Real Life

Those we’ve lost live on in stories

Ten years ago today, my mother passed away suddenly. We were extremely close.

The metaphor I use for my grief, these days, is an old trunk. The grief never goes away or really gets better, but I pack it into an old trunk in my heart most of the time because it’s impossible to survive and keep it always with you, and she wouldn’t have wanted that anyway. Sometimes I sit quietly and open the trunk, examine the old edges of what’s inside, and see how it changes (and doesn’t change) over time, before carefully packing it away again.

I spent this past weekend in the wonderful company of family, some of whom I haven’t seen since my mother was alive. We ate, and we talked, and we told stories about her. I had a story to tell, but spoken words are not my forte and I cried too much and I’m just not great at that sort of thing. But I believe that the spirit of someone we’ve lost lives on when we talk about them, so here, behind my keyboard, let me tell you a little something about my mother.

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Mom was barely in her 20s when she had me, the first of two children. She was always the “young mom” at school gatherings, and I think that youth contributed in part to her being much more plugged into popular culture than the mothers of my friends. Back in those days, of course, we didn’t have internet, and we lived in a very small town in a fairly remote area, so Mom read a lot of magazines.

She’d read Spin Magazine, and Rolling Stone. She read Spy Magazine, a satirical publication about the glitterati and literati of New York City in the 80s and 90s, and then after one of the editors moved to Vanity Fair, she read that too. Mom would even read People Magazine if she was in a pinch, although it was a little too light on content for her.

I was a voracious reader from the age of three, and in my tween years I started reading Mom’s magazines when she was done with them. I was almost certainly too young for them, and yet I could not get enough. I devoured Hunter S. Thompson and P.J. O’Rourke’s gonzo missives from the political trenches. I breathlessly read Dominick Dunne’s true crime stories of the rich and famous, and Christopher Hitchens’ snarky journalism in Vanity Fair, between the photos of beautiful people. We laughed together at Libby Gelman-Waxner columns in Premiere Magazine, although I didn’t completely understand some of the faux “suburban mom” jokes. And Spy Magazine, well, I loved that one probably the most. I learned about terrible New York figures like Leona Helmsely and (yes) Donald Trump. Spy was my first exposure, I think, to indie journalism that lived — and died — to tweak the nose of the establishment.

I may have always been a reader, but it was the magazines of my youth, the ones that Mom would bring home and that would pile up in the magazine basket forever, that truly made me love writing. Words and telling my story with them beats in my veins, in large part because my mother introduced me to a whole world of essayists and columnists and journalists in a time when a lot of people never made it beyond our small fishing town.

Mom always laughed at my stories, sometimes saying, “Oh Jessie, you’re so funny.”

And now, in a very small way, you know her too.

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