Category Archives: Memoir

In Memory, With Love

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People do not die for us immediately but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive. It is as though they were traveling abroad.  Marcel Proust

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I’m waiting for Mike, but he’s not coming back. He left us last month as the dreary rains dried up and the Napa Valley rioted into leaf and bloom. I was sure he would emerge from his Beemer in the swirl of white petals billowing from the trees shading the Upper Valley Campus parking lot. The prodigal student returning, his hat jaunty over his crisp pink button-down and white duck trousers a manuscript tucked into his portfolio and a twinkle in his eye.

You might say Michael was this teacher’s pet. But in the four years Michael Weaver Layne and I shared stories and literary criticism, we became more than teacher and pet. We became friends.

Mike trusted me with his words and I saw in his writing the potential for acclaim. His mind was wildly creative and he wrote with abandon and humor. It was a joy to read his stories and a joy to know him. Jonathan Franzen says on death: “The fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it.”  Mike Layne loved life, embraced it, and brought lightness to my world.

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“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there. It doesn’t matter what you do, he said, so as long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away.”    Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

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Mike Layne’s legacy remains with us in his beautiful architecture, infinity pools, irreverent short stories and an unpublished novel, Mammoth, written in the style of a Clive Cussler thriller. It was Mike’s dearest wish to co-publish Mammoth with Clive. At his death, Mike was negotiating with Clive’s editor for a leg up. He was going to make it.

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Mike was also compiling a book of short stories to be titled Blah Blat and Blather. The following is one of the stories slated for the collection and one of the last pieces we worked on in class.

In an email to our group:

Dear incredible writers,
  After class, at home perched on my porch with another full glass of Pinot, I ruminated over the class critique. The original ending, something I fashioned from memories of Bambi came out as planned  (I admit to being a Disney fan, Frozen giving me warm toasty moments).images-1
    But Daphne’s observation jarred me into re-crafting the ending, cleansing it of much Walt’s fantasy.  So—–with meekness, I’ll stand it on.
Mike

 

 

Lord is my Shepherd

by

Michael Weaver Layne

No moment’s timing could have been better than when Lord entered my life. Vicky had left me, slamming the door in my face, ending what I thought was a near perfect relationship.

“What could be wrong with wanting sex three times a day?” She screamed as she stomped down the steps to the gravel drive.

“I suppose nothing, except the demand it imposes on durability,” I shouted. I felt durable enough, after all, I run marathons. But even runners need occasional breaks.

I watched as she throttled her Subaru down my long drive to the Silverado Trail.

Okay, it’s over. I sighed.

I poured a Pinot into my glass, filling it to the rim and settled into the teak chair on my porch and began dissecting my thoughts. No more evenings with Vicky on the porch, watching the cars go by. No more evenings in bed with Vicky feeling my manhood sucked away ––– sitting solo on the porch –––– not nearly as bad as I had feared. I missed Vicky the nympho but welcomed the respite from her lusty demands.

I filled my glass once more and gazed across my vineyard and down the vacant drive to the Silverado Trail. A pickup swerved into my drive, sliding to a stop, its driver kicking something out of the truck’s rear bed.

“Oh no! Good lord not again.” I cursed. From my porch, I could see a little gray ball of fur yelping desperately at the truck as it sped away.

“Damn,” I growled, “Another abandoned orphan.”

It occurred all too often. An unwanted pet dropped into the midst of paradise to fend for itself, or if lucky, find adoption.

I set my glass on the table and loped down the drive. “Hey boy, come on it’s okay,” I shouted.

Rather than dart off into traffic to be run over, as these outcasts often did, the little fur bundle, yipping happily, dashed in my direction zigging down the drive. I knelt to my knees and it sailed into my arms, swabbing my face with its tongue.

“Good lord stop that,” I shouted with a laugh, holding the pup at arm’s length and just beyond the reach of its tongue. Lordy Lordy, you’re an affectionate little dog.

We bonded instantly.

“Lord.” I announced, let’s name you Lord.”

From that instant, Lord became his name and we became inseparable, best buddies, constant companions, and like the nights with Vicky, Lord and I shared the bed –– the difference, cuddling and sleep our only goal.

