2020 has been full of devastating sadness. My dear mother died. Then we retreated into our hermitage as I protected my old lion of a husband from the plague sweeping across the globe… sitting by the side of the road, watching as over 100,000 people die and continue to die. Now this–listening to George Floyd eulogies and facing once again the legacy of 400 years of slavery and injustice.
Strangely, I decided that this was the moment to write the story of my grandmother’s family, a tale of devastating loss, even if it does have a happy ending (or so it has always seemed).
Novelizing a story that had once been just an interesting litany of facts has pulled me deep into their personalities and their decisions. When I wrote last, I was struggling to motivate my Flanagans out their their little utopia in Leclaire, Illinois, in 1897, back to the sooty streets and nasty drinking water of St. Louis, Missouri.
Last week I had to get them through the death of their wife and mother Maggie, which occurs in 1903, less than a year before the opening of the St. Louis World’s Fair.
Every Friday afternoon, I pour myself a glass of wine and get on the phone with my friend Pat Drum to read her my latest installment. She’s a careful listener and Nora Roberts fan, so she’s a helpful sounding board. Last week, I had to stop reading four times because I was crying too hard to continue. (Refilling my wine glass helped me get a grip.) I cried more than I did at my mother’s funeral.
I think it’s interesting that amid all the 2020 gloom and doom, I am focused on telling tragedy. Did I learn nothing from “Sullivan’s Travels“? I guess it’s catharsis–why tragedies become classics, teaching us we really have no control. And that to submit to our vulnerability is the only way of dealing with it.
And maybe I didn’t cry enough at my mother’s funeral–the driving, the family, being sensible, being strong, worrying about whether Jim would catch the flu, the gratitude that she lived long and died fast… Maybe now it’s ok.
Photo above: Kitty Mom’s photo souvenir (a pin) from the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, which she attended with her dad. Thanks to my sister Ellen for finding this again.