How It Was When My Mother Died: Introduction

Nearly 25 years ago I interviewed a number of women whose mothers had died. In the course of the interviews over a year’s time, the women confided the most intimate of stories to me––those around the death of this central family member––and I have always felt an obligation to the women, to their mothers, and to their stories, to make them available to others, ideally in print, for the sake of healing that might come out of shared experience. I shopped the manuscript around for a time but did not find a publisher, and so it has languished in a desk drawer––until now. This blog presents an opportunity to share these stories, which I will begin in this post with the original INTRODUCTION below. It has been so long since I wrote the book that I don’t know where some of the women are now and I can’t reach them for biographical updates. I have renamed those women, using just a first name. Other women, with whom I am still in contact, have asked that I use their real names, which I have done.

INTRODUCTION

It was September of 1989 and the [late] Joan Rivers was in the first week of her new daytime talk show. I was making my bed when I had a strong impulse to turn on her show. Although I was a Rivers fan, I was not a daytime television viewer, and I needed a second nudge before I thought the nudge might be for a reason. Because of my hesitation, I regrettably missed the first few minutes of an interview with actress Sally Kirkland. When I tuned in, she was finishing an account of a life-changing, out-of-the-body experience which followed a suicide attempt many years before. It sounded delicious in a macabre sort of way, and I was annoyed with myself for having hesitated, wondering what I had missed.

Joan then asked whether there was anything Sally Kirkland regretted in her life, and even in a few minutes of listening, I was able to tell that this was a full life, including her stint as a protégé of Andy Warhol. She didn’t hesitate for a moment in her answer: “I wish I had called my mother more just to tell her I loved her.” She choked up when she told Joan that her mother had died the previous May. It wasn’t that she hadn’t called her at all and that they didn’t have a good relationship, she explained, it was just that their dealings usually focused on business. She had never called her mother just to tell her that she loved her.

“I know what you mean,” Joan responded. “My mother and I weren’t talking when she died. You never get over that.” The two women embraced in a shared moment of unresolved grief.

As Sally Kirkland left the stage and I turned off the television, I thought of how it was when my mother died. Immediately I thought of a number of other women I knew whose mothers had died and how they had coped with the awfulness of it. My two-mile daily walk down our dirt road was enough time for this seed of an idea to germinate into a book possibility. I would run the idea by my neighbor Leane who had been devastated by her mother’s death five years earlier and yet had recovered and, like most women whose mothers have died, is still recovering. I thought her story might be a vehicle of healing and encouragement for another woman who might find herself at some point along the same journey. Not that reading the account is healing of grief in itself, but as with most forms of art, literature presents to the reader someone who has endured what you have endured or may be enduring and makes whatever constitutes the suffering more bearable. It brings a sense of community into the terrible sense of aloneness and loss. Then I thought, not only of Leane, but Sarah and Cindy, Mary and Janet, my sisters and me. Wouldn’t my own mother’s death from three different points of view be at least interesting and perhaps provocative and compelling?

I determined to talk to Leane about it, and if she were willing to be interviewed, I would start the book. She agreed, and that was the beginning. I made a date with her right away so I would have committed myself and talked to a few other women who also agreed. There was no turning back. Along the way, other women heard about the book and contacted me. It was very much a word-of-mouth project.

Among these women’s stories, there is variety in the ages of the mothers and daughters, in lifestyles and ethnic backgrounds, and in causes of death. Because of its geographical scope being limited to central Maine, this collection of interviews does not pretend to represent a cultural cross-section of America. However, common themes become apparent in the interviews that recall the histories of other cultures. Several daughters or members of their families put something — cookies, a picture of a loved great-grandchild, roses — into the caskets with their mothers for sustenance of one kind or another for the journey on which they were embarked. Another notable common thread is the key of connection so many daughters retain with their mothers.

One daughter flies kites because her mother had taken that up in midlife and that’s how the daughter can still connect with her out behind the barn. Two of the mothers especially loved birds. Shelling peas reminds one daughter of her Finnish-born mother. A game of Parcheesi connects another. All have a need and desire to know that their mothers continue to be — somewhere. When Cindy sees a blue heron, when Debra hears someone speaking with an Italian accent, when Teresa hears “macaroni salad” or when Ellen marvels at her daughter’s graceful carriage, their mothers continue to be.

Although there were different kinds of religious rituals associated with the deaths and interments of the mothers, the religion which figured in these women’s stories was a religion of the heart, the never-dying quality of the love between mother and daughter. Because there is a daughter, we know there was a mother. Because there is a daughter, we know there is still a mother. But how she continues to be is a mystery, the search for the solution of which draws the daughter ever on into the fulfillment of her own life story.

I hope that the mothers about whom these daughters speak are honored by the truth and courage of the individual daughters’ journeys towards fullness of truth and life. I hope that the daughters increasingly recognize, appreciate and accept their own faulted and exalted humanness as they do their mothers’ collective humanness in these accounts.

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