In sorting through our mother’s things after her death, my siblings and I encountered no disagreements about where certain items should go. One sister is sorting through all the photographs, our brother, the family historian, acquired most of the notebooks and binders pertaining to family history. Another sister is going through all the calendars that served as a sort of journal for our mother. As a writer, it seemed appropriate that I would end up with a dozen different versions of her three books.
My mother had many talents. She carved beautiful wood statues and painted lovely paintings on barn boards, canvas and even walls. Her artwork resides in homes and businesses throughout Iowa. She made beautiful quilts by hand and pillows, Christmas stockings and teddy bears for gifts.
She also wrote three unpublished books.
I mean no disrespect to my mother when I say that the majority of her writing was not publishable. I’ve been writing for 23 years and I still write unpublishable material. With experience and editing, at least two of her books have some publishing potential. In looking through her manuscripts and notes I can see one as a love story and the other as a religious study. She seemed well aware that her writing needed work before commercial publication was possible. She’d asked for my help in editing her first two books and she’d studied many writing books and magazines, just the way she had learned about other topics she was interested in. My mother was very intelligent and talented. In a few more years and with a little more editing help at her disposal, I have no doubt she would have increased her writing resume.
I will always feel guilty I didn’t help her more with that. When she hesitantly asked for advice, I didn’t spend nearly as much time on editing as I would have with my own books. In a notebook where she kept all her rejection letters there was a note from me, sanctimoniously informing her that her love story had veered off into a religious diatribe and in order to revive it for possible publication she would need to steer away from the religious undertones in the second half of the book. Sadly, I’d become one of the rejecters of her writing.
In a strictly business sense, I was correct. No reputable publisher would have published her book as it was. But her portrayal of a low-income couple struggling to make ends meet in a post-World War II economy could have become a beautiful real-life love story and valuable reading for more than just her own children. From the letters she saved that I’d written her during the time she’d worked on it I can see that while I encouraged her to write for her family, I’d actually discouraged her from sending out queries to publishers. I will always regret that. It was not my place to protect my mother from painful rejections. That is how we writers grow and learn.
My mother was a writer. Unlike the “wannabe writer,” she did more than talk about writing, she actually wrote. She filled notebooks with her thoughts, beliefs, and favorite sayings. She wrote one book that combined the history of the Catholic Church with her own beliefs and experiences. She wrote another detailing her life with my father. The third book could be described as her own private hell coming to terms with a lot of unanswered questions surrounding my father’s untimely death. It is those first two that had a potential for publication. I think I must have informed my mother of this because she once asked me if I would “fix” her love story after she was gone. I shrugged off her request at the time. Hadn’t she written it with her children in mind? Weren’t the messages in both her first two books targeted at her family? Instead of helping her revise and edit for publication, I made copies of the pages and helped her put them into binders.
I didn’t realize she’d continued to pursue publication for each of her books long after the binder copies had been given away. I only realized that when we found the notebook of rejection letters, letters that included my note to her. It hurt to see the carefully written dates and notes in her handwriting; of where she’d sent queries, and then the subsequent rejections. Somehow, it was more painful to see those brusque replies to my gentle mother than it was to get my own. The world of publishing is so often online now and my mother never had an Internet connection. Whenever any of us mentioned hooking her up to the Internet, she’d clap her hand over her mouth, or gasp in dismay. My older sister once had managed to get her connected very briefly, for less than a day, and attempted to explain some basics to her. My mother later told me she felt like she was going to faint or throw up. Most editors didn’t even bother to answer her snail-mail queries. One female editor had actually corrected my mother’s spelling and grammar right on the query letter and returned it in her LSASE. When my niece pointed this out, I asked her to add the notebook to the burn pile. My mother, of the old school, had done everything correctly by the writer’s guides, but as far as I can tell, she never got past the initial query, and knowing that, I hurt for her.
After my mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis, I told her about some websites where I could make a bound copy of her book, and her face visibly brightened. It would take a great deal of time to copy her manuscript, edit it, design a cover, and download the whole project, but I’d thought I’d be able to do it by Christmas. I imagined how happy she’d be with the gift.
She didn’t even make it to Thanksgiving.
I have recently been privy to some of my sibling’s regrets regarding our mother. For various reasons, we each wish we could turn back time and do something differently; spend more time with her, help her without her having to ask, listen to her better, hug her more often, and tell her we love her.
Or encourage her dream of being published.
My mother would have no patience with these regrets. She would want us to use that regret in some way; by growing closer to our siblings, spouses and children. She’d want us to call them, hug them and tell them we love them more often. Maybe send a card or letter now and then. She’d want us to hang her artwork on our walls, use her chisels, paintbrushes and sewing needles, make tiny bears with our father’s sweater, or dresser covers with the material she’d saved and a vest she’d loved. She’d smile knowing we were sharing her photos online and reading her calendars on our family website.
I don’t know yet what I’ll do with my mother’s books, if anything. For now, I’ll simply remain the keeper of her words.