Tributes, private and public.

It’s been over a month since I last updated my blog, which is as long as I’ve had to go without posting something new since I started. This wasn’t my preference, of course, but sometimes real life intrudes… and sometimes it does so with a vengeance. My previous post pretty much sums up the basics of what happened, but as is usually the case the devil is in the details, and I’ve had a lot of details to consider over the past month (and a lot more to come).

As for the blog, the problem for me has been a tricky one, the more so because I can’t fully explain its cause: I’ve been having a hard time figuring out how to start back up again. This has nothing to do with writing per se; I’ve been doing some work on Grayshade, my agent will be starting to shop Icarus and non-hardcover rights for The Third Sign in the next couple of days, and in general terms I’ve been writing a good deal. Yet I’ve felt out of sync with the blog, knowing it needed attention but not inspired enough to attend to it. What I haven’t been able to figure out is why.

I’ve been fortunate in my career never to have to face a really bad case of writer’s block. Oh, I’ve had some stretches where the sentences weren’t flowing easily, and some times where the paragraphs just didn’t fit together right, but this is something every writer encounters at one time or another. You have to bull your way through the best you can and wait for inspiration to return; if it does often enough, you’ll be on your way to a long and successful career. No, what writers truly fear is being blocked: unable to sense in their usual unique ways, crafted half by experience and half by instinct, which sentence should flow from the next… and why. I wasn’t facing exactly this with the blog, but something like it, and the more I tried to think of something witty or profession-altering the less able I was to create anything coherent. So finally I sat down and thought long and hard about what exactly was bothering me… and then looked at that aforementioned blog entry, the one which “sums up the basics,” and realized the problem.

I hadn’t come clean.

Or, to be more precise, I hadn’t come clean as a writer, in public, about the impact of my mother’s passing. Privately I’ve had the opportunity to speak to family and friends, to talk about the experience with colleagues and professionals, and to settle my understanding of things in my own mind. Yet on the public level something has felt unfinished, and I’ve come to realize that I need closure on that level as much as on any other. So I’ve decided to post the eulogy I wrote for my mother’s funeral. I haven’t made this decision lightly; I have never been a fan of the typical confessional blog, where personal details battle it out with obscure insider jokes on a daily basis, both because I don’t find it particularly interesting and because I can’t imagine anyone else would either. (And there’s that whole “nobody else’s business” thing, too.) But the death of my last living parent has changed my perspective in a number of ways, not least that sometimes the personal is and should be public, even when it refers to a painful reality.

It’s quite possible that posting a eulogy really isn’t a big deal to anybody else, and since few of you knew my mother personally it’s even more possible that none of what’s written here will resonate. But what the confessional poets were most right about was the importance of truly felt emotion, and if any of this strikes an emotional chord with a reader I’ll be glad. Even if it doesn’t, I think it will help me get back to the business of writing in a public forum, and that will certainly have value. And besides, in some sense I wish more of you had known my mother. To the extent this makes that a little more possible, it will have served a good purpose. So my thanks for your indulgence here; I’ll get back to the business of discussing the writing life soon.


Carolyn A. Wilson was born on April 6, 1936. She passed away on October 21, 2009. In our society we have a tendency to focus on these dates as the important ones, the moments which we can register, list and record. We prefer the graspable, the provable, the measurable. But of course, in the large scheme of things these dates are relatively arbitrary measures. What matters is the space in between the endpoints, the time and place in which life is actually lived. What matters is the life itself.

Summarizing the impact of this life, of any life, short or long, is a difficult enough task. Everyone touches the path of another at some point, and the significance of that interaction can neither be minimized nor fully represented. Summarizing my mother’s life, therefore, seems to me exponentially more difficult. What can I say to encapsulate a life so varied and, in one way or the other, so rich; I, who was not even there for the first half of that life? I was not there, after all, when my mother was born in Jersey City to Frances Zoffer and Walter Bliss in the midst of the Great Depression and the lead-up to World War II. I did not see my mother grow up during the forties, welcoming a younger sister into the fold as she did so; I was not present when she learned piano from her father, cooking from her mother and grandmother, love and care from them all. I was not at her bedside when she suffered from serious childhood illness, nor was I in the classroom to see her earn her persistent reputation as “smartest kid in the class.” I did not see her grow into a poised, intelligent young woman with a superlative high school record and a list of extracurricular activities which seemed to grow longer every passing week. I was not there to comfort her when she cried at home during prom nights, left there by young men who were afraid to ask her to go, convinced that she was out of their league. I was not sitting with her family when she gave the valedictory address in high school, nor when she graduated from Montclair State; I was not in the first classroom in which she stood as a teacher, nor the last one in which she sat as a graduate student.

