I was talking with my Atlanta brother last weekend and he followed up with an email, including some papers from our Mom that he’d found in his recent clearing up. One was a lovely piece Mom had written after the death of her mother, back in 1988. I don’t remember seeing it at the time. Probably she wouldn’t have shared it because it was so personal.
I share it here because it represents to me what a wonderful writer she was, after going back to school at the age of 50 to get her MA in Journalism at Columbia University and then embarking on a fifteen year career as a features journalist. She attended Columbia just as the style of newspapers were changing. I think she was happiest when she was at Columbia. She loved learning about New Journalism and its freer lede, how to tease out the story of average people, their humanity. She listened well, and her subjects opened up to her because she always made them feel interesting. Her journalistic style was like a warm embrace, though she could come across as a rather shy, distant person. It was part of her particular journalistic prowess. I know, because she always made me feel that way, as though whatever I was doing at that moment was the most interesting thing in the world. I think that’s probably what makes exemplary writers and probably even more so fantastic parents. Living in that kind of rarified terrarium of parental interest, how could one fail to blossom?
Anyway, I’ll let Shirley speak for herself as she writes about my namesake grandmother, Elsbeth who had just died. I remember being in our grandparents’ house that week and watching our mother try to hold herself together after losing both her parents in rather rapid succession. My image of her is standing at the ironing board in the kitchen, no doubt ironing the linen napkins for the reception following the funeral, one of her long, More cigarettes resting in a silver rimmed ashtray on the end of the board, tears running silently down her cheeks. It was the first time I became truly aware of her vulnerability in the face of loss. It’s a watershed moment in a young person’s life to see the impact of such loss on your parents. I remember that it shook me to see her humanity bared. I imagine there are many people dealing with this discovery now.
Mom was a strong, funny, intensely humble but intelligent woman, a good mother and an excellent example of how to be human. I salute you, Mom.
Reflections of Mother
Several weeks ago, one of the Wilkes-Barre papers printed a very long obituary. My mother looked at it; you could see her assaying it. Then she asked, I think jokingly — “Do you think my obituary will be as long as that?”
My mother’s obituary was not a long one. She didn’t ever live, as so many of us do today, both women and men, with one eye always on the resume — collecting awards, publications and board memberships as if that paper trail would prove to us that we had really lived. Instead, she devoted herself entirely to her family — to us.
I remember, for example, as a child of about six, being plunked down on a stool in the upstairs bathroom, while Mother, for what seemed to me like hours, fruitlessly twined my hair around her fingers, trying to give me ringlets like those my sister had. A little later on, I remember how, when I came in from a date, she would be waiting there to talk it all over with me. I remember with what delight she greeted the advent of each of her grandchildren; the way she remembered instinctively how to hold a baby.
When my sister’s illness grew worse, she was always there, taking up a casserole for dinner, meeting Connie and Dougie at the bus. And when I was being divorced, she was there too.
She had a strong sense of what was right and what was wrong, of duty and that it should always be performed gracefully. She loved my father as he loved her and when he died, I think she felt her life was over too.
These are not the kinds of things we write in obituaries.Shirley Collins, December 13, 1988