she would give the protagonist a different name if he wished. 

No, Ramon León told his daughter, keep my name in the story. 

Life experience or work of art, it’s a tale worthy of pride. As the daughter who helped share it with the world sums it up, “It’s a story of one man’s struggle to do the right thing.” 

 

BRIEFS 

Alexandra Taketa ’95 is co-author, together with Jon F. White, of What You Don’t Know About Listening Could Fill a Book. Taketa draws on more than twenty years of experience creating award-winning leadership, talent development, and coaching programs in the business world—from Fortune 500 companies to non-profits. What You Don’t Know promises to build better listeners through key tips backed up by practical skill-building exercises. “Most of us have experienced the results of poor listening. It’s the number one complaint of employees about their bosses and it impacts our relationships inside and outside of work every day,” Taketa says. “Listening is one of the key ingredients to create more genuine authentic connection.” 

 

Samantha Hunt ’93 recently published Mr. Splitfoot, her third novel. The alumna’s gothic tale, a “subversive ghost story,” is set in a landscape familiar to UVMers, the Adirondack Mountains. “I wrote Mr. Splitfoot as an argument between the faithful and the profane,” Hunt says. “I don’t want mysteries to be solved, I want to confirm that mystery never ends, like outer space. So while the dead don’t talk to me in a traditional haunted sense, they still affect my daily life. The dead are dead but they’re not silent.” She adds, “And I love a ghost story.” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt released the book in January.

 

John Norris G’92 is the author of Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism, published by Viking in September 2015. His biography captures the life of the trailblazing Washington columnist, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. Norris, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, knew McGrory personally, and his book draws on her work and interviews with friends and colleagues. The result is a compelling portrait of both the journalist and the political and cultural changes on which she reported. 

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