Herald JournalHerald Journal, Jan. 3, 2005

Winsted teen wins Hemingway award for essay

By Heidi Stutelberg

The sudden passing of Samantha Sterner’s grandfather last summer became the Winsted writer’s inspiration for an award-winning essay.

Sterner’s short story earned the Ernest Hemingway Award from Bemidji State University.

The award is the highest honor given by New Voices, an editorial board composed of English department faculty advisors and English department upper division and graduate students at the university.

The New Voices publication annually compiles an anthology of fiction and poetry written by Minnesota high school students. It is sponsored by Bemidji State University.

Sterner, a junior at Dassel-Cokato High School, wrote a short story titled, “Stewed Tomatoes” for her expressive writing class taught by Paul Beckermann. Beckermann submitted writings from his students to New Voices in October.

Sterner was the only student from Dassel-Cokato to receive one of six awards. Three awards are given for fiction and three are given for poetry.

Initially, Sterner did not know she was writing for a contest. Beckermann just told the students their stories or poetry could get published in the New Voices anthology.

When Beckermann received the students’ letters from New Voices, he let the students read their own letters, since he had not had the time to go over the letters first. When Sterner read her letter mentioning “Ernest Hemingway,” Beckermann became very excited, exclaiming, “You won!”

“She’s definitely a motivated writer,” Beckermann said mentioning her strong writing skills. “She’s a pretty motivated student and she really enjoys writing.”

Because Sterner received the Ernest Hemingway Award, she will be recognized at a reading and reception hosted by New Voices during English Week in April. The reception will be conducted on campus at Bemidji State University.

“Stewed Tomatoes” is about the relationship between an ill mother and grown daughter. The daughter is dealing with every day stresses, including pregnancy and entertaining her husband’s co-workers, and trying to make everything work in her life.

Writing the story helped Sterner deal with her own grandfather’s death. “We were close,” she said, remembering calling him on the phone when she was invited to the prom. When he became ill, she was in Colorado on a mission trip. She flew and was able to see him before he died.

When asked if she would consider writing for a career choice, Sterner said “I don’t think I would do it as a main choice. I would definitely do it as a hobby.”

She prefers math and considers herself more of a poetry person. Sterner’s favorite classes in school are math and English literature.

Stewed Tomatoes

By Samantha Jo Sterner

Sterner, a Winsted resident and a junior at Dassel-Cokato High School, recently earned the Ernest Hemingway award from Bemidji State University for this short story, which she wrote for her expressive writing class. Her teacher, Paul Beckermann, submitted her story to New Voices last October.

Without looking at the bed where her elderly mother lay, Carol marched into the cold, blank hospital room and threw her heavy leather purse on a rocker in the corner.

“Where is her water, nurse?” Carol snapped as she muted the television sticking out from the wall. She didn’t know that Wheel of Fortune was her mother’s favorite show.

“Hello, dear,” the tired woman rasped to her only child.

A young, petite nurse with a ponytail quickly shuffled through the cabinets and filled a glass of water, setting it on a paper napkin on the nightstand next to the old woman’s bed.

“Oh, thank you, Sandy,” Carol’s mother smiled politely to the helpful nurse. “They took more blood today,” she continued, turning her attention to Carol.

“You look pale. They must have put you through hell and back again today. Those doctors think they’re so damn smart, but look at what they’ve done to you.” Carol snapped the top of a Tylenol bottle back on and swallowed two pills with a single gulp from her mother’s water as Nurse Sandy dropped her clipboard in a clear, plastic bin screwed into the wall near the door as she exited the room.

“I thought you would have been here earlier. I’ll be sleeping before long,” Carol’s mother smiled and suggested innocently.

Carol bit her lower lip as she sat rocking in the chair in the corner.

“Yeah, well, some people have jobs and babies to plan for,” Carol groaned as she flattened her cotton shirt around her circled stomach. “I’m sorry if I’m not here every minute of the day.”

Carol continued to rock as she stared at a safety pin up against the wall under her mother’s hospital bed. Her mother continued to lie there, watching a silent episode of Wheel of Fortune, and she finally dozed into dreams.

* * * * *

“Where have you been, Carol? It’s 11 o’clock.” Stan, her husband of four years, in his favorite pair of Egyptian cotton pajamas, looked at his wife blankly.

She kicked off her shoes and walked past her tall, dark husband with his strong nose and jawline.

Not surprised her husband had failed to notice the bags under her eyes, Carol whispered, “I can’t believe you sometimes.” Carol shook her head and waddled out of her entryway to her bedroom up the stairs.

While her husband lounged in his den watching the rest of Monday Night Football and eating Carol’s homemade salsa and Doritos, Carol carried her body to their bed and settled in. With her hands resting on her rounded tummy, she felt a gentle thump from inside of her, and she smiled.

Finally, at quarter to 12, Stan came to their bedroom, dragging his feet.

“Hey, Hun, by the way, uh . . .” From that moment, Carol wanted to tune her husband out. This was how he started every favor he asked of her.

