I'm really excited to be here today with Marisa Bardach Ramel who’s the coauthor of The Goodbye Diaries: A Mother-Daughter Memoir, which she wrote alongside her mother, Sally Bardach, who has since passed away. A graduate of Syracuse University, Marisa worked as a magazine editor and contributed to many publications including Seventeen, HuffPost, Glamour, Modern Loss, and others. She currently lives with her husband and two children in Brooklyn. Welcome to Marisa.
Marisa Bardach Ramel: Thank you so much, Zibby. I'm so happy to be here with you.
Zibby: It’s so great to have you here. Tell me how you got the idea to write this book. It’s a alternating memoir between passages from your point of view and also from your mother’s in her voice as if she's writing a diary. Were you guys actually keeping diaries? Tell me the whole thing.
Marisa: Basically, this whole book was my mom’s idea. She called me when I was a student in college at Syracuse University. She called me Missy. She was like, “Missy, everyone keeps telling me to write a book. I don't think I can do it on my own. What if we wrote a book together?” I was studying journalism at Syracuse University and obviously immediately loved this idea. The next time I was home on break we sat together in my bedroom. She took out her diary. She was always keeping journals and diaries. We wrote down what we wanted the chapters to be. We wanted a chapter about her diagnosis. We wanted a chapter about how our friendships had changed. We wanted a chapter about this big fight we had after she was diagnosed and how our relationship had changed. We decided what if it alternated chapters between us? We realized we were going through the same thing but in totally different ways from one another. I was a teenager. She was a mom and the patient. Our experience of it were totally different.
She began writing her chapters immediately because she was a teacher and had to retire from teaching. Suddenly, she had all this free time and also knew that she didn't have a lot of time left. She’d been diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer and had been initially told she had two months to live. She really began writing her chapters. I think it was centering for her to have a project to turn to like that. I was in college. I began writing my chapters but obviously was balancing that with all the other college things like going to classes and hanging out with friends. Really, a lot of the piecing together of the book has happened since she passed away in 2002. It has felt almost like a collage. I had her chapters and her journals and her medical notebooks and letters that she had written to me or cards she had written to my dad. I had to cull it all together and figure out how to tell the story of our relationship and how it changed in the time she was sick.
Zibby: What happened between 2002 and 2019?
Marisa: Oh, my gosh. So much. [Laughs]
Zibby: Not what you had for breakfast, but what happened with the book in terms of when did you start working on it? When did you decide it was something you wanted to publish?
Marisa: I really turned to it after I graduated from college. I started in a writing group and started writing some of my chapters and figuring out how they went together with her chapters. I kept working on it through most of my twenties. I had this idea that I would publish this book pretty soon after she died. My mom and I had thought of it as a book that had eight chapters, a short, little book. When I began to examine her chapters and think about mine and telling the whole narrative of our relationship, oh my gosh, this is actually a much longer book than either of us ever imagined. We pictured eight chapters. It’s twenty-eight chapters. It really changed a lot.
There were years that I didn't work on it at all. Around the time I moved in with my boyfriend, who’s now my husband, I thought maybe that was just a cathartic project I was doing. Maybe that's all it was. I'm in this happy period of my life now. I didn't really know how the two went together. I didn't know how to be at this moment of my life that I was really happy and be working on something that was very sad. I put the book down for about four years. Then a year after we got married, I said to my husband, “I think I'd like to try having a baby.” He said, “I'm not really ready to do that yet.” I said, “Okay. Then maybe I’ll finish that book.” [Laughs]
Zibby: There you go.
Marisa: I felt like at that point, I was only a third of the way done with the book. It only took a year to finish the remaining two-thirds. It was just the right time in my life where I could figure out how it all came together.
Zibby: I was going to say I feel like the fact that you are older -- now, you have two children -- now, you have more of a perspective than if you had tried to write it as a teenager or right afterwards.
Marisa: Yes. Becoming a mother really changed my perspective on the book. The way that has shown itself to me so dramatically is that when I was working on it in my twenties, I thought my mom’s chapters were really boring. I would read my chapter and be so in love with my chapter. Then I would skim through hers. Now, her chapters, I enjoy them more than mine because I relate to them as a mother so intensely now. That was one of the most illuminating parts for me.
