Anne-Marie Oomen is an essayist, memoirist, poet, playwright, and educator who is the author of seven books. Not only is she a late bloomer whose first book was published when she was 53 years old, her most recent book titled As Long as I Know You: The Mom Book, has won the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Sue William Silverman Award for Creative Nonfiction. The book focuses on the troubled relationship Anne-Marie held with her mom as her mom entered dementia, and how, as Anne-Marie began to lose her mother, they somehow, in awkward and comic ways, found each other. It is a compelling read for any adult grappling with a living elder who is challenging and difficult to begin with, then add the lethal combination of dementia and defiance to the painful mix.
IN THIS EPISODE, YOU’LL HEAR ABOUT THINGS LIKE:
- What it has been like for Anne-Marie to be a “late bloomer” who wrote her first book at 53 years old.
- The ways Anne-Marie came to understand her mother better over time.
- The important insight Anne-Marie gained from a trauma-broken teenage girl with an anxiety disorder.
- The story behind the title “As Long as I Know You.”
SOME QUESTIONS IRENE ASKS ANNE-MARIE:
- Did your mother eventually grow to accept you, including your non-compliance regarding her desires for your religious life?
- What was the affirmation you received from your mother that you had not hoped for or expected in any way?
- What have you learned about the underlying issue of elder care in the USA that you would like to share with our Grief and Rebirth Podcast audience?
Watch the episode here
Listen to the podcast here
Anne-Marie Oomen: Nice Mother-Daughter Stories Are A Dime A Dozen; Pain-In-The-Ass Mother-Daughter Stories Are The Ones That Grab Us: How Humor And Compassion Grew Belatedly Between A Mother And Daughter Who Didn’t Much Like Each Other
I am delighted to have this opportunity to introduce all of you to essayist, memoirist, poet, playwright, and educator, Anne-Marie Oomen, who teaches non-fiction and poetry for the Solstice Master of Fine Arts and Creative Writing Program at Lasell University. Anne-Marie, who writes, thinks, and reads in a small shed on her remote property in Northern Michigan, is the author of seven books. Not only is she a late bloomer whose first book was published when she was 53 years old, but her most recent book titled As Long as I Know You: The Mom Book has won the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ Sue William Silverman Award for Creative Nonfiction.
The book focuses on the troubled relationship Anne-Marie held with her mom as her mom entered dementia and as she began to lose her mother, they somehow, in awkward and comic ways, found each other. It is a compelling read for any adult grappling with a living elder who is challenging and difficult, then add the lethal combination of dementia and defiance to the painful mix.
I am looking forward to talking with Anne-Marie about being a late bloomer whose first book was published when she was 53 years old. Bravo for the way she came to understand her mother over time, how the book was written from a place of knowing and not knowing, the underlying issue of elder care in the United States, and the healing process for both Anne-Marie and her mother. Their tender and touching story will surely provide us with meaningful new insights. Anne-Marie, welcome to the show.
Thank you, Irene, for having me. It’s an honor to be here.
I’m humbled that you say that. Thank you so much as Thanksgiving comes to us. Let’s start by having everyone get to know you a bit and your background. You grew up as the eldest daughter on a working farm with parents who were devout old-school Catholics. Please tell us about your childhood relationships with your dad, your siblings, and especially your mom.
Thank you for that opportunity. For the readers, imagine a Northern Michigan farm of about 200 sprawling acres, barns, outbuildings, animals, fields, harvest, and the whole thing. It’s a classic Midwest childhood. From the outside, it looks pretty idyllic, but it wasn’t. I was very close to my father. He was a quiet man with immense intelligence, but he never finished high school. He always regretted that. It was a deep flaw he felt that he could not finish. He became an avid reader and a deep thinker. We argued intellectually, never with animosity. He was a man who accepted and respected that I had a unique personality, and he was charmed by it.
