Charming Candor Runs in the Family: Emma Walton Hamilton on Julie Andrews, her Mother.

Emma Walton Hamilton on Julie Andrews
Emma Walton Hamilton on Julie Andrews
She is our Sunshine

“What should I read?” 

“Her memoirs. Definitely the first one.”

That was Emma Walton Hamilton’s suggestion for how best to prepare for an interview about her mother, Julie Andrews.

Julie Andrews’s two memoirs, Home, and Home Work, are at once heartbreaking and awe-inspiring. While reading them, I toggled between listening to Julie’s narration via audiobook and reading words on a page. I was struck by how differently I absorbed the material depending on the medium. That is, when I listened — to that familiar dulcet voice,  made still warmer with age — so thoroughly had I absorbed its calming effect over the years, I found it hard to feel the darkness of the material. But then, when I switched to the words as written, their full weight landed.

How on earth did she emerge from all that so optimistic, her view of the world untainted by her own unhappy experiences? The answer: Because that’s who Julie Andrews is, luminous at her core.

For the holidays, we’re revisiting Katie’s conversation  with Emma Walton Hamilton, daughter of the extraordinary Julie Andrews, about her mom’s difficult childhood and her determination to give her own children stability and, above all, constant love.

Emma, it turns out,  is every bit as radiant as her mother. In our interview, she talked about her mother’s innocence, well into adulthood, a true surprise given the effect that parts of her childhood could have had on her. She talked about the insights she had when read through her mother’s journals. And she talked about the bond that doesn’t quit.

Emma and her mother have written more than 30 children’s books together. (If you haven’t dipped into The Very Fairy Princess series, you haven’t lived.) And they co-host the podcast Julie’s Library.

Art by Paula Mangin
Music by Andrea Perry
Producer: Alice Hudson

Please contribute to the mother word cloud, with your one word to describe your mother.

A very special thanks to Liz Mitchell for permission to use her beautiful version of You Are My Sunshine.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber of California Assembly District 79 on her mother, Mildred Nash: “My mother was a woman of tremendous integrity.”

California Assembly District 79

Fleeing a lynch mob in Arkansas; a new life in
Los Angeles; eight children and a giving hand. Unimpeachable integrity.

One afternoon early in 2020, I driving home, listening to KQED (our much loved public radio station here in San Francisco) and I happened to catch the beginning of a fascinating interview. Scott Shafer and Marisa Lagos were on the phone with a state Assembly member of California Assembly District 79 named Shirley Weber. Weber’s voice was strong, her words well chosen, her views as sensible as the day is long.

Weber talked about her family’s journey to California, after her father, David Nash, fled a lynch mob in Arkansas. She talked about the strong influence her elementary school teachers had one her. She talked about her hopes for education and criminal justice reform. 

When I got home, I sat in the garage and kept listening, rapt. Wow. Who is this?

Such was my lucky introduction to Shirley Weber, Ph.D., a retired San Diego State University professor who is now a Democratic assemblywoman and the head of California’s Legislative Black Caucus. 

On Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom nominated Dr. Weber to succeed Alex Padilla as secretary of state. “Dr. Weber is a tireless advocate and change agent with unimpeachable integrity,” he said.

Key word: Integrity.

There was one person who didn’t come up in that KQED interview: Dr. Weber’s mother.  A woman like this must have had a pretty great mother, I thought. 

I called Dr. Weber’s aide, Joe Kocurek, and asked him whether Dr. Weber had indeed had a mother she cherished. Yes she did, was his response. And Dr. Weber would be more than happy to talk with me about her mother,  Mildred Nash.

My conversation with Dr. Weber was my second interview for the podcast. It would be putting it charitably to say I was still feeling my way around podcast production. The quality of our Zencastr recording  was terrible (entirely my fault, for the record),  and Dr. Weber, newly stuck at home thanks to the pandemic, very kindly made a backup recording for me on her phone.

