Introduction: “Mem: Life Lessons I Learned from My Amish Mother” Part 1

I am writing a third book, so far called Mem: Life Lessons I Learned from My Amish Mother. This title will likely change when I find a publisher. This book is about my relationship with Mem, so I’ve been reading her letters from years ago. That is what prompted me to post excerpts of her letters in my recent posts.

When I started out this book, I was reluctant to write about my relationship with Mem, and yet I felt compelled to. So I decided to go where the muse takes me. More than halfway through the book, it has taken on a life of its own. I am no longer doing this reluctantly. Rather, I am inspired to finish this book and get it published. I am hoping to find a good agent and a mainstream publisher. I feel this book will have a near-universal message, given everyone has a mother. It will likely speak more to women than men, given it is about a mother-daughter relationship.

Over the next several blog posts, I will be sharing the introduction to my book.

Mem and Tim

A rare photo of Mem holding our son, Timmy, when he was a toddler

Photo by David Furlong

Introduction, Part 1

I too forgive, but I don’t forget. In the forgetting we miss something important about the climb, the loss of life, the loss of dreams. My responsibility as a poet, as an artist, is to not look away. ~ Nikky Finney

Two years ago, I found myself in the top room of my home, braiding woolen rugs. I often thought about my mother (Mem) as I was braiding. It was she who taught me how to braid rugs. She kept one room in our house where she braided her rugs. My siblings and I resented that because it meant there were fewer bedrooms for us to sleep in and we had to share beds.  Now, for the first time, I realized this was Mem’s way of having a room of her own — a space where she could go to braid and meditate, just as I was doing in my own “rug room” that looked out over the park and library next door.

It wasn’t until some years after Mem died that I realized I had unresolved issues with her. They first showed up around my feeling that she was an obstacle to the success of me getting my first memoir published. Perhaps it was only the lasting influence of knowing how Mem felt about me writing my life. When she first found out that I was writing for publication, she wrote this to me in a letter: “Let me give you some advice: you should write only good things about the Amish, and then your books will sell better.” Mem was right, if I go by all the romantic versions of Amish life depicted in “bonnet fiction.” But that would not have been telling my truth.

Poet Nikky Finney wrote a piece in Poets and Writers magazine several years ago that really resonated with me. She described how her grandmother made a stunning, fervent request after reading one of Finney’s books — she asked that it be her last. Finney wrote: “I would’ve promised to sail the seven seas in five days if I could have, for my grandmother. She meant that much to me. ‘Promise’ she said. But I couldn’t. Even for her, I couldn’t.”

This story reminds me of the day when Mem had truly lost her dignity — she had no hair from chemotherapy, the scarf she tried to wear on her head for a covering kept slipping off, and she couldn’t wear her teeth. It was in this pathetic situation that she asked me “to not publish anything bad about Joe or me.” I could not promise Mem, any more than Finney could promise her grandmother.

Even with my intention to publish, it didn’t happen for years. Four years after Mem died, my manuscript still had not been accepted for publication. I felt as though Mem’s request was still between us. I decided to write a letter to her spirit. In it, I wrote in part: “Please, Mem, remember that you had seven children, all of whom have hopes and dreams. I plan to accomplish my dream of publishing my books, whether it takes me one year or twenty years. I hope if you have been standing in the way, that you will now move aside and let this happen. To ask your blessing for getting my story published may be a stretch, but at least do not stand in its way. I will be forever grateful to you and the other forces that be when these books are finally published.”

One August evening at dusk, I walked up onto the bridge over the Connecticut River. One page at a time, I dropped the letter into the river and watched them float away. I asked that Mem receive the message. I turned around, and there above me, hovered a small hawk, just above my head. Then it turned and flew silently into the dusk. I felt the hair on the back of my neck rising. I remembered reading in Native American lore that hawks are messengers. I took the hawk as a sign that Mem had received my message. And then as if to confirm this, the katydids began their chirping, calling Mem by name, as I walked down off the bridge: “Katydidit! Katydidit! She did it! Did it! Katydidit!”