In contrast, my mother had huge expectations of my behavior and my thinking. She wanted something of me that I could not give her. She wanted a more loyal, biddable, and pliant person. That was not in me. She didn’t know how to bend that, and it frustrated her. We’re on a farm. My siblings and I are an unruly bunch. We are raised at a time when kids are expected to help with the harvest, but my parents were busy trying to run this farm and survive.
We were often left to our own devices, and we also had these times to wander in the woods and get into trouble. They grew up to be incredibly smart, hardworking, and creative people but very different from me. They embrace the land, farm, and agricultural world. I didn’t know where I fit. For a while, being raised in a Catholic family, there was this line where for those big old families, there’s always one for God. I thought for a while, “I should be a nun.”
I can still relate to what you’re saying.
I sum it up by saying I grew up in this loving, agrarian family, but I was not a good fit for them and they were not a fit for me. There lies the conflict of my life.
Let me ask you something off the cuff. Tell me if my perception is incorrect, but it sounds to me like you had your father’s intellect. It sounds like that’s probably why he got such a kick out of you, even though you weren’t exactly living the party line and did not answer your mother’s needs. That probably came out of her childhood or whatever her circumstances had been.
He was amazed to have a daughter who wanted to speak of ethics, justice, and even biblical statements. We would sometimes argue about it, and that threatens my mother. It was not in her line of thinking what I should be.
You weren’t living her script for you.
It is a smart way to say it.
I can relate and cannot resist asking you about your being a late bloomer because I am, too, whose first book was published when you were 53 years old. What inspired you to become a writer, and would you like to share with us about your lengthy trajectory to finding your true purpose?
I was a late bloomer in a lot of things. It took me a while to figure things out. I always liked scribbling, keeping journals and enjoyed reading. I eventually became a teacher of English and Drama. I loved nurturing young people. I enjoyed that career. When my first marriage failed, that was a time of immense reassessment of what you thought was the love of your life and the deepest commitment of your life.
Was he more of someone who fit in with the script?
Not exactly. He was another artist, and that didn’t work.
It’s out of the box.
I had to reassess everything at that moment, and I wanted to. I did realize I had always loved writing. I used the last bit of money I had and went out to buy what was called a video writer, which was a very early board processor. I started taking classes, going to conferences, and trying to learn about what a literary community was and began that slow journey.
It was slow because I had bills to pay, a house, and I was on my own. It took me twenty years to gain both the experience, hone the skills, and develop the dream into manifestation. This is what I want to say to people. It’s never too late to start. It’s never too late to follow a dream or even part of a dream, and maybe the late blooms are the ones that we savor the most.
It certainly gives us a reason to keep on going. You don’t finish early with anything else to do. You extend it.
The blooms keep coming if you stay open to it and you have a dream. The nature of it is I knew this was a concrete dream. This came to me so clearly that this is what I loved. Even though it didn’t discount my love and my passion for teaching, it honed in the creative elements that I had tried to nurture in my first husband.
Instead, you nurtured them in yourself. Let’s talk about your mom and your difficult relationship with her. You want to describe how you came to understand her better over time, and you gained this important insight from a trauma-broken teenage girl with an anxiety disorder. Do you want to tell us about that?
If you met my mother, you would’ve enjoyed her. She’s a lovely woman. She had immense capacities, was friendly, and warmhearted but was deeply troubled, and our relationship was troubled as a result. She was high-strung. She even acknowledged that she had at that time what she called nerves, “I have nerves.” That was the term she used. She had moods and was short-tempered. I didn’t know when it was going to come, and it was difficult.
Years later, I’m teaching a student who has trauma. We are talking about her trauma, and she says, “When I’m anxious, I can’t help lashing out. I feel this anger gush and explode out of me.” That was exactly what she said. The reason I remember it is because I don’t know what state of mind I was in. We talk about messages sometimes. I felt this connection, “Is it possible that my mother had an undiagnosed anxiety disorder or some form of PTSD?”
As I’m counseling this girl, it’s clicking in my head, “How many things are parallel to that, and how much she had symptoms?” She had suffered the loss of a baby brother. Her home had burned to the ground. Her father had become an alcoholic, and she wouldn’t have thought it was appropriate for her to search for those.
