Friday, June 8, 2018

Fragments and full stops

Hans Thoma, "Kinderreigen," 1872
For years, my mom had been talking about wanting to write something about the games she remembered playing as a child growing up in Mercer County, West Virginia. So many of them seemed very specific to that time and place: a game called "Pretty Girl Station," another played in the fall called "Dead Man" where kids formed a ring around a pile of raked leaves, chanting as they circled it until a kid hiding in the pile burst out of it and chased the others off.  

When she got her diagnosis in March, this particular task took on a new urgency. I didn't know that she'd been working on it until she was in the hospital in early May, though. One morning while my brother Mark and I were visiting her, she told me that she'd gotten a start, but added, "I'm such a slow and picky writer...I'd write a sentence and even before I finished it I'd be editing it. So I didn't get very far with it." 

My brother Mark and I both suggested that she and I just have a conversation about the games, which I'd record and then the two of us would co-write the article. Mom was pleased with that idea. She was a folklorist too, after all, so completely understood that sometimes it's more natural and productive to talk about your memories than it is to write about them. 

Of course, none of us knew at that time that she'd be dead within the week.

When she died, I asked Mark--who had her laptop--to keep an eye out for a document about children's games. He found it pretty readily--it was titled, in all caps, THE GAMES WE PLAYED--and emailed it to me about a week after she died. 

Here's what she'd written: 
When I was eight years old, our family moved to Athens and I became one of Kathryn Gibson's fourth graders. For the first time I learned playground games. Concord Grammar School was a two story brick building  surrounded by grass facing the street and play areas on the other three sides. There was the usual playground equipment:  a seesaw, a slide, swings, and a giant stride. It was a frightful thing consisting of a number of chains attached to a tall metal pole. Two metal bars were attached one above the other to the end of each chain. We ran hanging on to the bars one hand above the other and soon we were flying through the air fast round and round.
I remember the games we played as seasonal. In the spring it was jump rope for the girls in the back of the building with all the rhymes we knew. The boys played mumbley-peg and marbles at the side.  The boys’ knuckles would     
I got to that last incomplete sentence and burst into tears. What clearer evidence that her voice had been silenced for good than an unfinished sentence? I'd never even know how she meant to finish that one line, much less the whole piece. But I could see how carefully she'd crafted what little there was--how evocative that description of the giant stride was, both in terms of how it worked and the combination of terror and joy it inspired in the kids who played on it. 

Giant stride on a New York City playground, circa 1910-1915
There was no full stop to that sentence, but there had been a full stop to her life. I was bereft, sobbing inconsolably not for the first time since she died, but certainly for longer than I had before. 

So much regret. Why didn't we do this sooner? Why didn't I tell her about Anne Lamott's concept of "shitty first drafts," and suggest that she try to write a sloppy version of the whole thing, or at least an outline? Why didn't we ever talk about our respective writing processes and practices? 

My therapist tells me that these deep regrets are all part of the "bargaining" stage of the grief process--that bargaining doesn't only include the promises and deals you make to get your loved one to live longer, or to bring them back to life, but also the whole range of "what ifs" that haunt you when the person is gone. 

Mom had hoped to submit her piece about children's games to the West Virginia Division of Culture and History's magazine Goldenseal. I may still try to complete the article; over the years, I know that she had sent me several emails with details about those games, which might include enough information to put something together. But it will never be in her voice. 

Mom had told me about her diagnosis on St. Patrick's Day. On Easter Sunday, her amazing primary-care physician, Teresa Holt, came to mom's house in the afternoon to talk with all of us about the prognosis and mom's options. It was a difficult but necessary conversation, made so much easier by Dr. Holt's no-nonsense and compassionate approach. Seeing her sitting on the couch, holding my mom's hand, and explaining how the disease would progress and answering all our questions, I felt unexpectedly calm. If this was the person in charge of mom's care, I had far fewer worries about what was to come. 

Later that afternoon, I was sitting next to Mom at the dining-room table, helping her with something on her computer. Out of nowhere she turned to me and said, in her sort of mock-severe tone, "Rosemary Hathaway, I want you to promise me one thing." 

"What's that, Momma?"


My plan, ever since we knew that at some point mom would need round-the-clock care, was that I would decamp to Columbus this summer and work on the book there. "I would love that," she said--and I think it was about the only way she would have tolerated my being a caretaker, if she knew it meant I was getting some writing done as well.

That didn't happen, obviously. And the book remains unfinished, six months after my original deadline for getting it to the press.

Completing it seems like such a chore. Like mom, I know what needs to be done but my internal editor gets in the way. Already the idea seems stale and overdone to me--what do I have to say about Appalachian history and identity that more recent writers like Elizabeth Catte and Steven Stoll haven't said far more persuasively and eloquently? 

And the mental energy it takes to do that kind of writing...well, I just don't have it right now. 

And part of me is afraid to finish it. The book is in many ways about my parents' experiences growing up in West Virginia and attending WVU, and moving to Ohio and reinventing themselves as Appalachian out-migrants. Irrationally, it feels like finishing the book is consigning them to history, to the past. 

But it is also a legacy to them. And knowing that it was one of my mom's last wishes to finish pressure there. 

I guess it means I have to take my own advice, the advice I regretted not giving mom about her own writing: just get it down. Crank something out. Get some input from a trusted reader. Plenty of time to revise later. 

Plenty of time. It's what I have that she didn't.