terry tempest williams
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?
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
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.

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