It was to my mother’s parents that I felt closest, and to him in particular because he was such a gentle man. When he said, “Tell me a story,” I knew it was a device on his part. He was perfectly capable of telling me a story, but something in him wanted to show me what art could do. I do the same with the grandkids.
Anytime you tell a child, “You can be an artist,” you are saying, “Your life is worth something.”
Do the kids ever tell you stories about their mother?
There have been heart-wrenching moments with James, where he remembers being rocked to sleep by Amy. He could not have been a year old. There’s a theory that children learn language by telling stories already in them. I saw it proved in James: Before he had language, that thing occurred, and now he tells the story of it.
The boys are much more open about remembering things about Amy. I consult their psychotherapist about grief, and she said that a girl will keep it in and just occasionally say something. Once in a while, Jessie will say something, but it’s not part of her dealing with Amy’s death the way it is for James and Sammy. They will talk about it. They will say, “I remember Mommy did this and that.”
In Making Toast, you admit to not being religious. You write: “My anger at God remains unabated.” Where do you find spiritual solace?
I don’t know that I am ever on a hunt for it. People seem to me to be divine and interesting enough.
I’m just not interested in the trappings of religion. Believing in something more powerful than you—that’s fine with me. My fury at God is that my original belief in him was based on the childish idea that if you make a deal with him, he’ll keep to it. Of course, you’re the only one making the deal. But I thought if I led a life that tried to do as much good as possible and as little harm, he’d reciprocate.
The people I love and respect who deeply believe in God and their religions—who seem to fall equally among Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims—all say, “Yes, I suffer. But the important thing is that God believes in me and God loves me.” I say if you really want to be a God, you’ve got to do better than that.
Do your grandkids ask about God?
Yes—James and Jessie less than Sammy. Sammy’s got a scientist’s view of God: “Where does this all start?” He came down one morning and said, “Why are we alive?” I said, “Can you keep these questions a little easier?” But in a household that doesn’t go to temple, doesn’t go to church, it’s hard for them to generate much continuous interest in God.
If you feel your life has enough of the spiritual in it, I really don’t see any harm in living without religion, and I see some hypocrisy in foisting it on kids.
Do you have advice for anyone going through a loss?
Not really. After Making Toast, I must have received a thousand letters from people, and I feel kind of helpless. I generally believe in getting on with it. Not because I think that I or Harris or Ginny is anything special in this—it’s just what choice do you have? You either lie down or walk. And since we’re vertical creatures, walk.
I cannot imagine what it would have meant for Ginny and me to have gone home after Amy’s death and just looked at each other. We would’ve felt totally useless.
So coming down here and staying was part of your healing process.
Oh, it was 80 to 90 percent of it. And writing Making Toast was part of it. In fact, when I was writing the book, I had Amy alive. She was alive in my memory and alive for my uses as a writer. And so that was a way of resurrection, I suppose, or sustenance.
I have written another book, which is coming out next year—a small meditation on grief. Whereas I stayed out of Making Toast—except in having the controlling voice of it—this one is much more about personal anguish, and I am sure it too was prompted by the desire to keep Amy alive.