May 15th, 2013
My mom died yesterday. Here’s her obituary.
I got to spend a lot of time with her over the past couple months, which was a tremendous gift.
My mom died yesterday. Here’s her obituary.
I got to spend a lot of time with her over the past couple months, which was a tremendous gift.
I’m at my mom’s house, and have been going through some of her old files of the plays she acted in. There are programs from college and summer stock productions, old newspaper reviews, head shots…including this stunner:
An envelope of lovely cream-laid stock, sealed with red sealing wax and addressed in my own handwriting to Mme. Leonora Armfeldt, a role my mother played in A Little Night Music in 1977. At first I thought it was something I’d given her as a joke. Certainly the address was a joke…”Björneborg Manor.” But then I opened it up and read the letter.
These are lines from a song that Mme. Armfeldt’s daughter Desirée sings. Then it all came back to me—this was an actual prop from the play! Mom had asked me to create an authentic looking letter that the characters could use onstage.
This has added yet another bizarre layer of complexity to a scene in chapter 6 of my memoir Are You My Mother? where I write about mom’s performance in that play.
Unfortunately, I am having to cancel some events I was scheduled to do next week, due to a family situation. On Thursday May 8, I was going to do a talk at BAM with the illustrious personal essayist Phillip Lopate. (Wow, didn’t know till I made that link that it’s some kind of dinner event! $55 with wine and tip included! Plus it’s sold out. Man.) We’re working on rescheduling this.
After the BAM event, I was planning to continue on to Boston, to do a keynote for the Women and Psychotherapy course, part of Harvard Medical School’s continuing education program. I was looking forward to meeting Janna Malamud Smith, one of the organizers. She’s a therapist and also a writer. Several years ago I blogged about her memoir about her father, Bernard Malamud.
So I’m not going to be able to do the Women and Psychotherapy event either, but I’m working on a scheme to deliver my keynote virtually–my talks are always essentially slide shows–so it might work to send a powerpoint file with a voiceover of me talking, that they can play for the audience.
Sorry, I have completely gone off the radar.
On Monday March 3rd, I was set to fly from VT to Columbus Ohio, to Otterbein University where I had classes and a public talk scheduled all day Tuesday. Then on Wednesday, I would fly from Columbus to New Orleans, to speak at Tulane University. Then on Thursday, fly vertically cross-country from New Orleans to Cleveland, to do a talk at my alma mater, Oberlin College. Then on Friday, fly from Cleveland to Boston, for an afternoon talk with Jeanette Winterson at the big giant writer’s conference AWP. I had been terribly excited about that event for months and was looking forward to having a conversation with this literary titan about our respective mother memoirs—my book Are You My Mother? And her book Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?
Hm. Both of those titles are questions, one of many convergences that I noticed as I was poring over JW’s books for the past several weeks—not just Why Be Happy, but its fictional forerunner from 1985, the novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit–an account of JW’s childhood being raised by Pentecostal evangelists who adopted her in the UK in the 1960s.
Well the short story is, my travel was beset with delays and detours all week. My first flight, from Burlington VT to Detroit, took off five hours late. I missed my connection to Columbus. Fueled with claustrophobic frustration, I decided to rent a car and drive there from Detroit, in the middle of the night, rather than wait for a morning flight. That worked out okay, and I spent a nice day at Otterbein University. But Wednesday morning, my flight to New Orleans was also delayed. I managed to squeak in in time to meet with a class, do a tv interview about the freaking Bechdel Test, have dinner with students, then do a public talk and booksigning. I was looking forward to getting a little more sleep that night, but when I woke at 5am to pee I saw a note shoved under my door recommending that I get to the airport TWO hours, not just ONE hour early. That meant calling the car service and rescheduling, and of course after that I could not manage to get back to sleep. Travel is so brutal. Why do we live like this? In an increasingly depleted state, I arrived at the New Orleans airport in plenty of time, only to find my flight to Cleveland delayed.
But I squeaked in there, too–just in time to get called to meet the President of the college! He wanted to say hello, which was a great honor of course but a little nervewracking. I couldn’t get over a feeling of being summoned to the principal’s office. Plus there have been a string of disturbing hate incidents on campus, which I felt spectacularly unable to address in any productive way.
I was becoming progressively more and exhausted. Over the course of the week I was checking in with my mom each day—she’s been sick with a virus. “I have what the Queen has,” she reported. Every day I hoped to find her improving, but in fact, each time she sounded worse and worse. When I called her from the motel in Oberlin, she said, “When are you done with this trip?” and I realized that meant, “When can you get here?” So I told her I could be at her place in PA on Saturday night, as soon as I did my Boston event with JW at AWP.
