I was really looking forward to the "welcome to the neighborhood" dinner party that a thoughtful new friend decided to throw for us last summer. I thought it would be a great way to get to know people—to pick up advice on which markets had the freshest vegetables and who was up for carpooling. As the adults chatted, the kids—including my daughter, Kirby, 14, and my son, William, 13—headed outside. One of the guests was Jill Brooke, a newspaper columnist and CNN correspondent I had met years ago. When I asked her what she was working on now, she mentioned that she had finished writing a book, Don't Let Death Ruin Your Life (Dutton). It's about how Americans have trouble dealing with grief and how getting on with our lives doesn't have to mean losing a connection with the person who died. She told me that we're often afraid to talk about the death of a person we love, yet we're fascinated and curious about the deaths of celebrities. But, I said, I'm not a person who's uncomfortable with the death of someone who really made a difference in my life.
That person would be my mother, Peggy King. We were extremely close, and when she died in 1994, I felt that I had lost my anchor. "What do your children know about your mother?" Jill asked me. "Oh, tons!" I said. "I talk about her all the time." She asked if she could find out what they knew. "Sure, go ahead," I said, confident that my children would ace this little test. I called them into the room and asked, "What do you remember about Grammy?" Will hesitated a moment and said, "Well, she smoked cigarettes and you didn't like it." That wasn't quite the answer I was expecting. Then Jill asked him, "What has your mother told you about your grandmother?" "Well, she told me that Grammy had a heart attack," he said. Kirby nodded her head. That was all.
I felt embarrassed and very sad. "Is that all you remember me telling you?" Didn't they know that Saturday night at our house was Sloppy Joe Night? Didn't they know how often my mom and I played jacks (she was great) or how my hand always shot up at school when the teacher asked whose mother could drive to a field trip or bake cookies for the class? How could they not know these things?
Because, I realized, I had never told them. I sent the kids back outside. "I was so sure I had shared these memories because they are so vivid for me," I said, shaking my head. Jill asked gently, "If you don't share your feelings about your mother, what makes you think your children will feel comfortable talking about you when you die?"