Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Reader Response to The Poetry of Loss: On Mothering and Dealing with Death

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Last month's prompt invited readers to write a piece (poetry, fiction, or essay) that reflects upon ways of grieving the death of family members and/or remembering those who have passed on. In this essay, Cara Holman writes about honoring the memory of her parents while she hosts Thanksgiving.

A Glass Overflowing
by Cara Holman

As I slide the 22-pound turkey into the oven, I once again mentally do a headcount. There's the immediate family, plus six more. That makes eleven. There should be ample turkey for everyone, especially since three of those are young children. And I always host Thanksgiving. Why am I so nervous now?

Immediately, I know the answer. This will be the first Thanksgiving without my parents. Both succumbed to cancer earlier this year -- Mom in February, then Dad three months later. Their hospice social worker once likened grief to a tsunami. "Grief will often suddenly overwhelm you with no warning at all," he cautioned me. "A memory, a song -- even a scent can trigger intense emotions. And holidays are especially hard."

He was right. Thanksgiving is so steeped in family traditions that I find myself constantly thinking about my parents. How Mom used to roll up her sleeves and make enough stuffing to feed 15 to 20 relatives and friends. The long brisk walks we took with Dad, while the turkey cooked, the crisp air stinging our cheeks. Going around the table and saying what we were grateful for.

The sounds of the Macy's Day Parade break my reverie. I hastily wipe my hands on my apron and step into the family room to see which float is up. The Rockettes are doing their high kicks, as scantily clad as ever.

"Why don't they dress for the weather?" I tsk. "It's practically freezing there."

My youngest son looks up from his Sports Illustrated. "You say that every year, Mom," he groans. I suppose I do. Just like my mom used to.

"Hey," I continue, "Has Snoopy gone by yet?"

"Ages ago," Scott says. "Can I turn this off now and play Madden football? No one's watching anyway."

I open my mouth to protest, when I look around the room, and realize he's right. No one, including me, has been watching.

"I guess," I concede. Other than the ubiquitous Rockettes, I don't recognize most of the performers anymore. Many of them are young enough to be my children. Perhaps it is time for me to move on.

At least the menu has remained mostly unchanged over the years. And I still follow Mom's recipes for the stuffing and cranberries. We will set the table, light the candles, and go around the table and say what we are grateful for. Well, maybe not anymore.

My daughter, Jennifer, had caught me this morning, just as I was making sure there was a fresh towel in the guest bathroom. "Can we skip going around the table saying what we're grateful for this year, Mom?"

I was startled. "Why?"

"We all know what we're grateful for."

"Well, I'll think about it," I replied pensively. Of course we all know what we're grateful for. But we've dropped so many traditions already. Our gatherings are much smaller than the ones of my childhood, the kids are more likely to be plugged into their iPods or laptops than taking a walk to stimulate their appetites, and now watching the parade has apparently gone by the wayside as well. I'm afraid once we let one tradition go, they'll all start unraveling. What can you do? I shrug, as I resolve to let this tradition go, too.

Just when I'm wondering if the turkey will ever finish cooking, the little red timer finally pops up, and everyone pitches in to get the food onto the table.

"Let's start passing the food," I say, as we all take our seats around the formal dining table.

"Wait," my sister says in a shocked voice. "We need to say what we're grateful for."

"Well . . . " I begin.

There is a clamor of voices. To my delight, my husband and siblings still want to preserve this tradition. One by one, we go around the table.

"I'm grateful we could all be together today."

"Ditto."

"I'm grateful for family and friends."

"I'm grateful I still have my job, a roof over my head, my health, and health insurance. And for friends and family."

Finally it is my turn. My eyes mist up as I fumble in my mind for what words to say. I miss Mom and Dad terribly. I can still hear my mother's cheerful lilting voice as she looks around the table and takes in her extended family with eyes that plainly bespeak her love, and says how grateful she is for us. And my father's low rumbly voice as he addresses the gathering with the same gravity that he would use to address a lecture crowd of hundreds of fellow scientists. There is a huge void left now and I wonder how we will ever fill it.

