Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Will Schwalbe and The End of Your Life Book Club

Wanna fall in love? You will, if you read Will Schwalbe's memoir of his mother's final years as she battled cancer. The End of Your Life Book Club is by no means a depressing book. It's not even sad, and I expect that's because Mrs. Mary Ann Schwalbe would not have it so.

Mary Ann Schwalbe
I get a lot of books every week, many of them memoirs and to not a few I sigh, "Who cares?" I cared about this one. It's one of the most life affirming books I've read in quite a while. It's about an adult son finding one more way to bond with his mother. Through books. And its about a remarkable lady who I am sure is in heaven re-arranging the clouds and helping others as I write and you read.

Will Schwalbe is one of three children of Douglas and Mary Ann Schwalbe. Mrs. Shwalbe had been an educator, administrator and in her later years a relentless advocate for refugees. If you've ever crowed about working through a headache, get over yourself. Mrs. Schwalbe worked through chemo building roads, schools and libraries in Afghanistan.
Will Schwalbe
Cambridge, Harvard to New York's Upper East Side. Enough to make my two toilet Irish heart groan. But I shut up and read and yup, I fell in love. Mrs.

Here's a conversation I had the other day with Will Schwalbe. He's riding a very successful book AND a terrific website dedicated to recipes and cooking, cookstr dot com. Will feeds your tummy. His mom will feed your soul.

CP: You've written  a book about your mother's final years, but you have not written a sad book, a depressing book, at all

WS: Thank you. I wanted it to be joyful.

CP: Tell us you about your mother. This was a very unique and busy lady

WS: She was. When I was growing up Mom was director of admissions at Radcliffe and Harvard, then she and my father moved back to New York City and she became an educator, then a college counselor, and head of a girls school. Then in her fifties she discovered the cause of refugees. She became the founding director of the first organization in the world devoted to specifically the cause of women and children  refugees. . She spent the next two decades traveling all over the world working on behalf of refugee women and children.

CP: When she was doing that you and your siblings were grown, is that right?
WS: That's right. We were all out of the house

CP: Do you think that's what empowered her to go in that direction, that the kids were gone?

WS: I think that was a big help. She was really galvanized by them, and if she had been exposed to refugees  as she almost accidentally was, in her fifties, she might have done something. But as far as taking on a position like that and really traveling all over the world , I think she would have waited.

CP: You and your mother connected over books. But ti strikes me you and she were never not connected

WS: We were very close. We did live for many years in different cities. We had the same kind of contact many adult children have with their parents, a phone call every couple of weeks. That said, we were always close. One of the things I really wanted to try to do with this book was to write a book that would resonate  with people who do happen to be close to their parents.  A lot of people have sadly had difficult and troubled relationships with their parents.  The memoir shelves are filled with those. But a lot of people were lucky enough to have wonderful relationships with their parents and to some degree I wanted to create A book for those people, too.

CP:  When your mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, it struck me that she just have been...annoyed...like "I don't have time for this!"

WS:: (laughing) I wish I had used that because that's exactly it...It was the full range human emotions, from anger, sadness, despair and  hope.  But there was a big dose of annoyance there, too. She didn't have time for it. She had too much to do.

CP: How long after your mother's diagnosis did you two decide to have your own book club?

WS: She was diagnosed in October, and it was really the very first time I went to chemo with her in November  we started talking intensively about books..  It was at that time I joked that if we kept  "meeting like this" and talking about books it was like having a book club.

Mom's initial reaction was to say Oh, don't be silly . sweetie, we couldn't possible have a book club.
Date cupcakes form Will's web site: cookstr.com
I said why not and she said, Because there's no food!
She felt book clubs must have food!

CP:: Or at least booze!

WS: At least booze, exactly. I really should have had a flask in the chemo suite.

It began as a light hearted thing and it was only after time that we realized we really had a in a way created this two person book club.  We began to be more thoughtful about our conversations and the kind of books we read..

