Menu Close

On Milestones, Mothers, and Manuscripts

mom and kid shoes smallI recently reached two major milestones in my life. The first was a birthday I’d been dreading for many years. I don’t generally have strong feelings about birthdays. I certainly enjoy cards, gifts, and dinners at nice restaurants, and I’m disappointed when loved ones forget my birthday, but overall I don’t consider birthdays a big deal.
But this birthday was a milestone, and not one of the obvious ones. My mom died of cancer when she was in her 40’s, and I have now reached the age she was when she died.
I know others whose same-sex parent died relatively young, and they too have admitted to dreading that milestone birthday (or “Thanaversary,” as Ryan Howes refers to it in this Psychology Today article). There are different reasons for this dread: a superstitious belief that one is destined to die at the same age as one’s parent, the weirdness of realizing that one is about to become older than one’s parent ever was, or just realizing how young this age—whatever it is—really feels.
To be a parent is to be old, at least in your children’s eyes. When my mom died I heard people murmur that she had died too soon, but I had no real perspective on what “too soon” meant until I entered my 40’s. I’m not ready to die. I have much I still want to accomplish, and I’m sure my mom did too. At the very least, I’m sure she wanted to see her children graduate from high school, get married, and perhaps have children of their own. She didn’t get to see any of those things, and I feel that keenly now.
My mom was the first person who believed in me. She especially believed in my dream of becoming an author.
I’ve been making up stories for as long as I can remember. Before I learned how to use a pen, I was creating stories for my dolls to act out. (I don’t know if there is still a dearth of boy dolls, but there certainly was when I was young, so my early stories were populated mostly by girls and women.) My first written stories were transcriptions of these doll performances.
When I was thirteen, I wrote my first novel. It was bad. I was no genius, so whatever you’re imagining a thirteen-year-old would write, take it down a few notches. I think I still have the novel hidden in a box in my basement, but all I remember now is that it was about two sisters named Strawberri and Blueberri (yes, the spelling was immensely important at the time). It was also really long (bad and long is much worse than bad and short, as any instructor marking a batch of student essays can attest).
Instead of laughing or brushing aside my childish accomplishment, my mom did something else: she typed it out, slowly and painstakingly, on our clunky family typewriter. Every last horrible, cringe-worthy word. She did this in addition to her secretarial job and the many duties of taking care of her family. Then, with the help of my English teacher, my mom mailed the novel to a publisher, who apparently didn’t agree with their assessment of my potential.
I wrote a second novel when I was fourteen, and my mom typed out that one too. She probably would still be typing out my work if she were alive and I wanted her to. She was my cheerleader, the best listener I’ve ever met (the kind who doesn’t look bored no matter how many times she hears the same story), and the person to whom I divulged my deepest secrets.
Even though my mom died thirty years ago, I still feel a pang of jealousy when I hear other writers say their moms are the first people who read their work.
All of which brings me to some happy news (and the second of my recently-reached milestones) that I wish I could share with my mom. I signed with a wonderful literary agent (hi, Laura!). I’ve been researching agents and sending out queries for years, and I finally found the right agent who loves my work. In fact, I think she loves it more than I do! At the same time, this milestone is bittersweet because I desperately want to call my mom and say, “Mom, guess what? I have an agent! Your belief in my writing is finally starting to pay off.”
At first I was puzzled by the sadness I felt along with the joy. After all, I didn’t miss my mom this much when I got married or obtained my PhD. Those events seem more significant than signing with an agent, yet I didn’t really miss my mom then because I felt she was with me in spirit, and I was more focussed on celebrating with my living family and friends. But after giving the matter more thought, I realized that weddings and convocations are public events, whereas signing with an agent and reaching the age my mom was when she died are relatively private. There are no public ceremonies to mark such events, and even those closest to me don’t know about (or remember) these milestones unless I tell them.
I know that some people have never had anyone in their lives who believes in them. I’m grateful for the time I did have with my mom and for the way her spirit lives on in all the wonderful friends and mentors who continue to inspire and encourage me.
It seems fitting to end this blog post with a poem by one of those friends and mentors, who also happens to be a very good writer.
She was good at pies, apple,
softer fruits in season.
She offered to teach me but I
had largely bankable interests.
A prospect of brilliance
blinded me to her decline.
When did she bake the final one
and first think, never again?
Perhaps she fed me a slice
and I misdeemed the value.
I brought her pies from the bakery;
she left me her investments.
Here’s the bench where yesterday
she offered crumbs to pigeons.
– Christine Thorpe, Tendered Arms (Manifold Books, 2011), reproduced with permission.


  1. Laura

    Hi, Clarissa!
    Yet another similarity we have. When my mother turned 44, she was a mess. Even more so on her 45th, because she was officially one year older than her mother. My grandfather sometimes stops talking mid-sentence to take a good look at my mother (some years older now) and says, “You look so much like her.” The majority of each passing year is filled with great days, and then there are some days, hours, minutes, that just make them stop and mourn a bit for her. <3
    Your mother would be so proud of you, Clarissa!

  2. MH

    I remember my father when he was younger than me — in his 30s and 40s. I was a kid and a teenager. I wish I could go back in time as an adult and get to know him a bit as he was then. I wonder what he was like as a person – what his thoughts and feelings were. As a child you don’t know your parents in that way.

  3. JT

    Thanks for posting this. Your honesty and courage in sharing this is inspiring. That sounds a bit corny, but it’s how I feel. Moms and Dads, well the good ones anyway, do so much that at the time is thankless and mundane, but in retrospect is so precious.

  4. Clarissa Harwood

    Thanks for your encouragement, everyone! I wish I could go back in time too, MH, and find out more about my mom’s thoughts and feelings. I talked so much about myself (typical self-absorbed teenager!) but now I would want to know more about her. At least I can try to correct this now with my living loved ones.

Leave a Reply