An Interview with Anne-Marie Oomen
- By Patricia Ann McNair
- November 8, 2022
The memoirist opens up about grief, the pandemic, and saying goodbye to her complicated mother.
Anne-Marie Oomen’s As Long As I Know You: The Mom Book was the winner of the 2021 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Sue William Silverman Prize for Creative Nonfiction. In this candid, stunning, and moving memoir, Oomen wades into the morass that is the relationship between an adult daughter and her aging, failing mother.
Oomen’s family moves through a healthcare system that seems intent on making even the healthy sick with worry, a complicated financial picture that goes from sunny to bleak, and a global pandemic toward the story’s inevitable end. Funny, rich, lyrical, and at times alternately grief-stricken or hopeful, As Long As I Know You is a literary love song for children who’ve grown up and for parents who’ve grown old.
This book took years to write, much of it while you yourself were in the situation depicted in it. How did you reconcile your creative rendering with your complicated reality?
I practiced a strange double vision as I wrote this book. Even as these heart-wrenching things were happening, I kept a journal. I took notes shortly after incidents happened. I watched for moments where the quality of emotion shifts, where some small thing transforms. I would be living the experience, thinking, this is just awful (hysterical, amazing, sad) and at the same time, thinking, this is useful, this will have meaning, there must be language for this. Finally, I knew that my only way to live through this was to write through it. When I actually started building the material, I already had this emotionally crude road map that was more evidence-based than memory often is. Over time, I realized those drafts would reveal the journey to make peace with my mother’s complicated love.
All along, you must have understood that there would not be a happily-ever-after ending to As Long As I Know You. How did you find humor while experiencing this anticipatory grief?
The process of aging is 90 percent loss, but it’s sometimes also about turning loss on its head because misunderstandings rise that make for dark humor — like when your 95-year-old mother studies your face and says, “You have a lot of wrinkles.” In the end, the only way we really soften that whole process, the only way we can make it easier, is to laugh at it. Out loud. On the page. So, I really did not want the book to end with her death. I kept looking for alternative ways to manage closure, something happier. That in itself was wryly humorous — is it this chapter or this other one? I was casting hard for that ending, dancing around it, and couldn’t finish the book for years. Then covid hit, and then she did die in all the ways we didn’t want her to, and the grief was intense, and that grief drove me to finish. It was the grieving process that saved the book, an immense transformation in my understanding of our relationship. But I didn’t know any of that when I was looking for the end.
You’ve portrayed your mother in each of your previous memoirs, Pulling Down the Barn, House of Fields, and Love, Sex, and 4-H. She was a strong, tough woman and a stern parent. Were you surprised by the evolution of your portrait of her in this book?
She was a wonderful and complicated woman; many people loved her dearly. She loved me, too, but I was not the daughter she wanted me to be, so we were on a collision course always. In the writing, I thought I wanted to discover why we were never friends. So even as I was losing her to dementia, I kept trying to write what was happening, hoping I could see inside it, find her, find me with her. Slowly, I realized that our experience landscaped the present, but so much was underground memory that I had to rethink and reinterpret what had been bitter for me. I had to re-see our relationship in the context of loss and aging, discovering her friendship via the writing as it was happening.
The way we experienced and handled covid-19 had severe effects on your mother’s final days. What thoughts do you have regarding the relationship between the global pandemic and personal grief?
No one wasn’t touched by covid, and there are many harder stories than ours. Future socio-psychological studies will measure what we did to families — elders (and others) dying alone in the context of keeping people safe. I’m not objecting to those practices, but we all know it scarred us beyond comprehension, and the effects continue. I wish we could have created a massive think tank to creatively blast open those practices and manifest both requirements — safety for all and the ability to comfort and attend the afflicted — as we are supposed to do in human commitment. Why couldn’t, in this country laced with brilliance, that have happened? A massive brainstorm to open and keep opening that question — how to hold hands with the dying in the face of pandemic. Her dying alone also speaks to the crisis of eldercare in this country, and that underpins the book, too, how we care for those we love.
Patricia Ann McNair is an associate professor in the English and Creative Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago. Her most recent story collection, Responsible Adults, was named a distinguished favorite by the Independent Press awards. The Temple of Air (stories) was named Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year, and And These Are the Good Times (essays) was a Montaigne Medal finalist. She lives in Tucson.