I’ve had a writer’s crush on Robin Romm ever since I read her scorching memoir, The Mercy Papers. The book is about the last three weeks of her mother’s life. It is unsentimental and raw, ricocheting furiously between anger, sadness, love, and humor. As the author of Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive, I’m always asked to recommend books on mother loss. The Mercy Papers continually tops my list.
Robin has just published another work and it’s altogether different. It’s called Double Bind: Women on Ambition. Featuring essays written by writers, actors, professors, and CEOs, the anthology explores the complicated relationship women have with professional striving.
In our conversation about grief and resilience, Robin returns to the subject of loss and reveals the most satisfying and empowering way she keeps her mother’s memory alive:
Allison: What one memento reminds you most of your mother?
Robin: This might not be a memento, per se, but clothes remind me of my mom. She had such a love of texture and color. She filled her closets with tailored suits and blazers while mine have vintage dresses and natural fibers, but I get the love of clothes from her.
Allison: Do you have sentimental objects that belonged to her?
Robin: I have an old perfume bottle of hers and a gold necklace she wore when I was a child. The perfume bottle is in a box in the closet and the necklace hangs with all my necklaces in the bathroom.
Allison: Is there anything you do outside of holidays and anniversaries to keep your mother present?
Robin: My mom is always present, especially now that I have a new baby daughter. I think of her a lot—just the way that she would look at me, with a heated sort of love, the way she would call me Petunia or Sweet Pea. The way she read to me, helped me with school projects, encouraged my passions and inserted plenty of her own! I want to transmit that passion and warmth to my own baby, and in that way, I keep my mother present.
Allison: Does anything interfere with your ability to keep your mom’s memory alive?
Robin: Life has a way of moving pretty swiftly and I get busy, like everyone. But I don’t find it hard to think about my mother a little bit, many times a day—even years and years after her death. She was a huge presence in my formative years, and I carry that with me. I used to feel her absence—and even a strange presence—more acutely than I do now. Now, I feel her more diffusely.
Allison: What is the most satisfying way you’ve developed for keeping your mother’s memory alive?
Robin: I think that writing about my mother is the most satisfying way of keeping her alive. Writing is a kind of resurrection.
Allison: Being proactive about remembering loved ones makes you happier. Have you found this to be the case?
Robin: Sure. I think that being a fiction writer and memoirist makes this easier, since I go over and over memories as part of the job.
Allison: What do you know now about keeping the memory of your mother alive that you didn’t know when the loss occurred?
Robin: I really hated when people would say, “Her memory will live inside you,” and all that platitudinous jazz. I wanted my mom to LIVE, not live inside of me like some kind of vapor. And I won’t lie, her memory is a pale substitute for her actual vibrant, opinionated, hard-to-contain self. But, I suppose there is truth to the idea that a person you dearly love will always live inside of you. As I said earlier, I see this in the way that I mother my daughter. My mother is in there—her warmth and intuition, her compassion. And there’s a deeply beautiful quality to this.
Allison: Loss is a great teacher. In what way have you derived greater joy and meaning from life following loss?
Robin: I think that my mother’s prolonged illness and death made me aware of the depth of all kinds of suffering, and more empathic. It also made me able to stare down trauma—both mine and other people’s—because I’m not easily frightened by the pain of others. This emotional gut of steel makes me a brave and avid reader. And I hope, a brave writer, too.