CP:: And you didn't necessarily agree on every book...

WS:: We really didn't. We had very different things we loved in books. I love books that are maximalist, like Dickens. Filled with characters and details and plots and everything that happens in the beginning comes back in the end.

My mother really loved sparer, more lyrical books, where the emphasis was more on prose than character.
A book like Marilyn Robinson's Gilead which was perhaps my mother's favorite  contemporary book. Mine was more like Rohinon Mistry's A Fine Balance.

CP: Did your relationship with your mother change as you pursued this book club, alongside her impending death?

WS: It deepened. It didn't change in its fundamentals. I got to see more of her. I knew my mother had a wonderful sense of humor, and I got to see more of it. I knew my mother was a brave person but I got to learn more about her bravery. I knew she was compassionate, and I got to see her theories of compassion and learn her rules for herself. It was getting to know someone better and I guess you could think meeting a slightly different person, too.

CP: What about your siblings?

WS: My brother lives outside of New York. My sister was offered a fantastic job in Switzerland, and after a lot of discussion she took the job but came back frequently to spend time with Mom.

CP: Did your siblings have bonds of their own with their mother. you had the book club, did they have something else with her, by themselves?

WS: My siblings are also voracious readers. I'd say the biggest difference is that both of my siblings have children. Had you asked my mother her greatest accomplishment and pleasure in life, she would have aid without hesitating, being a grandmother. I think that in some degree when my sister and brother were around my mom really wanted to talk about the grandchildren. When I was around her she also really wanted to talk about the grandchildren , but after I had exhausted the updates on my niece and nephews we would move on to books.

CP: You forged something special to you and mother. Just for the two of you. That's the heart of your book as I understand it.

WS: I was very careful to say in the start of the book that my brother and sister had equally deep and important conversations with my mother, but I really felt their stories were their stories to tell, not mine. I think a lot parents that I know have different relationships with each child that is unique to that child. '

CP: The most moving part of the book for me is when , not long before her death, your mother was honored at a dinner in New York. It was very effortful for her to attend , but you said that this woman with years of accomplishments in her life was taken aback by all the accolades

WS: It was very important to my mother in her refugee work that she always  push the refugee voices front and center. If ever there was an occasion to speak on behalf of the organization, Mom wanted it to be refugees. As an educator it was about children not about her . Yes, she was a woman of great accomplishment but she had always been a little bit in the wings, pushing other people out to the stage. She was very moved to be acknowledged in that way before she died.

CP: How was your father through all of this and how is he now?

WS:  One of the amazing things books did for mm and me was it gave us a way to talk about really difficult things. The subject of how my dad was going to fare after Mom's death was one of those things. We were reading a book called Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. Really one of the great books I've ever read.

The book had a character that is dying of cancer. I was able to say to my mother, Do you think that character's husband is going to be OK after she dies. And my mother was able to say Yes, he will be very sad, but he will be OK. And that's as close as my mother and I ever got to talking about how my father would do, and in fact that was exactly right. That's just what happened.

He's very proud of the book. He's very supportive of the book, He always knows where I am and who I'm talking to , but he doesn't want to talk about the content of the book. He basically says to people, That's my son's book.  

CP: Finally, is there one book you and your mother did not get to read together that's a regret?

WS: That's such a good question. I would say that as much as we talked about poetry, and we read poets like Mary Oliver , I wish we'd read more poetry together. I wish we had been able to talk about some of the poets she was re- reading . She spent a lot of time re- reading Robert Lowell. I didn't get to talk talk to her about Robert Lowell, and I really regret that.
CP: She probably knew Robert Lowell

WS:: She probably did...that whole circle Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop. She spent a lot of time re reading the poets she had read in her younger years in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I knew she was doing it and I wish I had talked to her about that.

CP: The only regret I have in your book is that I never met your mother. I think everyone who reads this book will feel the same way. This is a lady you would have loved ot have had in your life . Thank you.


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