HER WORK AND MINE

On Wednesday morning, I stand at my kitchen counter and stuff twenty bubble mailers with my new memoir, Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide. I’m in the process of going on a “book blog tour.” I address the envelopes by hand and will take them to the post office later, sending them out to reviewers in the blogosphere because these days a blog tour is one way to publicize your book. This kind of tour requires no taxis, no planes, no hotels, no itineraries—any more than writing today requires a pen and a pad of paper. This blog tour requires only that, for right now, I curl my hand around a black Sharpie and try to make my shaky handwriting legible.

I remember another time, thirty-four years ago, when I addressed cardboard boxes, seventy of them, with a bright red marker—how my hand hurt in just the same way, only more so. Those boxes were addressed to the Special Collections Library at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin, and I had filled them with all my mother’s files from her twenty years as the poet, Anne Sexton: her worksheets for finished and unfinished poems; selected books from her library; her eyeglasses; her typewriter; her checkbook. Into those dusty boxes, I put everything I could think of that the University would need to create an archive there in her name. Everything they would need to create an exhibit of her life as a writer. Everything they would need to aid scholars with their research into her work as one of our nation’s most prominent writers.

My fiancé and I wrapped them all with thick, thick layers of tape, and the next day we drove the first lot of ten, the max that would fit into our VW rabbit, to the post office—only to discover that we had used the wrong tape for boxes that needed to be so heavily insured. They refused to take them and we trudged back home to try another kind of tape. After several trips back and forth to the post office with box after box in the space of four rapidly diminishing hours, it took my tears to convince the postal service to accept our bungled layers of one kind of tape upon another, just before their closing at noon on that Saturday. It would have been comical if it hadn’t been so stressful!

I have been my mother’s literary executor since I was twenty-one, when she committed suicide during my senior year of college. There was a lot of work to be done to make certain that her life’s work was not ignored, mishandled, or squandered, and it is work that continues to this day, in one way or another. And back then, just graduated from college, I had no idea what I would do with my life. I didn’t have a career “path” as did my friends, many of whom were headed for med or law school. So being a literary executor was a welcome sidetrack.

At that time, I knew only how much I loved to fool around with words. I didn’t know if I could really make a living as a writer, the way my mother had. Being the active caretaker of my mother’s poetry was my main job. I enjoyed organizing a book of her letters, arranging for posthumous publications, making certain that her work was well-anthologized—but not used in theatrical or film productions that would exploit her dramatic life. I enjoyed it all, but it was also very stressful.

Nevertheless, it was part of my goodbye to my mother. I wanted to give her that send-off. I felt she deserved the best I could offer because from the point at which I had started to write my own poetry and fiction in my early teens, she had listened to my “literary” efforts with utmost seriousness and encouraged me to explore the world of words. When she died, it was time for me to give back. And over the ensuing years, I learned that if you are a literary executor who is also a writer, you take care of that person’s work just as you would your own.

Later on this Wednesday afternoon, I drive down to the post office with my precious load, just as I did those thirty-four years before. There is a long line, as there always is at lunchtime, and I put my box of twenty mailers on the floor and push it along with my foot as I make my way forward. When I get to the counter, no one questions my technique in addressing the envelopes. I make out the check with gratitude that I have this opportunity—but for myself this time. I realize that though they are not coated in layers of tape laid down carefully and desperately, the mailers today are no less special to me than those boxes back in 1977. I am taking care of my own work at last.

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