It was ashamed to seek help in those days. In my world, I would say she was filled with unresolved grief.
I wouldn’t be surprised. Her mother was not a sophisticated woman and wasn’t very literate. My mother ended up taking on a lot of the home responsibilities before she was prepared to do them. All of that left me with that sense of final insight that, “Something else was wrong that we were never privy to.”
It fills in the blanks later on as you do your healing. What is the story behind your title As Long as I Know You?
After she was in a home and we’d gone through the familial process, which was always difficult and part of the story too, I read Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal. It’s a beautiful book. In that book, he talks about how we have to grapple with the question of, “What makes life worth living? What gives it value?” He finally gets up the nerve to ask his father this question, and his father says, “If I can sit in my recliner, eat chocolate ice cream, and track a Jets game, I want to continue to live.” He has this information, which interestingly enough because it’s specific, gives him criteria for making decisions. I finally work up the courage to ask my mother, and this is a chapter in the book where she doesn’t like to talk about death.
Was this in the period when you asked her if she was in dementia or approaching dementia?
The dementia was slow for a long time. We knew it was there. There would be confusion, but there would be moments of real alertness and perception, and she would drift away again. We learned times of day when she would be more able to communicate. She didn’t lose language until very late. It was a time when I could still talk to her, but we knew she needed to be cared for. I finally ask her this question, and I expect her to scold me. I know that’s coming.
She looks at me and answers it like it’s a second-grade question. She says, “As long as I know you.” I sat back as something went through me, “Knowing each other, that’s what she values.” It has nothing to do with the state of being, our past, or it’s that she recognizes me and I recognize her. That changed everything for us. It was an astonishing response and the beginning of the real gifts that I began to see finally.
It helped you see her a little better. You realize that she was seeing you. She might not like everything she was seeing, but that was important to her that you were in her life and she saw you were there.
There was also something about the idea that knowing is a sacredness in itself, but being able to recognize someone and be with someone is a holy thing. Those are sacred things.
You had a healing process that took place for both you and your mother. I want to know. Did your mother ever eventually grow to accept you including your non-compliance, regarding her desires for your religious life? I know that upsets her that you were not ideally Catholic.
Although part of the story was she began to understand that I was spiritual, that I wasn’t Catholic. The answer to that question is going to sound sad and bizarre, but as she enters dementia, she forgets our troubles. In that process, she still knows who I am. I’m her oldest daughter, but she forgets the past. That makes her more tender and appreciative.
That allowed me to enter her position to reexamine memory, to see it without her judgment always in place, and to rediscover things about her and myself that were buried in my memory that had always been covered by our antagonism. The whole idea of her deepening vulnerability called out to me in a way that we hadn’t had before. I had nothing to fight.
As I was losing her, we were making this incredible friendship, rebuilding it from that vulnerability, and anticipatory loss. I let go of my animosity toward her. Sometimes, I would even be able to pray with her, and she would remember those prayers. They were cellularly ingrained in her. I would be able to see through that to the greater spirituality, beyond the beyond. It was because, in those moments, we would hold hands. We never held hands as children. It was this process of these gaps in her memory escalating and snowballing into openings for me.
Being the storyteller that you are, you were changing the story. The story was changing. The painful story was like, “One edition there, and now we have a new edition that we’re working on over here.”
The process of transformation is very real. You are allowed to resee or revision that process.
You have a story that has to do with accepting that we do our best without always knowing or needing to know when we make a difference. Do you want to tell us about that?
My mother’s life was not easy. I don’t think she felt a lot of confidence in herself. She was sensitive to shame and to what others thought. All of that triggered her anger and anxiety. She always worries. The biggest thing was that we would bring shame to the family because we were an unruly bunch of five kids and her foster kids.
In those days, my parents also were considerate of what other people thought.
It was a huge and powerful community echo that you had to honor, especially where the church was involved. Here’s the thing, she did truly love us. I don’t think we always made her happy. If she had lived now, she might have been the woman who did not have many children, or maybe not at all. She loved us. Right alongside the fears, anxieties, and nerves, she was also bringing us some gifts.
