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Christina Baker Kline on Losing Her Mom, Leaning on Her Sisters, and Why Talking About Complicated Relationships Helps

This month’s Q&A on grief and resilience is very special to me. I got to speak with #1 New York Times bestselling author of Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline. Her latest book, A Piece of the World, is out right now. Go get a copy! This fantastic story is about the relationship between the artist Andrew Wyeth and the subject of his best-known painting, Christina’s World.

Christina and I have been friends for more than a decade. We worked together on my second book, Always Too Soon, and it’s her name alongside mine on the cover. Ever since that exciting time, I’ve been in awe of Christina’s writing (she’s also the author of The Way Life Should Be, Sweet Water, Bird in Hand, and Desire Lines) and thrilled to be part of her life.

In our conversation, Christina talks about the loss of her mother and how traveling, purchasing art, and eating cornbread and grits keeps her memory alive. These themes echo the essential lesson in Passed and Present: that being proactive about remembering loved ones drives resilience, sparks creativity, and brings remarkable joy.

Allison: Being proactive about remembering loved ones makes you happier. Have you found this to be the case?

Christina: My mother was a complicated woman, and my memories of her are complicated. I’ve found that actively talking about her with my sisters and father, as often as one of us wishes, helps immensely. It’s really useful to think about her as a whole person, with positives and negatives; it helps me make sense of her legacy.

 

Allison: What one memento reminds you most of your mother?  

Christina:  My mother did something very special with me and my three sisters, which I am now doing now with my three boys: she bought art for us, even before we had homes of our own, when purchasing “real” art was generally beyond our budgets. These weren’t expensive pieces, necessarily — mostly local artists in Maine whose work we admired. But the paintings and pottery in my home that my mother and I chose together, or she picked out with me in mind, are especially resonant now that she is gone. Every piece reminds me of her. (It is perhaps no coincidence that my new novel is about a work of art, Christina’s World, painted in Maine by Andrew Wyeth.)

 

Allison: Where do you keep these pieces of art (in private, out in the open)?  

Christina: I proudly display (and use) the artisan-made bowl and pitcher we found in a craft shop in the Lake District; watercolors, engravings (often of places we went together), and paintings from Maine, England, and other meaningful places hang all over my house.

 

Allison: How do food, recipes, and cooking factor into the way you celebrate the past?

Christina: My mother was born and raised in North Carolina; her favorite regional foods included shrimp and grits, cornbread, and black-eyed peas. I raised my East Coast boys on grits and am proud to have made them fans.  Mom became a lover of fiddleheads after moving to Maine, and I love them too, but have yet to convince my boys!

 

Allison: Is there anything you do outside of holidays and anniversaries to keep your loved one present (gardening, cooking, playing music, going on trips)?

Christina: My parents were enthusiastic shoestring travelers with their four daughters; they didn’t let a lack of money keep them from exploring the world. My mother was particularly intrepid. In her honor, and with her in mind, my husband and I seek out-of-the-way adventures with our kids, as she loved to do. We don’t take cruises or stay in fancy resorts. Whenever I’m wandering in a foreign country, I think of her.

 

Allison: Have you ever “repurposed” an item that belonged to your mother (e.g., taken an earring and made it into a charm for a necklace; taken clothing to sew a quilt)?  

Christina: When my mother died and my father put their house on the market, he kept the art that was most meaningful to him and encouraged his daughters to divide the rest. Re-framing and matting some of my mother’s beloved pieces that needed some TLC, and hanging them in my home, was a wonderful way to stay connected to her.

 

Allison: What is the most satisfying way you’ve developed for keeping your mother’s memory alive (sharing stories, cooking certain foods, playing specific music)?

Christina: My mother died exactly four years ago, and sometimes have to work to keep her memory alive, certainly with my boys. I’ve done a lousy job turning digital photos into albums over the past ten years, but before that — when my boys were young — I made quite a few albums. I often find my kids poring over them. One of the amazing things my mother did was make a baby book for each boy. These are more important to them than she might ever have imagined.

 

Allison: The loss of a loved one can sometimes feel isolating. Have you had to address this experience, and what lessons did you learn as a result?

Christina:  With three sisters, there’s always someone to talk to about missing mom. We have a four-way text, and every now and then one of us will post about feeling low, wishing she were here. Articulating our feelings and getting empathetic responses from each other have been important for all of us. (I realize how lucky I am in this way.)

 

Allison: What do you know now about keeping the memory of your mother alive that you didn’t know when the loss occurred?

Christina: The last three months of my mother’s life were harrowing. She died slowly after a botched operation. At the time, I was shell shocked. I was afraid that the way she died would color my whole experience of her, but as time went on, that part faded. In my novel Orphan Train a character reflects, “I’ve come to think that’s what heaven is: a place in the memory of others where our best selves live on.” My mother’s best self lives on in my memory, in my heart.

 

Allison: Loss is a great teacher. In what way have you derived greater joy and meaning from life following loss? (Do you live more in the moment? Are you more compassionate? Do you focus more on what’s really important and less on what’s not? Has it fueled creativity or driven you to a new purpose?)

Christina: After my mother died I developed a new clarity about what matters to me. Mom was 73, seemingly healthy and full of vigor; her death came as a shock. If she were here today, I think she’d agree that she was doing too much and spreading herself too thin; she had lost track of what mattered most to her, on some level. Her death forced me to reassess my own priorities and focus more on things that I am passionate about: my family, my work (writing novels), and several philanthropic causes that are close to my heart.