All through my childhood, my mother settled once a day to chronicle her life. Her diaries were factory-made, squarish, embossed with the year on the cover, the date printed onto the page, thin lines regulating the number of words allowed for emotions, events—no more, no less. A page per day. She wrote ceremonially, as if she were hiding secrets, lost in thought, available only with “hmm” to me. “Not now, I’m writing in my diary,” she’d say. It was her private place, her room alone. “Mommy, can I read your diaries?” was a frequent question. She started off saying, “Someday,” and then she changed to, “When you are the age I was when I wrote them,” and then one time when I remembered to ask as an adult, “Maybe,” then “No, probably never.” I think I would have been fine never having read them. But then she committed suicide.
The grieving has taken place in phases. First there was the shock, the numbness, the nausea. Then there was the activity, and as her only child, I was the only one responsible. Identifying her body in the morgue, organizing her memorial, that weird shock of Robin Williams’s copycat suicide, tearing up her self-written, visionary obituary; sponsoring a bland, adulterated version just to have something, anything, in The San Francisco Chronicle. Hiring a catering firm, booking hotel rooms for out-of-town relatives, booking a hotel for us—although she hadn’t died there, her apartment still held the outbreaths of her last days—writing my version of a silent eulogy in two parts, one for her and one for those she left behind; making it through the memorial gathering, listening to mawkish tributes to la Principessa from women whose friendships with my mother had always seemed more self-serving than intimate. My eyes stayed dry. Our three children, silent, dressed in black, watching the crowd. Until Carol appeared at my side. My childhood best friend, whom I hadn’t seen in twenty years. She tapped me on the shoulder and, without a word, offered me her open arms, there amongst the crowd of San Francisco’s ladies-who-lunch in their pearls and hats, and I began to cry and couldn’t stop…
Then, a month later, hiring a speedboat out to the middle of the bay, choosing the right words to accompany the box of ashes down into the saltwater currents. Cleaning out her apartment with my friend-since-high-school, Melanie; bringing silk blouses to the posh secondhand store on Polk St. with Diane; gleefully discovering Mom’s full-length mink coat. Meeting with the lawyer, realizing the extent of my inheritance and the mess Mom left me, she who was so deliberate and calculated in her plans. And then the attention of women whose mothers had also killed themselves, chance encounters, acquaintances at parties. How could this be? So many of us? And their concerned eyes inquiring whether I was getting help. And my momentary self-questioning: Do I need help? Am I not coping just fine?
I was secure that I’d be okay. After all, my mourning was not dire, my suffering more extended and existential than acute. But then there were the three years after her death, when I resumed my life far away, returning to my therapist’s office yet again, churning through the “ending” to my mother and me. And then, eventually, the decision to move us all permanently to California, which we should have done ten years before—had she not lobbied against it so harshly. I wish she had wanted me closer. I wish she had said, “Oh, please come.” Would that have made a difference?
I kept thinking of the small books lined up in the wooden chest, four tall numbers on the fore edge identifying their year, as if they were soldiers lined up in a tomb. I remembered opening that chest after she died and slamming it down. How could I summon the courage to broach it again, like opening a crack to some unknown force? Why was I so terrified of these little books? In my imagination, their dusty clouds would swirl up and invade my lungs and my mouth and nose; my eyes would tear; I wouldn’t be able to breathe. If I touched them, she would win.
And then, finally, in 2017 when we moved, all five of us here now, knowing I had to start being serious about this story, so at least my children would understand my journey, where their grandmother ended and their mother began, where they began. In the midst of all the logistics and organizing and resettling, my heart raced, thinking of those damn diaries, wondering why I didn’t just burn them and go on with my life. My mother had left her words behind, knowing me, knowing I’d choose to tell my story and thereby tell hers. A daughter who always wanted to know things. A dead mother who could be a star at last.
By the beginning of fall that year, fear had turned to acceptance. I had to trust myself.
I began to read.
Born in India, Susannah Kennedy grew up in New York and San Francisco. She was a reporter for the Dallas Times Herald and a freelancer before receiving a doctorate in social anthropology from Oxford. Living outside the US for most of her adult life has given her an acute perspective on what it means to be an American in today’s world. She is a passionate bicultural/bilingual mother and identifies as a pre-tech northern Californian who has just recently returned to her roots.