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May 16, 2010

Katherine Rosman: Her Mom Knew What Katherine Wanted for Herself - To Write

Posted by Anonymous

While many of my contemporaries were scheming how to sneak candy into their summer camp duffel bags (snip the seams of a stuffed animal, pull out cotton filler, insert Fun Dip, re-sew), my mom and I were contemplating the smuggling of another contraband: a newspaper subscription.

rosman.JPGWell it wasn't contraband, exactly. But it was no easier to get a national newspaper to a summer camp in woods of Bemidji, Minnesota in the early-to-mid 1980s. The New York Times didn't deliver to the area at the time. But my mom worked it out so that USA Today would be mailed to me at Camp Thunderbird for Girls. It was usually a day late, with no paper arriving on Monday. On my top bunk, lying on my belly with my elbows propped up on folded, scratchy army green wool blankets, I would lose myself in the nuggets of stories about rainstorms in Ohio and political races in Oregon. I devoured the front section and the Lifestyle coverage.

I loved news. In the sixth grade, we got extra credit in Mr. Finnigan's social studies class any day we brought in a story from the newspaper and explained it to the class. A month into the school year, Mr. F. would just stand up and say, "Katie, time for current events." While eating peanut-butter toast mom had made for me for breakfast, I would scan the headlines and cut from the paper my daily pick. Amid the bustle of getting out the door and to the busstop, Mom would yell, "Don't forget your current event!" and so I wouldn't.

My mom read the paper everyday and next to her bedside you might find some of the pop novels of the day --- CLASS by Erich Segal, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY and the like. Yet she wasn't a huge reader; she wasn't someone for whom various books influenced and defined stages of her life. But I was. I was a serious reader and even as a young girl, I had focused ambitions to become a writer. Mom was totally devoted to helping me realize my own goals, whether they were to receive a newspaper at camp or write for a newspaper in New York City. I remember when I used to ask her what her hopes for me were, she would answer, "I want for you what you want for yourself."

When I wanted to move to New York, she co-signed a lease and helped me move in. She called every day to hear about the excitement of living in New York, of taking the subway to work each day, of getting coffee for the editor of Elle. When I wrote a 100-word contributor's bio in Elle, she acted as if I just had a 10-page feature published in the New Yorker.

When I was working as a freelance reporter, she loved to call me and say, "Did you see that story about Palestinian women living in Israel that ran on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Magazine?" --- pause --- "You should do that story."

"Uhm, Mom," I'd say, "I don't think anyone is going to assign me a story about something that just ran on the cover of the Times Sunday Magazine."

"But you'd do it so much better, sweetheart!" was her usual response.

She routinely emailed my recent articles to everyone she knew. But she didn't brag about them equally. Once, after she had been diagnosed with cancer at 58, Elle assigned me a story that would allow me to fulfill a contractual obligation to the magazine that wouldn't require that much shoe-leather: I would report on an orgasm workshop that was being conducted by a married couple whose credentials included PhDs in sensuality. Watching this demonstration was a bit surreal and the piece I wrote about the experience was filled with sarcasm and humor.

I thought Mom would be grateful that a national publication was giving me an easy assignment --- allowing me to keep my career afloat as I was devoting ever more time to her care. But no. "You're writing about orgasms now?" she asked, not trying to hide her judgment. "I hope no one knows you're my daughter." She forgot to email that one to her friends.

I do think she'd be proud, very proud, of the book about the year I took off from my job at the Wall Street Journal to report on her death and the irrepressible life that came before it, though no one would have predicted that all those cut-out newspaper articles might culminate in that. But by cultivating my confidence and determination and giving me the foundation upon which I could build a career and a craft, Mom ended up arming me with the tools I would need to process her life and her death, and to create a piece of journalism that is bringing comfort, emotional release and even a few belly laughs to strangers sharing in our family story.

She wanted for me what I wanted for myself. And what I've always want to do is write.

Katherine Rosman is the author of IF YOU KNEW SUZY: A Mother, A Daughter, A Reporter’s Notebook, which is available wherever books are sold.