On the other hand, I know I have to be grateful that my parents led long, rewarding lives, and that they showered us with unconditional love, love that cloaks me still. I look around the table to see all eyes expectantly on me. Some of the kids are starting to fidget. I think of one of the last conversations I had with Mom. "I don't want you to mourn for me," she had said, clutching me tightly to her. "I want you to celebrate my life."

Now as I look at the faces of the two generations gathered around the table, I realize that it's not so important, after all, whether we strictly adhere to past traditions. What is important is that we're all together. And instead of wallowing in grief, we're honoring my parents' memory by celebrating the holiday with family stories, joy and laughter, just as they would have wanted.

Their glass was never half empty, or even half full for that matter -- it was always overflowing.

"I'm grateful for friends and family. Let's eat," I quickly say. A ripple of laughter runs around the table. I raise my glass, and propose a toast to my parents' memory, and to the coming year.

~

Cara Holman lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband, and the youngest of their three children. Her essays have appeared in Survivor's Review, The Fertile Source, and a number of anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Soul, A Cup of Comfort, and Women Reinvented: True Stories of Empowerment and Change. She blogs at Prose Posies.

~

Notes from Cassie Premo Steele

I was blindsided. When I sent out the call for submissions on mothering and death last month, it did not occur to me that the writing I was going to receive would be so heart wrenching. So incredibly sad. Show such courage. And be such a testament to great love.

And that I -- in all cases except for one -- would have to reject it.

How do you write such an email?

Dear Writer,

Thank you for your writing about your

--daughter's death
--last visit with your mother with dementia
--toddler son visiting his father's grave
--niece's suicide.

But I have decided it is not quite right.

This got me thinking about all the rejections I have received over the years. When I first started sending my writing out for publication, over twenty years ago, everything was done by letter. Real paper. Packages that required postage you waited in line at the post office to buy. The time lag. Six months, more, of waiting. The slim letter in the mail. The moment before opening the envelope where you tried to intuit the response.

I used to save all the rejection letters. I kept them organized, filed, and alphabetized under a heading called "REJECTIONS." I thought about going back through them some day, when I was a successful writer, and feeling triumphant, vindicated, gleeful.

Then a mother-writer-friend of mine saw the files and said, "Why are you keeping those?"

I didn't know what to say.

"I guess I'm saving them to show myself how hard I'm working, how I can persevere through all this."

"But you're giving them more power," she said. "You're honoring their rejections by saving them. I throw mine out right away. I don't even bring them into the house."

It shocked me.

I kept my files. And my stubbornness.

Years passed. My husband and I were moving from the house we had lived in for fourteen years, where we'd raised two girls, put up fourteen Christmas trees, fought and made up, become who we would be into old age.

I was going through the file cabinet and there they were. The files my friend said I didn't need. And all of a sudden I realized she was right. I didn't need proof of my hard work. In fact, clinging to the energy of the rejections might be holding me back. I picked up the files -- hundreds of them -- and chucked them into the big green dumpster in our front yard.

Today, even after publishing eight books and hundreds of essays, poems and short stories, rejections come into my email on a regular basis. One came just this morning as I was working on this column.

But I don't save them anymore.

As someone who receives submissions every other month for this column and must reject all but one, who coaches writers at all stages of their careers, and who continues to write and stretch and grow, this is what I know: Rejections are written by people who cry when they read your writing. (An agent who rejected my novel earlier this year told me exactly this.) They are written by people who want your writing to sing and fly but must be honest that you need more practice. They are written by people who might later publish your writing. They are written by people who have suffered loss and are in mourning but must keep working.

Now when I receive a rejection, I respond by saying thank you.

And when I send a rejection, it is in a spirit of gratitude, too.

Rejection. Loss. Illness. Death. Grief. Failure. This is the material that life gives us -- as humans, as mothers, as writers. And in response, somewhere in between the resentment and numbness and fatigue and hopelessness and tears, we learn to say it, too. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.


Cassie Premo Steele, Ph.D. is the author of 13 books, most recently Earth Joy Writing. The book includes writing prompts for every month of the year, plus audio meditations and video workshops. She teaches an innovative online course combining mindfulness and feminist theory for women academics called The Feminar. Cassie is currently working on a memoir about how coming out returned her to her mother and her faith.


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