It was an interview I’ll never forget. Here I was, a total stranger, asking her about things from her childhood that she might long since have shelved.  But she was eager to honor the woman who raised her. Each memory she called forth seemed to spark a new one. She told me about her mother’s childhood in Arkansas, where she was raised by her grandmother; her mother’s math skills; her sweet potato cobbler; the ride on the segregated train when the family moved to Los Angeles in the early 1950s.

The family settled in the projects of South LA and Shirley’s mother, Mildred, worked hard as a homemaker raising her eight children. Dr. Weber told me about her mother’s superhuman efforts as a mother and homemaker. (“By the time we got out of bed in the morning, my mother had already washed a load of clothes and most had them hanging on the line.”)

Mildred Nash was so beloved in the community that when she died in 1977, the church was packed with mourners, and the flowers at the cemetery were stacked six feet high. To this day, people who know the Nash children — and their children — talk about Mildred Nash.

She lived to see her daughter Shirley receive her Ph.D. from U.C.L.A. She didn’t get to see her daughter’s rise to prominence in the California State Assembly. She didn’t live to see Dr. Weber, as chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, create a law to study proposals for reparations to descendants of enslaved people. And she didn’t get to see her daughter preside over the counting of the Electoral College votes, a count that would put Joe Biden and Kamala Harris over the top in the 2020 presidential election. The count was covered in full on C-Span, and inspired a Q&A with The New York Times,  in which Dr Weber talked about the electoral college, and voting rights.

On the day of the vote count, Dr. Weber’s outfit, a rich dark pink, put me in mind of the color her mother wore at Dr. Weber’s Ph.D. ceremony at U.C.L.A. in 1976. The photograph from that ceremony served as the basis for Paula Mangin’s drawing, which accompanies the podcast.

Mildred Nash would have turned 100 this year.

In the News

(12-22-20) Congratulations to Shirley Weber for her nomination by Governor Gavin Newsom as the next Secretary of State of California.

A Daughter’s Earnest Perspective: Gurki Basra on Indian Matchmaking and her mother, Tanjeet Basra

Gurki Basra on Indian Matchmaking

Gurki Basra on Indian Matchmaking: An Arranged Marriage and Its Evolution Toward Love

Gurki Basra knows a thing or two about dating. She even starred in Season One of the Netflix show Dating Around. One of her dates on that show could well go down in history as one of the worst first (and last) dates ever captured on camera.

Gurki’s mother, Tanjeet, on the other hand, had never been on a date, right up to the day she was married at age  22, which also happened to be the day she met her husband for the first time. As a matter of fact, during this blindest of blind dates, the Punjabi newlyweds hardly spoke to each other.

How do you come to know your life partner after such a beginning? And how on earth to you come to love him? 

I invited Gurki  on to the podcast to talk about her mother, and her family’s tradition of Indian matchmaking. 

I didn’t ask the question straight up, but wanted to know what Gurki thought of all this dating app madness and stress, especially after watching her own parents’ relationship grow into a kind of love that strikes their daughter as warm and comforting. It’s a kind of love born not of fiery passion but familiarity. During our interview,  Gurki offered pearls of wisdom she’s gleaned while bearing witness to her parents’ marriage. She carries these pearls with her as she continues her journey along the rubble strewn path of dating in the 21st century. 

And our conversation made us both stop to ask: might the human heart be spared a lot of unnecessary pain and drama if marriage were simply a matter settled between two sets of parents?

Gurki Basra on Indian Matchmaking

A note: Gurki’s word for her mother: LOVING, which you can find (along with a thousand others)  just around the corner, on the mother word cloud page. Please visit the page and contribute your own word that best describes your mother.

Artwork by Paula Mangin: (@PaulaBallah on Instagram)

Our theme song, Tell Me Mama, was composed and performed by Andrea Perry. 