They were masked for a while, but she was trying to do her best. Love drove her to attempt that. She did what she had to raise a family to be good people, and she succeeded, but I don’t think she never fully understood that. This is a metaphor I like to think of in terms of my own healing. It’s like I’m in the dark hallway. I’ve come out of a room, and I have to find the light switch. Even though we were troubled, that love is she’s doing her best when she didn’t know what she was doing. That’s like switching the light on, coming in touch with that. It’s like finding that light.
The light went on for you to understand that, and it allows for acceptance and forgiveness.
That is the real story. She is doing the best that she could so that I could make room for some good for her.
It allows you to heal, and that’s beautiful. Another question I had was this. What did you learn about how the universe works, and what was the affirmation you received from your mother that you had not hoped for or expected in any way? That was the gift that she gave you towards the end.
I’m not sure which chapter specifically you are thinking about.
Didn’t she tell you something about honey or she called you a name or affection? Do you remember the one story I’m referring to?
Yes. Thank you for reminding me.
You can see, I read your book.
This was right at the end of COVID. We had not seen each other. We had not been present to each other. Believe it or not, she lived a long life. She was 99. It was April 2020, and I drove down on these empty highways to the two hours to where her facility was where they had been in lockdown for literally two months.
I brought her a little thing. We had to talk through the glass, and the aide was trying to help us. It was such an awkward conversation because my mother didn’t understand the glass. She kept staring at me. She would nod. I would say what I wanted the aide to tell her, and the aide would repeat it. I know many families suffered through this same situation that was a horrible time not to be able to touch them.
I told her I loved her, wished her a happy birthday, and realized it wasn’t going to work. She never said my name. I thought, “This is it. She doesn’t know me.” I turned away and was ready to leave, and she calls out loud enough for me to hear her through the glass, “Thanks for coming, honey.” No one calls me honey. I don’t let people call me honey, but she has always called me honey. Even though she didn’t say my name, she recognized I was a member of the tribe. I was her family. Time disintegrates. At that time, time goes away. We are standing fully inside the universe and was filled with gratitude for that.
Was that one of the last things you heard her say to you?
That was one of the last things. A few weeks before she died, she must have been entering active dying. That was in April 2020 and completed this phase of the journey in November 2020. Can I tell another anecdote?
You’re welcome to, please do.
The aides had figured out by then how to use these little tablets to get on FaceTime, I didn’t have to drive down and talk through glass. I could at least put the FaceTime on and she could get on. I could talk to her, look at her face, and study her. Most of the time, they were five-minute conversations that were one-sided and she did not respond. One time, the aide got us connected and said she’s been talking. I said, “I’m ready.” She wanted to plan Christmas dinner in the way that we had planned Christmas dinner for years until we weren’t together anymore.
My first impulse was to correct her and say, “Mom, it’s COVID time. We can’t come.” I realized I’m going to go with this. I’m going to pretend this can happen. She said she wanted to assign dinner, assignments of food menus, what my brothers would bring, what I would bring, and what the in-laws would bring. She went through the whole thing, “Who brought the shrimp? Who brought the ham? Who brought the mashed potatoes?” My sister had to bring potato rolls because she was the only one that could make them right.
All of this was clear as a bell. I haven’t heard her say complete sentences for years, but not a whole conversation. The last thing I said was, “Mom, what are you going to bring?” Without a trace of irony, she says, “Angel food cake.” It was like the switch turned off, and that was her final gift. Her bossy in-command plan the meal and feed the family was her final gift to me. It’s something I hold so dear. After that, all was silence. She was doing her work with the dying.
I relate to that because our readers know my story. The night before he died, my husband said to me, “I’m lucky and thankful to have you in my life” and the next day was the accident. I often tell people that it was important to you that you heard these things from your mother. I often tell people, “Be careful with what they say to each other.” It could be the last thing you ever hear, and that stays with you.
What good advice.
