“If you’ve begun your Mother Memoir. You have discovered the theme or premise of the story that captures the character and spirit of your mother—so keep your eye on the prize. Focus your power by holding fast to just those images and ideas that you want recorded in your memoir. Keep in mind the idea of parameters—the framework whereby your story needs to be contained so your story won’t get out of control. Now, on to the next step in containing your focus powerfully: You must focus on how you write at the same time as you stay on track with the premise of your bio-vignette. It’s time to look at how to narrow your writing focus, so you write to get your points across without injecting unnecessary information that will result in crushing your work with material extraneous to the story itself.”…(More will be revealed in the guidebook, available in Amazon in paperback and Kindle.)
The following story excerpted from my guidebook, TellTale Souls Writing the Mother Memoir: How to Tap Memory and Write Your Story Capturing Character & Spirit is an excellent example of the power of focus. This story begins on page 128 of Act Three in the section entitled “Focusing Your Power.”
You can easily find other stories I’ve posted from the book by searching “Bio-Vignette No.”
TellTale Soul Blair covers a lot of ground in the telling of her tale, while staying focused on the premise—the family her mother-in-law unwittingly provided.
Gifts from My Mother-in-Law
My mother-in-law and I didn’t get off to the most promising start.
When my boyfriend took me to New York to meet his family, I already had one big strike against me: I wasn’t Jewish.
We hadn’t told his parents we were thinking about getting married. We certainly didn’t tell them it might even happen that summer, a year before we graduated from college.
A pretty, dark-haired woman greeted us at the door. She didn’t look old enough to be the mother of a college student. She seemed more like a perky teenager who blurts out the first thing that enters her head.
Here’s what popped out, just after our first hello:
“So, do you have a problem with your weight?”
“Well, uh, yes. I guess so.”
What else could I say? I’d been dieting on and off since I was eleven, with mixed results. Nice of her to notice.
Maybe she just wanted to bond around diet tips. But—unlike me—this slender woman didn’t look like she needed to worry about what she ate.
It took months for the full impact of that outrageous welcome to sink in. Did she mean to be critical? Did she feel competitive? Was she trying to be helpful, in an intrusive kind of way? Or was it simply a case of poor boundaries?
Probably all of those things.
Only now, as I write this, does the other truth, the most important one, hit me: She must have decided, in that moment, that I was already family. Only a mother could get away with a remark like that.
And only a daughter would shrug it off—and still remember it, almost four decades later.
At first, we thought my husband’s parents might not come to Chicago for our wedding. But they showed up—along with both sets of grandparents and a fair number of aunts and uncles, plus a cousin or two. My parents’ back yard filled up with family and friends. And, miracle of miracles, everyone got along.
Later that summer, my new in-laws held a reception in New York for the rest of their family who couldn’t make it to Chicago. I met dozens more aunts, uncles, cousins. More relatives than I could possibly keep track of. My idea of family opened up, expanded. And I realized that I’d become a part of it. Despite their doubts about mixed marriage—a first for their family—I had been welcomed into the fold.
Especially by my mother-in-law. She made it clear: she’d had three sons and now she had a daughter. Me. In a few years, she’d have one more daughter, when my husband’s younger brother got married. Eventually, she’d have a granddaughter, along with three grandsons.
Over the years, my mother-in-law has remained girlish, upbeat, and naïve in her enthusiasms. She doesn’t see the shades of grey. She can be prone to quick judgments, sometimes harsh ones. But she is fierce in her attachments, generous to a fault, and extravagant in her praise for those she loves.
She loves giving gifts. I’ve received beautiful jewelry. Perfume. Hand knit scarves. And a certain amount of clothing that’s not to my taste: too tight, impossibly girly, full of ruffles, designed to flaunt my minimal cleavage. I just smile and set it aside.
She is famous for her chocolate chip cookies. She likes to bake them in big batches and mail them to her children and grandchildren. She never did get the hang of packaging. She would send her cookies off in taped up oatmeal canisters, shoeboxes, bulging plastic containers. They would arrive as tasty crumbs. But no one minded.
She’s been through some tough times. A divorce. A stretch as a single woman in Manhattan, when she lived in a studio apartment and baked her chocolate chip cookies in a toaster oven. Remarriage to a good man and a new life in Florida. The death of one of her children. The challenge of her second husband’s health problems—and then her own. But she’s never lost the girlish enthusiasm and the dazzling smile.
When I became a first-time author last year, she was so proud—as though her own child had written a book. Even before my Cajun music memoir came out, she started to scout out local bookstores and talk it up. When I sent her an advance copy of Accordion Dreams, she started to carry it with her. Just to encourage sales, she said. I joked that I’d have to ask my publisher to make her our official publicist.