Zibby: You write so beautifully in the book about the whole mother-daughter relationship, not just with your mother, but with your children. In the prologue even, you wrote that even when you were first pregnant you were so terrified of miscarriage. You said, “My daughter reassures me from the inside with an Olympic gymnast tumble the way she has throughout my pregnancy. The seismic shift in my belly leaves me in awe. ‘She never makes me worry,’ I say to friends about the acrobatics. And yet by her mere presence and the fear of her absence, she makes me worry all the time. She quiets down. Resting a hand on my stomach, I caress a leg or an arm, who knows which, and imagine my little girl brightening up the spaces left dark by my grief and I wait.” That was so good.
Marisa: It’s funny. It makes me cry hearing you read it.
Zibby: I'm sorry. Don't cry.
Marisa: My daughter’s now almost a year old. I remember so clearly writing that sitting at my kitchen table with this big, big belly. I wrote this ten days before she arrived. I had so much anxiety about her arrival and her safe arrival, the way I think most pregnant women do, but in another level because I felt so blessed to be having a little girl and to have this mother-daughter relationship back in my life again. I felt like I have to write it now because after you have the baby, you don't fully remember that emotion and how intense it feels. In hindsight, you're so overjoyed that the baby is there that you don't fully remember all those emotions. I remember sitting at my kitchen table and furiously writing that prologue. Now, she’s here. I really feel lucky every day to have that mother-daughter relationship back in my life. I look forward to it continuing. Right now, it’s at such a baby place because she's a baby. I look forward to what it will be like as she gets older and we have more of that friendship developing.
Zibby: It’s so true too, the fear that comes with pregnancy. I know people talk about it. People would ask me, “You had twins?” I started with twins. “How was it?” I was like, “I was worried the entire time.” I still worry about them all the time. I never stop. Once they're your responsibility, the anxiety and the emotion -- you captured it so perfectly.
Marisa: I actually didn't realize how universal an emotion it was. For me, it felt so tied to my mom and the lingering grief that was still there. Then when an editor edited my book, she said, “You're talking about prenatal anxiety.” I was like, “Huh?” I didn't know that was a real thing. Gosh, I could've really had some people to relate to if I knew that this was really a thing. I thought it was just leftover grief.
Zibby: That's one of those evolutionarily good things. I feel like a lot of anxiety is totally useless. That one makes sense to me. You could see why.
Marisa: Yes. You're trying to protect this thing. It’s a big responsibility. It continues to be.
Zibby: In your epilogue, you wrote another really beautiful passage, just to skip around through the entire book. You said, “I lay on the couch and hold my newborn daughter close, her tiny ear pressed against my swelling heart. Instead of telling her about my mom, I tell her about the kind of mom I long to be. With my silence, I show her that I will always listen. I remember all the times I went upstairs to my mother’s room and lay quietly beside her until the words began to trickle out. I sense that in the years to come this is the only way my daughter too will reveal to me all the things deeply rooted in her heart. As my baby’s fingers clutch my hand, I realize that mothers draw strength from their daughters too.”
I started crying when I read that in the book. This whole relationship, oh, my gosh. I know it’s so early in your parenting of your daughter. Do you find yourself saying or doing things to her that really channel your mom?
Marisa: Definitely. That's also one of these universal things that most people, when they become a mom, all of a sudden they say things and they’re like, “Oh, my god. That's what my mom used to say.” You just hear your mother’s words come out of your mouth. I think, most women when that happens, they go, “Oh, god. I sound just like my mother.” [in exasperation] For me, I go, “Oh, my gosh. I sound just like my mother!” [in happiness] It’s such a way of her coming back to me. One of the little things is I remember when holding my son when he was born and also when holding my daughter, when they're crying, I would walk my daughter around the room and go, [singing] “Ah, ah, baby. Mama loves the baby.” That's what my mom used to sing to me when I was a baby. I remember I relayed this to my stepmother. She said, “Oh, yeah. That's what I used to sing to my children.” It’s this refrain that comes back to you that has such strong memories attached to it and such comfort and such solace. It’s wonderful how there are these universal things about parenting that go from generation to generation. Even though so much is different now than it was when our parents raised us, there's still so much that connects us.
