(read by Christy)
“I am fifty four years old, the age my mother was when she died. This is what I remember: We were lying on her bed with a mohair blanket covering us. I was rubbing her back, feeling each vertebra with my fingers as a rung on a ladder. It was January, and the ruthless clamp of cold bore down on us outside. Yet inside, Mother’s tenderness and clarity of mind carried its own warmth. She was dying in the same way she was living, consciously.
“I am leaving you all my journals,” she said, facing the shuttered window as I continued rubbing her back. “But you must promise me that you will not look at them until after I am gone.”
I gave her my word. And then she told me where they were. I didn’t know my mother kept journals.
A week later she died. That night, there was a full moon encircled by ice crystals.
On the next full moon I found myself alone in the family home. I kept expecting Mother to appear. Her absence became her presence. It was the right time to read her journals. They were exactly where she said they would be: three shelves of beautiful clothbound books; some floral, some paisley, others in solid colors. The spines of each were perfectly aligned against the lip of the shelves. I opened the first journal. It was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It, too, was empty, as was the fourth, the fifth, the sixth – shelf after shelf after shelf, all my mother’s journals were blank.”
– Terry Tempest Williams
When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice
*originally posted March 21, 2014
10 thoughts on ““I am fifty four years old, the age my mother was when she died. … (repost)”
That is beautiful but so weird! Was it magic? Was her mother insane? Did they fade? I’m just baffled.
Anyway I don’t know if you get these emails back but I wanted to thank you. I so enjoy the poems you post. They are up my alley, so to speak 🙂
Have a great day! Anne-Marie
Sent from my iPhone
I do! They reply back as comments on the blog posts. I don’t always reply quickly as I try to limit my screen time, but I do see them and do eventually reply :-)))
I have my own theories on the meaning behind the story—probably projecting my own experiences from losing my mom to cancer—but I’d love to hear others’ thoughts.
I doubt very much it was magic or insanity (“Yet inside, Mother’s tenderness and clarity of mind carried its own warmth. She was dying in the same way she was living, consciously.”) —shows mental clarity. My thoughts lean toward metaphor, regret, and intentions for her daughter; I’ll explain more later, probably this weekend.
Thanks so much for your sweet note. ❤️
Now I’m in suspense! I felt the same as annacapp about the ending … thoroughly confused. It gave me a very uneasy, eerie kind of feel – but at the same time I had a vague sense that the daughter didn’t find this eerie; her reaction seemed more like a surprised delight or amusement.
All this to say, I am quite intrigued and clueless and look forward to hearing more of Christina’s theory :)!
P.s. I forgot to mention a couple things … when I first read through this poem it resonated on a personal level: I will be 54 in June, I have 2 daughters, I have unsettling health issues, AND I have boxes full of journals dating back to 6th grade. I often wonder what to do with them; if I should leave them for my daughters, or burn them/get rid of them. So it did strike me that the mother’s journals were blank as a gift to her daughter on several levels — one being that the daughter could keep her mother “pure” in her heart, with her memories untainted by any new or disturbing info she might have discovered if the journals were full.
Hi Maureen… love your notes, thank you for sharing with us. I think you’re on to something with your theory. 😉
I’ll share more tomorrow, just wanted to send a hug and say thanks. ❤
Hi again Maureen,
I’ve been thinking about your comment. A lot. My mother died when she was 57; I found a few of her old notebooks (from when she was in her early twenties and I was just a toddler) in the days after her death. All I could think of as I read them was what good friends she and I would have been if we had grown up together. Granted, she was my best friend anyway, but it was nice to know we would’ve been best friends even in school together. I wanted so much to be able to talk to her about what she had written…oh the conversations we could have had. She was a poet, and a damn good one too…and I never knew. Funny, but I always had random memories of coloring in her big yellow notebook when I was tiny child…I guess she would give me her journal to draw in when she needed to keep me quiet or occupied. So in between the pages of her angst and joy, there are my random scribbles and stick drawings. A pretty neat metaphor if there ever was one. But as she got older, I never saw her writing, and I never saw her notebooks. I didn’t know if she had destroyed them or saved them in a box in the attic. Turns out they were hidden in plain sight, kinda…buried in her nightstand under books and magazines. I wonder if she forgot about them or if she knew they were there. I remember even asking her when she was sick if there were “any bodies I needed to get rid of”… you know… the stuff you don’t want anyone else to see, but she said no. I guess I’m glad I found her notebooks, I just wish I could have talked with her about them; I think it would have brought us closer.
I myself do not have children. I recently have gone through and shredded all of my high school and college writing. Maureen, it was dark and disturbed writing, and I wouldn’t want anyone to remember me that way unless I chose to share it with them and could explain it all. The writing served its purpose at the time; it was therapy, I’m sure, as was much of the writing I did when I stopped drinking (after my mom’s death). Some things are okay for your eyes only. Sometimes the letting go, the releasing them (the shredding, the burning, etc.) can bring as much healing as the writing did at the time.
