Category Archives: Memoirs

A Very Easy Death

A hard task, dying, when one loves life so much.

A Very Easy Death, by Simone de Beauvoir, is a beautifully written, powerfully emotional account of her mother’s death and her own emotional journey through her mother’s illness and death.

At age 78, her mother fell and broke the top part of her femur. She was hospitalized and during examination, the doctors found that she had cancer. It was a highly aggressive sarcoma, and her illness and decline were rapid. Simone and her sister, Poupette, spent most of their time at the hospital with their mother throughout that time, and Poupette was there the night she died.

This is a story that so many of us have gone through with a parent or loved one. Because the journey through illness and decline is a familiar one, I was acutely aware and appreciative of the honesty with which de Beauvoir shared their story — the story of two daughters in the process of losing their mother, and of their mother’s struggle to LIVE while dying.

Before reading the book, I thought that the term “an easy death” meant that the person didn’t have to suffer very much before dying. My family used that term about my father’s passing. He didn’t suffer long with his illness, and we were so grateful for that. But that is not what de Beauvoir meant by “an easy death.”  On the contrary, her mother suffered terribly before she died, but she had her daughters with her throughout the decline, and they helped her, advocated for her, and shared courage together in facing the inevitable. That was a luxury that de Beauvoir felt many people don’t have at the end of their lives.

With regard to Maman we were above all guilty, these last years, of carelessness, omission and abstention. We felt that we atoned for this by the days that we gave up to her, by the peace that our being there gave her, and by the victories gained over fear and pain. Without our obstinate watchfulness she would have suffered far more.

She and her sister were with her mother constantly during her illness, so de Beauvoir also describes the very painful reality a loved one faces in going through the agony of cancer.

…In this race between pain and death we most earnestly hoped that death would come first.

…Friday passed uneventfully. On Saturday Maman slept all the time. ‘That’s splendid,’ said Poupette to her. ‘You have rested.’ ‘Today I have not lived,’ sighed Maman.

…Nothing on earth could possibly justify these moments of pointless torment.

And she poignantly details the final aloneness of death.

…The misfortune is that although everyone must come to this, each experiences the adventure in solitude. We never left Maman during those last days which she confused with convalescence and yet we were profoundly separated from her.

All the way through this book, I thought of my own mother.  Simone de Beauvoir’s mother was 78 when she died, which seems so young to me from my vantage point now. I am incredibly fortunate to still have my mother who is 98 years old and still very much alive and well! But she and I are also very aware that time is getting short, which gives a special aura to every conversation, every visit, every moment we share. She and I talk about the end quite often, and our shared hope is that it is quick and painless. I live 800 miles away from my mother, so I know it is possible I won’t be with her when that time comes, to help ease her final journey, and that is hard for me.

Nothing prepares any of us for death. Even if fighting a terminal illness, Simone de Beauvoir said: “A hard task, dying, when one loves life so much.” Her mother clung tenaciously to life:

What touched our hearts that day was the way she noticed the slightest agreeable sensation: it was as though, at the age of seventy-eight, she were waking afresh to the miracle of living.

And on the finality of death itself, de Beauvoir said:

There is no such thing as a natural death: nothing that happens to a man is ever natural, since his presence calls the world into question. All men must die: but for every man his death is an accident and, even if he knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation.

Simone de Beauvoir was a gifted author and influential existential philosopher. This was the first book I read by her, but I am very anxious now to read more of her work. I was so impressed with the beauty of her writing and with her deeply thoughtful honesty. With this book, she has touched my heart and mind like no other author has done in a long time.

Simone de Beauvoir with mother and sister…

This was a book that was on my list of 50 books to read for The Classics Club, and was also on my TBR Pile Challenge list.

Christmas in Plains

I’ve begun my annual reading of Christmas books/stories/poems, and this morning read one that has been on my TBR list forever! Christmas in Plains, by our former president, Jimmy Carter, was a delightful way to spend my morning. Here’s my review from Goodreads:

This was a very pleasant book to read on this foggy Saturday morning. While I enjoyed President Carter’s memories of Christmases over the years, I was most appreciative of the reminder of what a real president is like — a person who is kind and caring to all, someone who is dedicated to peace and unity throughout the world, a leader who believes in solving problems through diplomacy and negotiation and who has respect for all cultures and differences.

