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Catherine Marenghi, J76, G77

Creative Voice

a memoir of poverty

Catherine Marenghi, J76, G77, grew up in a primitive one-room farmhouse with four siblings and hardworking parents who were frustratingly evasive about why they lived that way. She eventually graduated from Tufts, started a successful public relations firm, and helped her family buy their first decent house, but her past continued to haunt her. Her memoir Glad Farm (Tate) details her unconventional upbringing and her eventual discovery of the long-buried family secrets that helped her make sense of it all.

I was at a writer’s retreat, and we were telling stories around the dinner table. People were surprised that I had such extreme poverty in my background—they’d assumed I was very privileged—and encouraged me to write a memoir.

It was around the time that I was going through my mother’s attic and cedar chest to prepare her house for sale and found all kinds of artifacts that helped me start to understand my childhood. When I started writing, houses were a theme that strung the whole thing together—how people live in their houses and feel about them and become who they are because of them. That’s why I decided to donate a portion of the book’s proceeds to Habitat for Humanity.

When I was very little, I didn’t feel that there was anything wrong with my life. I lived in a lovely, rural area with woods; my family grew beautiful flowers, and I loved the beauty of the outdoors. But when I got to school, I started picking up on the fact that other people lived very differently.

They had names for different rooms of the house. Because we all lived in one large room, I didn’t know how a living room was different from a dining room. We had no indoor plumbing, no telephone, no central heating—so many things that other people take for granted.

I was very introverted and isolated, so I think I looked to my inner life for solace and inspiration. I was a lone creator in my little corner of the house. I drew pictures and wrote stories and poetry. I got very nice encouragement from teachers, so I was lucky. I think there was also a certain creativity in the kind of outdoor play I did—making mud pies and playing with flowers and mosses, putting lovely things together in a way that entertained me.

So many times I felt conflicted that I wasn’t pursuing writing full time. In college, I was very fortunate to study with Denise Levertov. She felt strongly that you couldn’t have a nine-to-five job and still be a poet. I ran into her in the airport once when I was dressed in business attire, and she was so disapproving.

She felt like you should choose poverty if it meant you could put your art first. I had come from poverty, and I knew what it was like—not just the deprivation of it, but putting your health and life at risk. I wanted to acquire wealth so I could help my family. I didn’t feel like that was a dishonorable choice, but it was tough to defer the kind of writing I wanted to be doing.

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