Producer: David Walters

Web site: Jeannie Stivers

The poet David Whyte’s farewell letter to his mother, Mary O’Sullivan. His lyrical bridge to the past.

David Whyte's Farewell Letter

David Whyte's Farewell Letter is a balm for the soul

November 28, 2020

In this strangest of holiday seasons, when so many of us are missing our extra limb of extended family, I’m not sure it’s really just cheer we could use. As we turn this final page on our dark 2020, we might need something that transports us in a different way. The wisdom of the poet and philosopher David Whyte, especially when it comes to the wonderful relationship he had with his mother, Mary O’Sullivan, might be just what the doctor ordered.

Whyte has said that what he does for a living is ruminate on “the conversational nature of reality.”  For more than three decades, he’s been bringing his poetry and philosophy to audiences of all stripes, pinstripes included. He has read Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem The Swan – in its original German – and Emily Dickinson’s I dwell in possibility to corporate managers, and watched their bewilderment turn to understanding. In fact, Whyte has worked with companies around the world with the goal of making business leaders see that they are more likely to reach their full potential if they can find the poetry in their work lives.

I began reading David Whyte’s poetry nearly 20 years ago, when a friend gave me a two-volume boxed set. In that set I found the immaculately crafted poem The Well of Grief, which came to inhabit my interior landscape — and my purse, where I’ve kept a copy folded and tucked for many years. 

I got in touch with David about coming on to Our Mothers Ourselves after I heard him tell a heartbreaking story about his mother during his popular Sunday Series. Thomas Crocker, Whyte’s very kind right-hand person, got back to me and said that David’s schedule was hectic, but there was something about the invitation that spoke to him. That’s the way things tend to happen with this podcast: People find themselves wanting, needing, yearning to talk about the woman who saw them through so much of life.

 

Over the past decade or so, I’ve been asking people to choose just one word to describe their mother, and when I asked this of Whyte, he said it was something he hadn’t thought about before – finding the one word that best sums up Mary O’Sullivan. He chose the word “lyrical,” because, he said, his mother was “joyously articulate,” “a great singer,” and lyrical in her use of words to convey love and affection.

Turning the tables just a bit, I asked a few friends, whom I know to be fans of Whyte’s poetry, for the word they would use to describe David Whyte. A sampling of the responses: Insightful. Profound. Deep. Wise. Genius. Spiritual. Inspirational. Accessible. Surprising. Mystic. Storyteller.

My own word for Whyte: Bountiful. Everything he writes, even words wrought in sparest form, is a generous helping for the mind and for the soul.  When Whyte arrives, poetry in hand, the gift he brings is as precious as the most exquisite mother-of-pearl box. And long after its bearer has taken leave, the poetry stays. Phrases like ‘Perfection is a fragile, ice-thin ground that barely holds our human weight’ linger like an afterimage.  

One David Whyte poem that is new to me is Farewell Letterabout a letter he imagined his mother might have written to him after her death. Mary O’Sullivan became her son’s own lyrical bridge between two worlds.

In our interview, Whyte talks about the interrupted dream that gave rise to the poem. 

Whyte’s verse is balm for many a broken soul. Who wouldn’t want to read a poem titled Everything is Waiting for You? (Incidentally, the volume in which the poem appears, of the same title, is dedicated to none other than the lyrical Mary O’Sullivan.) So here’s to hoping that my conversation with David about his mother and their elemental bond will feed your mind, raise your spirits and fill your soul. I know it lifted my own heart beyond measure.

* You can find David Whyte’s word for his mother — and those of a thousand other offspring who have contributed their one word — just around the corner, on the word cloud page. Please visit and contribute your own.

A special thanks to Thomas Crocker at Many Rivers Press for permission to use David’s poetry, and to the late Bridie Gallagher for her beautiful rendition of A Mother’s Love’s a Blessing.

This episode is dedicated to the late poet (and editor non pareil), David Corcoran.  We miss you, David.

Our Mothers Ourselves is a production of Odradek Studios in San Francisco.

