February 13, 2010
Today is the ninety-ninth anniversary of my mother’s birth. February 13 in 1911 was a Monday, and my mother believed until she was past ten years old what her father had told her, that all the post offices in the country were closed that day because a mail carrier’s daughter had been born, and not because Lincoln’s birthday had been a Sunday. When she died on November 11, 1993, once again, all the post offices were closed.
She was born before construction was complete on the Titanic, before the sinking of the Lusitania brought the United States into World War I, and before women could vote. Although she had been a talented executive office administrator, she died not quite sure yet if a word processor was a person or a machine. The best advice she ever gave me was not to use your credit card for food or pantyhose, because you wouldn’t have either one anymore when the bill came.
I spent all of January and the first ten days of February thinking about my mother’s death. In preparing materials for this year’s round of summer writers’ conference applications, I addressed a manuscript which I began some time in 1995 about those autumn weeks when I went every day to the hospital to sit beside her, though I wasn’t sure she knew I was there. I wrote the first draft last October, aware that the studio space I use has a view of the very room where she lay declining inch by inch until there was nothing of her left but her sigh. In January I pulled the piece apart, endeavoring to lose the autobiography, to find the truth inside the facts.
Today is also the eleventh anniversary of the start of this online journal. That I went public on my mother’s birthday with essays in which I expose rather than disguise the autobiography was certainly a coincidence.
Although my mother’s family had been in this country for half a century before she was born and spoke English in “the old country” (Ireland), she was of the immigrant class that was raised to conform and to learn what the people in charge wanted and to deliver it. Although she was an accomplished violinist, she was an interpreter rather than an innovator, and approached her musical art the way she approached her secretarial positions and her religion: do what the conductor says, do what the boss says, do what the priest says. My aspirations as a writer of fiction, manifest as early as fifth grade, made her nervous. When I showed her a story I wrote in 1989, her only comment was that there was a typo on page 17. Perhaps that was her only frame of reference in approaching a text. It’s not that she didn’t want to encourage me as a writer, I think, but more that she didn’t know how.
In addition to the new story about a character whose mother is dying, I had to make extensive revisions to the manuscript I took to Bread Loaf last year. This was the protocol for application for a new scholarship aimed at returning contributors. The story I presented last year explored dark themes of secrecy and child abuse, and to revisit it, to go deeper into the psychology of a family that is living with this tragedy and of neighbors who overlook it, was to have little energy left for personal essays for this space. In becoming my characters, in living someone else’s autobiography, I had little time to address my own.
My region has had two feet of snow since Super Bowl Sunday, when I stepped out of the fictional Misty Mountain Estates long enough to watch #12 Marques Colston of the New Orleans Saints, a man of courage and a man of peace, bring honor to his home town and the school he and my daughter both graduated from. I got my application packages in the mail between snowstorms, and I’m ready for the next big thing.
I learned a lot in the six weeks I spent wrestling with two difficult manuscripts. I’m getting better at making the fall into fiction quickly and just as quickly stepping back out. There is more room in my life now to strike a balance among my roles as a fiction writer, a blogger, and just plain me. As I said in my “hope to gain” essay, I’m a better writer than I was, but not as good as I’ll be.
I have a friend whose life is dominated by the striving that any ambitious twenty-something must face, particularly one who wishes to achieve in a creative field. He has periods when everything works for him, alternating with periods when his best work does not produce the results he had hoped for. He suffers, as we all do, from periods of self-doubt, but they don’t last forever and when they are over, he picks himself up, squares his shoulders, and begins again. “DG is back,” he says then. “Back back,” he sometimes adds, and I know he’s not just stepped into the next big thing, he’s charged into it.
So have I. MM is back. Back back. Come with me, as you have for eleven years.
Thank you for reading, so much, so often.
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