DSCN1272

Photo by David Furlong: Bridge over the Connecticut River

Perhaps it was only because I pursued publishing my book with more intention, or perhaps there really was a shift in my relationship with Mem, because Why I Left the Amish was accepted for publication 14 months after I wrote and delivered that letter to Mem. It had been 16 years since I’d first begun writing my story for an audience.

To be continued…

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17 thoughts on “Introduction: “Mem: Life Lessons I Learned from My Amish Mother” Part 1”

  1. Wonderfully, compellingly, written, Saloma. I don’t know if my own story will ever be written; I suspect that I’m waiting until certain people have passed on. The fact, of course, is that I may die before they do. I have to believe that is OK.

    1. Elva, selfishly, I hope you do write your story. I, for one, would greatly benefit from knowing it. I dare say I am not alone.

      The story can always be written and published later. That is if you feel moved to writing it.

      Thank you for your compliment. I hope our paths will cross someday.

      Have a wonderful week.

  2. I love the quote from Finney and feel the same way. “It is in acceptance of all that was and is that our spirit becomes whole.” Claudia Black, PhD.

  3. Hello Pilgrim:

    As I was sitting here reading your blog and your good plans supported by the good side of your mom…I was brought back to my childhood, when I was a rebellious teenager how this ONE song mom used to sing (when us kids were all upstairs in our beds) made the hair on “my neck stand up” Oh how it would make me feel uncomfortable, even squeamish at times. It was song calling a “pilgrim son to come home” Of course I grew up in a house where there were absolutely no musical instruments, much less radio etc. Oh, did my heart feel guilt of unknown source way back then…i hated it! and “that feeling” was overwhelming.

    Ironically skipping way forward to just a few years ago I suddenly realized the truth. This exact song that Mom used to sing every once in a while (when I really, really did NOT want to hear it) was a song I never once heard in any Mennonite meetinghouse or at any singing, nor was it a song I have ever heard since I started listening to radio and TV many years ago.

    Obviously, My dear Mother must have “made up the song all on her own” JUST FOR ME, way back then.

    Best Regards;
    delmer

    1. Delmar, that is a great story. How our parents hoped and dreamed for us… sometimes to the exclusion of allowing us our own dreams. It was their way of loving us, wasn’t it?

      Perhaps it is the only way they knew, because that is how they were loved.

      Thank you for sharing your story.

    2. This resonates with me. My dad had a song he started singing when I was a toddler, that he made up himself just for me. Dad passed almost 5 years ago, but these days the only way I can remember the sound of his voice is by remembering that song.

  4. Saloma, my prayer is that writing this book will be a cleansing for you and a comfort to those women out there, myself included, who had a difficult and complex relationship with their mother. I look forward to reading it and I thank you in advance. I cared for my mother the last couple years of her life and in the end fed her, changed her and held her hand as she took her last breath. Sadly I did not cry, I never shed a tear. However with the burden of caring for her came many blessings in that I got to know her better. She opened up to me about so many things that were always shut tight within herself. I slowly began to see her not just as my mom but as a woman with hopes and dreams like us all. I have forgiven (though not forgotten) her for how I and my siblings were treated,but the damage was done and can not be erased. So I shed no tears, I feel no loss, but I have closure and that, at least for now,is enough.

    1. Pamela, what comes to mind is a book you might like to read that is coming out on September 20. It is called “Scattering Ashes” by Joan Rough, a fellow blogger. She wrote about taking in her mother who had been abusive when Joan was growing up. Here is a link to the book on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Scattering-Ashes-Memoir-Letting-Go/dp/1631520954/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1473035362&sr=1-1

      The first part of your prayer is already being answered — writing this book is indeed cleansing. I hope it will be a comfort to those who have a complex relationship with their mothers.

      It takes a special kind of person to do what you did for your mother. I’m not sure I could have done what you did.

      As always, it is great to hear from you, Pamela. May you have a Blessed week.

  5. I too can hardly wait to read your next book. Having grown up Amish I love your books. My mom &I have a good relationship now but it certainly wasn’t always that way. How I would love to sit down & visit with you.

    1. And I would love to visit with you as well, Marietta. So glad you have a good relationship with your mother. My relationship with Mem was ever-changing, it seemed.

      Thank you for stopping by and chatting.

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