August 26 is a bittersweet day. My fifth book will publish (sweet) but 18 years ago to the day I lost my mother. She was warm and wise, witty and fun, brave and beautiful. And she’s the one who inspired me to pursue a writing career although she never knew it. While she was proud that I became a lawyer and would always be able to take care of myself, I think she would’ve loved to read my books (whose mother doesn’t?) and been a proud supporter (like my sister, who has already ordered 30 copies of The Badger Knight for friends, whether they want it or not).
My mother was an excellent writer herself and I think dreamed of writing the Great American Novel but ran out of time. Growing up, homework was our responsibility but she couldn’t help looking at papers we wrote with a critical eye. Like a reporter, she wanted to see the facts supporting the argument but like the novelist and woman with heart that she was, she also wanted to know the “why” of everything. I can still see her … “Yes, but why?” “This is lovely but why is it important?” Or simply, “Mmm-hmm”– the paper handed back — “and why?” In fact, we heard “and why?” so often that my sister and I would tease her with, “AND why!” in all sorts of situations. But she was right. And it made me a better writer — both the facts and the heart.
She encouraged us to find what inspired us and do it the best we could. Go after whatever you want, she said, work hard, study hard, do whatever it is to achieve your dream and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. You can. She got her pilot’s license at age 15, even before her driver’s license. But — and this part was important because I can still see the seriousness in her face — pursuing your dream is never at the expense of others. In fact, you should be helping others at all times. In her words, the world is our community and we are put on this earth to help each other; otherwise, really, what is the purpose? It’s the African concept of ubuntu. Maybe she learned it while we were living in South Africa but I suspect she was just born that way. Of course she gave much money and even more time to charitable causes, but what I remember most is her sitting with an elderly or disabled person and just talking, smiling, laughing until they did, too, or stepping into a situation to diffuse the tension, or standing up for someone or something even when it wasn’t popular. Everyone deserved equal treatment and kindness.
Here’s Nelson Mandela explaining ubuntu:
When she finally had a chance to retire, she battled cancer and ran out of time, on this earth, at least. It made me realize that writing, which I’d planned to do when I retired, couldn’t wait. I had to start. And I had to do it well as a tribute to her and to my community. So I try always to get the facts right, check my sources, do the research. And then I think about the why, which takes a lot longer because it’s at the heart of every story. Why did something happen? Why did someone act that way? Why are we here?
And that’s why I write. To bring meaning to my life and to try help young people make sense of this world. Sure, people can laugh that I gave up a job as a lawyer to write for kids (“Can’t she even write for adults?”) but for me it’s the right choice. It’s not hard when you boil it down to the essence, to the why. It’s to try to bring something good into the world.
Thanks, Mom. Thanks for teaching and embodying ubuntu. Thanks for making me think of the why.