Zibby: It’s true. There was also a huge component to this book about your growing up because you wrote it in this stage of life, high school, going to college, this whole time of life. [Laughs] My husband, he asks me what I'm reading. I'm like, “It’s also like a coming of age.” He's like, “Why is everything you read a coming of age? What does that even mean?” I was like, “Well, you know.” Anyway, tell me about the coming of age part about this book and the intersection. It was such a time of change for you already, graduating high school, the whole thing, the prom dress, and the loss of your mom, and the illness that you had to deal with. Tell me about that moment a little more.
Marisa: For anyone who has dealt with someone being ill, the weirdest thing about it is that your current life continues. You have this big side plot of someone in your life being sick. Then you also have to keep doing your day-to-day, which is very strange. My day-to-day at the time, I was seventeen when my mom was diagnosed. I was a senior in high school. I was waiting to find out where I was going to college. I was waiting to find out who I was going to bring to prom, all the things that now seem childish and silly but at the time are these big moments in your life. Getting my mom’s diagnosis just blew up my world. Everything took on even more importance than it normally would have. I'm already a sentimental person. Something like going prom dress shopping, I always imagined, and my mom always imagined, going prom dress shopping together. We were very close throughout my life. That was something we were always looking forward to. Then my mom was diagnosed in January.
A few weeks later, she said, “Let's go prom dress shopping.” It was so bittersweet to me because it was something I always wanted to do with her, and yet my friends weren’t going to go prom dress shopping for another month or two. I knew we were doing it early so that she could be there. I was relaying this to a friend recently. She said, “I don't even remember who I got my prom dress with. I don't really remember it that well. When I read your book, it struck me so much that every moment you had with your mother when she was sick became so memorable for you.” There's something very special about that. At the time, everything just felt really fraught. In hindsight, it made everything so much more memorable. I remember those years with my mother so well because of it.
My mom also became a source of wisdom for me in everything from where I was deciding to go to college -- she was very adamant that I still continue to go far away from home even though she was sick. She was very adamant with both me and my brother, she wanted our lives to continue. She didn't want to interrupt our lives. She also gave me a lot of advice in relationships. I had various boyfriends throughout the book and various relationships. Some of them became very tumultuous in that time. She, thankfully, outlived this two-month prognosis and could still be there for me when I really needed her.
Zibby: You also talk all throughout this book about the importance of books to you while you went through all of this. You talk about The Awakening and Danielle Steel novels that distracted your mom. You were reading books on how to manage grief while on break working at an ice cream shop in the summer when you should've been out doing whatever childhood-type things. How do you think reading helped both you and your mom through that? How do you think it helps you today?
Marisa: Reading was something that always connected me and my mom. I remember so well, we would take these weekly trips to the library after school. I would pick out my books. She would pick out her books. Some of my favorite times were when she would read a book and was like, “Missy, you have to read this,” or I read a book and I was like, “Mom, you have to read this.” That shared experience of both reading the same book and then being able to talk about it with each other, and especially that happening as I became an older teenager, it showed me that my mom was able to start seeing me as a young adult and start seeing me as kind of a peer who she could share these books with. I loved that feeling. I think a lot of children love that feeling of when they start to see their parents looking at them differently and feeling like they're becoming someone different. When we wrote this book, our hope was that this could be a book that a mother might read and then pass along to her teenage daughter or vice versa. A teenager daughter might read it and be like, “Mom, you have to read this.” We both loved that experience of sharing a book together. There's something so intimate about a book.
Zibby: If I finish something that I really love, I send copies to my mom and my grandmother right away. I ask my grandmother all the time -- she reads all the time -- “Gadgi, what are you reading?” Now, she’s ninety-five. She's like, “I don't know, but it’s really good.” Great.
Marisa: [Laughs] I had this really nice moment recently where I've reconnected in the past few months with the woman who was my mother’s physician’s assistant because I called her to make sure she was okay with being included in the book. She was. The best thing she told me was, “I'm reading it right now. Then my teenage daughter, who’s fourteen, wants to read it. Then on spring break, we’re going to visit my mom who lives in Florida. We’re going to give it to her to read.” I said, “Oh, my gosh. You're doing exactly what my mom and I wanted to do, and even more, even one generation beyond that that we didn't even really think of.” I love this idea of these different generations of women passing the book along. That is what is part of what's special about the book. A mom can read it and get a peek inside her teenage daughter’s brain. A teenage daughter can read it and hopefully think, “My mom is also a person. In addition to being my mom, she's this person who has all these different feelings.” I hope it’s a way that moms and daughters can connect.