He loved television, particularly the Simpsons. He would lay motionless for episodes, his chin on crossed paws, one ear up and one down, his one blue eye and one brown, following Marge’s blue hairdo as if it were another candidate in need of herding.

Lords intelligence amazed me. I figured out ways for us to entertain each other. I taught his tongue to read braille. I made up plastic cards with raised dots for the words, roll over, sit, or shake. Lord would lick them, then for a treat, perform the command.

Other things too. The fire hydrant I brought home from a flea market and placed in the yard. Lord understood immediately and from that day on, it stood as his private urinal.

Lord grew into a fine sheep dog, eager to chase a Frisbee. He loved my pool and the mallard that would drop in on misty mornings. In fact, Lord loved everything. His insatiable fondness for life, his tragic flaw.

His first affair was with the skunk who lived along the Napa River, his amorous advance meeting with a blast of spray. Repeated baths of tomato soup did little to clean Lord or mask the skunk’s odor.

Next, he sought romance with a porcupine. Our vet spent half a day plucking quills from Lord’s muzzle.

In spite of these miss-adventures, he loved every animal on the ranch. The raccoons that he treed at night with gleeful barks, the squirrels whose walnuts he would dig up and chew like a bone.

Lord become a canine gigolo, lavishing love on all the ranch’s creatures.

Born to herd, he constantly dashed along the river or between the vines, organizing the progress of any creature he could spot. Quail scattered at his approach, gophers ducked back into their burrows, butterflies drifted higher as he bounded into the air to move them this way or that.

Herding was Lords passion and the bigger the thing, the better the challenge.

One morning as the lingering fog lifted, a UPS truck sped down the drive, a challenge that Lord could not ignore. Barking with delight and nipping at the tires he tried to swerve the truck to the side of the driveway.

Lord dashed in too close tripping under the truck’s front bumper. The driver unable to avoid hitting Lord rolled over him with a sickening thump.

Twisted and broken, Lord lay on the drive his tongue still lapping the air, his eyes bewildered, his hind leg twitching, then turning still.

I scooped him up and hugged him to my chest wishing desperately for one more swish of his tongue, one more wag of his butt.

I felt his last shudder. It was over.

He slumped, limp in my arms, his legs dangling in weird directions from his crushed pelvis.

“I’ll miss you, Lord,” I whispered in his ear, tears rolling down my cheeks and dripping from my chin.

I buried Lord under an ancient oak tree and within sight of my perch on the porch. I filled my glass with pinot to the rim, with eyes still pooling tears I stared at the mound of freshly piled soil.

A blue Jay scolded from an over-hanging branch, a haunting requiem bidding Lord farewell.

I looked at the two dog biscuits, Lord’s favorites that I placed next to his Frisbee on top of the mound. Two squirrels scurried down from the tree and scooped the soft dirt, reverently burying the biscuits.

Their heads popped up at a sound from the river. I followed their gaze. From beneath the trunk of a fallen tree, hidden in shadows, I spotted the outline of the skunk. The squirrels twitched their tails, alerted by scraping from the gravel drive. The porcupine shuffled past casting the burial mound a passing glance then disappeared into the mustard growing beneath the vines in the vineyard.

I looked back at the still squawking jay and caught a glimpse of the raccoon peering from behind a branch.

I re-filled my glass and walked over to the grave. I could feel eyes watching me. Lord’s friends mourning from afar, hidden yet present. I stood over the Lord’s grave alone.

A butterfly floated by.

My fingers twitched as I took Lord’s epithet scribbled on the back of a box of his favorite kibble and nailed it to the tree.

Lord my best buddy, I’ll miss you, dear friend

When we first met, I never thought it would end.

Now you are gone, and impossible to replace

Life without you, I’m not sure I can face

Your blunt little butt and eyes mismatched

All that is left, this note I have scratched

Lord you were my Shepherd

A friend so true

Never a day— that I won’t miss you.

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Mike, if I may steal your words— you were a friend and “never a day—that I won’t miss you.”

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He was a man, take him for all in all.
I shall not look upon his like again.

Shakespeare         Hamlet

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Tell It Like It Was

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@memoirmusic

Why write it? Why illuminate your innermost self and risk potential pain of ridicule or criticism? You ask yourself this, over and over, even as you name your secret places, confess your transgressions, light up your dark desires.

