Photo: Marion Ettlinger
I am 54 years old, the age my mother was when she died. This is what I remember: We were lying on her bed beneath a mohair blanket. I was rubbing her back, feeling each vertebra with my fingers as a rung on a ladder. It was January, and the ruthless clamp of cold bore down on the world outside. Yet inside, Mother's tenderness and clarity of mind warmed me. She was dying in the same way she had lived, consciously.
"I am leaving you all my journals," she said, facing the shuttered window as we lay there. "But you must promise me that you will not look at them until after I am gone."
I gave her my word. And then she told me where they were. I hadn't even known my mother kept journals.
A week later, she died. That night the moon looked as though it were encircled by ice crystals. I told myself it was the illumined face of my mother.
In the disorienting days following her death, I often felt like I was drowning in loneliness. Many weeks passed during which I was simply treading the turbulent waters. I finally sought out the journals as a lifeline that could pull me to solid ground.
They were where she'd said they would be, downstairs in a closet, meticulously aligned on three hidden shelves. Each was bound in cloth—floral prints, denim, linen—their spines more akin to quilts than books.
I ran my fingers across their backs just as I had rubbed my mother's back; in that moment she felt very present. And suddenly the journals seemed too private for a daughter. I realized how little I knew of my mother's inner life, how little of herself she revealed to others. I was afraid of her hidden heart.
I closed the closet. I would wait. Better to leave them for another time when I might be in greater need.
Upstairs, I made myself a cup of tea. It was a beautiful winter day. Salt Lake City was a mirror of white light reflecting off recent snow. Mother had left me her journals. It was my birthright to read them. I finished my tea and walked back downstairs. Now was the time.
I opened the closet and pulled out the first journal. It was blank. I flipped through the empty pages. Nothing. I opened the second journal. It, too, was blank. As were the third journal, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth. I went through every journal on every shelf praying to find her script, but all I found was a collection of white pages perfectly bound. My mother had left me her journals, and all her journals were blank. I had hoped to find her deepest thoughts, her dreams, her struggles, alongside her wisdom. What she left me were her silences.
Next: What do you do with a bunch of empty books?
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