Wednesday, March 28, 2018
My Mother Made Me -- Remembering Virginia Carson Kelley (1924 - 2018)
My mother made me a novelist. It wasn't her intention. We had the worst of our disagreements when I insisted on pursuing a life in the theater. She was right. I wasn't cut out to be an actress. But I did, as I once told her in overly dramatic fashion, HAVE to write. And that's because of her.
Language was Mom's life. Our house was full of books. She loved reading to herself and to us. Usually the books were from her own childhood--well-worn volumes which her own mother had probably read to her. Some were classics like Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, and Little Women. Others were more obscure, such as Jane's Father, who, like my own dad, had unconventional but endearing ways.
Mom was also a master of conversation. She could talk with anybody, particularly a shy person whom nobody else seemed to notice. She understood people sometimes painfully all too well. She paid attention to details that we kept hidden even from ourselves. She usually pointed those out to us in humorous fashion. Her "zingers" were famous in our family. She was hardest on herself, however. She loved retelling the story about the time a guest discovered the dead chipmunk our cat left under a chair. Mom just laughed and said she should have done a better job of dusting.
But her letters were her real gifts to us. She seemed to type them effortlessly, batting them out, as she said. Droll descriptions of what she had been doing, the tennis games, the strawberries picked and made into jam, the lunches with friends whom my father referred to her as her clients because they always needed to talk to her. Mostly the letters contained questions and compliments about the details of our lives. They are treasures. I wish I had saved every single one.
At the time when I was becoming a writer, I discovered a short story she had written when she was in college. I can't remember how I found it in a box in the attic. Mom's family had many writers. Her own mother was a well-respected novelist whom some compared to Jane Austen. Her aunt was a biographer and a newspaper reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Her great aunt was a newspaper columnist for the Milwaukee Journal. And so I wasn't surprised by the quality of Mom's short story. I was surprised that she hadn't written more.
Who knows why some march forward while others stand to the side. When I asked her why she hadn't kept on, she said that she was too lazy. But I suspect her own parents hadn't been as encouraging as mine.
Mom was very proud of my books. I always read her early drafts of whatever I was working on. She was generous with her laughter and praise, and always had a few astute suggestions. I am forever in her debt.
Virginia Carson Kelley does leave a legacy. Her beloved children and grandchildren all have some of her wisdom, her wit, her love of family, and her appreciation for words.