She turned eighty last spring. Her husband organized a celebration: a dinner for her family and close friends. We arranged to fly in for the weekend.
Then my mother-in-law had a brainstorm: why not combine her birthday celebration with a book launch event? She knew I’d been doing readings in California and a few places in the South.
At first, I said no. We would only be there for the weekend. I didn’t want to waste half a day on book promotion. This was her celebration, not mine. I was embarrassed at the thought: doing a reading—and playing music—in front of my husband’s family, on a day meant to honor my mother-in-law.
But she remained insistent. She knew the perfect bookstore. She would organize it. It was her birthday, wasn’t it? This was what she wanted. How could I refuse her?
Finally, I got it. She really wanted to do this. It wasn’t just about me.
So we arrived in Florida late on a Friday night. Early Saturday afternoon, we drove to a local bookstore. My mother-in-law laid out a spread of homemade cookies. I talked about my book and read a few passages. Then we played music—me on the Cajun accordion, my husband on the fiddle. We had a good turnout—more than just friends and relatives. It was one of the most attentive audiences I’ve had at a reading.
Through it all, my mother-in-law beamed. I like to think we gave her naches. It’s a Yiddish term that means pride and joy in a child’s accomplishment.
That night, we celebrated her birthday. Finally, it was her turn to be in the spotlight.
I’d picked out a pin to give her: A delicate, filigreed tree of silver and little seed pearls. It was the Tree of Life, I told her. But I’m not sure she heard me. She seemed distracted. Far away.
A few months later, my mother-in-law started to go downhill. She had a series of physical setbacks. Memory lapses. Periods of confusion. She knew something was wrong. She gave away her stock of chocolate chips. She couldn’t follow recipes any more, she admitted. She had several hospitalizations.
Finally, a diagnosis: She had early stage Alzheimer’s.
My mother-in law tries to be upbeat about her diagnosis. It could be worse. Lots of people have Alzheimer’s, right? She laughs a lot. She is writing down her memories. “My book,” she calls it.
When we speak by phone, she often talks about the past. Sometimes she tries to apologize for having been judgmental. For giving me a hard time, when we first met. That’s years ago, I tell her. It’s all in the past. You have no need to apologize. But when people have dementia, an event from forty years ago can be more vivid than this morning’s breakfast. So it’s hard for her to let go of the past.
She and her husband have finally moved into an assisted living facility. The condo where they lived for twenty years is up for sale, and they need to get rid of some of their possessions.
Recently, she called about that. She wanted to make sure my husband and I took anything we might want, before the rest got sold. She wanted us to have something of hers, to remember her. Could she set something aside for us? Maybe we’d like the piano.
I assured her we didn’t need furniture. We didn’t need things at all. I reminded her that I already had two beautiful old European rings she had passed on to me, many years ago. One had had been her mother’s, the other a gift from my husband’s father.
Yes, she remembered now. She was happy to be reminded about the rings.
Then she recalled something else.
“Didn’t I give you a necklace?”
I knew exactly what she meant. I’d been thinking about it myself, but I wasn’t sure she’d recall it, because the gift had been a more recent one.
Five years earlier, when we’d flown to Florida to celebrate her seventy-fifth birthday, she’d had three matching gold necklaces made by a local jeweler: one for me, one for my sister-in-law, and one for herself. Each held a personalized gold pendant.
Mine had a lacy “B” at the center of a golden circle. The circle held three tiny birthstones: a garnet for me, an amethyst for my older son, and a ruby for my younger son.
My husband had a place on his own mother’s pendant, along with his two brothers. He was the amethyst.
My mother-in-law remembered those necklaces. “I did do that, didn’t I? Do you still have yours?”
“Of course I still have it. I wear it on special occasions. It’s beautiful.”
I wish I had added this:
“The necklace helps me remember: From you, I’ve developed a deeper understanding of family. And you’ve given me the best gift of all. My husband and my sons. Without you, I wouldn’t have them.”
_____Blair Kilpatrick: “I am the author of Accordion Dreams, a Cajun-Creole music memoir published in 2009 by the University Press of Mississippi and working on a new book about my mother’s Slovenian immigrant roots. When I’m not writing, I work as a psychologist and play the accordion with San Francisco Bay Area band Sauce Piquante.”
Daughters and sons from 9 to 90 use The Story Woman’s TELLTALE SOULS METHOD to move memory into memoir in a uniquely creative way, “Keeping Spirits Alive.”
You can easily find the stories I’ve posted from the book by searching “Bio-Vignette No.”