In March 2021, my mother, Nancy Bourne, a lifelong non-smoker, died of lung cancer. Two weeks prior, however, as she was walking back and forth between hospital wards, she was on her laptop sending 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 of her books, 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 most remarkable about my mother’s late literary revival is that few people knew about it. It was no secret, exactly. She has been part of two writing groups and has taken many creative writing classes and workshops. But outside of a small circle of family members and writer friends, she rarely talked about it.

Even I only knew part of the story. She had told me that, “just for fun”, she was writing a novel about 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 everyone else. I knew she wrote and we often talked about books and writers we liked, but frankly I thought fiction was another retirement hobby, like the hiking club she belonged to and road trips. birdwatching she was doing with friends.

Man, was I ever wrong. However, I didn’t realize how wrong I was until I read his collection of stories. It’s good. Very well. The stories are set in the fictional southern town of Spotswood, Virginia during the 1950s and 1960s as the civil rights era gains momentum. Story after story, the mostly white and mostly well-meaning characters face crises of conscience as they weigh the loss of racial privileges they’ve taken for granted all their lives against the moral crime of supremacy. state-sanctioned white.

But I don’t think I really understood the scope of my mother’s literary ambition until she died and I became her literary executor. My main task was simple: she had finished editing Spotswood, Virginia before he died, but someone needed to help him print it, which I did in September 2021. But I also wanted to read from his hard drive, to see if there was another book there -inside that the world needed to know.

Her short stories vary widely in quality, as you would 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 faced with a diagnosis of terminal cancer, is a small masterpiece of emotional acuity. Without a hint of sentimentality or special pleading, the story offers the reader an unforgiving look at what it feels like to know you’re going to die when you’re not ready to leave.

Other stories are less successful, and I decided she chose well when she put together her published collection. But even more than the stories themselves, I came away impressed with the way she went about writing them. In my own apprenticeship, I spent years rewriting the same mediocre stories, hoping to somehow sew silk handbags with literary pig ears. Not my mom. She wrote quickly, almost casually, borrowing generously from her life and current events. If she was rafting, she was writing a story about people who were rafting. If anti-Muslim bias was making headlines, she found a way to weave it into a story. And with each story, she got a little better, a little more confident.

Men have underestimated my mother all her life. Women too, but mostly men. Of course she didn’t Craft they do that. They did this on their own.

In the end, I felt like I was reading a writer on the verge of finding her own voice and her own subject. If she had started ten years earlier, or lived another ten years, I’m sure she would have a little shelf of books in her name. Give him a few more years, and many of you reading this now will have one of his books on your shelves at home.

Yet I missed it all. I’m a writer and she was my mother and I had no idea. All those years I spent gossiping about my own writing career and never realized I was speaking with an equal – no, in all likelihood, a more talented colleague. I keep feeling like I let him down. I underestimated my own mother, and because I did, I missed a crucial part of who she was and who we could have been for each other.

But a year later, as I celebrate the second Mother’s Day without my mom, I’m beginning to wonder if my failure, though all too real, can be entirely put at my feet. Since her death, I have struggled to reconcile the selfless way my mother sought out criticism and endured wave after wave of rejection with her curious secrecy about her literary ambitions.

After all, I been chatting about my life as a writer all these years. When I posted a story, she might have said, Oh that’s great, I also posted something last month. Or she could have shared her experiences of rejection, a subject we both knew too intimately. Some of her writer friends suggested that she didn’t want me to feel like she was in competition with me, and I’m sure that’s part of it, but she also didn’t talk about her writing very highly. ‘other people.

I’m starting to think that’s how she operated in the world. She had a law degree and two graduate degrees in English, one focused on Henry James, the other on Anne Bradstreet. She taught high school, raised three children, ran a pottery studio and school that still exist, and retired as a partner in a law firm. But if you met her, you wouldn’t know any of this. She was a cheerful, talkative 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 Craft they do that. They did this on their own. But I think that’s part of the reason she was able to do so much. They never saw it coming until it left them in the dust.

It hurts me to have underestimated her too, to have fallen into the same stupid trap. But unlike all those other guys, I’m also his son. I may not have known her as a writer as well as I would have liked, but I knew her as a son knows his mother, seeing her week after week in the stands at Little League games, arguing with her over countless classes and jobs. and romantic choices, and more recently, seeing her shower love on her grandchildren, including my son.

And I still have his job. I began, very slowly, very discreetly, to seek a publisher for his unpublished novel, the one about the poetess Anne Bradstreet. Even if I never find any, this will be one last project we can work on together.