After that conversation, and some quick recalibration of my travel plans, I had dinner with some Oberlin students. When we all sat down, they introduced themselves with their names and “pronoun declarations.” One preferred, “She, Her, Hers.” Another, “They, Them, Theirs.” By this point I felt like my brain was on frappée. They were all very charming and earnest, but I could hardly process what they were saying. “What parts of speech are those?” was all I managed to ask. After dinner I did my talk to a pleasantly full room, which was nice, and thanks to President Krislov, who arranged it, met my old drawing professor John Pearson and his wife Audra Skuodos for a drink. That was quite lovely, but sapped the very last of my introverted energy cells. I returned, exhausted, to the Oberlin Inn—which coincidentally was the last place I saw my father alive, when he paid me a visit during the spring of my junior year of college.
Next morning I got up and packed for the last leg to Boston. As I was doing so I had this disconcerting text exchange with my friend Sarah, who was already at the AWP conference there:
Boston can handle snow, I thought, and proceeded on my way to the Cleveland airport. I was still reading Why Be Happy, and making notes for my conversation with Winterson, and tweaking the presentation I would do, as I waited for my flight to take off. There were a few delays, then they had us all line up to board, then they had us sit down again. Then they dealt the fatal blow—the flight was cancelled. There was too much wind and snow in Boston to land.
I stood in a rebooking line for over an hour…
…but it was rapidly becoming clear that I would miss the talk with Jeanette Winterson. I had a very hard time processing this information. I was so geared up for it, and had friends who were going to be there. My girlfriend Holly was in fact on her way to Boston in the car to meet me. But no. There was no way to get to Boston in time, and no way to reschedule the talk.
I had been working on a list of topics to discuss with Jeanette. Fact and fiction, the role of literature in our respective families, Jeanette’s confident voice and my self-doubting voice, and how those were traces of our mothers…forget it. There was not going to be a conversation.
In fact, it started to seem absurd to bother continuing on to Boston. Why fly there at 10pm, long after Jeanette had finished handling our session (splendidly, no doubt) on her own? I was only 5 hours from my mother’s house. I might as well rent another car—I was getting pretty efficient at this—and just head to her place. Through numerous conversations with Holly, we determined that she too would change course. We both started driving toward Central PA. Here is Holly’s photo, driving west on Rt. 80 in the afternoon.
There was no sign, as we converged, of any massive snowstorm. The sky was pellucid.
As I drove East, I watched the clock. At 4:30 Jeanette would be taking the stage without me. I can’t quite express how frustrating and disorienting it was to miss this event I had been so intent on for so many months.
Late Friday night, Hol and I met in PA at my mom’s house. My mother is doing rather better. We have all been spending a lot of time in big box stores, trying to find edible food. Here is Holly at the absolute nadir of our shopping experience. Packaged apple slices. What sort of abomination is that?
And one last thing…there’s something kind of …something… about missing a discussion of mother memoirs to spend time with one’s actual mother.
okay! another longer-than 140 character post. Sorry about that.
The power company sent out an email asking everyone to conserve electricity from 5pm till 8.
I just spent the entire day answering email. Usually I try to get at least some real work done every day but things have reached such a sad pass that I knew I couldn’t concentrate on anything creative until I answered some of these things. They’ve been piling up like a winter’s worth of snow, freezing and thawing and drifting as I answer some, lose track of some, read and re-read some, quailing at the prospect of concocting a sufficient response then closing them again unanswered and marking them “unread,” for the fourth time.
I have to be in a certain frame of mind to answer email, clear but not too clear (otherwise I’d read or write), energized but not too energized (otherwise I’d go out and ski). Maybe I just worry too much about being thorough, or articulate, or polite. I recently received a refreshingly concise email from someone, and at the bottom he had a tagline that read, “why are my emails so terse? emailcharter.org” These guidelines seem sort of helpful, especially the one about not sending contentless responses such as “great.”
But email is really just the tip of the iceberg. Keeping up with Twitter and Facebook can obviously take every moment of waking life if you let them. And you can’t ignore those things because more and more people use that stuff instead of email. Not to mention texting. Now I have to keep track of which friends communicate with phone, which with text, which with email, which via god knows what new social media engine. I know I sound like a cantankerous old lady, but I am a cantankerous old lady. My brain is still packed with the instruction manual for the electric typewriter I had in college, not to mention the manuals of dozens of appliances long gone to the landfill. I guess it helps that nothing comes with a manual any more, at least the incoming tide is stemmed. But I wish I could go in and delete some of that stuff from my hippocampus or wherever it’s lodged.
