It was only when my publicist Derry Wilkins at Sourcebooks Fire asked if I had any images that I wanted to send to the producer for my appearance on the TV show, Rise and Shine, that I thought: How could I forget?
Mom with Orville.
One of the central characters in While He Was Away was inspired by my mother—an experience that she survived, that she told me about just before she died when I was fourteen.
One rainy night right, she said, “Come with me. We’re going shopping.”
We drove in the chilly car to Frank’s, the little, local market just down the street, and we wandered up and down the aisles. She threw these things into the rattling cart: dish washing gloves, a can of tuna, a bag of frozen vegetable medley.
I remember these things. It’s strange that I do, I know. Yet the whole night was strange . . . the fact that my mother, so thin and so ill, would take me out into the stormy dark to buy things that we so clearly didn’t need—dinner was over; the dishes, done—I remember also her striped housedress, her dry skin, the darting glances she cast my way, and her lower lip, which remained pale, even as she chewed at it.
She didn’t say a word to me until we pulled into our driveway. Then she clenched the steering wheel, and, staring out through the streaming windshield, she said, “I was married once before when I was very young. He died a hero in WWII.”
The first thing I thought to say was: “Is Daddy not my Daddy?”
I was frightened. Soon, this Daddy would be the only thing I would have left. I wanted him to be who I thought he was.
My mother flinched. It was like I’d ask the exact question she didn’t want me to ask. She laughed briefly.
“Oh, yes,” she said. “You’re daddy is most definitely your daddy.”
It was only years later, when I did the math, that I realized that of course this young man, this first love, couldn’t be my father. Seventeen years had passed between his death and my birth.
So many questions, mysteries.
Why did she never tell me before? Why did she tell me in that way, and then refuse to elaborate? What was she like, loving in a way that left her devastated at his death (this I learned later, from a cousin who had heard from someone else). Loving in a way that left her writing letters to him for six months after his memorial service, left her playing the piano for hours on end—Chopin, Chopin, Chopin without stopping. Loving in a way that ultimately left her needing to escape.
At nineteen, my mother, a small-town Oklahoma girl, boarded a train to Pasadena, California, where she went to college—the first in her family to do so. And then she took the train to Chicago, where she got her Masters in Music, and met my dad. Daddy.
Would I have the guts, the spirit to do as my mother did, to turn my grief into a catalyst?
I hope so.
Sometimes writing feels that way to me, a journey from empty to full, from loss to reconciliation, from mystery to simply story, which doesn’t answer the unanswerable questions, perhaps, but makes them bearable.