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Thanks Friends of the Royal Botanic Gardens

Perhaps you reveal your wild and strange garden because of that gnawing, burrowing inner gopher. You know the one—nibbling the tendrils of your memories and digging through your synapses in his blind foraging. You know the dark feeding will stop in the light of your pen.

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ramweb.org

 At first you write to expose the bully, the crazy parent, the mean sister, the pain-giver. That may be your catalyst, but will revealing trespasses against you trap the hungry rodents like a hunting cat, pouncing on those unseeing beasts, dragging them from the dark and laying them at your feet?

In the end the revelation is you.

images-5        Writing your memoirs? Creating a family legacy?

                      Looking to publish your story?

Join the Rianda House memoir writers:A forum for craft, critique and positive encouragement.

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This group welcomes beginning memoir writers as well as more experienced writers who wish to explore their lives through the written word, both creative non-fiction (memoir, personal narrative, essay, autobiography) and poetry. Writing craft is discussed in the group and writing topics are suggested. All participants are encouraged to share their work in class.

Mondays 3:00-5:00 at Rianda House 1475 Main St. St. Helena Free

#70755 (Pre-registration at Rianda House) Feb 6-May 22 (no class 4/10)

 

Resources:

http://namw.org

http://www.judithbarrington.com

http://shewritespress.com/

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Filed under Autobiographical Writing, Classes, Memoir, revision

Saturday Morning Heroes

I love TV. I always have. Since the early 1950s when Dad wanted to sleep-in on Saturday morning and I learned to turn on our very modern black and white set topped with rabbit ears, I’ve been following favorite shows. Now we have On-Demand and Netflix so we can sleep-in too, but back in the 50s millions of us spent Saturday morning glued to the tube.
     This week join guest blogger, Nathaniel Robert Winters, in a flash memoir of his Saturday morning Westerns. Look for his latest book Not Quite Koshernot quite a memoir but a unique blend of non-fictional prose, poetry and even fiction that parallels reality. Nathaniel is the author of 10 books and can be found on Amazon.com.
 

Saturday Morning Heroes

When I was an eight-year-old, my heroes appeared like clockwork every Saturday morning on the black and white, rabbit eared way-back machine. My grandfather and I occupied ourselves for three hours of Western justice:  lessons as important as any at school, church or temple.
    
Grandpa Abe, a refugee of Eastern injustice, found sanctuary in the old West. We started with the Cisco Kid—yes there was a Mexican hero on 50’s TV, but no black heroes. My elementary age mind did not deal in gray-area moral issues yet. Good and evil was black and white. The hero always won, the bad guy was captured or shot without bleeding and the girl was always saved, all in a half hour show complete with Tony the Tiger Frosted Flakes commercials.
    
Next came the Lone Ranger with his good Indian partner Tonto. Even Indians could be good guys on Saturday mornings. Long before the Beatles, my favorite tune was The William Tell Overture that ended with “High ho Silver, away.”
    
Rin Tin Tin followed the Lone Ranger and marked the start of my love affair with dogs. Before I ever had a dog, the TV German Shepard, who was a member of the Western U.S. Army, saved the day and showed me the value of having a canine best friend.
    
We moved into the twentieth century with Roy Rogers, who could drive a jeep as well as ride his horse while singing with his wife Dale Evans. He could play a guitar and a six shooter.
    
The morning ended with a modern day western pilot, Sky King, with his lovely, often imperiled, niece Penny. No worries, she would get into trouble but never was she really in jeopardy. Remember, on Saturday morning in the late 50’s all the girls were saved, all the bad guys went to jail and all my heroes would ride off into the Western sunset.
    
I so enjoyed those idyllic  black and white  shows while eating Frosted Flakes with my dad’s Ellis Island immigrant father. His reality would come soon enough, taking my genuine hero grandfather to his final sunset.
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Happy trails to you, until we meet again.