A heartfelt THANK YOU to President Carter for sharing these memories. And a very Merry Christmas this year to President and Mrs. Carter, and their family.

A Christmas in Plains…

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Goodbye, Ivan Doig

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Sad news yesterday about Ivan Doig. We’ve lost yet another wonderful author. I have a special place in my heart for Ivan Doig. My father loved reading his books, and so did I. When I read his memoir, This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind, I felt that we were most definitely kindred spirits. In this memoir, his stories of his Dad and his Grandmother and their Montana ranching lives reminded me in many ways of my own Dad and my own Wyoming Grandmother. They didn’t ranch, but they, too, were real characters shaped in similar ways by that western landscape.

As a girl from mountains, I also loved his descriptions of the western landscape that was so familiar to me.

The western skyline before us was filled high with a steel-blue army of mountains, drawn in battalions of peaks and reefs and gorges and crags as far along the entire rim of the earth as could be seen…

When my husband and I decided to relocate to the Pacific Northwest from the Intermountain West 25 years ago, I read his books, Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America and The Sea Runners. Both were amazing stories that capture the heart of the Northwest, and those books, along with Wintergreen, by Robert Michael Pyle, and The Good Rain, by Timothy Egan, helped turn us into Northwesterners at heart.

If you visit Doig’s website, he has a note for his readers. He didn’t consider himself a “western” writer, and this is why:

One last word about the setting of my work, the American West. I don’t think of myself as a “Western” writer. To me, language—the substance on the page, that poetry under the prose—is the ultimate “region,” the true home, for a writer. Specific geographies, but galaxies of imaginative expression—we’ve seen them both exist in William Faulkner’s postage stamp-size Yoknapatawpha County, and in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s nowhere village of Macondo, dreaming in its hundred years of solitude. If I have any creed that I wish you as readers, necessary accomplices in this flirtatious ceremony of writing and reading, will take with you from my pages, it’d be this belief of mine that writers of caliber can ground their work in specific land and lingo and yet be writing of that larger country: life.

Ivan Doig was a writer of caliber, and his “poetry under the prose” spoke to me directly and touched my life in many ways. King County Library, on Twitter today, paid him a wonderful, simple and perfect tribute:

“Scene: The flat plain is a brilliant green. A lone figure walks toward the distant mountains. Goodbye Ivan.”

 

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Author Ivan Doig for Seattle Magazine © Jeff Corwin

 

Shells: A Cameo of Anne Morrow Lindbergh

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Anne Morrow Lindbergh is an artist who has been an inspiration to me throughout my life. I was a young mother when I first found her books. Her words touched my heart and my life in so many ways and gave clarity to my own journey to define my Self. I read her diaries as they were published, then her novels and her lovely non-fiction. Then I found her beautiful poetry.

In 1974, I marked with interest the passing of her husband, Charles Lindbergh, but in 2001, I mourned Anne’s passing. She had become a mentor, a guide, an inspiration to me, so I felt her loss deeply.

When I recently discovered there was a little book called Shells: A Cameo of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, by Virnell Ann Bruce, I was instantly curious. I haven’t read many of the biographies written about AML because I preferred to read about her life in her own words, or in her daughter’s words — Reeve Lindbergh wrote some beautiful memoirs of her parents. (Click here to watch a YouTube video of Reeve talking about her mother.) But Shells is actually a one-woman play with Anne Morrow Lindbergh sharing stories and reminiscing about her life. The author has done a tremendous amount of research for this play, (Click here to watch a YouTube video of Virnell Ann Bruce talking about AML) and it’s a lovely way to learn about AML and her amazing life. I would love to have the opportunity to see this play performed on stage.

As I read the play, I bookmarked numerous passages that resonated with me. One passage, in particular, described well what I admired about AML, and why she became my own “friend” and “guide” over the years.

