In 1995 Ilene Beckerman wrote and illustrated a charming memoir called Love, Loss, and What I Wore. It captured her life according to outfits worn at key moments, from the Brownie Scout uniform Beckerman was sporting when she went off to camp at age 7 to the dress-up clothes her granddaughter favored decades later. In 2008 Nora and Delia Ephron turned this “time capsule of a woman’s life through clothes” into a successful play of the same name.
I thought of Beckerman and her book this week as I read several new memoirs that explore — each in its own vivid way — the significance of life, death, and what I’ll call The Aftermath.
Mom’s List: A Mother’s Life Lessons to the Husband and Sons She Left Behind by St. John Greene is an extended eulogy to Englishwoman Kate Greene, the author’s wife, who died of breast cancer in 2010.
The couple already knew trauma well: Their first child, Reef, was diagnosed with cancer at age 2, and their second son, Finn, was born two months prematurely. When the vivacious Kate realized her illness was terminal, she began to jot down simple aspirations for her children: “Look for four-leaf clovers.” “Take them for walks at Priddy Pools [Kate’s favorite beach].” “Always kiss hello and good-bye.” Kate’s list guides and comforts St. John as he stumbles through widowerhood and grief. This sentimental but sincere account was a bestseller in England (titled, of course, Mum’s List).
Journalist Susan Spencer-Wendel spent her final year living with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), a disease that slowly robs its victims of muscle function. Trapped in her body but with her mind still alert, Spencer-Wendel used her right thumb — the last digit she could control — to tap out Until I Say Good-Bye: My Year of Living with Joy.
In it the mother of three children ages 7 to 15 describes her poignant last efforts to travel the world and stay close to her family and community. Ceding control and reconciling oneself to fate were lessons learned all too early in Spencer-Wendel’s life; thanks to her determination, it’s not too late for them to shed light on our own.
A third offering in this strangely flourishing genre — my editor insists on calling it “left-behind lit” — is David Rakoff’s, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish. On top of churning out quirky books such as Fraud, Half Empty and Don’t Get Too Comfortable, Rakoff worked in radio, TV and film; he died of cancer last year. Like its polymath author, Love, Dishonor defies easy categorization. But it’s safe to say it’s a novel in verse — and a satisfying reminder that words left behind can be reassuringly instructive to those contemplating the years ahead.
What single piece of advice would you share with your loved ones?