Losing a parent is never easy and when it happens to a young child, it can be devastating. Lattingtown author Heather Siegel’s memoir, Out From The Underworld, reveals the pain and challenges Siegel suffered after her mother’s disappearance when she was just 5 years old, and how she and her two siblings managed to rise above the hand they’d been dealt.
“It’s a story about parentlessness and motherlessness,” said Siegel. “My mother went missing and we never talked about it. The longing I always felt made me want to investigate things.”
Her memoir begins with a hint at what life was like when her mother was still around and the series of events that quickly unfolded, causing Siegel, her 8-year-old sister and baby brother to live with their father in their grandparents’ dark basement apartment before being released into the foster care system for much of her childhood. Despite the frustrations and lingering questions, Siegel and her siblings bonded and strove for a better life.
“I lived a dysfunctional, crazy childhood and reading was a way out for me,” said Siegel. “I was always drawn to nonfiction tales—the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the people who had overcome it, not with self-pity, but rather with a sense of humor, because that was our weapon—having each other and being able to laugh about it.”
The also book tells a lot about Siegel’s relationship with her father, which was often strained, and how she came to accept him and the circumstances of her life, to a point. A funeral director for 45 years, Siegel said her father was adept at keeping his emotional walls closed and it was difficult for her to get information out of him. She didn’t find out what had happened to her mother until she was a teenager, and though she had a lot of anger, she said that, as an adult—and a mother—she has more perspective.
“I couldn’t have written this book when I was 18,” she said. “For a long time my mother’s death defined me; it was like a personality trait that I held on to. It’s still there, but completely different; it’s a healed thing now.”
Siegel holds an MFA in nonfiction writing from The New School and wrote the first draft of the book as part of her master’s thesis. Before focusing on writing, she opened a coffeehouse in Wantagh in 1996 at age 25, called The Cup, during a time when there were not many coffeehouses on Long Island.
“I didn’t have anywhere to go as a kid,” she said. “On a trip to Italy, I saw how kids were more integrated into the culture. Here, there’s no place for them.”
She mainly had the shop open in the evenings and on weekends with the intention of attracting the teenage crowd. She had board games, open mic nights and held poetry readings, and said the place was, and still is, a success. She then sold it and opened a restaurant called Spoon in Lindenhurst, but then sold it after becoming pregnant with her now 8-year-old daughter, Julia.
“It was a big deal for me when I got pregnant and when I found out it was going to be a girl, it just rocked my world,” she said. “It completed something for me and gave me that mother-daughter connection I always craved. All the business ideas became secondary; I really wanted to enjoy this.”
Then, she said when her daughter was in preschool, she got “bored” and opened up a juice bar in Massapequa with her sister, who is a beautician who also opened her own business in her 20s. Her brother-in-law and cousin now oversee the daily operations of the Organic Corner Health Market and Juice Bar, as she prefers to focus on her writing.
When she got serious about publishing the book, she said she found a literary agent who “loved it” and shopped it to the big publishing houses.
“The feedback was really positive except for one thing—I’m not a celebrity,” said Siegel. “It’s hard to sell a memoir without the celebrity status, but I still think individual voices matter.”
“I dedicated the book to my mother, who I almost feel like didn’t exist,” she said. “By putting it in a book, I am also giving some life to her.”
Out From the Underworld, published by Greenpoint Press, is available as of April 30 at Forest Books in Locust Valley and online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble Booksellers.
She will be doing a reading at Organic Corner Health Market and Juice Bar, 37 Broadway, Massapequa on Friday, May 1 at 7 p.m. and will be at Forest Books in Locust Valley on Thursday, May 21, at 7 p.m. Her brother, Greg Fine, will play acoustic guitar during all of her readings. Visit www.heathersiegel.net for more book tour dates.