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Each month we have an optional question. This month it is: What would make you quit writing?
What would make me quit writing? Last month I would have said absolutely nothing. Discouragement hasn’t done it in forty plus years; and there has certainly been plenty of discouragement. With the popularity and acceptance of Indie publishing, rejection can’t crush me the way it once did.
If those two things can’t stop me, nothing can. At least, that’s what I thought. This week I know better.
I recently signed up for a webinar called The Pleasure of the Personal Essay, offered by Jane Freidman. Our instructor was Dinty W. Moore, one of my favorites. I have his excellent book, Crafting The Personal Essay.
Hearing Dinty speak about the essay stimulated my imagination, and encouraged me. I’ve always figured the essay is short and formal—not a relaxed observation with questions and answers, ponderings and research. I never realized an essay could be book-length. Have you ever heard of a book-length essay? The White Album by Joan Didion? Heavy by Roxane Gay? How did I miss the book-length essay? Is it something I’ve forgotten?
The seventy-five minutes of Dinty W. Moore’s voice was akin to pouring fuel on smoldering coals. My mind raced with all kinds of possibilities for writing essays about things that have touched me, scared me, confused me. Actions and observations that I’m still pondering from long ago and far away.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to see my 97 year old mother who has round the clock sitters. Mom was a spit-fire in her day. A country girl from Arkansas, bright red hair and freckles, she was the oldest of ten kids. Her dad was an ordained, self-proclaimed Baptist minister. And Grandpa was totally illiterate. He couldn’t read. He couldn’t write. Often we couldn’t even understand the word he was trying to say.
Mom always said he was too mean to learn, but later, she amended that to too lazy. I suspect today we’d label him with a learning disability.
But my auditory processing Grandpa learned the Bible by making his eight daughters read to him. And from listening to an odd assortment of preachers on the radio. (His two youngest children—sons—became preachers too, though to their credit, they were educated.)
Mom was the first to leave home. After a failed marriage to her best friend’s brother, she hopped a bus and headed to Texas where she became a nurse. And while there is a much interesting story between leaving Arkansas and meeting Dad, I’ll save it for a later date.
Each time I go home to Texas from Louisiana, I wonder what I’ll encounter. Will she sleep during our entire visit? Will she know me? Will she bring up embarrassing childhood events as if they happened to someone else? She loves to tell stories about switching my little brother’s legs; she can’t quite remember popping me when I stuck my face out and backtalked her.
For seven years, I was an only child. My little brother came along when I was a first grader. Today, our mom fuzzily recognizes us.
This recent visit, she called me by name then wept, covering her face with her manicured hands. Thankfully, her sitters spoil her. She always wanted beautiful nails—she has them now.
When she looked up at me, she asked: “You’re my daughter? I’m a mother?” I couldn’t help wonder why that would surprise her.
My brother warned that she’d done the same with him. Over and over again, the ritual played out. She would cry, look at us with tears streaming down her face.
“Mom, why are you sad about that?” Even as I said the words, I wondered if I really wanted to hear her answer.
“You don’t understand,” she said in a small voice that wasn’t hers. (Mom had never owned a small voice.) “I’m different from most people. I cry when I’m happy.”
Her logic was impressive. It was the small, pitiful voice that was so disconcerting.
I’m just as disturbed by the disconnect in her mind. How can one forget children of sixty and seventy years? The intimate things shared and learned together. The fights and disagreements? How can one forget much loved shopping trips?
Oh, how I dreaded those shopping trips, just as much as I loved the new clothes. Mom touched and examined every garment, every price tag, and then went back to the beginning and touched, examined them all again, wondering, visualizing, making her decision about the wisest investment. The quality. During my growing up years, she owned two starched nurse’s uniforms, bright white, not a stain anywhere, and two dresses for church. My closet was full.
How could she forget those unique bell bottoms she bought for me, or those black leather pants? I had matching shoes for my skirts and dresses. Pointed toes. T-straps. She was a shoe lover; and I was the recipient of her love for shoes. No matter the size, if they were on sale, they were mine. My toes scrunched into six and a half narrows and I stuffed cotton and Kleenex into the eights.
When I remember the life we shared, the laughter, the tears, the anger, the disagreements, the hostility, the sacrifice … I wonder where it is in her mind? What corner of her deteriorating brain protects those memories, because she is … was … a hoarder, of sorts. She has to be saving memories somewhere, doesn’t she?
She saved tiny chunks of Dial soap in bags—just in case. Not sandwich bags, but large plastic grocery bags filled full. Just in case we became a world without Dial.
Where are her memories? Maybe we aren’t in her mind anymore, but stuffed deep down in her heart. With her love for nursing. I always thought Mom loved nursing so much more than she loved us. But in hindsight …
The second day I saw my mother, she still knew my name, but when I told her I was her daughter, she laughed. An unrecognizable giggle, not the belly laugh I grew up with. My mother never giggled in her life—at least, not during my lifetime.
“Why are you laughing, Mom?” I asked.
“Because I’m so proud of you.”
Proud of me?
She doesn’t remember the hateful words, the times I disappointed her. She doesn’t recall her continuous sacrifice that couldn’t possibly have been fun. Sacrifice was something she did without thinking, for her family. Her second nature.
“I’m so proud of my children.”
Just like in the old days, through tears and laughter, we love each other.
For four days, we entertained each other with foreign dialogue that neither of us understood, and I came away knowing more about myself, my own life. Asking myself hard questions that may or may not have decent answers. I know one thing for certain: When asked what can make me quit writing, the answer will be … will always be …
I’ll write forever, until my children sit beside me and I look at them in dismay and ask: “You’re my children and … I’m a writer?”