I think about lighting a match beneath my mother's blank pages. Perhaps her journals were written with invisible ink. And it comes to me that her journals were written in code. This I understand, because I have a code of my own. When I want to see deeply into my soul, I will write a sentence by hand and then write another sentence over it, followed by another. An entire paragraph will live in one line and no one else can read it. That is the point. There is an art to writing, and it is not always disclosure. The act itself can be beautiful, revelatory, and private.
If my mother had a mantra it was this: Trust your instincts. My instincts tell me my mother's journals are a mystery. My mother was a mystery. She loved making people think. My mother's journals make me think. And perhaps what looms largest in my mind now, what I could never have known as a woman in my 20s or even 30s, is that my mother left me her journals because she knew they would demand that I listen—carefully—to what is not being said, to what can never be said, only felt.
The journals teach me how nothing is as it appears. An empty page can be full.
If my other had written the truth of her life, I honestly believe she both felt and feared it would be at someone else's expense. If she wrote about her sons, their father, a family business that separated her from the boys she raised, it would be breaking another code, a code of conduct that says you don't expose your sorrows or your vulnerabilities. If she voiced her doubts about a religion that had all the answers, it would not only hurt other people, it would incriminate her. Better to keep the faith by keeping quiet. Her words could cut, reveal, and wound. And that she could not bear. My mother remained true to her character: graceful, present, and hidden.
Her fears were well-founded. As a writer, I have learned that each time I pick up my pencil I betray someone. Some will say I am betraying my mother here. I just have to make certain I don't betray myself.
I, too, fear exposing my truth, standing alone, accountable. But it was my mother's capacity to listen to what I had to say that has given me my voice.
My mother chose me as the recipient of her empty pages, and allowed me to fill in the blanks. I will never know what she was trying to tell me by telling me nothing. But I can imagine. If only she had known I was her sister instead of her daughter.
Terry Tempest Williams is the author of the newly published When Women Were Birds (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), from which this essay is adapted.
Mothers, Daughters and More
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