Yarrow House

On Producing a Book with My Mother

December 2014

In their 50s, in 1971, my parents joined the Peace Corps and went to Liberia in West Africa. As a nurse and maintenance mechanic, they brought valuable skills to their assignments in remote jungle towns. After three years in Peace Crops, they spent three more years there working for Lutheran Mission hospitals.

When we were growing up, we lived in a farming community south of Tacoma. My mother was active in our little country church and participated in local community economic improvement efforts. After my sister and I graduated from high school and left home, my parents also moved. Wherever they lived, they found ways to be of service. It was no surprise that they went into Peace Corps.

During their six years in Liberia, my mother wrote a letter a week to her mother, as well as letters to me, my sister, and other family members. Grandma saved every letter that fell into her hands. In 1994 when Grandma was 102, she came to live with my parents. Along with her other belongings, she brought a coat box full of my mother’s letters. What we all thought would be a year turned into five. In 1999 a few weeks before her 107th birthday, Grandma died. In disposing of her belongings, we rediscovered the letters. By that time my parents, now in their 80s, were dealing with their own health issues, which forced them into a retirement center. The letters went back into storage.

My mother had grown up in a shack and had aspirations for herself and her family beyond that poverty-stricken world. After high school, she’d worked the usual low-paying jobs available to women. She was a soda fountain clerk and made badminton shuttle cocks at Eddie Bauer, saving up money to pay her way through registered nurses’ training. After she and Dad married, she worked in hospitals until we entered elementary school. At that point she was offered a position at Tacoma Vocational Technical Institute, teaching practical nursing. As one of the few women on the staff, she learned to hold her own among the male instructors and administrators. Once, she recounted to me, she went to a state vocational education conference and was the only woman there. She remembered the speaker greeting the assembly with, “Welcome gentlemen, and Mrs. Jacobson.” It had come to amuse her by the time she told me the incident. She belonged to the Washington Nurses Association and the Vocational Education Association and often took leadership positions in them.

It was a time when women didn’t work out of the home, and my mother was the only wife in our community who did. She told me that she never talked with the other women about her work. Much later I realized she probably earned more money than my father earned as a maintenance mechanic in a local brick plant.

When we were young children, we wore jeans to play in, but our mother made us wear dresses and little white gloves when we went on shopping trips to Tacoma. I remember the family driving to Seattle—70 long miles up Highway 99— to see a traveling exhibit of art masterpieces at the Seattle Art Museum. She raised us to be ladies and to be aware of the world outside of our little rural community. "Think for yourselves," she frequently admonished us. “Don’t follow the crowd.” Her interests and expectations set us apart from the other children and their families. I was proud of her, and I also wanted her to be like the other mothers, there when we got home from school. As a teenager, I was sure she didn’t know me at all. The truth is that I didn’t know her.

After my parents moved into their retirement center, her health began to fluctuate. In the face of my mother’s looming mortality, her letters from Liberia weighed on her. The past sixteen years of chaos and civil war in Liberia were finally coming to an end, and the collection of letters seemed like a valuable social document about pre-war Liberia, as well as the Peace Corps activity there. We decided to type the letters and see what we might make of them. she had high hopes that we could make them into a book.

It took the next five years of intermittent work by friends and relatives to type them all. By January 2010, the year my mother turned 91,we had 650 single-spaced pages of material. I began reading through the raw manuscript to get an idea of what we could do with it, whether there was enough of a story arc to make for interesting reading and, if so, how much additional material we’d need to generate.

As it turned out, my mother was an excellent letter writer. Effortlessly, it seemed, she described their life, daily events, people’s customs, attitudes, and beliefs, what dad did, and her struggle to get support from the local Peace Corps health director. Her account of their discovery of a murdered Peace Corps colleague and the months-long trial of the murderer was gripping. Her stories about organizing vaccination drives and teaching midwifery classes captured the challenges of working in an isolated rural setting. She described in evocative detail their travels in West Africa, the constant procession of visitors they put up for a few nights or weeks, and the Liberian children they helped with school fees and other support. Turning the letters into an engaging book began to seem possible.

During 2010 her health worsened, and she ended up in the emergency room several times before we were able to get her stabilized. She was depressed and wondered aloud what was left for her at this end of her life. “Don’t forget.” I’d remind her. “You have to finish your book.”  

In the parent-child relationship, we rarely have the chance to see each other as individuals. We are encased in our roles. Our relationships are filtered through our history with each other. As we worked on the book, my relationship with my mother began to change. I was getting to know her as a peer. I began to see the woman her friends and colleagues knew and treasured, a woman who took charge wherever she went. Her generosity and capability shone through the details she described. Here was a person who if she had to go out at night and help a young mother give birth in a tiny hut lit by a kerosene lamp, did it as a matter of course. When she had to examine a dead body for signs of smallpox, she did and made a report on it to the district health officer. When Peace Corps didn’t have a role for her, she made one for herself and created a public health clinic in the process.

At the same time, working with my mother on the letters while she became increasingly compromised physically and mentally also changed the nature of our relationship. Every task took her longer. Her memory was unreliable, and it was harder for her to follow a train of thought. I had to curb my impatience and learn to repeat things in different ways. I also had to face the fact that I would need to make the decisions about what details to cut and what photos to include. I wanted my mother back, not this woman I had to tell what needed to be done. I kept trying to get her to assert herself, to be in charge, but she was no longer able to and was happy to have me make those decisions. When it came time to create the prologue and epilogue, I urged her to write them but I had to outline what she should write and, finally, to fill in the gaps in the material she produced. In retrospect, I can see that over that year, our work together on the letters helped us make the transition from my reliance on her to hers on me.

When I started out to produce the book with my mother, I regarded it as my gift to her, but in the end it was also a surprising and precious gift for me. As I read and edited the letters, laid out the book, and proofread the galleys, she emerged as a separate person, unfiltered by her role as my mother. I came to know and admire her for the splendid and remarkable woman she is.


One-time reproduction for non-resale purposes permitted with the following credit line: by Judith Yarrow, © 2014