This past weekend I attended a celebration of life for my mother-in-law, a woman who literally and figuratively wore at least 50 shades of purple throughout her life. I learned some things about her at the party.
I also discovered something about myself.
Sandra Marie Kretchmer was a lifelong resident of Marin County, California. I had only known her as my mother-in-law, and as one of two grandmothers for my children. To me, she was a colorful person, unafraid to express her opinions. She was also colorful literally–she wore purple and decorated her home with purple and sent me clothes in shades ranging from lilac to periwinkle. Through my husband’s eyes, I saw her as the woman who had raised him–and all the inevitable goods and bads in a parent-child relationship. Through my children’s eyes, I saw a grandmother who lived long distance and who they didn’t know terribly well.
Although I knew the basic facts of her life, I had never seen her as a college girl whose friendship was deeply valued by her colleagues for decades to come. I hadn’t thought of her as a pioneering businesswoman who’d earned a degree in the 1950s, when relatively few women did, and later opened two businesses, including one which cleverly allowed her to become a travel agent and tour operator, thus following her passions of international travel and entertaining others, while also serving as a role model for other women. I had never realized she was a pseudo-mother to her daughter’s friends when they were in middle school and high school, giving them a certain flavor of love and support they, for whatever reason, didn’t get from their own mothers. I had certainly never known her as smokin’ hot, but (as my brother-in-law pointed out this weekend), she indeed was, back in the day.
What I realized about myself was that I had been blind, over the course of nearly thirty years, to how multi-faceted she was.
I could come up with a lot of excuses on why this was the case, including the fact that I only saw her a few times a year (at most) because we didn’t live in the same geographical part of the country for most of those years.
But in reality there is no excuse. Shame, shame on me.
What I did was allow myself to see her through a narrow lens.
Even though as a writer I know that characters must be well-rounded to be compelling, just as real people are. (My thesis essay was about this very topic.)
“Understanding the people in our lives is challenging, with their many layers of characteristics – some unique, some universal – intermingled with our own sets of biases and beliefs. But fiction writers need to understand those complicated yet compelling human characteristics and transfer them to the written page, because the world of fiction often serves as a mirror for our real world.”
Even though I teach therapeutic and wellness writing workshops in which I encourage participants to remove their masks and blinders to discover more about their worlds, and their authentic selves. (In one workshop, which was held exactly one year before Sandra passed, I encouraged participants to discover the self by writing about animals. She loved animals, from the baby lions she watched scampering across the savannah to her own three Alaskan Eskimos. She would have loved this writing workshop.)
“Writing about self through animals allows us to connect to the natural world and our ancient selves. It gives us the opportunity to transcend to-do lists, technology, and other manmade obstacles, and it opens us up to authenticity.”
Even though I kind of knew Sandra had always longed to be a writer, too. (As I reflect on Maya Angelou’s famous words below, I can’t help but wonder what Sandra’s untold stories might have been.)
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Many years ago, Sandra lectured me about how life is not a dress rehearsal. I was so smart at the time I didn’t think I needed to pay much heed to what she said. Now, however, I realize–in the same way I learned, after starting a family of my own, how smart my parents really were–that Sandra was a pretty smart cookie too. Perhaps I should have listened more attentively to her.
Life is absolutely not a dress rehearsal.
Don’t get me wrong. I like purple. Always have. I wear it, too.
And although the way my mother-in-law surrounded herself with fifty shades of purple could be viewed as a wee bit eccentric, she was being authentic to her self.
You can’t fault her for that. Moreover, the many shades of purple mirrored the many shades of the woman she was.
As I reflect on the things people said about Sandra Marie Kretchmer at the celebration of her life, I realize that one of her lasting gifts to me was another lesson.
Pay closer attention to the people around me and seek out, perhaps even dig for, their many beautiful facets. Before it’s too late.