Motherhood Moments: Passing On a Love of Words

Filed under: Holidays, Opinions, Books for Parents

zoe fitzgerald

Zoe FitzGerald Carter with her mother and daughter. Credit: Zoe FitzGerald Carter

If childhood had a soundtrack, mine would be the hammering keys and intermittent "ping" of a busy typewriter.

From as far back as I can remember, my mother would regularly disappear into her study to write on her IBM Selectric, emerging hours later with piles of papers and empty coffee cups, with a dreamy, satisfied expression on her face. When I was in elementary school, she was working on a master's degree in literature, and, by the time I started high school, she had begun an autobiographical novel that would consume her for the rest of her life.

Although I occasionally resented these absences, I was intensely curious about what went on behind that closed study door. What could possibly demand so much of her attention? Then, in third or fourth grade, she gave me a little blue diary with a golden lock and key, and I got my first inkling that writing down one's private thoughts and observations could be kind of ... thrilling.

I'll never forget the delicious anticipation of taking my diary out to the back yard and opening it up to a fresh page. And what did it matter that I wrote things like, "Our cat had kittens today" or "I hate my sister?" A writer was born.

Recognizing a kindred spirit, my mother took me under her wing. Together, we'd pour over my stories and school papers, discussing the finer points of grammar or word choice. Thanks to her tutorials, by the time I left home I could write a well-crafted essay or research paper in my sleep.

But I had learned about more than just form and structure; I had learned to care about precision and clarity in language. My mother's fierce interest in the rhythm and beauty of words had sparked an answering passion in me and this passion would lead me to my career as a professional writer.

The years passed, I moved away, married, had two children and continued to write. Then, in my early 30s, my father died and my mother asked me to help her edit her novel. I immediately agreed, grateful for the excuse it would give us to regularly get together. We soon fell into a comfortable -- and comforting -- routine. Every few weeks, she would come up to New York from her home in Washington, D.C. and stay with me. We would lie at either end of the couch passing pages of her manuscript back and forth, along with a plate of cheese or fruit, and talk about my various cuts and changes. Although our roles as editor/writer were reversed, it felt like old times.

My mother's book needed a lot of paring down -- it was well over 1,000 pages at this point -- but I soaked up every word. At last, I had access to the mysteries of my private, self-contained mother! Riveted, I read about her unhappy childhood: Her glamorous, neglectful parents, her stiff elderly grandparents who took her in when her parents disappeared. I drank it all in, amazed that she'd emerged from this lonely childhood such a strong and independent-minded woman, determined to have a different kind of family -- a different kind of life.

As her editor this time around, I was ostensibly her "teacher," but I quickly understood that I was still learning from her. No longer about grammar and language, but about the value and importance of looking inward, of observing and understanding yourself, and then capturing those insights on the page. This is what she had been doing for all those years in her study, I thought, grateful to have been brought into that process.

In the end, my mother never published her book. I think she couldn't bear to expose so much of herself to the world. But one of the last things she said to me before she died was that she had led a writer's life and that she was proud of her choices. She had no regrets.

There have been many moments since my mother's death in 2001 when I have missed her. On holidays and birthdays certainly, but even more so, on the day I sold my first book. But whenever one of my daughters hands me something they've written and says, "Mom, can you read this for me?" I feel her right there beside me.

Zoe FitzGerald Carter is an author and journalist who has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times, Vogue and Salon. She is the author of the memoir "Imperfect Endings: A Daughter's Story of Love, Loss and Letting Go." "Imperfect Endings" was featured in O magazine, and was chosen as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick. Read her blog on Red Room.

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