Before she died on September 11, 2001, Secaucus resident Arlene Babakitis loved to exercise. But according to her niece, writer Melissa Pettignano, her weight loss regimen “had a bit of a twist. My mother, my aunt, and I would exercise together. Like, we’d walk around the track at the high school – and then we’d go out for ice cream.”
Probably not what the doctor ordered, but the ritual kept Pettignano, her mother Evelyn, and Evelyn’s sister Arelene close and fostered a connection among the women that bound them in life and death. The family walks would also inspire one of Pettignano’s most poignant works of fiction.
Babakitis, a divorced mother of two sons, Vincent and Kevin, had been under the weather in the days leading up to the attacks, and had considered staying home that tragic day. Members of her family had even encouraged her to call in sick, but she dragged herself to work anyway. After American Airlines Flight 11 hit the World Trade Center’s north tower, where Babakitis worked, she entered a stairwell and began the long descent to ground level.
According to those who were in the stairwell with her who survived, she stopped walking down after emergency workers told her it was safer to stay in the burning building and wait for help to arrive. After no help came, she eventually began walking again. Babakitis made it to street level just as the building collapsed.
“The time she spent waiting made all the difference,” noted Pettignano. “Another five or 10 minutes, who knows, maybe that’s all the time she needed to get to safety.”
As the nation prepares to commemorate the eighth anniversary of 9/11 next month, Pettignano said old wounds from that day will be reopened for the thousands of survivors and victims families.
“I always knew I wanted to write something for my aunt,” said Pettignano. “Then I decided that I wanted to create something, not just for her, but for all those who had passed away and all those who were affected by it, those who are still grieving.”
Pettignano began taking her writing seriously as a student at Clarendon School.
A portion of the proceeds from Suzanne Lantana, published by AuthorHouse in 2007, benefit the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan.
“When it happened, I knew a story was forming,” said Pettignano, who was 13 years old when her aunt died. “But there was so much going on around me and so much going on with my family that I really needed to have that time with them before I started putting anything down on paper.”
It wasn’t until later that she began writing about her aunt, first in personal journal entries, then in articles before she approached “Suzanne Lantana’s Worst Loss.”
Pettignano believes “Suzanne Lantana’s Worst Loss” can help kids deal with other traumatic events in their lives, even if the circumstances are different from 9/11.
“Even though it’s not the exact same situation, the pain they’re going through may be similar,” she stated. “In some way, I think the story can help kids with loss in general. I think there’s actually something in each story that they can relate to that gives them a piece of hope that they can use to heal and get back on a more positive road.”
‘You really have something here’
Although the story about her aunt holds personal significance for Pettignano, she said no single story in the collection is “a favorite,” noting that she’s proud of how the book evolved from her elementary school days in Secaucus.
Pettignano began taking her writing seriously as a student at Clarendon School where her fifth grade teacher encouraged her budding talent.
“My teacher started noticing the stories that I was writing,” Pettignano recalled. “I remember she pulled me over to her desk one day and told me, ‘You really have something here. You have to pursue it.’ She was really instrumental in making it happen because she encouraged me early on.”
Pettignano said her teacher nurtured her writing by providing feedback and lending books on fiction writing that further developed her skills. A number of stories that she first drafted during this period – including “Suzanne Lantana’s Last Night Dream” and “Suzanne Lantana’s Birthday Surprise” – appear, in more polished form, in Pettignano’s book.
She continued to develop her skills as a short story writer throughout her years at Clarendon, then later as a student in the Middle School and Secaucus High School, which she attended until her junior year. Pettignano spent her last two years of high school being home schooled by her mother.
These days Pettignano, now 21, is working on a sequel to Suzanne Lantana, a new collection of stories that will take her protagonist through high school. As with her first book, the stories will draw heavily from Pettignano’s own life and observations she made growing up in Secaucus.
She’s also trying to develop a singing career and plans to use music to promote her youth-oriented fiction.
“I always knew I wanted to write a book, and that my main goal with the book would be to help children and teens deal with everyday situations. I think I accomplished that….I’m proud of Suzanne Lantana.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.