Jul 27, 2013

Dear Iowa City

Dear Iowa City,

I’ve known you for a long time now, three years as a full-time resident and more than fifteen summers as a visitor. So I’m speaking from experience when I say: You’ve really outdone yourself this year.

Normally, the Julys you offer are--in a word--intolerable. You're partial to Julys with triple-digit heat indexes. Julys with humidity so thick we’re still swimming through it at 11 p.m., Julys with automated phone calls at 1 p.m. warning us to stay inside. 

But this year,  four consecutive days of temperate weather and nights that require long sleeves—at the end of July, no less!--are an unexpected, welcome gift. With stunts like this, you remind us you’re capable of moments of profound humanity and crippling beauty, and that despite your frequently intolerable conditions, hope of improvement still exists. You’re like the Middle East of the Midwest, Iowa City.  

As a graduate student at your university, I taught the equivalent of freshman composition for three years. When we graded papers, my fellow instructors I used what we called “The Shit Sandwich”. It began with a few lines of praise for whatever was currently working in a paper--and being a UNESCO City of Literature and home to so many writers per capita, Iowa City, you know there’s always something of value in a piece of prose, and if not, that it’s permissible to lie—followed by multiple, lengthy paragraphs about everything that wasn't working and needed to be fixed, and ending with a few lines of lukewarm praise that essentially repeated the opening lines.

Your summers, Iowa City, are usually a Shit Sandwich. They start with a stunning week or two in June, followed by months of physical torture, and ending with a week or two in  early September so gorgeous, and so reminiscent of mid-June, that we remember why we put up with you for the other 11 months of the year.

But because I know you, Iowa City, I know what comes next. You can’t fool me. This summer is going to be an inverted Shit Sandwich. The oppressive heat that greeted me upon arrival two weeks ago will return, probably very soon. And it will last for a long time. Probably until I leave.

This summer, the bread is in the middle.

I could be upset about this, Iowa City. But I’m not. That’s where your brilliance comes in. You know that just a few days of unanticipated, exquisite weather in July are enough to change our minds about you. We will forgive you the rest of the summer this year. We will forgive you mostly everything. Very possibly, some of those hundreds of writers who've come here for summer workshops will decide to move here permanently. Or at least buy summer homes. That would be a good thing, Iowa City. Maybe even strategic. Because you have a lot of inexplicably large and ugly new condo complexes you're going to somehow need to fill.

In conclusion, Iowa City, I offer you my gratitude for these past few days. They’ve been the highlight of my summer. I won’t soon forget them. Yes, I do realize that an inverted Shit Sandwich is still a Shit Sandwich. But this year you’ve taught me something important: Sometimes the middle is a fine place to be.

I could say a few things about winter, too, but let’s not go there right now.

Your faithful friend,

Oct 2, 2012

Please join me in Pasadena, California, on October 18 for the Women's Leadership Legacy Conference, sponsored by LA County. It's open to the public and more than 600 women are expected to attend. I'll be one of the keynote speakers, talking about how to locate the inspirational journey in the story of your life. My dear friend and fellow author Christine Schwab will be speaking there as well. Looking forward to a full day of inspiration!!

Jul 24, 2012

New Children's Book for Grandmotherless Kids

My Name is Rebecca Romm, Named for My Mother's Mom is a new children's book by Rachel Levy Lesser about a girl who learns about the grandmother she's named for, who died before she was born. It's a lovely idea, and may inspire talk with kids about their namesakes and/or grandmothers they never knew. Click here to see the book's Amazon page.

Jul 22, 2012

Research Opportunity for Motherless Daughters

I'm posting this on behalf of a graduate psychology student doing a dissertation on women who've lost mothers to suicide. Please feel free to contact her if you fit the description and would like to participate.

Olivia Schlapfer Colmer, a PhD candidate in the Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) program at Nova Southeastern University, and survivor of her mother's suicide is looking for help for her dissertation. She wants to interview women who have lost their biological mothers to suicide, preferably but not exclusively while in their twenties.

These in depth, approximately one to two hour face-to-face interviews will explore daughter’s experiences of loss, how these experiences have affected their sense of self, and their relationships with others including their deceased mother.

She will travel to do interviews if needed. For more information, questions or concerns, please contact her at oscolmer@gmail.com or 305) 299-9490 .

Jun 4, 2012

Mothers, Cookbooks, and Apple Pie

For years, my daughters have been asking me to teach them how to bake an apple pie. I suppose they view it as a gold standard of domesticity, the kind of task and knowledge that mothers naturally pass on to their girls and that they therefore expect to receive. Problem is, I’m not much of a cook and can hardly claim expertise in any matters domestic, partly because I lost my mom before I realized these things were valuable to learn—she knew how to bake an apple pie, though lemon meringue was her trademark—and partly, I suppose, because willfully refusing to learn how to bake pies effectively separates me from my mother and therefore, in a form of twisted logic, from her fate. I’ve felt guilty about having two daughters who want to bake, though, as if somehow I’m not stepping up to the maternal plate in the manner they want or need.

