Honoring Grief: The Red Shoes Award

daraEarlier this year I received an email letting me know that I had been selected as the recipient of the Red Shoes Award, given in honor of poet and activist Dara McLaughlin (January 9, 1951 – May 27, 2006). The award is given by a group of literary ladies in Corrales, NM who have been meeting for many years.  They now call themselves The Friends of Dara McLaughlin.  The award is give  “…in Dara’s memory to a writer whose generosity & creative virtuosity honor Dara’s own verve and passion.”

To say that I was blown away would be an understatement…  Dara’s were big (red) shoes to fill. Not only was she a poet, she was a community activist advocating for the disabled. You can still get a copy of Dara’s book, a collection of poetry A Map of This World, and you can read one of her poems online, “Temporarily Able Bodied (TAB)”.

Dara’s friend Lisa Lenard-Cook shared this with me:

[Dara] grew up in Buffalo, as did I, although, except for one passing moment when we were both recruited by a now long-defunct department store to be teen models, we did not know each other (she kept up with–and loved–the modeling; I did not).

When she was in her 30s, a cancer was treated with cobalt radiation that ended up deteriorating her spinal cord, and her husband subsequently left her–with the kids (Dana, Marla, and Santo). When the kids were grown she (and her son, Santo, who truly embodies his name) moved to NM, where she built a beautiful house on a ridge overlooking the river in Rio Rancho….[where she] wrote, painted, and became an activist for the disabled.

I remember when the Hyatt Tamaya first opened, Dara was one of the first there, in her wheelchair, demanding they improve access. (They did.) In addition to daughter Marla Millitello, an actress in LA, & Santo, her daughter Dana often visited from Buffalo with Dara’s grandchildren.

Dara was a founding member of a writers’ group that met in the Corrales Library every Friday morning at 10. Half of us are gone–Dara, Bette Casteel, Hope Bussey Mackenzie–& half of us are left–Judy, Barbara, me. We all miss her, but Judy especially, as she & Dara were very close those last few years when Dara was bedridden & had to eat through a feeding tube (she’d lick various foods just so she could have the tastes, if not the textures).

Judy Fitzpatrick shared this:

Dara was a very good friend to me.  We spent a lot of time together. Given she was bedridden for 2 1/2 years; it was easy to get together.  She’s been gone nine years, but there are times I feel her presence and I hear her giving me advice.  Mostly it is about being happy – as she never felt sorry for herself or wished her life had been different.  At least not that she talked about.

When I hate doing the dishes, I think of how she would have
been happy to stand at the sink.  Or when I wheel the heavy garbage cans to the end of the drive way for pick up, I know she’d have been happy to walk that distance without complaint. She was talented and fearless. Beautiful and smart.  She didn’t ask permission to write the things she wanted to write, she went about writing as she did about the rest of her life, knowing she was entitled to her opinions and feeling confident, trusting her audience would be open to what she had to say. She wrote erotica, satire, and simple poems about her feelings and her life experiences.

She worked with the handicapped and with children. She raised three children while in a wheelchair & showed them you could live a life with no limitations – if you were willing to work hard at what you loved.  When I was with her, I always felt she was more interested in me than she was in herself.  Not many people you can say that about.

I am in good company in receiving this award:  Joanne Sheehy Hoover (2007), Phyllis Hoge Thompson (2008), Gloria Zamora (2009), the late Doris Born Monthan  (2010), Lisa Gill (2011), Cirrelda Snider-Bryan (2012), and Lisa Hase-Jackson (2013).

Usually the recipient of the award is invited to give a presentation at the Corrales library, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Paris happened for me and for the Friends of Dara–travel, a couple of surgeries and illnesses in the families happened all of which made scheduling the presentation a particular challenge. Finally this past week I received my award and was feted at a luncheon in Corrales.

It was so touching to me that they have chosen to honor Dara in this way, that they took their grief and their loss and made it into something positive in the literary community is amazing and brave.  Every year when they offer the award they remember Dara and her work, and share their memories with another writer.  They’ve been doing this since 2007  and I am so honored that I was a part of it.


About Jennifer Simpson

Writer, marketing consultant, community builder and teacher. Director of DimeStories International, where authors share their 3-minute stories at open mic events and online. Publisher and editor of the I WRITE BECAUSE project. Find out more at http://JenniferSimpsonWriter.com
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