We’re so happy to have Rebecca Rasmussen joining us at the Ball today! Rebecca has graciously agreed to give away a copy of her debut novel, The Bird Sisters, to one lucky commenter – stick around and say hello to enter for a chance to win!
Rebecca is the author of The Bird Sisters (Crown, April 12th, 2011). Her stories have appeared in Triquarterly, The Mid-American Review, and elsewhere. She lives in St. Louis with her husband and daughter.
Mother, My Mother
Because The Bird Sisters is based on a family story, I was worried about how my family—namely my mother—would respond to the book. Any good family is obligated to love your book, but they aren’t obligated to like it. I knew my stepmother and father would become my fast, adoring fans. I knew my brothers would marvel at their dorky sister, who had finally written the book she’d talked about for years and years. I knew my husband would appreciate seeing all of my hard work in its bound and deckle-edge form. My mother? I wasn’t so certain. She pre-ordered the book months ago out of love, but…The Bird Sisters is complicated for her – more than it is for me. My grandmother Kathryn, who the story is based on, was her mother.
Until I was a young woman, I knew very little about my grandmother even though I’d spent a great deal of time with her and had even lived with her at one point. I knew that her father was an extremely talented golfer and her mother was lovely and dark, and that my grandmother thought I looked a little like her. I knew that my grandmother tromped through fields and streams when she was a girl, ruining whatever dress her mother had ironed for her, and that she fell asleep midway through television shows with salt crackers on her lap when she was old. I knew that she lost both of her parents when she was a teenager and that she never quite recovered from that loss. But it wasn’t until after my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer, went through the treatments, and went into remission that I got to know her better.
My mother was working a lot then, trying to hold on to a kind of financial stability she had lost a long time ago. I was very young and had no idea what that time was like for her. As I grew closer to my grandmother, I grew a little bit further away from my mother. It seems on this side of the family it isn’t possible to be close to everyone equally. I think it hurt my mother that my grandmother was not only spending time with me nearly every day, but also that she was picking out things like couches and kitchen tables for my new apartment while my mother worked in a school cafeteria. Not that my mother is a shallow person—she isn’t—she just has a long history of trying to survive and those struggles take a toll after a while.
My grandmother and I didn’t work. Every morning, we’d go to breakfast together in Old Town, and it was over our first cups of mountain coffee that questions about her history started filtering into my mind and answers started flowing from her lips. She ended up telling me the story of her parents, their heartbreaks and their joys, as though I were a friend instead of her granddaughter. And then one day she showed me a picture of them at a county fair when they were very young. My great-grandfather Bert and my great-grandmother Tracy were standing under a cardboard moon, looking at each other with a kind of uncontained love that was rare for photographs of that time. I kept measuring their expressions against the story my grandmother had told me. I kept wondering: where did that love go?
A few months later, I went off to graduate school. A month after that, my grandmother fell down in a parking lot and discovered, after many painful tests, that she had a brain tumor. After she passed away that fall, my mother sent me her journals, which we never knew she’d kept. I read them and what I found was indeed heartbreaking, but also something else I couldn’t put a name to.
“This year I’d like to forget Christmas,” she wrote in one entry. “I’d like to throw off all the old yokes and start something entirely new.”
My mother couldn’t bring herself to read the journals, but she wanted them to be preserved and cared for with love and that’s how I ended up with them.
I wasn’t truly hooked until I read this one, a list, which was so sweet and true:
“Things I’ve Always Liked, by Kathryn Sturm –” which began with “the scent of cotton drying in the sun, mud on my feet, honeysuckle twirling up porch railings, my mother,” and ended with “the crinkle of newspaper, the slam of a screen door! Your mother always there.”
I think because my grandmother had lost her mother when she was such a young girl (before she was able to figure out who her mother really was as a person) she had her own mothering difficulties. She wasn’t a woman who gave hugs and kisses easily, who told her children, “You are the most special person in the world and I love you with all of my heart,” —things my mother always told me. She felt those things, I am certain, but she didn’t say them out loud, which in turn made my mother seek them all the more.
Reading The Bird Sisters, my mother said, made her feel that sense of loss all over again, but it also gave her joy. She said she was able to imagine her mother during the happiest time of her life—during my grandmother’s childhood, when my grandmother tromped through creeks and ran after her father on golf courses and sat with her sister watching the clouds and had a spirit of adventure. She said it gave her some peace.
With writing like that, how can you not want to read more? Read on for the story, and don’t forget to leave a comment to be entered in the drawing for a copy of The Bird Sisters! If you just can’t get enough Rebecca (and we totally understand!), visit her website or follow her on Twitter!
The Bird Sisters is a story about two sisters Milly and Twiss and the one summer of their youth that changed the course of their lives forever. If you have a sister, this is a book for you. Or a family. Or a cousin. Or a long-lost love. Or an adventurous spirit. Or a heart of gold. It’s a book for you if you love rivers and hills and fields in bloom. If you love small towns and county fairs and windowsill birdsong. I wrote The Bird Sisters to honor my grandmother Kathryn and her sister Virginia, but I like to think this is a book that honors the memories and complicated histories of all families.