Isn’t pie baking (and knitting, and sewing, and knowing how to use a Crock Pot, and all the things I’ve taken halfhearted stabs at during the years and then promptly abandoned) just part of what mothers do?

And then this past Sunday while my husband was on a trip to New York I found myself home with the girls with a leisurely afternoon and no plans, a rarity for us three. For a reason that still escapes me, even as I sit here writing, I decided it would be a fine day to learn how to bake an apple pie.

I started by Googling “basic apple pie recipe.” The ever-trusty Cooks.com came right to the rescue, but something about referring to a laptop or iPad screen while baking felt fundamentally wrong. I decided to look in my rarely-touched stash of cookbooks for a useful alternative. My new-ish Better Homes and Gardens cookbook didn’t have a recipe for apple pie. (I know. That surprised me, too.) An older New York Times Cookbook I picked up somewhere years ago didn’t have one, either. It started to occur to me that cookbooks either a) assume that everyone with an interest in cooking already knows how to cook an apple pie; or b) an apple pie is just too basic for their readerships, who’d rather learn how to make apple-strawberry-rhubarb gluten-free latticed cobbler extravaganzas, or some such.

In the end, the recipe I found was almost exactly the one on Cooks.com and came from my mother’s old Better Homes and Garden cookbook from the early 1960s. I inherited the book when I left for college, or maybe I just took it with me without asking; I honestly don’t remember, but I’ve carried it with me from state to state, house to house, for the past 30 years. The book was a staple of my childhood, with its red-and-white checked hard looseleaf cover and silver-ring binder interior. The printed looseleaf pages have turned sepia with age, and over the years someone (my mother? me during college?) unclipped some of the baking recipes and tucked them inside the front cover without clipping them back in. But there about 2/3 of the way into the book, right where they belonged, were the recipes and instructions for double pie crusts and a simple apple pie.

The girls and I had most of the ingredients on hand – flour, salt, butter, apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, and sugar. We also had my mother’s wooden rolling pin and her big, plastic Tupperware mat with the concentric circles that tell you how wide to roll the dough for 8-, 9-, and 10-inch pies. My daughters love that mat. It looks progressive and vintage at the same time. They also like knowing the rolling pin we’re using is the one from my childhood home. Baking this pie was practically a three-generational effort, or as close to it as we could get.

With three people on the job, the pie took about 45 minutes of prep time and about 30 minutes of oven time. And the result was much better than you’d expect from three cooks who’d never tried it before, even after Eden and I got absorbed in a logo guessing game on my iPad and didn’t hear the oven timer go off for at least five minutes after the pie should have been done. Oops.

I don’t harbor any illusions that I’ll become a master baker, or magically transform into a crafty mom. I still don’t knit, and I still can’t sew. Most nights will still find me playing board games or proofreading high school papers rather than wielding a Cuisinart. But there was a certain, deep satisfaction that came from tackling that pie, from discovering it wasn’t as difficult or as mystifying as I’d imagined from a distance, and from having my mother participate in the enterprise with the two granddaughters she never met, even if it was just through her possessions. My older daughter, who took most of the pie to school to school today for a lunchtime picnic, asked if she could inherit the cookbook one day. Which will be exactly the right place for it to land.

May 13, 2012

An Open Letter to Motherless Daughters on Mother's Day

I’m sitting here at my kitchen table just a few hours before Mother’s Day officially begins. Motherless Daughters Day – the day designated by motherless women nationwide to honor mother’s who are no longer with us – is about to draw to a close.

Today I spoke to a group of forty women in West Los Angeles where Irene Rubaum-Keller, the therapist who leads Motherless Daughters of Los Angeles, has been organizing annual Motherless Daughters Day luncheons for sixteen years. At the end all the women joined hands to create a Circle of Remembrance and we went around, one by one, and said our names and our mothers’ names out loud.

“Hope, daughter of Marcia.”

It’s been thirty one years since my mother died, and a lot of life stepped in to start filling the void. I’m married now, with two daughters of my own, and I don’t get to say my mother’s name out loud nearly as much as I’d like to. I very rarely say it in the same sentence as mine. Except, once a year, the Circle of Remembrance presents the opportunity again and I’m so thankful it does.

