How a Struggle to Tell My Mother’s Whole Story Turned Into a More Intimate Portrait of Love

Mother & daughter: an enduring friendship cut too short

When I was a teenager I gifted my mom with one of those split-heart necklaces declaring each bearer the other’s “best friend.” It never occurred to me to be embarrassed. My relationship with my mother was beyond special, and I always felt keenly aware of how blessed I was to have it.

Three months after I delivered my son, my mother died unexpectedly. At exactly the moment I felt most close to her, I lost her.

That was 2009. Every day since, well, I think of her. I ache for her, love her still. Remember her. And try to honor her memory by being the best person and mother I can be.

That my mother was able to meet her grandson, that I have a few beautiful photos of her holding my son, 12 weeks’ worth of memories of her bonding with him—just, thank God. Conversely, none of that makes up for the fact that my boy won’t remember his grandmother. He won’t know her purity of heart, her generosity, her surprising sense of humor.

I talk about my mom often, sometimes sharing stories that reveal her character or my favorite memories from my own childhood. Occasionally I just drop small references: Your grandmother adored daisies. She would have loved that dance move! I learned how to make this spinach quiche from my mom.

My mother’s spirit permeates my life. But without having other family members to talk of her with, without having relatives with whom I might be able to relive memories...I worry the memories will fade.

Without having relatives with whom I might be able to relive memories...I worry the memories will fade.

Procrastinating, or ruminating?

I spent countless hours going through boxes of old photos: black-and-whites of my mother, mostly from her teenage years. Many of my favorites were of her posed in some fashionable ensemble epitomizing the decade: festooned in a sleek belted dress in the late ’50s, donning a leopard-print faux-fur jacket in the ’60s, rocking a hand-crocheted pom-pom hat in the ’70s.

I cherish the scattered few pictures from her early childhood. And seeing photographs that showed everyday scenarios got me excited—they gave me visuals of her life before me.

When it came time to sit down and put together a photo book honoring my mother, though, I was stumped. At first I struggled with how to adequately bring this woman to life. How could I make others see—really see—how remarkable she truly was? How could I give a rounded impression of the person I knew and loved?

I couldn’t.

This depressed me for a while. I abandoned the book idea, and instead lost myself from time to time in re-examining the pictures in all those boxes. The sense of joy that came with happening upon a photo of her laughing, or again picking up one of her that reminds me of my son now, became addictive. I would begin to sort the photographs, setting aside a few favorites each time to scan, but would soon find myself down a rabbit hole, replacing the stacks back in the boxes to be rediscovered a different day. I was frustrated that I had made no progress in organizing the images or putting together a book. Yet I think I subconsciously relished the idea of being able to come back to the boxes anew, preserving some sense of serendipity: The boxes were a treasure chest, and I wanted to touch and feel the golden treasures within at will.

One day it dawned on me: Don’t make a book about her. Tell our story.

“Mommy & Me: A Love Story”

I knew I’d never be able to paint a full enough picture of my mother. And I didn’t want a boring (typically lengthy) biography, anyway. I had a trove of letters we each had saved over the years, from our correspondence when I was in college (at a time before the Internet made snail-mail almost obsolete) all the way until I got married and then pregnant. Despite daily phone calls, we both still felt compelled to share our love and feelings in writing. What a gift.

The process of putting this book together was cathartic and healing. I know now that I procrastinated in doing so because I needed time—time to let the ideas percolate in the back of my mind, and time to be ready to finish the grieving process. No, I’ll never truly be done grieving; but I do feel (almost) whole again, and proud of the book I have made in my mother’s honor.

This book, a gift to myself and eventually to my son, is as personal as it gets. Rather than post the entire book, I decided to share a slightly condensed version: I want to give you ideas for crafting your own story, plant some seeds of inspiration. And give you a glimpse into my relationship with my beloved mother.

The full book—with pages that reveal some incredibly personal letters and depict details from my life—I am reserving for my son...and hopefully the family he bears in the future.

Who would you like to honor?

I waited until my mother was gone from this Earth before endeavoring to tell our story in book form; but we were creating our story all along. As you are doing with those you love, I hope--living life out loud and mindfully, being present in the moment, allowing yourself to truly experience the full gamut of emotions.

Writer Allison Gilbert recently posted a quote that moved me on Instagram: “Make this year the year to remember loved ones intentionally.”

Who would you choose to honor with a legacy book? A grandparent who has recently deceased? A great-grandparent you’ve never met but heard plenty of family stories about over the years (preserve those!)? What about your living parents? What a gift to be able to interview your parents now, to not take their stories and wisdom for granted!

I can’t wait to “meet” the members of your family legacies and to help you honor them. Please reach out today to see how we can work together to create the book of your dreams.

Happy New Year! #passedandpresent

A photo posted by Allison Gilbert (@agilbertwriter) on