From Left to Write asks reviewers to connect the book of the month with their personal experiences. Accordingly, this is not a traditional book review, but rather, my response to this month’s selection. Find out more here. I received an advance copy of The Funeral Dress for free, but I was not compensated in any way for this review. My comments are my own. The Funeral Dress is available for purchase here.
So, a lot of questions, but I wanted to narrow my response down to the one I imagine the protagonist, Emmalee, was forced to confront: what kind of mother do I want to be?
How To Mom Like a Champ [The Summary]
It's not until Emmalee takes a position at a shirt factory as a collar maker that she finds someone who cares about her. Grumpy Leona Lane, a fellow seamstress, adopts Emmalee as her protegee, and offers to let the girl and her baby come live with Leona and her husband in their trailer. Leona, who lost a baby as a young woman and was never able to conceive after, is excited to have two girls to mother.
Then it gets sad.
However, the night before Emmalee is set to escape from Nolan, Leona and her husband die in a car accident. Emmalee struggles with her disappointment, losing her friend, and her insecurities about being a mother as the town prepares for the couple's funeral. Emmalee appeals to the town's funeral home director for permission to sew Leona's funeral dress. Leona's church community protests that an unmarried single mother assume such an important task, but the director, along with other seamstresses from the factory, rally around her.
Ultimately, Emmalee learns that Leona's death did not close off her last opportunity for happiness. Instead, she forms new connections with previously estranged community members, gains confidence in her ability to raise a daughter, and defends her right to remain Kelly Faye's mother.
The Kind of Mother I Want To Be [The Personal]
Now that I'm older and...older, I find myself warming more to the possibility of a girl. I think it's because, as I edge closer to 30, I am more certain about what kind of mother I would want to be to my daughter:
I would teach her to make others feel like a priority.
Throughout most of my undergrad and early grad school years, I felt constantly on high alert. I was always rushing from one spot to another, intensely anxious and trapped in my mind. I remember one day walking across the quad and spotting a friend. I had a little extra time, so instead of saying, "Hey!" and barreling past him, I stopped and talked with him for a few minutes. Our conversation left me feeling significantly happier and I arrived to class in a much better mood than usual.
Later that day at lunch he told me that he was surprised when I paused to chat with him earlier. "Usually you don't stop to talk to anybody," he observed.
I never forgot that. All this time I thought I was doing the right thing by keeping my head down and focusing on school first. But what I didn't realize is how important it is to make the people in your life feel like a priority, even when you're busy. Life is never going to be more convenient for establishing and maintaining relationships. Which is why it is so important to make time for them.
I would teach her that there is no such thing as TOO kind.
There are two individuals I look to for cues on being unfailingly generous and kind. The first is my husband, who still opens the car door for me whenever we go somewhere, remembers the precise amount of cream I like in my coffee, and built a bench for our patio based on my leg length so it would be optimally comfortable for me. He encouraged me to keep a rescue kitten even though he had no interest in having a cat. Then, a year later, he told me to keep another one.
The second, my former college roommate and forever friend, loves sleep more than anything but faithfully woke up early on Saturdays to go volunteer at a local animal shelter. Torn between her fondness for a good steak and her concern for the environment, she reduced her meat intake significantly. I once mentioned I liked to jump rope for exercise; she sent me a book about jumping rope for fitness. She tries to see both sides of any issue, offers assistance to friends and strangers alike, and is the first to hug even the most unhuggable among us (me).
I would teach her, however, that she doesn't have to be nice all the time.
My husband and my friend are wonderfully generous people, but they aren't doormats. Moreover, I think it's especially important for a girl to know that she doesn't have to play nice all the time. Because there are going to be times when someone will attempt to exert power over her or a situation by manipulating her into playing nice.
When a man tells you to smile, you don't have to. I'm sorry it makes him uncomfortable for your girlish face to be mopey or angry or sad, but don't give into that impulse to obey and fake a smile. Feel your feelings. He'll get over it.
When a man heckles you, tells you you are pretty, and then calls you a horrible name because you did not answer as you attempt to walk down the street, through a parking lot, or into the grocery store, don't feel like you owe him anything. Not a smile, not a word.
I would teach her to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Take a class on something you have zero background in. Travel some place where you don't know the language. Try a new form of exercise. Attempt to befriend that person who seems like they are from another planet.
I've grown the most when I let myself feel uncomfortable because the subsequent realization of conquering something new (or even just surviving) is an incredible confidence-booster.
When I was 20 I lived in Russia for a summer. I didn't really know the language. I got lost a lot. I met a scary person or ten. But I also had fantastic travel companions, an endlessly patient Russian friend, and the impulse to see as many historic sights as possible in eight weeks.
So now, when something seems difficult, I just say to myself, "Hey. You survived Russia. You can do this."
I would teach her she is enough already.
She doesn't need to prove herself to me, or to anyone. I don't need a perfect daughter. And I'm pretty sure I won't be a perfect mother. But I'll try to impart that it feels perfect to be someone's mother.