My mother died of breast cancer in 1981, when I was seventeen and she was 41. Ten years later I started writing Motherless Daughters, the kind of book I’d gone looking for when she first died. Since its publication in ‘94 I’ve traveled around the world speaking with groups of motherless women and hearing their stories. I’ve met extraordinary women, and heard phenomenal stories of loss, recovery and rebirth. This year, more than any other year—though I’m not sure why—I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve learned these past eighteen years, especially from the women I’ve met, and three truisms quickly come to mind:

1. Mourning takes a lifetime. This is hardly groundbreaking news today, but in 1994 when MD was first released it was a revelation to many readers who didn’t realize that Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief had been developed for those who had terminal illnesses rather than those who were grieving their deaths.
I remember saying to my editor when I first started writing Motherless Daughters, “I can’t tell readers that mourning lasts a lifetime. Nobody wants to hear that.” But then I thought, “Many of these women, as children, were denied the truths about their mother’s death, and about grieving. Even if they wind up resenting me for it, they deserve to be told the truth as adults.” What happened was exactly the opposite: readers appreciated learning that they weren’t abnormal. They thanked me for validating their feelings and giving them the facts. After a mother dies a new kind of “normal” settles in, one in which the mother is always missing and forever missed, and that’s okay. Only when we accept and make peace with this we will find this new equilibrium.

2. Healing comes through community and from sharing our stories with others. In 1995, the Motherless Daughters non-profit organization started to field the flood of requests for support groups for motherless women. To our knowledge, no such groups had ever been held before. We ran some trial groups in New York City before sending the template out to other sites. Today, dozens of groups are being led around the country, both therapeutic and social, including Motherless Daughters of Chicago; Motherless Daughters of Orange County, California; and Metro Detroit Motherless Daughters, as well as many others organized through Meetup.com, including Motherless Daughters of Washington, D.C., New York City, Denver, Miami, Charlotte, North Carolina; and the more than 200 women who belong to the Mamma Mia Sisterhood in Atlanta, Georgia. The long-term survival of these groups reveals that through community we can regain the very comfort, courage, and strength we once lost.

3. When bad things happen to good people, good things can nonetheless result. It’s so much easier to focus on what we don’t have than on what we do. But as individuals, we always have the power to reframe an experiences so that something negative can be seen as positive. A very smart therapist (who also happens to be my mother’s sister) once told me, “If you believe, ‘My life is difficult because my mother died,’ then your life is always going to be difficult, because your mother is always going to be dead.” But once we let that initial belief start to thaw, to melt down to “My life is difficult right now, but it won’t always be that way,” and then to “Not everything in my life is difficult” eventually leading to “Good things have come my way because my mother died,”—as unlikely as that may sound to some of you at the moment-- our perceptions start to take on a different hue. I would venture to bet that any motherless woman can identify three or four things in her life that make her feel fortunate, or that bring her joy, and if she traces them backwards through the series of life choices and events that made them possible, like a flow chart in reverse, I’d bet that at least one or two of them would relate back to circumstances surrounding a mother’s death.

In my case, my husband, my children, and my community all date back to that pivotal event when I was seventeen, because if I hadn’t felt the need to write Motherless Daughters I never would have joined with other women to start a national organization, which wouldn’t have needed to rent cheap office space in New York City, and then I never would have met the man who rented us a piece of his office suite in Times Square, the man who became my husband and whose job moved us out to Los Angeles, and who became the father of my two daughters, whom I can’t imagine living without. I could say it was the book brought them all into my life, but I never would have written the book if my mother hadn’t died.

All of this has taught me…well, what, exactly? Something so simple it feels almost glaringly obvious. It’s that I’ve learned how to practice gratitude for my loss. This may sound impossible to anyone who’s still actively grieving—and who is right where she should be, right now-- but over time it becomes apparent that the death of a mothers does, eventually, lead to blessings in a daughter’s life. She will be stronger, more empathetic, and more resilient than she otherwise may have been. She will find joy, often in unexpected places. Over time, she will help younger women cope with their losses as role model and mentor.

When I first saw the “It Gets Better” project for LBGT teens I wondered if we all should do something similar for motherless girls. Because I receive emails every week from teens whose losses are still very recent. They wonder how long this feeling will last and if it will ever go away, and ask me if they will ever be happy again.

It gets better. Truly, it does.

And so today, on Mother’s Day, I encourage everyone to take a moment to practice gratitude, and to identify just one thing in your life that is good, and that you can trace back to your early loss. Just one thing.
What I choose to be grateful for today is the opportunity to have been the one who got to write the book I needed to find so badly myself when I was seventeen. And also for all the readers (that’s two things to be grateful for, but who’s counting?) who’ve supported the book, and the motherless daughters movement, for the past eighteen years. You, more than anyone, have taught me that from shared experience comes solidarity, and from solidarity comes community, and from community comes a unique and special form of strength.

Many blessings to you all on this Mother’s Day, 2012.

With thanks and all best everything,

(adapted from a talk presented to Motherless Daughters of Los Angeles, May 21, 2012)

May 4, 2012

New Survey for Motherless Daughters Online

Are you a woman who lost her mother before age 16? Would you be willing to help a psychology trainee in Surrey, England, with her research? This quick online survey will help further research in parental bereavement. I took a look at it and it's designed very sensitively. I'd take it myself except I was 17 when my mother died. Please participate if you're interested!