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Benilde-Little www.allisongilbert.com

Benilde Little on Her Mother’s Death, How Gladys Knight Helps Her Remember, and Why Cooking One Specific Recipe Makes Her So Happy

Benilde Little and I met years ago in Montclair, New Jersey. We belonged to a local writers’ group and our friendship grew from many shared relationships and interests. Our sons also brought us together. They’re about the same age and both play a lot of baseball. I’m also a huge fan of her work.

Benilde is the bestselling author of the novels Good Hair, The Itch, Acting Out, and Who Does She Think She Is? Most recently, she published her fearless memoir, Welcome to My Breakdown. This stirring book reveals the death of Benilde’s mother and the agonizing, nearly paralyzing, depression it caused her. Benilde’s writing ultimately explores how she dug her way through this heartbreaking time to become a better wife, mother, and friend. Her transformation is an outstanding example of the many ways adversity helps us bounce forward, as Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant tell us in Option B. I’m thrilled Benilde agreed to be part of my grief and resilience blog.

Allison: Harnessing loss and embracing nostalgia not only heighten connections to the past – but strengthen relationships to family and friends in the present. (This is based on my essay in O, the Oprah Magazine and my book, Passed and Present: Keeping Memories of Loved Ones Alive.) Did you find this to be the case after losing your mom?
Benilde: Losing my mother (and my father-in-law who died two months before her) made me much more compassionate. Now when I hear that a friend has lost a parent or any loved one, I make a point of showing up — whether it’s going to the service, bringing food, a hug, a card or all of the above. If I can’t do any of those things, a phone call at least. I resist sending a Facebook comment. It seems an insufficient way to let them know that I see them and understand that the pain of loss can feel unfathomable.

Allison: Loss is a great teacher. In what way have you derived greater joy and meaning from life following loss?
Benilde: It took a long time to look at the lessons my mother’s death taught me. The realizations were slow and nuanced; like that I became the matriarch of my family. I’ve realized that I’m it in terms of making sure my kids, my nephews, my nieces, the generation behind me, have a rich memory of my mother and father-in-law. The two of them were much loved. They were the most present grandparents, so the loss was really hard for the kids, as it was for us. With that, I’ve tried to be more present, upbeat, and involved.

Allison: What one memento reminds you most of your mom?
Benilde: There are several that mean a lot to me. My mother didn’t keep a lot of objects or jewelry, but she did have a gold bracelet with one large locket charm that was given to her for her many years of service as head of her beloved PTA. It’s engraved with her name and it’s wearing off a little. It’s something that I cherish. We also have a lot of photographs.

Allison: Where do you keep your mother’s bracelet and those photos?
Benilde: I don’t wear the bracelet often and don’t display it. I keep it put away in a safe place. The pictures, on the other hand, are all over the house. One picture of my mom is in a frame that I keep on my nightstand. I sometimes touch her face and say hello or just tell her that I miss her. Sometimes I ask her what to do about a particularly difficult decision. This year I put an old picture of my parents (from the early 50s) in a frame along with my mother and father-in-law and put it in the dining room during Thanksgiving dinner.

Allison: What is the most satisfying way you’ve developed for keeping your mother’s memory alive?
Benilde: My mother loved Gladys Knight so whenever I play her music, I happily think of my mom.

I also make my mother’s collard greens recipe every Thanksgiving and Christmas, exactly as she used to—same brands —Wesson Oil, not Crisco. I cut them exactly the way she taught me —rolled into small strips and then cut with a steak knife into 2-inch pieces. It was one of the last things she taught me to do before she died, our last Thanksgiving we had together. I cherish the memory of the day she taught me to cook those greens.

I love having this specific food as a legacy. Collard greens are such a part of Black America, actually all of the American south, which was influenced by Black folks who were doing much of the cooking and creating delicious food from scraps. I taught my daughter how to cut them and I look forward to her making them for her family one day. This year my grand-niece, who’s almost 10, sat next to me at Thanksgiving and said “I just love these collard greens.” I said to her, “Well, I’m going to teach you how to make them.” I look forward to passing on this legacy.