“Mr. Peterson decided that this Thursday night, I should host a dinner party for the law team working on the Carlson trial. It’s only, like, four lawyers and their wives. Stacy’ll be there. You don’t mind Stacy, do you?”

Stacy Mavin was a perfect size four, trophy wife with a nose job and more diamonds than the jeweler downtown. Sure, she was nice. She had to be if she was going to be seen on the arm of her husband.

Carol turned her head to her nightstand, leaving her husband with the view of her hair swayed out on the pillow, as Stan continued his list of requirements of the household if his guests would be present in their home. Ignoring his requests for Thursday night’s dinner party, Carol’s eyes collapsed shut, and she fell asleep to the low humming of his voice.

* * * * *

“Carol, could I see you in my office in 15?” a round, balding man with reading glasses asked as he passed Carol’s desk, failing to look up from his mail as he filed through it.

“Sure, Mr. Jamerson,” Carol replied to the president of SJF Investment Corporation, where she had 11 years of experience and was now working towards the title of project manager. After a quick stop at the restroom around the corner to fix her hair, adjust her glasses, and straighten her blouse, Carol made her way to Mr. Jamerson’s corner office standing as straight as she could with a tummy she couldn’t suck in.

“Come in, Carol. Close the door behind you, would you?” the heavyset and balding man in a navy suit said after she knocked on the oak panel of his doorway. “Sit down. I wanted to discuss the Pershing-Insignia project with you. Are you familiar with it ?”

Relieved that she wasn’t being called to his office for something she had done wrong, she considered his question. The Pershing-Insignia project had been all over the front of newspapers’ business sections for weeks, and she had read every article. Memos had been floating throughout SJF’s offices, and she had read all of those, too.

While the current project managers of SJF would debate the points of Pershing and Insignia in the break room, Carol would chime in, proving her points with grace.

“I know a thing or two about it, Mr. Jamerson.”

“Well, good. I’m putting you in as a project manager, working with a team of four of our previous project managers that I’ve selected. This is a big step, Carol. I think you’re ready for it. We’re aiming for about a 4.3 percent increase in the value of each share. Here are the files with everything you’ll need to get started,” he said, setting a small box of files and manila envelopes on top of his desk for her to take on her way out. “Good luck, Carol.”

Just as Carol was saying thank you and grabbing the door handle with the hand free from the box, Mr. Jamerson interrupted her. “By the way, be sure to punch in the correct amounts on your time card. The time you spend on this project will add about 26 percent to your payroll. I’m suggesting you don’t let anything distract you on your work, Carol,” and with the simple threat of Mr. Jamerson’s last comment, Carol nodded her head and closed the door behind her.

As she silently carried the box back to her desk, she thought about her new task and the opportunity she had just been given, whether she liked it or not. This was going to take everything that she had left out of her, and she pulled out the first file folder.

* * * * *

Coming in late, once again, Carol walked through the hospital and greeted her mother with a “Hey,” muted the television, and began rocking on the chair in the corner.

“Well, hello!” her mother said delightfully. “What seems to be wrong? You’re biting your lower lip like you did when you were a teenager. That’s how I always knew when to leave you alone.”

Carol’s mother looked down and flattened her sheet and dusty blue blanket across her lap, finally deciding she had left Carol alone for long enough.

“So, come on, what’s the problem today?”

Carol was always persistent, and she was only that way because it’s exactly how her mother was.

“Jamerson asked me to be project manager for a big project,” Carol admitted to her anxious mother.

“Oh, that’s wonderful!” her mother said, lifting her head to see Carol’s dim face. “That isn’t wonderful?” she questioned.

“Oh, it’s wonderful alright! Just peachy, but if l’m going to be project manager, pregnant, come be with you, and throw a dinner party for Stan’s business associates by Thursday, I’m going to need some help.”

Carol let out an exhausted sigh as she began shuffling through her heavy purse for Tylenol.

“Oh,” was all that Carol’s mother could say as she rested her head back on her pillow.

Suddenly, though, “Well, I know what you can make!” she said, lifting her head off her pillow again. Make an Italian dinner and use some of my seasoned stewed tomatoes. I won a blue ribbon for those in the county fair back in the ‘70s, you know.”

Carol’s mother always canned her famous, seasoned stewed tomatoes. They were good, sure, but she canned a lot of seasoned stewed tomatoes.

After pondering her mother’s suggestion for a short moment, Carol said, “Actually, that’s not a bad idea. I’ll just make penne marsale with a lettuce salad and some vinaigrette dressing or something. This might actually work, mom. Thanks,” Carol sat up in the corner chair.

“I’m sorry, but I’m going to need sleep tonight. I’ll come by tomorrow and let you know how everything went.”

“Glad I could help. Good night, dear, and see you tomorrow,” her mother called as Carol grabbed her purse and headed for the door.