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English Teachers

Dear readers,

This is a guest post by my talented student, Dina Corcoran. She’s a memoirist, poet and essayist. This is her personal essay on English teachers. Okay, so there’s a bit of shameless self promotion going on! Please enjoy Dina Corcoran’s,

ENGLISH TEACHERS

Since I first looked my mother in the eye and said “Ma-ma,” many different sorts of English teachers have helped me learn to express myself.

First, of course, I had to learn to read. I remember the excitement of cracking the code during our first grade work with See Spot Run, but even so, its message seemed a little boring. Nevertheless, the whole idea of thoughts being on paper opened a world of possibilities.

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So many words. . . and each had to be spelled. “Beautiful,” for instance, was very tricky, because of all the vowels that had to be in the right order. I remember seeing it on the blackboard all week with the other five words we needed to learn. I noticed the teacher used little lines to break the words into small bits. Each time I walked by, I broke “beautiful” down my own way, into be-a-u ti-ful, making a little chant out of it. And “piece” I thought of as a piece of pie. If I could remember how to spell pie, I could do “piece.”

Soon I became aware of longer, more colorful words like “indisposed.” Mother used that one when she wrote notes to the school explaining my absences:

“Please excuse Dina’s absence yesterday. She was indisposed.”

I had to ask her what that meant. Then, handing the note to the teacher, I felt important being described with such a big word.

A wealthy family acquaintance treated my brother and me, when we were quite young, to a live play in the First Theater in Monterey, an official historic site, since it was the first theater in California. The building was old with a rickety wooden floor, and I marveled at the thought of people, a hundred years before me, filling the place just to watch actors walk and talk on a stage lit with whale-oil lamps. But I could see that this was a new way to use words: making a story that could be acted out for others.

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Somewhere along the way in grade school — maybe Mrs. Jordan’s seventh- grade class—I learned the wonderful logic of sentence diagramming. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs, all had their positions in a sentence. I loved that. All good sentences could be mapped out. Now things were beginning to fall into place.

And then:

           “Let me not to the marriage of true minds

              Admit impediments. Love is not love

             Which alters when it alteration finds,

              Or bends with the remover to remove:

              O no, it is an ever-fixed mark. . . .”

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William Shakespeare. Oh my goodness. Everybody in my Sophomore English Class must memorize and recite this verse. I guess Miss Jackson values the idea of keeping someone else’s ruminations in your brain forever. What is he talking about? I feel inexperienced in these matters. With each recitation, she gets a far-away look in her eye; obviously this means something to her, but not to me. (For the rest of my life I cringe whenever this sonnet comes to mind, because I recall the difficulty of memorizing this unfamiliar arrangement of words and the boredom of hearing it over and over again.) Why does she think this is so important? Maybe she was disappointed in love. As I study her wrinkled face and older-woman mannerisms, I try to imagine her having a love life.

Later in high school, Mr. Zapelli teaches us to seek perfection in our writing. Every day he wears a striped suit and matching tie, and I’m sure he imagines himself to be a handsome guy with his hair greased straight back, Mafia style. He sits bent over at his desk, his meaty hands holding my paper as if it is a very important document, and earnestly pores over my work.

His method of helping us is unique among English teachers. Most days we write essays in class. He guides our progress by having us bring our work up to his desk where he examines every detail. (No more than three of us at a time may wait in line.) Starting with a red pen, he marks the places that need work, and we talk about the why and how of the needed correction. Then we take it back to our seat and work on it until we are ready to face him again. We hope for only blue or green marks this time. Blue ones indicate improvement, but the goal is to get the final green marks that show we’ve got it the way he wants it. This may take several visits to his desk, but once our paper has green marks at every problem spot, we can take it home for the re-write. (Mr.Zapelli was always on me for my run-on sentences; I enjoyed rambling thoughts. But today, his cautionary attitude still guides me as I write.) Each and every student is busy. Time flies; the bell sounds too soon. And when we turn in our final version, we feel pride in our work.

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By the time I am in college, my days with Mr. Zapelli bear fruit, enabling me to do well. But this teacher, young, enthusiastic, and sporting a crew cut, has new things to show me. The world of ibid and sic is before me, and somehow I master it while discovering the excitement of research in the library’s “stacks” where all sorts of old writings are kept. Usually I write about the plight of the American Indian, because I have been passionate about that ever since my childhood friendship with Red Eagle. Unearthing government documents, I learn how evil the Bureau of Indian Affairs has actually been. My passion helps me write well. At the end of the course, Mr. Carson announces with some ceremony that only one student in the whole class will receive an “A.” My face turns red in embarrassment and pride when he says I am the one.

