Tag Archives: life stories

My Mother: Why I Write


Barbara, 1994

My two adult daughters have babies. One also has a toddler. They both have spouses and active careers. Their hands and lives are full. I have a full life, too, and a folder called “Death” in my desk. Why?  Because I, like many others in my baby boomer generation, feel badly that I did not know my parents very well. I, too, was busy in earlier years. My parents were private, and now they are gone. I want my children to have a different experience.

Here’s the handful of facts I know about my mother: Her name was Barbara. She was born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1915. She had two sisters. Her father was 30 years older than her mother. In the morning she toasted a piece of whole wheat bread smeared with blueberry jam alongside her coffee, always poured into a heated cup. Each day she would drive to the market for fresh produce. At lunch she and my father would sit down to soup and a half sandwich and then split a cookie for dessert. Sometimes she took an afternoon nap. Before dinner she would have one glass of sherry with cheddar goldfish and sprinkled throughout the day, she smoked exactly 7 cigarettes. You get the idea.

But who was she beyond these details? I yearn to hear things I didn’t make time to hear, and now her stories are gone forever. I wonder how she wanted us to remember her? What did she worry about? What gave her the most joy in her daily life? What lessons did she hope to impart to her children? Did she feel appreciated?

So, back to the folder in my desk drawer. In it I put stories from my life. I write about lessons I have learned. I offer apologies for decisions I made that were costly to my children. I write to say thank you for small thoughtful gestures they did. I write about wishes I carry for them when they are older. Also in that file are my wishes for a time when I am sick or declining — guidelines for making medical decisions if I am unable to make them myself. Delaying intimate conversations with family members often means it’s too late to have them.

When I lead writing groups either for people facing serious illness or healthy people, most of them share my sadness about not knowing their parents either. They, too, want their children to know them as full people. So if your children are too busy now, start writing. Your stories may become for them lifelines to you when you are gone.  We need to seize moments that we have right now to let family and friends know who we are. It’s not easy to be vulnerable. We are likely to be clumsy. Our children may be uncomfortable. But now is the only moment that we know we have. I believe my children and I will find ways to have these important conversations. But if life gets in the way I take comfort that an important folder called “Death” sits in my desk drawer.

Claire Willis with Marnie Crawford Samuelson

When Great Trees Fall: An Invitation to Write

I was recently on a writing retreat in which this poem was given to us for reflection and consideration as we started writing. The poem seemed to offer a certain solace in moments of grief, a refuge if you will, a place to rest, holding the promise that the death of a beloved person often leaves an important legacy of lessons, instructions on how to live or wisdom. When the lessons come from their heart, the words offer us comfort and strength.


When Great Trees Fall

When great trees fall,
rocks on distant hills shudder,
lions hunker down in tall grasses,
and even elephants lumber after safety.
When great trees fall in forests,
small things recoil into silence,
their senses eroded beyond fear.

When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
see with a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
examines, gnaws on kind words unsaid,
promised walks never taken.

Great souls die and our reality,
bound to them, takes leave of us.
Our souls, dependent upon their nurture,
now shrink, wizened.
Our minds, formed and informed by their radiance,
fall away.
We are not so much maddened
as reduced to the unutterable ignorance
of dark, cold caves.

And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always irregularly.
Spaces fill with a kind of soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never to be the same,
whisper to us.
They existed.  They existed.
We can be.
Be and be better.
For they existed.

—Maya Angelou


Invitation to Reflect/Write 

  • Consider some of the “great trees” you have known who have died and left behind them an important legacy.
  • What lasting words of theirs can you recall?  Or what about their life made your life better?
  • Write about ways that your life has been shaped by their life and their death.


“When Great Trees Fall,” from I Shall Not Be Moved, published by Random House. Copyright © 1990.