Sweet sorrow

The pages are filled with pain and can be hard to turn. The pages are also filled with love and affection, practically turning themselves at times. And the pages of "Kiss Me Goodnight" are filled with fear and anger and laughter and tears in an exploration of young lives and early deaths.

This new book is a collection of stories and poems by women who were girls when their mothers died. Co-editor and contributing writer Ann O'Fallon of East Harriet hopes the book will spur memories and shatter some of the isolation girls in this situation often feel.

O'Fallon knows. She lost her mother when she was 9 years old.

Her family lived in rural Iowa where her father was a small-town doctor and her mother was a housewife; together, the couple had five children. It was the 1950s, and it was northwestern Iowa; people didn't talk about their aches and pains, not even when death began to hover over their lives.

"My mom wore a back brace," O'Fallon recalled as she sat in her dining room. "She'd had bilateral mastectomies, but even that, I didn't really fully appreciate what that meant."

She said she didn't know something was truly wrong with her mother until the teacher asked her class to pray for her mom. Even then, her mother's illness just didn't make sense, even after the worst had taken place.

"The night that she died, the priest had come and given her last sacraments because we were a Catholic family. My dad sent us all down to the movie theater because I think he knew that she was going to die that night.

"Partway through the movie, the man who owned the theater came down and said, 'You guys are supposed to go home.' So then we were at home and indeed, she had died. And I can tell right from looking at her, as a kid, I know. It's like when you see a [dead] bird, you know, when you're a little kid - way too still."

A kind of stillness settled over her then as a girl. She was isolated from classmates who didn't understand death and were leery of talking about it.

"In school, the other kids are into being kids. What would you say? How would you know what to say? You're just too little to have the coping skills. Even as an adult, I think sometimes it's awkward when you go to a funeral."

O'Fallon is Refugee Health Coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Health and works occasionally as a grief counselor.

Turn the page

Inside "Kiss Me Goodnight," girls' voices that were muted for so long by detachment or ostracism come alive.

Diane Payne was 18 when her mother died of breast cancer. Payne's "Shedding Hair" tells the story of a teenaged girl who watches clumps of hair fall from her ill mother's head as she washes it.

She's frightened and scared to show that she's frightened.

Payne, a creative writing teacher from Arkansas, brings her mother back to life with finely wrought details.

Jennifer Stone was 13 when her mother died in 1947 from complications due to alcoholism.

Stone's matter-of-fact recollection is drenched in stately anger.

"Then I don't remember anything until the gravesite and my father pulling out his great German pistol and threatening to shoot himself," Stone wrote in "Electra's Curse." "I remember thinking how undignified he was, but mostly how it made me sick the way he upstaged my mother all her life and now he couldn't even let her have the center of attention when she was getting buried for crissake."

Said O'Fallon, "There's a number of pieces in here where the girls are very angry. The mothers were alcoholic or the mothers committed suicide, and the pieces are very angry with her and unforgiving of her."

Kourtney Wheeler was only 12 when she wrote about her mother's death, which happened in 1991 when she was 2 years old. Wheeler's short essay is filled with exclamation marks and a young girl's confidence and puzzlement.

"It sounds like something that a 12-year-old would write," O'Fallon said. "I wanted to have that in there because it's about as far as a lot of 12-year-olds can go. And it works for her. It enables her to hold on and be 12."

Laurie Michelle Summer's mother died in 1971 after a miscarriage; Summer hadn't yet turned 2.

Summer's poem "Mother's Day" evokes fairy tales, laughter and images of her mother's dead skin.

"I cannot remember you," she wrote to her mother.

Memories and hopes

While it's not surprising that a woman who was only 2 when her mother died wouldn't be able to recall her mother, it's also not unusual among women who were older girls when they lost their mothers.

Said O'Fallon, "That's pretty common. A lot of people who've had this experience say that's true and they wish they could remember more. I think somehow the trauma just does that to you. And then nobody talks about your mother afterwards, so that doesn't reinforce any memories that you might have in the first place.

"It's hard for people then to recall what, really, what your mother was like.

"What kind of a person was she? What did she like? What did she hate?"

She said she hopes her book will help women who lost their mothers early in life to revive some memories. She said she also hopes that people who know girls who've recently lost their mothers will read it and help those children to retain memories, though it's bound to be a difficult duty.

Said O'Fallon, "I think it would be hard for a kid to really talk about it. It's a big concept. Some people have talked about buying this book to give to children, and I think that's really inappropriate. It really is more of an adult task. Something that you put to peace when you're older and have the maturity to have some perspective on what happened."

O'Fallon said she also wants the book to help end the silence surrounding girls whose mothers have died.

"What I'm hoping that it does is that tremendous sense of isolation that a lot of kids feel when they have this experience, that it can touch that and offer people a sense of community as they read it. And hopefully some healing," she said.

"A lot of people whose moms died when they were adults have come up to us and said, 'Oh, I was 42 when my mom died, but that little girl is inside of me, you know, she wanted her mom to live forever, too.'"

Ann O'Fallon co-edited "Kiss Me Goodnight" with fellow Minneapolitan Margaret Vaillancourt. The two will read excerpts from the book and sign copies June 9, 7:30 p.m. at Borders Book Shop, 3001 Hennepin Ave. S., in Calhoun Square. Visit www.kissmegoodnightbook.com for more information.