Speaking aloud in front of people proved to be a different story. To qualify for a teaching credential it was necessary to take public speaking. I flunked it twice, because I avoided my obligation too many times. Fear got in my way. My stepfather, Jack, helped me out of that one. He suggested bringing my six-speed racing bicycle into class and “teaching” my classmates about it. He said their eyes would be on the bike, not on me, so I could relax. It worked. Not too many people knew about racing bikes at that time, and they were interested to hear how the gear shift and hand brakes operated, and why my saddle was not soft and cushy. Having lived through that speech, I was able to go on to finish the class and pass it—on the third try!

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Years later, my principal asked me to take on an English class in addition to the science classes I was teaching in the middle school. But English did not offer the excitement of Bunsen burners and chemical reactions. And besides, I liked working with Alan Rogers, the head of the Science Department. The students suspected, but never knew for sure, that Mr. Rogers and Mrs. Corcoran were an item.

The head of the English department proved to be a stickler for detail, a fussy fellow. He kept his own, private, classroom set of dictionaries locked in a closet. On the first day of the semester, he took me in there and reluctantly handed over one copy for my use. I really didn’t enjoy those two years of teaching English, but I finished with a sincere respect for the job.

Currently I am happily enrolled in Ana Manwaring’s writing class at the Napa Valley College. She oversees the fine-tuning of our work, and encourages us to use our own “voice.” We students help each other with our critiquing. The two Guys in class have helped me: Guy K., with his constant reminders to eliminate the “is” and “was” words, (real verbs sound more interesting), and Guy “Noir” who urges me to avoid the insipid stuff like my dreadful essay on Pink Geraniums.

My mother is gone now, so I cannot look her in the eye, but I still talk to her. She always loved a well-told story. I feel her curiosity as she reads over my shoulder while I try to write those, with the help of my many English teachers.

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PARIS

by Elizabeth Stokkebye

 

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Seventeen and in Paris on my own. My first encounter with the city of love and fortunate to stay with an aunt and uncle. Both being workaholics left me with oceans of time to explore. What I had in mind to see was the architecture; the art museums; the places that tourists went.

The air was springlike, mild and sunny, although I was spending my Christmas holiday away from my home in Denmark. This is the one time in my life I experienced pure freedom. I remember how my breathing felt different: effortless and silent but steady and consistent. It was a breathing devoid of depression and anxiety. I breathed without past or future and let the air be present.

Walking along grand boulevards beneath a blue sky sporting white clouds I felt a loving heart circulate blood through my veins. On my way past the many cafés lining the wide sidewalk my sway caught the attention of a street performer playing his violin. As I danced by him he let go of his instrument and started to sing Ne me quitte pas. I stopped, turned around, and listened to his chanson. Was he performing especially for me?images-3

My disposition was romantic and I was attracted to the situation. At the same time, I could hear my mother’s voice: “I’m so proud to have brought up a good girl!” I didn’t move. When he was done with the song, he waved me over. I was embarrassed and blushed but followed his hand. He grabbed mine and kissed it. I felt the touch of his soft lips. My skin everywhere reacted by turning prickly and my breathing became choppy.

“Ma Cherie,” he whispered.

All of a sudden my body felt heavy and I pulled away. Caught between wanting to leave and wanting to stay, I sat down on a bistro chair.

“Please, I need a minute,” I uttered.

“Bien sûr!”

He held his violin once again and with closed eyes he played the sweetest melody that could melt any tough disposition.

Paralyzed, I tried to think. Should I leave or should I stay? My sense of freedom had slowly vanished which made the decision so much harder. The guy was cute, romantic and talented.

A waiter came over asking me what I would like and I ordered a café au lait. As more people gathered around to listen to the pretty music, I started to relax. He didn’t sing again which made me feel special.

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With his violin case full of money and the crowd thinning out, he declared:

“La dernière chanson!”

