Sarah McColl’s debut book, Joy Enough: A Memoir (Liveright, April 2019), is a crushingly beautiful look at a mother-daughter relationship, written after her mother died of cancer. It’s an investigation into deep grief and what shapes us, but also it’s a study in observational precision and the moments that add up to a life well-lived. Sarah’s book was reviewed in the Rail in our December/January 2018 issue. I sought her out for a conversation for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, I couldn’t put her book down. Secondly, we attended the same MFA program at Sarah Lawrence and shared the same thesis advisor, Jo Ann Beard, and I always felt a deep kinship with Sarah. Finally, I would look for any excuse to converse with her and what better reason than her beautiful book?
Sarah McCollJoy Enough: A Memoir
Rachel Aydt (RAIL): Sarah, I gobbled up your book in one day. Couldn’t put it down. I wish we’d had a workshop together at Sarah Lawrence. I loved hearing you at readings when Joy Enough was still a work in progress. Obviously, this is a book that’s focused on the importance and intensity of the mother-daughter relationship, but it hits the universal nerve of love and loss. When Melissa Clark was interviewing you at your book launch in Brooklyn, she mentioned that her father had died last year, and she was so moved by your book. My stepfather of 28 years died last year too, and the pangs of this first year without him still abound. So, I’m wondering about how grief changes over time for you; the difference of loss insofar as gender goes (mother vs. father influences). This is muddled, but grief muddles everything, doesn’t it?
Sarah McColl: I’m so sorry about your step-father, Rachel. I found grief more clarifying than muddling. The line between what’s important and what’s not, what’s urgent and what can be put off, who you love and who doesn’t matter, all became very defined for me. I was able to make decisions and act based on that new clarity. Which is funny, since conventional wisdom says to not do anything rash in the wake of loss. I don’t totally get that advice. Life upheavals are full of energy and potential, and that seems like it could be a wonderful time to make significant changes.
How grief changes over time is an interesting question, and I don’t have a long view of it yet. But I do know I had breakfast with a friend’s mom recently. She started weeping about the loss of her mother over our chocolate croissants, and then said, “And it’s been thirty years!” I still get seized by a missing. Especially when I have the dreams that she’s alive, and they are so vivid, and then I wake to a reality that is not new but feels devastating all over again.
RAIL: “Seized by a missing” is such a great way to phrase those waves of shock. You can be fine, and then something hits you out of the blue. These old-fashioned light-up Christmas choir mice that my stepdad used to stick in the front yard, so we’d see them when we pulled up for the holidays—their absence was dizzying. Changing the subject, you also explore marriage in your book. It struck me pretty quickly that this was the wrong guy for you—you wrote him so polar opposite to yourself. But more than him being an opposite, it seemed you were out of sync. In your book you say you’ve learned a thing or two… How has your inner guide, if you will, learned to navigate relationships differently?
McColl: I used to think the presence of wham-bam passion and fireworks indicated compatibility. God, can you imagine? So, that was a lesson. Chemistry is important, but so is friendship, so are the rhythms of how two people move through daily life. I used to think this was so banal and unromantic but now I think it’s the height of romance. Do you approach the day with similar, or at least complementary, attitudes? Can one of you make the other laugh about the cockroach infestation or missed flight or flat tire or whatever? Can one of you make the best coffee and the other mix a mean margarita? I mean, that’s romantic. That’s how you create a life. I remember a friend of mine once saying something about the kinds of people who showed up in a crisis and saved the day with a grand gesture, when the most heroic act is showing up every day.
RAIL: If showing up every day is heroism—which I agree that it is—then you were a hero to your mother. You went home to your family’s farmhouse to nurture her back to health, which was incredibly heroic. Two details from these passages haunt me: the look of defeat on your mother’s face after reporting that she lost three pounds—after you’d taken such steady care of her from the kitchen—and the fact that she taught you to use Bell’s Seasoning to cook a chicken. To the end of my days, I won’t see Bell’s Seasoning in a store without thinking of your memoir. One thing that I keep seeing in reviews of your book is how gracefully you pluck beauty from the mundane. I understand that your experience of grief was that it made you feel more alive, so in many ways, it must have amplified those details that add such richness to your writing. As time marches on, do you find it harder to define and capture those moments when you’re at work?
McColl: When you see Bell’s Seasoning in the store you have to buy it! It’s hard to find and such a pretty, little old-fashioned box and design.
You know, the first writing I really fell in love with—the writing that changed my idea of what language could do—was poetry. What I loved was how the world was alive on the page. All you had to do was notice the world and then write it down and then it was like magic—the writing was alive.