I spent a lot of time over the years, looking inward for myself and my world. It’s hard work to become a whole person, to develop and understand your own heart, your mind and your true spirit. Especially since it’s a continuous process as life changes. While I spent a good amount of time in Charles’ world of action, I think I found my own place in the world. Oh, it included Charles and the children, but it also included my world of books and poetry and art. And I found many wonderful friends in those worlds.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s sensitive and insightful world of books, poetry and art continues to inspire me and guide me on my lifelong journey to understand my own heart and spirit. This little book was another lovely encounter with a beautiful artist.

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A Bridge for Passing

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How quickly, in one instant, years of happy life become only memories!

A Bridge for Passing, by Pearl S. Buck, was an interesting  end for my 2014 reading year. Buck is a favorite author of mine, and I read her books slowly, absorbing her words and wisdom, enjoying the beauty of her prose.

TheBigWaveI hadn’t heard of this book before, but when I saw the description of it, I knew it was my next read by her. One of my all time favorites of her books is The Big Wave, a story about life and death and what it means to be Japanese. I loved sharing it with my 6th grade students when I was teaching and we were studying the Pacific Rim countries. The discussions were so powerful. A Bridge for Passing is a memoir of the time when Buck was in Japan for the filming of The Big Wave. She had written the screenplay. During that time, she received word of the death of her husband, Richard Walsh. Her experiences in Japan at such a sad and difficult time provided solace and perspective, and became a “bridge” into her new life alone without her beloved husband. What an interesting experience to read this poignant book about grief and renewal, with its fascinating connection to another book I love!

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Guest Post from Mom: Art of a Jewish Woman

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My Mom

My mother, at age 95, is still a prolific reader and an inspiration to me. She lives next door to a wonderful library and enjoys walking there as often as she can. During the winter months, when the weather is awful, she foregoes her walks to the library and chooses more Kindle books to read. She recently found one she enjoyed very much and she sent me an email describing it. It is a story that came out of World War II and the Holocaust, the story of a strong and courageous woman, both things of great interest to my mother. Since she hasn’t written reviews for my blog in quite awhile, I decided to include her email as a “Guest Post from Mom.”

Mom’s Review:

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I have just finished reading  a biography called: Art of a Jewish Woman written by her son, Henry Massie. It is a remarkable story. When I read of her death at the age of 97, I could not hold back the tears, a complete surprise to myself.

From a review on Amazon I found this short review helpful in covering some important facts about this memoir, Dr Henry Massie’s’ account of his mother.

Kitty Hughes – See all my reviews

This review is from: Art of a Jewish Woman: The True Story of How a Penniless Holocaust Escapee Became an Influential Modern Art Connoisseur (formerly titled Felice’s Worlds) (Kindle Edition)

“Felice’s World is a graceful and thought-provoking read of the difficult, complex and rich life of the author’s mother. It fills in the various historical contexts of her life in a meaningful way, showing us the various worlds that Felice moved through and the ways she was shaped by and shaped the environments that enclosed her.”

Felice was able to escape the worst of the devastation the holocaust had on members of her family. She escaped to America with the help of family relatives living in the United States. She spoke a number of languages and mastered French to near perfection. She tutored young people from rich families in French, and was often able to be a live-in teacher, which helped her immensely.

From a young age, she was declared a beauty and her beauty provided definite advantages. She was certainly brave in accepting opportunities that came her way. Her story began in Poland and the war kept her moving to safer places. What an amazing story!  It was hard for me to try to write about her but wanted to share a bit with you.

Love,
mom

Not My Father’s Son, A Memoir

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Alan Cumming’s memoir, Not My Father’s Son, is an important book. Mr. Cumming grew up with a cruel and abusive father, certainly a difficult subject to write about, and one that is often difficult to read. But he wrote it with honesty, courage, compassion, and fairness. And as I listened to the audiobook, which he narrated himself, I found myself admiring Alan Cumming more and more for the way he has dealt with such a dark childhood. He is a good, caring, and sensitive human being, (as well as a gifted actor!) and I appreciate him for sharing his difficult story with the world.