Just as she stepped out of the doorway of the hospital room, Carol turned back to her mother and asked certainly, “They didn’t take more blood today, did they?”

“No, Carol, why do you ask?”

“You just looked good today,” Carol replied with a smile, and she left for home.

* * * * *

That night, Carol informed her husband of the plans she had made with her mother in regards to the menu. After Stan accepted the idea, Carol got to work dusting lamps and stair railings, cleaning bathrooms, and scrubbing the tile floors throughout their Venetian-style home. Stan, however, went to his basement gym to tone up his biceps, as he did every Tuesday night.

* * * * *

The next day, Carol had her first meeting with her Pershing-Insignia co-workers. After hours of reviews and suggestions being thrown out in random orders, the group had made a final decision, convinced that they could raise the stock’s value by 5 percent, as opposed to the 4.3 percent suggested by Mr. Jamerson. The confident group decided to call it a night once their plans were final.

Carol was anxious to let her mother know all of the new news about their 5 percent increase. However, knowing in the back of her mind she had more cleaning and preparations to take care of at home for the next day’s dinner, she regrettably continued past the hospital and headed for home.

Once she got home and had finally finished adjusting her home for the next day, she and her husband went to bed.

* * * * *

After a good night’s rest, she was ready for the eight o’clock meeting she and her group had with Mr. Jamerson. Prepared, the group went through their plans for increase, and Mr. Jamerson welcomed the idea with open arms.

They had gotten the okay they needed to continue on, and before long, it was an hour and a half before four couples would be arriving for a special dinner that she and Stan were hosting. Knowing this, Carol rushed home to fix any last minute touches.

Finally, the guests arrived.

“This penne is delicious, Carol,” Stacy said as she moved her noodles around on her plate. Stacy never ate much. That’s how she kept her figure, Carol assumed.

“How about you, Nancy? Are you enjoying everything?” Carol asked another lawyer’s wife. While Carol made the rounds wearing a smile, as practiced, and greeting Stan’s guests like friends, the phone rang.

Carol excused herself to answer it in the kitchen. After a short moment on the phone, Carol rushed to their formal dining room.

“It’s the hospital. Something happened to mom!” she cried as she grabbed her coat and purse from the entryway closet. “I’m terribly sorry. Stay here and enjoy everything. Stan, you stay here with them. I’ll be fine,” Carol hurried as “oh dears,” “my goodness,” and “I hope everything is all right” were chattered out from the women at the table.

The men sat and continued eating over their business discussion, once the front door slammed shut.

* * * * *

Upon arriving at the hospital, a middle-aged man in light blue scrubs stopped Carol before she entered her mother’s hospital room.

“I’m sorry, Carol. We did all we could. “

She threw the hands that had stopped her from entering the room off from her arms and walked to a chair, next to a fake, green plant in the waiting room. She sat down and stared at a single diamond shape in the pattern of the waiting room’s gray carpet.

Carol thought about her mother while she stared at the carpet pattern. She thought about what her mother would have thought of the dinner party and the 5 percent increase.

She blamed herself for not stopping by. Why couldn’t she have just stopped by? She didn’t know whether to cry, scream, or simply go home. So she stayed and sat, unsure of what to do next.

* * * * *

“Could you grab another can of stewed tomatoes, Ashley?” Carol asked her 12-year-old daughter as a pot full of tomato paste splattered onto her apron from a hot hiccup.

With the aroma of parsley and garlic weighing heavy in the air and a veggie salad tossed in a light Italian dressing set off in the refrigerator to absorb its flavors, Stan walked into the kitchen, briefcase in hand.

“How’s the famous Italian dinner party planning coming along, girls?” Stan announced as he stepped into the kitchen.

“Good, dear,” Carol replied stretching her neck out to receive a kiss on the cheek from her husband while holding a tomato-dripping wooden spoon over the pot on the stove.

“Ashley, the tomatoes,” Carol reminded her daughter.

Ashley then hustled to the pantry and, after taking her time shuffling cans and jars around, announced, “There’s only one more can of seasoned stewed tomatoes left.”

Grabbing the can and holding it out for her mother to take and begin cooking, Ashley said, “Here ya go, mom,” pleasant and innocently.

Carol stopped. She stopped stirring, timing, burning, and wiping up red splatters.

She found herself speechless, and she stood staring at the last can that lay in her daughter’s hand for her to cook.

Shaking her head and continuing on, “Never mind. Uh, Stan. Stan, would you run up to the store and pick up some seasoned stewed tomatoes please? They’re canned just like these. I only need one can.”

“You have a can right there, Carol,” Stan questionably reminded her, with his wrinkled nose and forehead, unaware of who canned those tomatoes.

“I know,” Carol replied, continuing to stare into the deep burgundy of her pasta sauce, “but those are somebody else’s stewed tomatoes,” she said, turning to her husband. “Just pick a can up from the store, would you?”

She couldn’t bring herself to cook the last can of her mother’s canned, blue ribbon, seasoned stewed tomatoes.

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