You decided to finish the manuscript of As Long as I Know You as part of your grief process. What was that all about?
She died in November. It was horrible because it was COVID. We couldn’t be with her right at the end. Everything was wrong about her passing. Previous to that, I had not been able to finish the manuscript. I started in 2014. I was looking for the ending, and I didn’t want it to end with her death because it was such a cliché, that is not the way to end it, and she did die. I was in grief working hard with a fine therapist.
I don’t want to discount death’s difficulty, but the grief drove me forward back into the manuscript wanting to honor that she had done me and my siblings good. The difficulty of those feelings kept driving me back to the manuscript. I began to feel like she was in the same room with me, observing and approving. My mother’s grief was propelling me toward these revelations about something that was shifting in the chapters. It was almost like she was saying, “Go ahead. You can write this.” It’s hard and true but go ahead.
The expressions were a little trite, but you were finally on the same page together.
Yes, we were on the same page. The grief, as hard as death is and its difficulty, led to shifting our relationship toward transformation. I finished the book at the end of February and sent it to the contest as an act of closure. In this realm, it was simply an act of closure. At that point, I said, “I know this grief is going to have to be integrated into my whole life view, and I’m going to have to treat it as familiar.” I’m not discounting its darkness or difficulty, It became quieter and more companionable at that point.
As you were working it through, it almost became a sweetness because it was a peace and resolution with your mom that you’ve never had before. You’re probably longing for it all your life, and now it finally came.
I had no expectations when I sent it off that it would be recognized at all. It was coming to that point of closure. I want to address what you said about this serenity. When my father died, I felt like it was thunder. Everything about that grief was thunder. When my mother died, as I went through this, the metaphor that kept coming time and again was wind chimes. That grief became more like wind chimes. I’d hear them in the distance.
It’s almost like sweetness, and that can be a beautiful thing. That’s such a beautiful thing because you are very passionate about the underlying issue of elder care in the United States. What would you like to tell all of us about that?
I dedicated this book to my mother, but I also dedicated it to the people in the homes. All of those people who we will be among are living in congregate settings and congregate situations. You and I are robust, but we will be those tender, vulnerable adults, all of them if we are lucky to live long, healthy lives and that will come. The homes are also contained in every nurse, aide, and person who mops the floor and holds your hand. Those workers I believe deeply should be well paid, benefited, well-trained, and should receive the same respect as doctors and lawyers do because they are caring for those of us who, to some degree, may have ways to teach us all about the transition.
Especially when they’re the kinds of people who care about the person and you’re not another dying senior or whatever. I experienced that also when my mother was in assisted living before she passed. She died, we had the funeral, and I had to go up to her apartment in the assisted living. One of the aides came by and said, “I’m here to give Ms. Thelma a bath.” I said, “Ms. Thelma passed.” She was upset, and that touched me. I’ll never forget that. She truly cared about my mom. She was sad to see that she’d gone, even though she took care of all these people who were all going in the same direction.
Those people are the people who are holding our parents’ hands and wiping their faces.
All the other parts.
We have this situation now where elder care is in crisis because we don’t have enough of those kinds of workers, but we also are in a place where we need better facilities. We’re sandwiching these younger generations. They have to caretake their children, but they’re also trying to caretake us. That’s a burden on them as well.
That prevents them from contributing as much as they could and exploring their own artistic and expressive selves in the way that they might. The ideal would be and would’ve been if we could have kept her in her home. Our culture relies on the two-person family income, so utterly that is not an easy thing to do and is often a burden that can’t be overcome. We are going to need to look at as a nation, this whole process of what it means to care for the elders in the same way that we need to look at childhood.
The parents can’t afford to make sure that they’ll be in assisted care one day or all that. It becomes the responsibility of the children who become the caregivers, and that’s difficult.
Part of the book is that tracking the family’s decision-making, which was not easy.
I related all through that when I read your book. There’s another statement you made that you feel strongly that many forms of artistic self-expression not only help us to heal, but they tell us back the story of our healing. I would say that your book is an example of that. Is there anything else you’d like to contribute to that?
