I recently had the opportunity to read an e-book entitled Entering the Blue Stone, a memoir written by Molly Best Tinsley about the last stages of her parents’ lives. In an upcoming post, I will be reviewing the book. Here, I’d like to present an e-interview I had with Molly over the weekend.
What motivated you to write your parents’ story as a memoir instead of as fiction? And, how did this change your approach to writing?
When a life experience qualifies as “stranger than fiction,” I believe it’s most powerful presentation is as non-fiction. In other words, if a reader might dismiss an occurrence as something the author probably invented, the occurrence will make less of an impact. And I wanted this story to make a strong impact. Both as supporters of an older generation or as individuals facing the inevitable aging process ourselves, we need to look squarely at end-of-life issues. We need to understand the options, the stakes, the decisions that must be made. Most importantly, though, we need to embrace the end-of-life as part of life.
A lot of crazy things happened to my siblings and me as we tried to shepherd our parents through a three-stage continuing care facility in their final years. Some were the product of a seriously flawed system in the facility itself; some stemmed from our ignorance of the end-of-life process; and some were actually natural parts of that process—things it would be futile to try to resist or change. I’m hoping that readers facing this process (as we all are) will take my story seriously and thus become better able to differentiate the craziness!
Entering the Blue Stone was my first attempt at non-fiction, though much of my published fiction borrows from my own biography. Maybe it was because I had to write this memoir—it was a sort of personal catharsis—that it felt easier to create. And because putting life into words has always been one way I cope with it, I kept a journal during the years we were caring for our parents. So when I sat down to actually craft the narrative, much had already been written; and the material had an immediacy that I hope the final story preserved.
How did your family respond to your book? Did you seek their consent or blessing in some way?
My sister, the lawyer, read the book twice and loved it. We’re very different in our approaches to life, and she tends to remember issues and ideas more than specific details. She was actually grateful to have the experience preserved in its concreteness. For ultimately the story affirms the human condition as both comedy and ordeal.
To be honest, I have yet to hear from my brother about the book. Because we often felt helpless with regard to controlling or changing our parents’ treatment, I have a feeling that he just doesn’t want to revisit the experience.
Your title conveys a spiritual outlook. Do you have peace your parents are in a better place?
My own spiritual beliefs are in a stage of constant evolution, and so difficult to actually articulate. The title refers to a particular action by my brother—the scientist—which surprised my sister and me, and suggests a spiritual vitality that he had never talked about before—and he hasn’t since. I think my siblings and I all have regrets—there are plenty of things we would have done differently if we’d known in the moment what we knew after the fact. But I can say this: our parents are now where they belong. After rich lives and unfortunately rough deaths, they are at peace and part of the mystery of eternity. And this may sound odd, but I can also say that I am in a “better,” more expanded, and perhaps more humbled, place because of their deaths.
Is there anything in the book you regret sharing?
Is there anything you had to leave out (perhaps due to word count) that you’d like us to know about your parents?
Tony, that would be a book in itself! But here are some details that might flesh out the abbreviated portraits in the memoir. By the way, it wasn’t word count that nixed them so much as the need to stay on topic. My sense of memoir is that it should be very focused, topic driven—writing it was like pulling a single strand from a thickly braided rope.
My parents met at a summer resort in the Pennsylvania Poconos. My mother, the daughter of an immigrant from Spain, had finished her freshman year as a non-resident scholarship student at Barnard and was working for a vacationing family as a baby-sitter. My father, the son of a Brooklyn physician, was between his sophomore and junior years at Princeton, and staying in his family’s summer house. Somehow they struck up a conversation in a candy shop. Unfortunately, I never asked who spoke first and what they said. I do know my mother was one of those “most likely to succeed” types, whereas my father was shy; so I suspect she was the more vivacious and aggressive. Without question, they both fell head over heels in love.
Their courtship lasted three years. When my father showed up at the fifth-floor, walk-up apartment in Yonkers where my mother’s family lived, my grandfather would screen himself with the newspaper and grunt monosyllabic responses to my father’s polite overtures.
My mother hinted to me that their premarital romance was passionate but chaste—that she would have been amenable to complete physical intimacy, but my father wanted to do things right. That difference perfectly captures them—my mother, emotional, impulsive, and given to episodes of iconoclasm; my father, rational, deliberate, faithful, and playing by the rules. As happened in many relationships of that generation, the longer they were together and the more they merged, the more polarized they became—my mother doing the emotional and interpersonal work on behalf of both of them, my father keeping the finances, earning the living, and working hard to achieve advancement. Even when his 24/7 military responsibilities absorbed too much of him, the word was that he was doing it all for my mother, and the four children that came along at planned intervals.
Despite their diametric differences, my parents forged a powerful bond in the process of unmaking then remaking their home every couple years. Neither had strong friendships with other adults, and moving all over the world, we hardly ever saw members of our extended family. As Entering the Blue Stone shows, the family created its own world. Meanwhile, there was the constant pressure on all of us to present a flawless front. For if an officer can’t control his own family, how is he effectively going to lead his troops? Thus life became a performance—we acted out the drama of the perfect family. When Parkinson’s disease then Alzheimer’s struck my parents, it’s an understatement to say that no one had any idea what to do.
Thank you, Molly, for devoting your time to this interview. I really appreciate your work and wish you the best in your coming ventures.