I first became aware of New York Times bestselling author Ann Hood after reading her deeply stirring book, Comfort: A Journey Through Grief, a memoir about losing her 5-year-old daughter Grace to a severe form of strep. My interest in her work only grew when I pored over her novel, The Knitting Circle, a work that cuts through many themes including “loss, hope, love, knitting, friendship, and the power of stories in our lives.”
Ann’s latest work, The Book That Matters Most, is a must-read. The story centers on a book club, but the novel is also about the accidental death of the protagonist’s sister and her mother’s suicide one year later. I could not put this book down.
Ann and I met at Spoken Interludes, a literary salon where celebrated and emerging writers read their work and answer questions from a large and enthusiastic audience. If you’ve never been to one of these events, I highly recommend carving out the time, if at all possible. Below, Ann and I talk about grief and resilience. We also discuss how music (the Beatles) and food (plain pasta with butter) have brought her unexpected joy.
Allison: Is there anything you do outside the holidays and anniversaries to keep Grace’s memory alive?
Ann: Beatles music was a passion and love that Grace and I shared. When she first died I couldn’t bear to hear a Beatles song. That’s kind of a hard thing to avoid. But hearing one without her was almost more than I could bear. However, over time, the Beatles have come to comfort me again, and now when I hear a Beatles song, I can see Grace smiling, I can see her frowning, and she trying to understand the meaning behind the song. I can also hear her laughing because she knew and collected all the stories about how the Beatles came to write their music. Recently, I dug out my old albums, and bought a turntable, and was horrified to learn that most of my Beatles albums had somehow disappeared. A good friend, when hearing about that, surprised me by replacing all of them. So now late in the afternoon I pick up my knitting and put on a Beatles album and think about Grace. (To read more about the restorative power of music and the many ways it can boost resilience and memories of loved ones, read my previous blog on the topic here.)
Allison: What one memento reminds you most of Grace?
Ann: Grace’s backpack. She came home from school, from kindergarten, her giant purple leopard backpack dragging behind her. She collected small items from our travels to hang from it. And it contains the schoolwork she had done that day, all the things that were in progress, the night we took her to the hospital and never brought her home.
Allison: How do food, recipes, and cooking factor into the way you celebrate her memory?
Ann: Just a few days ago it was what would have been Grace’s 20th birthday. We celebrated it the way we did every year when she was alive and after she died: eating plain pasta shells with butter, with a side of sliced cucumbers. Although this meal does not reflect that I’m actually a very good cook and Grace was actually an adventurous eater, it was her comfort food. And now it comforts us.
Allison: What do you know now about keeping Grace’s memory alive that you didn’t know when she died?
Ann: So many people urged me to put things of hers away, dismantle her room, kind of hide her away. I just couldn’t do it. I needed pictures and mementos of her around me. So I resisted that advice, and I am so glad I did. I was holding onto certain things instinctively, but that instinct was right. Now when I talk to someone who’s lost a loved one I urge them to keep special things around them. I recently moved after a divorce, and when I unpacked boxes that had been put far back in my closet, I found the shirt I was wearing the night Grace died covered in her blood, her brush with her fine blonde hair strands still on it. At first I was puzzled, and then it came back to me how right after she died the nurse in the hospital told me to never wash that shirt and to keep it forever. I cannot begin to tell you how glad I am that I took her advice.
photo credit: Catherine Sebastian