Thursday, May 20, 2010

Ruminations and Revelations

Today is a strange day in my world.  Today would have been my mother's 77th birthday. 

My mother plays a huge role in my writing. She always has.  When I was a kid, she encouraged me to read and to write--except in the summers when she'd lock me out of the house and make me go play outside for a while.  Otherwise, I would have sat in my room all summer reading.  When I was in high school and doing all sorts of extra-curricular activities--any extra curricular activity that involved the word CONTEST was high up on my list--she would cart me all over the country to help me get my research done or get to a competition. 

When she died, I found copies of two papers I wrote for the History Day competition among her things.  I was a pretentious little cuss, and I'd written epic poems instead of plain old term papers. 

So, in a lot of ways, I owe the writer that I am to my mother.  As a first-generation American (French emigre') she was proud of my command of the English language.  She encouraged me to strive for any academic goal I wanted and went out of her way to help me attain them with whatever support she could give me.  When I won state in History Day and went on to nationals, she went with our group to Washington DC and we had the best time.  Of our group, only one other girl besides myself was that interested in hitting the historical sites, so the two of us and my mom and the two teacher/chaperones trekked all over Washington.  We walked through the White House and the Smithsonians together, went to the Library of Congress, gate crashed Senator Howard Baker's office at the Capital, did rubbings at the National Cathedral and wandered around Arlington.  We even shook President Reagan's hand (we were in the right place at the right time) and when I placed fifth in the nation, she was proud and happy.

And it was almost literally the last good time we had together.

What a waste.

Since her death almost five years ago, she's fueled my writing in another way.  My anger with her has seeped into every single story I've written.  My short story Funeral Meats (in my short story collection Metamorphosis) was entirely about how I dealed with her death--or didn't.  And now, on her birthday, I spent an inordinate amount of time today wondering what she would think about my writing now. Would she like it? Would she be proud? Would she think I was on the right path?  Would all that promise she thought I had as a kid have been justified in her eyes?

And just a tiny voice in the back of my mind wonders, Would she care?

It's a strange and sobering thought. I'm reasonably certain she wouldn't have thought that Funeral Meats, where a squirrel runs off with her metaphorical ashes, was all that flattering. Well, good. It wasn't meant to be. But would she have seen past that? Would she have set the book down after she read it and thought, "Well. At least she can write?"

Writers are driven by many strange things.  Some, no doubt, are prodded by ambition.  Still others just want to tell a good story, to entertain their readers.  I think that in some strange, warped way, I'm still energized by my mother.  I still crave her good opinion.  I still want to get up in her face and say, "Look what I did. Now what do you have to say about that?"

So as I look at my writing desk every day, I see a couple of reminders of her: a picture of my parents' wedding in Paris, her tiny citizenship flag that she cherished, two high school contest papers and something I use every day.

Her thesaurus, battered and dogeared, that she used to expand her English vocabulary.

I guess that's really my answer right there. Happy birthday, Mom.