From his slender body came Que je t’aime and I didn’t know where to look. My gaze fell on a young woman advancing hurriedly towards us and embodying a sense of pure joy. She stepped right up to my singer and kissed him on the mouth.

 

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Mary Jo Doig Reviews: Wisdom Has a Voice: Every Daughter’s Memories of Mother

Wisdom Has a Voice: Every Daughter’s Memories of Mother
edited by Kate Farrell

Unlimited Publishing LLC, 2011. ISBN 978-1-588-32217-3.
Reviewed by Mary Jo Doig
Posted on 01/28/2012 at http://www.storycirclebookreviews.org Story Circle Book Reviews. Reprinted with permission by the author.

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Life Lessons

In this lovely collection of stories, twenty-five daughters have penned unique and very diverse stories about their mothers. Divided into two sections, Wisdom Has a Voice: Every Daughter’s Memories of Mother is about both Mother Love and Mother Loss, stories that will stay in your heart long after you have tenderly closed the book’s back cover.

I will not soon forget Shelly Chase Muniz’ words in “Even Then” about her gentle, caring mother who—rejected as an ethnic outsider in her own childhood community—taught her daughters to have respect and compassion for all people, not excluding the homeless alcoholic who arrived each day at their family-operated store, hopeful for a gift of food. “Mom had a sandwich ready for him and a cup of coffee to comfort his jittery nerves. She never asked Ben for money, but often he would take her broom and sweep the sloped entry to the store as payment.”

Muniz continues, “All my life, I never heard my mother raise her voice. I never heard her yell at my father, nor he at her…. Their tenderness transferred to us, three girls who never had an occasion to learn how to fight.”

In “Quiet Morsels with My Mum,” Rebecca Milford scribes how her mother, after having tried every possible way she could think of to help her daughter cease her anorexic behavior, quietly and gracefully began an approach that powerfully conveyed her love and acceptance of her daughter and ultimately became the pathway to Milford’s healing.

Yet mother hunger and loss are also pervasive in our society. Many who have suffered this deep loss are easily visible; they are the “bad girls,” as Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg describes them: the girls who have a “propensity for drugs, drinking, sexual activity, and little tolerance for school….”

These stories also evoke powerful emotions. Laura McHale Holland, youngest of three daughters, exquisitely tells her story of profound loss, when her mother decided to end her life when Holland was just two years old. Holland grew to struggle with her own darkness for many years and skillfully takes us with her through her childhood and adolescent shadows as she determines not to remain in the void that claimed her mother.

The depth of the role model she became for her own daughter was not fully clear to her until the day her middle-schooler, assigned “to sum up what she’d learned from her mother,” wrote “…that life is a gift and you should enjoy each and every day.”

“I was stunned,” Holland said. “I had never said this to her. I was focused on messages like always do your best and you can do anything you put your mind to. But my daughter dug deeper and found wisdom I demonstrated in my daily actions but was not consciously aware of, wisdom that was hard earned. And what better message could I, a daughter of suicide, give my own daughter and the generations of daughters and sons who may follow?”

Holland then concludes, “The sorrow fused with my mother’s choice to end her life when mine had barely begun still resides deep within me, a silent companion. But her legacy is nevertheless rich, not in the few facts my mother-memories contain, but in the way her actions forced me to live with darkness and find joy in life anyway.”

In all, the voices of these diverse and compelling writers lead the reader through sunlight, shadows, shifting sands, and sometimes even a tidal wave in her mother relationship, yet each arrives into an ultimately peace-filled place where pain can still sometimes be a visitor, but where sunshine is a primary resident. This remarkable little book is filled with an uncommon grace and wisdom.

Listen to the authors read their stories.

The editor of this collection, Kate Farrell, earned her masters at UC Berkeley. She has been a language arts classroom teacher, author, librarian, university lecturer, and storyteller in Northern California since 1966. She founded the Word Weaving Storytelling Project to encourage educators to learn and enjoy the art. Now Kate sees a new tradition of storytelling among women, that between daughter and mother. What was mother really trying to tell us? Sometimes she spoke in actions and not words. With this anthology Kate hopes to find out and share the wisdom of our mothers and the meaning daughters bring to this unique and deeply bonded relationship—through memoir. Visit her website.

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