Since I began this post, I have suffered the loss of my mother to breast cancer metastacized to the bone. All my attentions were geared toward her care. Her passing is just under two years ago now.
The life of Edna St. Vincent Millay, a renowned American poet of the early and mid-twentieth century, was chronicled in Nancy Milford’s “Savage Beauty” which I was reading at the time I began “gotpw”(“Gotpow?”). One day I had taken the book with me to lunch at a local diner, and took my seat along the counter on a little red-leather and steel stool. The waitress took my order of fried eggs, sausage and toast when a burly, bearded working man in flannel and Dickies parked next to me. Being strangers, we’d said little to one another outside of “Good morning” when I picked up my book again. He placed his order and the waitress poured us out our cups of coffee.
“You could be her sister,” the man said gruffly, indicating the paperback I had cradled in my hands.
“Hmm?” I murmured, unsure he was speaking to me, so absorbed in the poet’s story. When it hit me what he meant, I turned the book over to get a good look at the dreamy blue-black and white portrait of a young Millay. Blushing a bit, I murmured my thanks to him. I was unaware at the time of how telling this man’s comparison turned out to be. It feels eerie to think on it now…
My mother, like Millay’s, died before her time, leaving behind three daughters, all of whom were very close to her. The girls’ father did not figure greatly into their lives, and so their family was very much a matriarchy. A beau of Millay’s compared the relationship the women had with one another as well as their home together as “an enchanted witches’ cottage” which mirrors how friends of the family saw our quartet, and how we saw ourselves. My mother was devoted to her girls, and when we lost her, we all lost our mooring. My mother’s closest cousin told me of a talk with my mother shortly before her death in hospice. “Do you have a message for your daughters?” cousin Dinah asked Martina, my mother. She replied, “All my life and all my love I gave to my girls.”
At a memorial for my mother at the home of my aunt, my mother’s only sister, I read aloud Millay’s poem “Interim” and never in my life have I felt closer to a poet’s work than I did that night. Mitford printed a few lines from an unpublished poem of Millay’s about the loss of her beloved mother that came to me after my mother’s death: “To whom may I go/ What door try?” One instantly envisions a young child reaching to turn a doorknob on tip-toe in hopes that here is mother in this last room. Where can a daughter turn when her mother is taken from the world?
Writing about my mother’s illness and death began as catharsis and before long grew beyond my own personal scope into an artistic project. It feels now, as I look at the filled notebooks stuffed with looseleaf additions and bundled with rubber bands, rather like an unexpected pregnancy. “No wonder none of my pants fit me anymore…” So now I prepare to release “What Door Try” into the wild wide world in hopes that, in the immortal words of George Elliot, it can be “the cup of strength in some great agony” for someone else in future.