Zibby: This is a personal question. You don't have to answer. Do you feel like your mom knows that this is happening now? Do you believe any of that, like she's looking down or she knows or anything?
Marisa: I do. For a long time, I fought that. I just wanted her here in real life so badly that I really fought against that feeling. People would say, “She's here. You can talk to her.” I would be rolling my eyes. You don't get it. Ever since having children and now especially also with publishing the book, I really do feel her presence more than I have in a very long time and more than I ever thought I would. I do think she knows the book is coming out. I’m torn between whether she thinks, “Of course Missy finished this book because she's so sentimental and family-oriented. We were so close that of course she had to, in a way,” -- she was very sarcastic and funny. I also hear her saying, “Missy, seriously? You worked on this book for twenty years? You wrote this book and you're getting it published? Seriously?” I can't tell which. She definitely knows. I'm not sure yet what exactly she's saying about it. Maybe both. [Laughs]
Zibby: Have you liked the process? Would you want to write another book? Is this like, “That's enough. That's was half a lifetime. I'm over it. I said what I wanted to say”?
Marisa: I've actually loved the process. Even now, seeing how a book gets published and how it gets promoted is so fascinating to me. As a book lover, it’s so fascinating.
Zibby: You were in the magazine world for a long time too, right?
Marisa: Yes. Being in the magazine world, the longest thing I probably wrote was an 800-word essay. Also trying to wrap your head around, this is 70,000 words, that seems ridiculous. I've really loved the process. I would love to write another book. I'm really hoping it takes me less than eighteen years. That's a really doable goal. [Laughs]
Zibby: Maybe you should get your husband to write a father-son memoir, like a companion piece.
Marisa: I keep thinking there needs to be another dual --
Zibby: -- Instead of your pink cover with the grapefruit, it could be a blue cover with -- what's a blue...? I don't know. A plum? I have no good ideas. You know what I'm thinking.
Marisa: [Laughs] They would make it a baseball or something really generic.
Zibby: You're right, something more sporty. Do you have any advice to aspiring authors having just been through this process and now the book’s coming out and all this?
Marisa: I feel like that's all I want to do now is tell people to write books. There's something about finishing it. I feel really strongly that there's something really valuable about a long-term goal. Right now, we see a lot of overnight success with things. Even when we see a book come out, we don't really think about the backstory of it, of how long it took to make that piece of art. I always say it took me eighteen years. You could definitely do it in less time. Also, creative projects just take how long they take for a reason. I keep trying to remind myself of that, that I needed to get to a certain point in my life for this to work.
If there are writers out there who are frustrated, or maybe they’ve written books and they haven't been published, or maybe they’ve been working on a book forever and they feel frustrated by that, or feelings of failure because of that, I really suggest just keeping at it, especially if you're enjoying it. I always enjoyed the moments when I would sit down and work on it. I always felt like those were moments that I was hanging out with my mom. That was part of what was so great about it. I had this sacred space where I could hang out with her again. No matter what you're writing, it is a sacred time. Maybe you're not hanging out with your dead mom. [Laughs] Maybe you're hanging out with the characters that you've created. If that time is meaningful for you and valuable for you, just keep at it. Maybe it'll only take you seventeen years.
Zibby: If you could say something to anybody who might be going through a similar loss, what would you say?
Marisa: I wish I had those magic words of wisdom. Unfortunately, there aren’t any words of wisdom. I always went back to a letter that my mom wrote to me. She wrote it to me way before she got sick. She wrote it to me when I was a younger teenager and was probably upset because a boy I liked didn't like me back or a friend was being mean to me. She wrote in the letter that she wished she could tell me who to choose as friends and who to love, but that's part of the wonderous journey of life. Life is full of unexpected surprises. Even in loss, there are unexpected surprises. I'm so surprised by my life right now. When I compare myself at twenty after just losing my mom and how empty my life felt, and now I'm thirty-six and married. I have two kids. My house is never quiet. It’s so joyful. I don't think I ever would've anticipated that. There's always room for more joy in your life even next to loss.
Zibby: Thank you. That was so moving and so open of you. Thank you for sharing all of this.
Marisa: Thank you for having me.
Zibby: The book was really amazing. I'm not surprised that meeting you in person has mirrored that experience.
Marisa: Thank you, Zibby. I love what you're doing on the podcast. I love what you're doing for books in general.
Zibby: Thank you.