When You Learn Your Mother Was a Serious Writer Only After She’s Gone
Michael Bourne Remembers His Mother, Nancy Bourne, Author of Spotswood, Virginia
In March 2021, my mother, Nancy Bourne, a lifelong nonsmoker, died of lung cancer. Two weeks before that, though, as she cycled in and out of hospital wards, she was on her laptop sending off a flurry of query letters to literary agents asking for their help in selling her first novel. Six months before that she learned that another book of hers, a collection of short stories titled Spotswood, Virginia, would be published by a university press. In fact, in the last decade of her life she wrote dozens of short stories and published 35 of them.
But perhaps what’s most remarkable about my mother’s late-life literary renaissance is how few people knew about it. It wasn’t a secret, exactly. She belonged to two writing groups and took numerous creative writing classes and workshops. But outside a tight circle of family members and writing friends, she rarely talked about it.
Even I knew only part of the story. She had told me that, “just for fun,” she was writing a novel about the colonial-era poet Anne Bradstreet, and ten years ago she shyly let me know when she published her first story in an online literary magazine. Otherwise, I was in the dark like everybody else. I knew she was writing, and we talked often about books and writers we liked, but, frankly, I figured fiction was another retirement hobby, like the hiking club she belonged to and the birding trips she took with friends.
Man, was I ever wrong. I didn’t realize just how wrong I was, though, until I read her story collection. It’s good. Really good. The stories take place in the fictional Southern mill town of Spotswood, Virginia, in the 1950s and 1960s just as the Civil Rights Era is gathering momentum. In story after story, the mostly white, mostly well-meaning characters face crises of conscience as they weigh the loss of the racial privileges they’ve taken for granted all their lives against the moral crime of state-sanctioned white supremacy.
But I don’t think I truly understood the reach of my mother’s literary ambition until after she died and I became her literary executor. My primary job was simple: She’d finished editing Spotswood, Virginia before she died, but someone needed to help guide it into print, which I did in September 2021. But I also wanted to read through her hard drive, to see if there was another book in there the world needed to know about.
Her short stories vary widely in quality, as you might expect from a writer still learning her craft, but the very last story she wrote, “Somewhere a Phone is Ringing,” a frankly autobiographical portrait of a woman facing down a terminal cancer diagnosis, is a small masterpiece of emotional acuity. Without a hint of sentimentality or special pleading, the story offers the reader an unsparing look at how it feels to know you’re going to die when you’re not ready to go.
Other stories are less successful, and I decided she’d chosen well when she assembled her published collection. But more even than the stories themselves, I came away impressed by how she went about writing them. In my own apprentice period, I spent years rewriting the same mediocre stories, hoping to somehow sew silk purses out of literary pig’s ears. Not my mama. She wrote quickly, almost casually, borrowing liberally from her life and from the news. If she went river-rafting, she wrote a story about people on a rafting trip. If anti-Muslim bias was in the headlines, she found a way to work that into a story. And with every story, she got a little bit better, became a little more sure of herself.Men underestimated my mother all her life. Women, too, but mostly men. Of course, she didn’t make them do that. They did that all by themselves.
In the end, I felt I was reading a writer at the verge of finding her own voice and subject. If she’d started ten years earlier, or lived another ten years, I have no doubt she’d have a small shelf of books to her name. Give her a few more years, and a good number of you reading this now would have one of her books on your shelves at home.
Yet I missed all this. I’m a writer and she was my mother and I had no idea. All those years I spent yammering about my own writing career and I never twigged that I was speaking with an equal—no, in all likelihood, a more talented colleague. I can’t stop feeling as though I failed her. I underestimated my own mother, and because I did, I missed a crucial piece of who she was and who we could have been for one another.
But a year later, as I mark the second Mother’s Day without my mother, I’m starting to wonder if my failure—though all too pigheadedly real—can be entirely laid at my feet. Ever since she died, I’ve been struggling to reconcile the egoless way my mother sought criticism and endured wave after wave of rejection with her curious secrecy about her literary ambitions.
After all, I was yammering on about my writing life all those years. When I published a story, she could have said, Oh that’s great, I published something last month, too. Or she could have shared her experiences with rejection, a topic we were both all too intimately acquainted with. Some of her writer friends have suggested that she didn’t want me to feel she was competing with me, and I’m sure that is part of it, but then she didn’t talk about her writing with many other people, either.
I’m starting to think that’s just how she operated in the world. She had a law degree and two graduate degrees in English, one focusing on Henry James, the other on Anne Bradstreet. She taught high school, raised three children, ran a pottery studio and school that still exists, and retired as a partner in a law firm. But if you met her, you wouldn’t know any of that. She was a cheerful, chatty woman with a Southern accent who was very good at asking questions about you.
As a result, men underestimated my mother all her life. Women, too, but mostly men. Of course, she didn’t make them do that. They did that all by themselves. But I do think it’s part of the reason she was able to get so much done. They never saw her coming until she’d left them in the dust.
It pains me that I underestimated her, too, that I fell into the same dumb trap. But unlike all those other guys, I’m also her son. I may not have known her as a writer as well as I would’ve liked, but I knew her as a son knows his mom, seeing her week after week in the stands at Little League games, arguing with her over umpteen school and work and romantic choices, and more recently, seeing her shower love on her grandchildren, including my son.
And I still have her work. I’ve begun, very slowly, very quietly, looking for a publisher for her unpublished novel, the one about the poet Anne Bradstreet. Even if I never find one, it will be one last project we can work on together.