My mother was a beautiful woman with short dark hair, hazel eyes, and high cheekbones; I always thought she looked more French than American. She was the deepest woman I knew and also the most shallow. She devoured Tolstoy and adored Photoplay. She traveled to London to hear Winston Churchill speak and once deliberately tripped Elizabeth Taylor at Sardi's in the hope of forcing a conversation. (It worked.) She loved my father and loved creating drama. On his 40th birthday, she wrapped all his presents in black. My mother rarely cried. Autumn made her turn inward. At the end of each day, she walked outside and quietly applauded the sunset.

I was aware of silences in my mother, but nothing had prepared me for the shock of her journals. The blow became a second death. It felt like a terrible cruelty. Like an intentional joke. A message I could not read.

So painful was this moment in my life that I tried to bury it. Almost immediately, without ceremony, I began writing in her journals. I convinced myself if I wrote enough, manically filling each book, the emptiness she bequeathed me would vanish.

It never did. But now, 25 years after I first opened the journals, I am finally able to think about what this emptiness means.

To say that she left the journals for me to fill with my own words because she could not find hers is too easy, too simple, and too sad. My mother was more complex than that and far more subtle.

She was also a trickster. She was not above mischief.

The only thing I have done religiously in my life is keep a journal. I have hundreds of them, filled with feathers, flowers, photographs, and words—without locks, open on my shelves. I have journals with field notes from travels to the Arctic and Africa, from days spent at the Prado, from time shared with prairie dogs. Daybooks with calendars, shopping lists, and accounting figures. I cannot think without a pen in hand. If I don't write it down, it doesn't exist.

Mother knew this about me. On more than one occasion, as I was making notes at an art museum or on a hike in the mountains, she'd say, "Look up, you're missing it." She knew how her empty pages would confound, confuse, and haunt me.

Of course, the journals might have been her attempt to follow the promptings of her faith: Mormon women are admonished to write in a journal to record their thoughts, which will become their history. But Mother was a radical soul in a conservative religion. Focusing on the past did not interest her. As a woman diagnosed with breast cancer at 38, looking back was a luxury she couldn't afford. She didn't have time to waste on herself. She had four children to raise.

And she raised us to expect the unexpected. "Look more closely," she would say. "Listen more carefully. There are secrets in the world." It was Mother who showed us how to write secret messages with lemon juice. She would pick a lemon, roll it on the counter, slice it and squeeze the juice into a bowl. We would write our words with paintbrushes on parchment paper. A match was lit, the flame burned beneath the paper, and what was hidden magically appeared.

Next: What she's learned from the blank pages


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