Daughter Off Duty: Still Learning

Her obsession, and it could only be called that, with writing about her mother’s life both flummoxed and exasperated my sisters and me. For the 30 years—nearly to the day—between my grandmother’s death and my mother’s, my mother wrote pages and pages of notes and stories. The jottings I’ve found repeat the same facts, or my mother’s memory of the facts, on typing paper, in spiral notebooks large and small, in stationery pads with paper intact or torn out. When she could no longer see to write, she recorded the story, starting over from the beginning then repeating stories the next time she picked it up.

“Why?” I asked, like a broken record, telling her I wished she would write her own story.

“I didn’t appreciate what a hard life she had,” she would say. “She was so courageous her whole life. I didn’t understand how hard it was to be old, and I was so impatient with her in her last years. I promised her I would write about her life.”

I often wondered if that promise was made before or after the death my mother was not present for, a way to assuage her guilt that she hadn’t been by her mother’s side then or every moment of her last ten years. Like some “if only” promise to God that she spent the next three decades trying to fulfill.

Now, as I read about writing legacy in preparation to guide a group of women in doing just that, I have a new interpretation of my mother’s consuming passion. My mother was in the “legacy phase” of her own life, the time we take stock of where we have been, how our lives have been formed and informed, and how we hope to be remembered. I think my mother thought she was doing that on behalf of her mother, but what if—unbeknownst and unacknowledged—she was really writing her own legacy story?

My grandmother’s life story has been part of the family’s oral history for as long as I can remember, both from my mother’s and my grandmother’s telling. While I am happy to have the written version (or will once the transcription of the tapes is completed by my sister and edited by me), I may never have my mother’s own legacy writing. To be honest, I don’t know what is on the remainder of the tapes; friends worked with her on the project because I didn’t have the patience. Though I’m doubtful, maybe she did get to her own deepest self. Secrets yet to be revealed.

My sister and I got some of the story done and gave it to our mother for Christmas, four months before her death.

But as I read about writing legacy, I’ve come to understand that part of its purpose can be to heal a relationship, often in the absence of the other party. Is that what my mother was doing? Was she trying to understand her mother in order to better understand herself? Did she achieve what she was yearning for?

I don’t think she could have understood that’s what she was doing, and now I can’t ask her. Perhaps in the death of a loved one with whom we may have our own healing to do, we can make these things up. I can forgive the consumption of her time and her anger with me in wanting her to tell a different story, if what she was doing was reconciling her own life so that she might let it go.

I have wishes of my own. I wish I’d had this glimmer of insight so that I might have talked with her about it. I also know thinking such a conversation might have happened is my own magical thinking. Her fixation did not have any space for reframing; her personality did not allow for talking about herself; she was not in touch with her emotional self. Now it’s to me to reconcile my own relationship with my mother; to figure out how I want to frame my own legacy writing; and to break this mother/daughter cycle with my own daughter of not talking about what matters, things that will be hard to talk about. It sobers me to realize that, having no daughters herself, ours is the last chance to do it different for at least a generation.

Legacy writing—so that I might better understand my own story and what matters to me—is a beginning.





13 thoughts on “Daughter Off Duty: Still Learning

  1. I am about midway, hammering out the memories and sifting the granules that both bind and separate me from Mom. She, who first kindled the flame in me of ‘reportage’ and who scribbled in notebooks all her life, gems among the detritus of daily living. I’ve followed your various journeys with your Mother, noting similarities and differences. But this is good work, and I will follow your trail as I navigate my own. My perspective is seasoned with 19 years of that seminal loss, but my memories of her are as vivid as any I own. And our path are entwined, it seems, much more often than they diverge, the older I get. Thanks.


    1. Thank you so much for these beautiful words. If you’ve been following my ramblings, you know my father died much longer ago than my mother (23 years), and while I always thought it was his loss I would always feel more keenly, I’m surprised to find it is rather my mother with whom my “path entwines” now. Perhaps because I knew her intimately at the end; perhaps the mother/daughter bond, for better or worse, is strongest. I see her everywhere. Thank you for writing, thank you for joining me on this journey. Gretchen


  2. I am working on being a writer too, of my own story. If you have a workshop I would love to be included. Now, or at some future time. I write for my family, but not sure who might want to read it…


  3. I am considering writing it all down too! There’s so much to think about that it overwhelms me, from Austria to Austin, and somehow I can’t bear to let it lie!
    The more I live and grow, the more, yes—compelling it becomes.
    Workshop details, please?


    1. That’s great! Yes, it is overwhelming. It should definitely not be let lie, though. More and more compelling to get it down; that’s exactly at the root of the legacy phase of life. I’m sending you the brochure by email. Gretchen


  4. Oh this is so rich and compelling: “I can forgive the consumption of her time and her anger with me in wanting her to tell a different story, if what she was doing was reconciling her own life so that she might let it go.”


  5. Gretchen – You continue to share important insights about your relationship with your mom and the impact it has had on you and how you experience the world. I would love to know more about your workshop on legacy writing – it would be a great way for us to finally meet, if it will be open to people outside your writing circle. I love hearing your stories and learning from you as I navigate my relationship with my own mother and do more reflection about my legacy. Thanks for sharing! Jude


      1. No, I still live in the middle of the country – but that’s what airplanes are for. If you send some details (drjuderathburn@gmail.com) we can talk about it. I have many friends in your part of the world that I would love to visit again.


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