So in your case, I think you really have to go with your heart. Are your journals something you can share with your daughters now? Would they even have the interest in reading them with you? Would the sharing bring you closer? If so, I say share now, share with them, let it bring you closer. If conversely the writings make you nervous to share, if you’re hesitant to even open the covers of your journals, then don’t leave that to your family to find when you are gone; instead start a new journal, one that reads like a letter to your girls, one they’ll cherish when you’re gone. Answer questions in it. Write your family recipes in it. Write your favorite memories, both before and after daughters. Share some of your regrets so they will know you were not perfect. But that you tried. That you loved them. You can choose to leave it hidden as a gift for your girls when you’re gone, or you can choose to share pieces of it on special days. Totally up to you.
And if there are things you can do to heal your unsettling health issues, start today, start NOW. Because more than any journal or notebook that you could leave behind, I promise you they won’t hold a candle to one more day you could have shared together. ❤
I am beyond touched and grateful to you for thinking of me, sharing your story with me, and offering such heartfelt and wise advice! I am so moved by your kindness, compassion, and beautiful heart <3.
I'm so sorry that you lost your mom at such a young age. Your experience really helped open my eyes and heart to so many things — you offered me the gift of seeing things through my daughters' eyes, and I can't thank you enough for that.
Everything you said makes so much sense … I hadn't thought of the dark and depressing entries I've written throughout the years, and how those are the last things i'd want to impart to my girls!
So yes, I do believe it's time to give me journals a proper funeral :).
Although, there are entries I've written over the past 7 years or so that I do want to save … Since being ill I've gone through an "awakening" of sorts, with many revelations and "aha moments" and synchronicities that have taken my breath away. Over the years I've tried to capture these magical moments in journal entries and poems, and I've been wanting to gather and save them somewhere. (right now they are scattered around in notebooks, digital journal apps, and various "clouds" throughout the world wide web :-o). I've thought of starting a personal blog where I can collect and store these writings. It would be a major undertaking, but you have inspired me!
Thank you again for your genuine kindness and concern, and for the time and effort you spent responding to me about this issue. You've helped me tremendously! I feel honored and blessed to have met you, and look forward to more correspondence in the poems to come!
P.s. The fact that you posted this poem when you did — and that I commented here for the first time — is one of those events that goes far beyond mere coincidence :)!
Pps. As for my health, I think I'll be around for awhile :). There are some weird things going on lately but I'm still going through testing and chances are it's nothing dire. I will probably follow after my grandmothers, both who died after 100, and my mother who is 95 and running circles around me!
Hi again Anne-Marie,
I just wanted to leave a quick note to let you know I replied to Maureen with some personal thoughts about journals left behind. The more I thought about what the blank journals meant in the story above, the more I realized they are just my own personal thoughts, and they really don’t matter. What matters is the meaning we each bring into reading a piece, the thoughts and unanswered questions are all a part of it. We’ll never know for sure what the mother meant by leaving blank journals (the same way I’ll never know what my mother meant in some of her filled journals). It’s that mystery that remains after someone we love is gone. The being left with more questions than answers.
I like to think the mother in the story was encouraging her daughter to tell her story, and not just the daughter’s story, but the mother’s too…and maybe even bigger than that, to tell women’s story…to give voice to it (note the name of the book). I think in the book, Tempest tries to do just that, to tell bits and pieces of her mother’s story through a journal type format. Why her mother didn’t write in them, is a mystery. Did she purposefully leave them blank? Did she want to write in them but was scared to? never had the time to? Maybe she did write, maybe she tore out the pages that she wrote on, maybe she destroyed the books she filled. Maybe her point was that life isn’t meant to be lived in pages … life is meant to be lived by the act of living (a question I grapple with often). Living life in 3D. I think especially in this age of Instagram and documenting every little thing we do, we fear that maybe something doesn’t count if we didn’t take a photo of it, or that we’ll forget the concert we went to if we don’t record it (and therefore miss out on seeing the show in 3D because we’re so busy looking at the screen making sure we get the perfect shot).
So. Many. Questions.
And I think that’s the point. We either have to answer the questions for ourselves, or we have to just let the mystery be. ❤
Oh, I remember this one. So beautiful, so plaintive. Why did I not go looking for her book afterwards? I’m going now ….
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I like your matter-of-fact style of reading. I think many readers feel they must interpret or add emotion to the poet’s words, and it just comes out badly. I like readers who trust the poet.
I have no theory about why someone would have so many empty journals. But I did wonder if the poet was being asked to find the books and fill them in herself.
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