Burney (short for nothing), Joan (considered dull and dropped), Parrott (beloved maiden name), Cleveland (ill-fated first marriage), Sheeks (at last, love) stood in front of a hall full of women. Earlier that morning I heard her in her little galley kitchen tuning up her public speaking skills, modulating, enunciating, delivering as if to Congress. She was ready and eager having just finished a ‘story core’ class that involved writing short (or, in her case, not short) biographical excerpts and reading them aloud. Burney is my mother and I looked forward to her presentation because she is funny and interesting and occasionally shocking. But I was not prepared for the schooling I got in my mother’s life and midway through her 30 minute talk as she held the room in her manicured, age spotted hand I thought,
‘This is a book.’
Nearly ten years prior as her seventy-fifth birthday approached I lamented to my friend Lydia my inability to come up with a suitable milestone gift. Lydia told me of the inspiration she had with her own mother. The two of them had become close after her father’s sudden death but it was not always that way. She said that at one point she sought therapy to work through some of the difficulties of their relationship and as the session unfolded the therapist asked Lydia what she liked about her mother.
She was given homework to come up with five things she did like. Lydia insisted she would bring back an empty page and the therapist responded:
“Surely you can think of one thing.”
When she sat down to write, convinced of a bleak outcome, she was surprised to discover that the ‘one thing’ dropped neatly into her thoughts, followed swiftly by another and another. It was the beginning of a new and devoted era that flourished and lasted until her mother died.
Now Lydia said to me as we trudged up the hill of our favorite walking path:
“On mom’s seventy-fifth birthday I bought a journal and titled it Seventy-five things I like about you on your birthday.”
She filled those pages with anecdotes like:
“You hide chocolate from yourself”.
Needless to say it was a hit and she suggested I do the same thing for my mother. I did and needless to say, it was a hit.
Burney (short for nothing) is approaching eighty-five and after hearing her story core presentation I thought it might be interesting to create a book around eighty-five essays filled with her history, her humor, her wisdom and her way of being in this world.
I think I was forty when the notion of looking back in order to look forward and linking the generations began to be important to me. Before that, I was immersed in separating, asserting my individuality, guarding the space between me and the ones I stem from. I still hold my space and relish the differences but the threads of connection have fattened into cords as I’ve begun weaving them back into my life and I know that I am who I am in large part because of who they are and where we came from. I know too that many of the traditions and practices handed down are precious and worth keeping.
As a result this book represents a good bit of my history and my way of being in this world too. It is made up of memory, weekly conversations (when my mother could find her phone) and a lot of laughs.
We have not always been friendly with one another and I know that there were long stretches when, had either of us been asked what we liked in the other one, we too would have said:
But those days are largely behind us, though we still cannot discuss politics and I develop an immediate fever when she takes something out of my hands to show me how to do it better. With time, we have lived, we have mellowed, we have survived and recovered from alcoholism, we have made genuine amends and we have found each other, two women, distinct yet scarily alike. I hope for this with my own daughters. So here she is, dear readers, Burney, truly short for nothing, Sheeks.