And I was not in the audience when she took to the stage for the first time, when she performed in shows like Light Up The Sky, and, of course, The Sound of Music; those days which were, as she would later describe them, the best of her life. I did not walk with her and her nieces to the store, or help her mourn the loss of her father, taken suddenly and too soon by a heart attack on one fateful evening. I was not on the bus the day an accident would put her acting career on permanent hold. I was not in the church when she married Donald D. Wilson, himself a teacher with wit, charm and more than a touch of eccentricity. Nor was I present when the new couple made their first plans for a new residence, and, perhaps, a child or two. All of these things happened…but I was not there to see them, as many of you were.

No, my time with my mother began on the 16th day of September in 1972, another easily recordable, list-able, measurable date, when I came into the world in New York City. And so I did experience the second half of my mother’s life with her. I looked around as she rolled me in a stroller around the campus of St. John’s University in Queens, where my father received his doctorate—the same school where I, over thirty years later, now teach as an associate professor. I did move with her from Staten Island to Stirling, New Jersey, where every night in our kitchen I learned how to conquer what we called the “Math Monster” through a combination of food, flash cards, and a lot of laughter. As my father pursued his dream of academic success I saw her enter the corporate world, working at the cutting edge of computer technology, and, as ever, helping people from disparate disciplines come together to work as one. I moved with her and my father to Connecticut, my home state; walked with her to and from school, from third grade through eighth, chatting about all things from politics to philosophy, from education to the most complicated and mysterious subject of all: girls. I saw her rise through the ranks of several companies, handling employees and superiors with the same blend of grace and tact she brought to all her endeavors. I enjoyed the food she cooked for me and my friends, playing our games, music and sports with equal vigor as she watched our activities with quiet enjoyment. I saw her exasperated expressions at my less than exemplary high school work ethic, and her equal pride at my graduation from high school, then college, then graduate school in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

And I sat with her as we mourned the loss of her mother, then later my father, his life senselessly taken one weekday morning in November on a rain-slicked road. I nodded as I watched her career come full circle as she began work at a private high school, first as an assistant to the head of school, then as a teacher and head of the drama department; laughed as she recounted her frustrations with the everyday bumps and bruises of the teaching life; and smiled as she became, just as she had everywhere else, a source of wisdom and picture of grace under fire. I celebrated successes and failures in my academic, musical and creative careers with her; shared the joy of my marriage with her; handed her my baby daughter, her only grandchild, who lay in her arms in peace. I tried to process with her the diagnosis of a dreaded disease; watched her take the course of that disease with some good days, some bad; and stood helpless as it finally took its toll. And in the final days, we laughed some, cried a lot, and spoke our fill. Last of all, I held her hand and shared her presence; and I watched her go.

This was my mother’s life as I understood and experienced it. It may be similar or different than what you knew of her; and your memories of her, many of which I have heard over the past few days, are no less real than mine. She touched all of us in some way, some more deeply than others, but always with class and grace, and always intending the best for all with whom she came in contact. In Shakespeare’s late play The Winter’s Tale, itself a story of parents and children, one of my mother’s favorite monologues might best summarize her story:

What you do
Still betters what is done. When you speak, sweet,
I’d have you do it ever: when you sing,
I’d have you buy and sell so; so give alms;
Pray so; and, for the ordering your affairs,
To sing them too: when you do dance I wish you
A wave o’ the sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that; move still, still so, and own
No other function. Each your doing is
So singular in each particular,
Crowning what you have done i’ the present deed,
That all your acts are queens.

In a very real sense, all my mother’s acts were queens. And though she left such acts behind on October 21st, 2009, her legacy of great accomplishment, good humor and sound counsel remains. Hers was a life well lived. And I, left behind, can only give these words in tribute. I loved her, and I will miss her.