Well, I just had to get that off my chest I guess. By making a blog post, and telling you about it on Twitter. I’m sorry.
Here’s another rant while I’m at it. I just got a pair of nice warm gloves and promptly lost the right one. So I have one really great left glove that is of absolutely no use. I went online to see if there was any such thing as a glove bank, where people could send these items. I couldn’t find anything though, except someone’s lost glove art project. People who have only one arm should set up some kind of clearing house like that, don’t you think? I could also send them this awesome fleece mitten which I can’t bring myself to get rid of. Here it is closed.
Though I must confess that I just bought some of those gloves with magic fingertips that work on a touchscreen.
Holly is looking over my shoulder and remarking on the extraordinary length of this blog post. I should make more frequent, shorter ones. Well, that’s another thing! God forbid we should exceed anyone’s attention span by going on for more than two sentences.
Okay, I really am sorry. I know you’re busy. Move along, nothing to see here.
I just had a particularly hectic month of travel, after a year of a lot of travel. I’m still trying to assimilate my recent sojourns, and thought perhaps this slide show with animated map insert would help me.
Now I’m trying to get back to work. There’s all kinds of stuff going on here. Some very kind, anonymous person from zip code 10003 sent me this beautiful Limited Edition Club copy of Colette’s novel Break of Day. It’s in a handsome slipcase and was published in 1982.
It’s numbered and signed by the illustrator, Françoise Gilot. In studying the colophon, I just learned that it was printed at Wild Carrot Letterpress in Hadley Massachusetts! Wow! That’s wild indeed. In 1985 I worked in the same building as Wild Carrot, in the food bank upstairs, where I basically did manual labor and on my breaks I’d peek with great longing through the Wild Carrot doorway and wish that I had a job there instead. They had these big old cast-iron printing presses and beautiful posters on the walls and trays and trays of type. Well, whoever gave me this book (and I have a possible idea of who it might be), thank you very much.
Are You My Mother? just made it onto the New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year. And also Time put it on their list of the ten best nonfiction books of the year. That’s very cool. Another graphic work, Derf Backderf’s creepy My Friend Dahmer is on the nonfiction list, and Chris Ware’s gob-smacking Building Stories is on the fiction list. It’s cool to see so much graphic narrative on these lists.
(As I write this I’m watching an episode of Girls on HBO, the one where Hannah’s boyfriend Adam is hanging out with all the lesbians at a party. The actress who plays one of them, Tako, plays my college girlfriend in Fun Home the Musical. Her name is Roberta Colindrez, and she’s really great!)
Here’s a picture from the event I just did in Toronto. I was part of a panel in honor of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, a psychoanalyst who died suddenly one year ago. She was just beginning to edit the collected works of Donald Winnicott. Her last book, Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children, was published posthumously this year. That’s Raffi, the children’s musician on the left. Elisabeth’s partner, Christine Dunbar in front, holding the book. Heather Weir, a Toronto psychiatrist, and the psychoanalyst and philosopher Donna Orange. And in front of me, Dominique Browning. Elisabeth was Dominique’s mentor since she was a student at Wesleyan.
Okay, one more thing. Check out Ellen Forney’s amazing new graphic memoir, Marbles, about living with bipolar disorder.
This week has been a crazy blur. Here’s some of the crowd at King’s College for my event with Adam Phillips on Thursday.
And here I am talking with Adam. I really enjoyed this talk with my psychoanalytic idol.
It was different from most of the public events I’ve done recently–and I’ve done a lot–because I feel like we got down into the substance of the book in a real way. There will be a podcast at some point I think, if you’re interested. He was really great, and kind, and had all sorts of brilliant insights into my story. I especially liked that he wanted to talk about the epigraph, from To The Lighthouse, “Nothing is just one thing.” He gave an eloquent explanation of where it comes in the book and what it means. There are two lighthouses for James Ramsay: the fantasy one from his childhood, and the somewhat disappointing, but real one from the present. Likewise in my book, there are two mothers: the wanted, desired mother. And the real mother. And in the end, Phillips said, I accept that what I have is my real mother. That felt like a remarkable conversation to have, in this strange somewhat stilted public context of a large crowd listening to two people talk.
For anyone who wanted to know how our Garden Flat Mishap turned out, my publisher very graciously moved Hol and me to a nice hotel. Where I immediately began to draw a comic strip about the whole thing. They had this great desk with a glass top, and a drawer underneath. So I put my iPhone in there with the flashlight on and it served as a very functional light table.