The Writer’s Daughter.

Halls, Tennessee, 1986.
Halls, Tennessee, 1986.

At one point in her life my mother would have introduced herself as a musician who also had good writing skills. She had a considerable talent for music – primarily the piano although also, as she might have said, an adequate soprano choir voice. Her musical gift, nurtured and encouraged by her father, was evident in childhood. While she was no prodigy, she was good enough by the age of 16 to attract the attention of a small Baptist college that offered her a full music scholarship, provided she follow the path to becoming a church organist, a path she did not want. My mother was headed to the bright lights of a big city, away from farms and lima beans, toward people who appreciated books other than Little Women and The Holy Bible (not that she didn’t like those two, but because she thought there was much more on the horizon).

My grandfather the preacher, my mother’s father, believed that, in thanks for the gift God gave her, my mother should use her gift to honor God. When she declined the scholarship, her father gave her the option of reconsidering or leaving his house. She left, attended a small liberal arts college in Texas, studied both writing and music, and then landed in a bungalow in the Cooper Young neighborhood of Memphis, a big enough city for starters.

Her dream, in that Rodgers and Hammerstein heyday, was to write musicals. To earn money while waiting for her Broadway break, she got a job as an advertising copywriter. That first job led to another copywriting job, which led, eventually, to her being selected press secretary (though it wasn’t called that) for the 1963 Maid of Cotton tour, and, eventually, to an advanced degree in communication.

After all that my mother would have introduced herself as a writer who also played the piano, a writer whose work, perhaps, had a certain lyrical quality.

My mother, the writer and musician, also had a fondness for art, and she nurtured in me a similar affection. When she noticed the joy I found in drawing and painting and, later, in photography, she nudged and counseled and encouraged me toward my art. I was her artist daughter who also had respectable music and writing skills.

It is only lately, in these past few years, that I’ve come to realize my mother taught me not only to write but also to be a writer. That I had the basic technical knowledge I accepted, though truthfully I credited most of that skill-building to Pat Kelly, my beloved high school English teacher. I have used this skill, sprouted from mastery of the five-paragraph essay, to build my entire career.

If we were in conversation together and you mentioned that you needed a speech or a press release or a fundraising plan or something similar, I would not hesitate to offer my service. I would, and with confidence, assure you that I could use words to extract sense from a hairball knot or to compel the stingiest of donors to open her wallet.

But if you were to say, “I’d like to invite a writer to speak at our next meeting,” I would pause to think what writers I know. I would think of friends and acquaintances I could call on your behalf, writers who would be perfect for your audience and venue. I might think, “if only my mother were still here.”

Yet I have been invited, as a writer, to speak on Sunday, to give a writer’s perspective on John’s resurrection story. I’ll be addressing a group of adults, many of whom are real writers, most of whom probably have more Gospel study experience in the past year than I have in a lifetime, a few of whom knew my mother, the writer, and me as her daughter, the artist.

Yes, it is a surprising turn of events, isn’t it? Surprising, panic-inducing, intimidating. Pick a word, any word; they’ll all work.

I’m in the final countdown, hours ticking away until I step to the podium. As the words keep rolling around in my head, waiting for their final polish on paper, I’m pestered by the psycho Tsetse flies. What, or who, is a writer, anyway? What qualifies me to speak on this topic?

Despite coming to believe that I might call myself a writer, despite the fact that I am, as Bernard would tell you, a certificate-holding Sunday school teacher with real paper from the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd to prove it, I do feel a bit like an imposter, a bit ill-suited to this particular role, like a child playing dress-up in my mother’s big peau de soie stilettos. My mother, the preacher’s daughter, was the writer; I am just the writer’s daughter.

Oh, speaking of that writer and thinking of her preacher father (the one whose favorite Bible character, by the way, was Nicodemus) I realize I owe you the rest of the story, or at least a suitable resolution to the conflict. What self-respecting storyteller would leave that thread hanging, a preposition at the end of a sentence?

My grandfather, like so many other parents, wanted for his daughter the one thing that he thought would bring her happiness and also be a fitting path for her future. His desire for her to follow music, I think, was rooted in love, as is often the case in parents’ wishes for their children. It must have been true in this particular story because, over time, they made up, my mother the writer and her father the preacher.

Beyond the relationship between father and daughter, in addition to that essential love, they had other things that tied them together. The preacher, you see, was also a farmer and a small engine repair genius and a woodworker and a musician who spent his final years making violins and mandolins. The writer was also, always, a musician who sang in the church choir, and a cook, and a fan of farm-fresh vegetables and an inquisitive student fascinated by the history and mystery of the Gospel writings. Over time these things, the complexity of them, allowed the father and his daughter to grow beyond the pivotal moment when each saw only one dimension, one fundamentally limiting definition.

So it is with all of us, I think. A single talent or affection might define any of us in a single moment, a split second inside a vacuum. I might see you, on a given day, as only a farmer or a preacher or a lawyer or a cook; but on that same day to someone else you might be different, might reveal a separate part of yourself. In truth you would be both things, and more. So it is with all of us; so it is, perhaps, with God.

Happy week; wish me luck.

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Julia Bryan says:

    Love your writing! Loved your mother! Good luck!

  2. jgroeber says:

    Courageous, appropriate, magical, a gift (to hear you anyway.) These are some words for the wonder soon to come.
    What a gorgeous piece of writing. Such a writer, photographer, cook and Mama, your grandpa and mother must be proud. We could have used you last week at our little muddle of am interfaith service.
    And why is it we see ourselves thusly? It took me 20 years since declaring myself an art major (including an MFA in painting) to call myself an artist. How long before I call myself a writer? I don’t know if I can wait 20 more…

  3. Gigi Bettendorf says:

    Loved, the preacher… his daughter the writer…. and her daughter… the writer, artist, and woman of great talent ❤

  4. Michelle says:

    Your writing is at its best when your mother is involved. Terrific. And I’d wish you good luck, but I expect it’s over now. Hope it went well!

  5. I always enjoy your stories about your mom. I feel like I know here, through you.

    I wish you luck, but not because I think you need it… to honor your request. You are indeed a writer, Jen, a fine one. And you are a good and true person, with a generous heart and spirit. You are talented, compassionate and sharp… the apple didn’t fall from that tree.

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