There’s this wonderful episode of “On Being with Marie Howe” I’ve listened to a number of times, and listened to once with my mom that last year. She talks about how in the first weeks of her creative writing classes, she bars her students from using metaphors. “To resist metaphor is very difficult because you have to actually endure the thing itself,” she says.
What I think about in that moment you mention with my mother when she reports the weight loss is that blue and white bowl between her knees filled with cherries. I love that bowl so much. I don’t even know why, exactly. That bowl is so vivid to me. It’s so alive, and we were so alive, even as we were both devastated at the news of her weight loss. She’s telling me she doesn’t want to die because she loves me, and what she means, too, is that she loves the world and doesn’t want to leave it. She also loves that bowl, that china pattern, those cherries. We were so there in that moment, so present, beside each other on the couch. That blue and white bowl filled with dark, glossy cherries on my mother’s knees is like waving a flag of aliveness, like the whole world is in that bowl. Does that make any sense?
I really love the physical, sensory details of the world: the smell of tomato leaves; the bowl of oranges on the table; rain on the van roof. So, it’s not really hard for me to capture those details in my writing, per se, because I naturally orient toward them. The work is really before I even sit down, in my waking and walking life, of paying attention, and I’m inconsistent at that. Sometimes I get myopic and depressed and inward focused, and I forget to notice. And I think that’s what I mean about grief making me feel more alive is that I was so hyper vigilant during that time about paying attention to the world, to my mother, to what she said, to our relationship.
But we can’t live in that heightened state all the time, not most of us anyway. That person would be super annoying to hang out with anyway, all like, “Isn’t the world beautiful? Isn’t this amazing?” Tara Brach, the meditation teacher, talks about remembering and forgetting. So, I remember and forget and remember over and over and over again, to pay attention. The other day, for example, I was riding the bus home from therapy, really very much in my own head. I looked out the window and saw a building. The Bank of Hope, it said, which made me laugh, and still makes me laugh, then I’m back in the moment.
RAIL: In reading, and rereading your book, I’m struck by the deep understanding you had at such a young age of your mother’s desires, both met and unmet. Through a child’s eyes, you offer up these observations of both sides of the love coin. The passion and the sorrow. We know, for example, what’s coming down the pike with tender Cowboy Doyle, who I felt enamored of. I think it’s complicated when you’re writing to offer up a sense of innocent understanding, and also capture a full spectrum of adult needs, and loneliness, and problems. You make it look so easy! How much of this understanding was intuitive from a child’s understanding, and how much from an adult looking back?
McColl: The narration is conflated in the beginning of the book, kind of watery and ambiguous in terms of POV. There’s a very close third-person on my mother, and then there’s the first person from me. But in those moments where the narrative is almost from my mother’s point of view, those were things I didn’t realize or know on my own as a child. I gleaned them almost entirely from that Stop & Shop bag of my mother’s letters and diaries I snooped through after her death. I didn’t know about my parents’ sex life, for example—that’s all from her. I have always been a very watchful person, though, so I do remember watching my mother and Doyle on our cross-country drive. I didn’t really know what was going on, but I sensed it in an unarticulated way. Even my brother did. Reading that story, he said, confirmed the ideas he’d had at the time as a five-year-old. My takeaway now is that children have a much clearer and more robust understanding of what’s going on in the lives of the adults around them than adults tend to realize.
RAIL: After the “end of puppy love,” as your mother called it, she urged you to record the lessons you learned from your marriage. You’ve touched on some of the things you’ve learned—that the beautiful mundane things of each day can be the most romantic and rewarding—anything else you’d add? I love how your mother dispensed mini lessons to you about how to be a woman, for example, how you should always smile at a man in the street every day. There’s something aching and completely present around her femininity, and around her sense of self. About her lipsticks curved into shepherd’s hooks. Maybe this deep sense of self is her greatest legacy.
McColl: I think there’s something a bit radical about having a mother who feels entitled to a sense of happiness and fulfillment in her own life. That’s a great model for your children, especially girls, and especially girls who have also been raised to be people pleasers. It validates desire. This is my life! And while her identity was as a woman, I don’t think the way she moved through life is only about being a woman. “I have only one precious life, and it is mine alone,” transcends gender. It’s an attitude of power and centrality and agency. I mean, on the surface, the suggestion to smile at a man in the street everyday sounds silly and possibly idiotic. But in the context of: my daughter feels ignored in her marriage and invisible in her life, it was a way of reminding me of my allure and my power, and a way of re-orienting myself to the center of my life. That’s advice that can be true as much for men as for women.