I was not remembering what happened between us, but I know that I was looking for and finding a new lens. The lens had to change several times so that I could make meaning out of what had been a difficult past. For me, that lens is language, the art of expression in narrative and story. That’s the, “I had the clay of experience, but I needed to see new shapes taking shape out of that.” Changing the lens allows me to resee what we are.
I’m going to say the lens of anger altered to the lens of forgiveness. Inside that open space of her forgetting, there was an open invitation, and that invitation was to the page and became expressed in my art, which is a memoir. Something like that happens in every single artistic impulse for every single person, woman, or man. There is a discovery from the clay we are given into a kind of revisioning. That revisioning comes from finding that new lens, whatever that is.
If we’re lucky and we’re open to that, there are some people who are not, but those who are open, someone else will express that through music, art, podcast, or whatever that is.
Also, dance or like you finding these incredible ways of bringing healing to people.
That’s true. I see many people who are stuck in their stories instead of wanting to create a new story.
They stay in a narrative of their past, and it’s not a narrative that benefits them anymore. They’re unwilling to rethink. I don’t know if it’s grief or what it is that will shake people out of that, but you have said openness many times in this show, and that’s exactly right. It’s like, “Let us let go of our fears. Let us avoid the walls of our old experiences, and let’s open to some light here.”
I have a little sign in my office that says, “The past is a guidepost, not a hitching post.” Do you have anything you’d have to offer our audience?
I wish I could offer a book, but because it’s the University of Georgia Press, they can’t do that. Anybody who goes to my Facebook Author Page and gives me a way to them, I will send postcards, cards, and whatever they would like to share. That would be my honor.
What kind of postcards?
They’re beautiful postcards of the cover of the book. I can send half a dozen, and that would be surreal if people would have those. People say they’re nice enough to frame, so we’ll see.
It’s because it says, “As Long as I Know You.” There are many things that can be said with that as the heading.
Yes, thank you.
It’s can be a Thanksgiving greeting. It’s a blessing. I’m thankful.
I hadn’t even thought of that, Irene. That’s a great idea.
One other question I have is, why do you believe that joy is a gift?
I had to think about this. Thank you for asking that question because I feel joy is something we continually live inside if we are open to it. It’s a gift because it’s a kind of breath. It is an exchange of oxygen in the body for oxygen in the spirit. Every time we breathe, there’s an opportunity for the simple joy of being alive, that consciousness. That’s why we use breath and meditation. It’s only through joy, however hard or difficult it is. Only through that can we make that transition even more holy and complete the stage of the journey if we embrace joy as our breath, as that great exchange of spirit and body. When the time comes to stop, we simply breathe into a larger universe.
We go into a larger joy. The other thing I also say is, “The more that you heal, the more open you are for joy.”
That’s so true, Irene.
That’s our word open again, but it’s true.
In that larger universe, we become part of the massive, immense breath.
Anne-Marie, your writings are inspired by the deeply personal, the experiences of life, and the richest and pleasure of thinking about the meaning of those experiences. Congratulations on your incredibly well-written, tender, and touching As Long as I Know You: The Mom Book. I thank you from my heart for our meaningful and moving interview.
Irene, I am grateful to you for asking such beautiful, insightful, rich, and tender questions. That doesn’t happen all the time. I’ve had enough interviews.
I’m grateful for the opportunity and also the lens through which you see your life. That is a gift to all.
That means so much. Thank you for that. You gave me a gift. Make sure to follow us and like us on social @IreneSWeinberg on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. If you’re watching on YouTube, be sure to click subscribe below so you’ll never miss an episode. I want to thank you so much from my heart, Anne-Marie. As I like to say, to be continued, many blessings, and bye for now.
- Anne-Marie’s book: As Long as I Know You: The Mom Book
- Anne-Marie’s Website
- Check out Anne-Marie’s Blog
- Connect with Anne-Marie on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram
- The Solstice Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing program
- Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal referenced in this episode
- Anne-Marie Oomen’s Facebook Author Page