Alison Aucoin’s mom died from Covid-19. The grief became rage. At Donald Trump.

Alison Aucoin's mom died from Covid-19
Alison Aucoin's mom died from Covid-19
November 22, 2020

Originally Published: November 23, 2020
Updated: January 14, 2021

Grim milestone. One of 379,255 Covid deaths in the U.S. alone.

The U.S. keeps reaching grim milestones, then surpassing them. Since early December, the number of average number of deaths ever day from Covid has been more then 3,000, and a few times has exceeded 4,000.

Let’s put that number in perspective. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake killed 3,000 people in the SF Bay Area. The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 killed 2,605 people. This latest toll from Covid occurs in a single day. 

I started the Our Mothers Ourselves Podcast last May, when pretty much everyone I knew was deep in the Covid doldrums, well before we had any idea just how many people would get sick, and well before I knew anyone whose Mom died of Covid. 

For months, I’ve had it in the back of my mind to find someone who lost their mother to Covid. But I didn’t pursue it.  Was I scared? Did it feel exploitive? Then, in early October, my producer sent me a Facebook post she’d just seen. “You have to see this,” she said.

I was as taken aback as I was intrigued. The post shows a photograph of a woman seated next to a wooden box. But what your eye goes to immediately isn’t the woman’s face. It’s the finger. The woman in the photo, Alison Aucoin, is holding up her middle finger in a gesture of quiet outrage. In the post, Alison goes on to explain that the box contains the ashes of her mother, Lynn Evans. Alison describes mom’s tenacity and grace, and the cruel way that Covid killed her. But Alison isn’t blaming the virus so much as she is blaming the President of the United States – Donald J. Trump – for the way he mishandled the pandemic. 

Alison Aucoin's mom died from Covid-19

Lynn Evans was 79 when she died in April, after contracting Covid in a nursing home in New Orleans. Thousands upon thousands of Americans have died since. Alison’s post was visceral, raw, blunt, and beautiful. So we approached Alison, who had just moved to Orange County, California with her daughter, a dancer who had received a scholarship to train at the prestigious American Ballet Theatre Gillespie School. She agreed to share her story.

And so we talked, with Alison in her apartment in southern California and me in a closet in my house in San Francisco (next to the WiFi router, of course), both of us logged onto Squadcast, with only each other’s voices. Alison talked about her mom’s very southern childhood in New Orleans; as an only child, Lynn was mightily doted upon. Alison, too, was an only child, and she told me about the way her mother was a constant presence in her life, selfless in the way she would do anything for her daughter that seemed like the right thing to do, and was in her capacity.

The hardest part of the interview came with Alison’s recounting of the nightmare that was Lynn Evans’s illness and death. As her condition deteriorated, Lynn tried to tell her daughter how sick she was, but she had dementia, and Alison couldn’t understand what her mother was trying to say. Because the nursing home staff hadn’t mentioned that she was sick.

Alison was proud to tell me that moving cross-country in the middle of a pandemic to support her own daughter’s dream to dance is something her mother would have done for her, and she’s proud to take that piece of her mom into her own parenting.

We talked for more than an hour. At times during the interview, Alison was overcome by emotion and had to stop. And we went slowly, coming back to things that were too tough to tackle at the beginning and taking a break when she needed it. We took many breaks.

So when you listen to this episode, bear in mind that for every word Alison says, there were ten more that she couldn’t summon because talking about what happened was just so hard. That’s how raw things still are for Alison, whose mom died from Covid seven months before we spoke. That’s the toll of one death. Alison Aucoin’s mom died from Covid-19, and It’s a death that speaks for 332,246. And counting.

** A  warm Thank You to ace trumpet player Kevin Clark and the Dukes of Dixieland for permission to play On the Sunny Side of the Street, and Stardust (with Tom McDermott on piano and the late great Leigh Harris (Little Queenie) on vocals