Reading Mom Like a Book

July 5, 2010 at 3:11 pm 3 comments

The call came from out of nowhere.  It was the Schlesinger Library at Harvard.  They’d heard that my mother, I Hate to Cook Book author Peg Bracken, had passed away, and wanted to know if I would donate her papers for their Culinary Collection.   Of course my answer was yes.  But Mom had only been gone a few months and I was still coming to grips with the breadth of her celebrity.  So it took me aback, hearing her name mentioned with such greats as Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher. 

That, and I knew the task before me would be daunting.  Going through Mom’s clothes and other things had been hard.  But if that was a chore, this was going to be an emotional epic.  Why?  Because writers are different.

As we go through life, most of us only keep things of sentimental value, consigning the rest to the dustbin.  But most authors don’t think this way.  They treasure words and, knowing how fleeting a fine sentence can be, tend to covet them, whether or not they ever see the light of day.

Mom was very much like this.  Although she had published over a dozen books plus countless poems and squibs, her body of unpublished work was far greater.

So, I sat alone in my office and read nearly every journal entry, letter, poem and article.  I would start, see a phrase that would send me off, and have to stop.  It was as if I had been perched on her shoulder all those years through the many long hours in her writer’s room.  It took me the better part of a year—and nearly everything I had emotionally.

Yet, when the day finally came to ship Mom’s papers, it was a less catharsis than I’d expected.  Though she was with me fifty-two years, I knew so much more about her now, and had so many questions I wanted to ask.  It was vexing.  Only later did it dawn on me:  what a privilege to have these writings at all, to be able to relive her days and see inside her beautiful mind long after she was gone.   I’m sure the folks at the Schlesinger Library, along with a legion of curious scholars, will wholeheartedly agree.


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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Neal Thomas  |  July 9, 2010 at 10:19 am

    I’m so glad I read this, I was cleaning out my garage (great 4th of July weekend activity) and I almost tossed out a bunch of stuff I wrote over my lifetime. I even found some poems my dad wrote that I’m now hanging on to. I can’t imagine having all that writing to go through, that must have been incredibly hard, but also incredibly rewarding.

  • 2. Michele Bartlett  |  July 12, 2010 at 8:59 pm

    My mom is doing a kind of life review now, in stages going through all her paperwork, stacks of clipped articles, etc. One of her treasures is all the letters, poems, etc. that she exchanged over the years with loved ones, including ones my dad wrote. Sometimes they were little ditties, sometimes letters of apology, often filled with “We can get thru this together, Hon” kind of stuff. Some of this I didn’t know existed, and it was very touching to go through it with her last year. We even scanned and stored many of them. I’m so glad she saved them.

    • 3. johannabracken  |  July 13, 2010 at 6:14 pm

      Michele, thank you so much for sharing this, and your various comments on the IHTCB Facebook page. Some see the re-release of my mother’s book as a point of nostalgia, some a chance to try new recipes.
      But as you know, sifting back through time can be a taxing emotional journey.


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