After my mum died in 1999, I found myself wanting to contact her friends – I wanted photographs and maybe to talk about her a bit – but I didn’t do it. I wrote down memories whenever they popped into my head, but that’s all I did. I’ve been thinking about it a lot more since my dad died last year. A friend of his gave me a bunch of letters Dad sent him from Germany (where he did his National Service) and then from Canada where he and Mum lived and I was born. The fascinating thing about them is they sound exactly like Dad (even the letters written in his early 20s sound like him), but also not like Dad – there’s stuff a 20-year-old will write to his best male friend that he probably would never have said to his daughter!
I’ve had the same urge for photographs and stories as I did after Mum, but this time it’s been a bit different. Firstly, we’ve got boxes and boxes of slides, most of which I haven’t seen since I was a child, so the prospect of going through them (once I’ve had them converted) is meeting the photo need and of course I’ve got the letters for stories, but I mainly felt that I’d left it too late: they’re both gone.
So when – on Twitter, natch – I saw a passing mention of Katherine Rosman’s memoir If You Knew Suzy I knew I had to read it and ordered it immediately (I almost never do this). Katherine is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and, five years after her mother’s death from lung cancer, decided to report on her mother as she would any other story. She interviewed strangers (strangers to Katherine, that is) and examined her mother’s interests and obsessions: from golf to Pilates to collecting Steuben glass.
Inevitably bittersweet and surprisingly honest – Rosman doesn’t shy away from the less pleasant aspects of her mother’s personality – it made me smile, it made me cry and it made me realise it’s not too late to find out more about my parents. It also made me realise what I was looking for when I thought about asking people for stories and photos: more of my parents. Does that make sense? Obviously I don’t get any more time with them, but other people have stories that I’ve never heard and I want ’em. I don’t know that I would even have realised that if I hadn’t read this book. It’s wonderful – read it.