On page she seems a hilariously insightful neighbor, ear bent and wine ready, but Kelly Corrigan on the phone frankly has just 10 minutes to spare. She’s a best-selling author, host of a new talk series, a breast cancer survivor, spouse, daughter, friend and fundraiser, yet in her book – which is the one that counts – she’s a mother. Of that demanding demographic, who has more than 10 minutes for anything? Particularly when her daughter will be waiting in the rain.
Writing about life’s warts and wonders through motherhood’s lens is what birthed and has nurtured Corrigan’s literary career. The 2008 YouTube video of her reading “Transcending,” an essay about the plain splendor of women’s enduring friendships, struck a deep emotional chord that was shared friend to friend, sister to sister, some 5 million times.
The essay was included with her first memoir, “The Middle Place,” the story of how she and her father, George “The Green Man” Corrigan, were each diagnosed with and survived cancer. Last year’s “Glitter and Glue,” released this week in paperback by Penguin, is a meditation on the mother-daughter relationship, recounting a summer in Australia working as a nanny when she was 24, and ultimately honoring her own pragmatic mother, Mary Corrigan, a devout Catholic who once defined her role in the family as the glue to their father’s glitter.
Corrigan will be in Raleigh this weekend, talking about mothers and daughters and being both at the same time, when she gives the keynote address for The Gathering, a two-day women’s workshop on faith at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church.
On the other side
At 48, she has weathered illness, found fame, helped raise money for various charities and nonprofits and chews over big ideas with famous thinkers on “Foreword,” her new video interview series for the blog-publishing platform Medium. (Her husband, Edward Lichty, runs the business side of Medium). Past the 50-yard line in parenting her two daughters, 13-year-old Georgia and almost 12-year-old Claire, the challenge of the hour is adolescence.
“Oh, we’re there,” she states, as though the family has touched down for a layover in an unpleasant airport. “Right. There.”
Late afternoon in the San Francisco Bay Area where they live, she describes how her eldest just used her own babysitting money to purchase a bikini online, how the girls are starting to tune her out (“You get like, six words …”). Her voice sounds a little weary, a little distracted, a lot ... real.
This is what it her writing voice sounds like from “Glitter and Glue”:
“The thing about mothers, I want to say, is that once the containment ends and one becomes two, you don’t always fit together so neatly. They don’t get you like you want them to, like you think they should, they could, if only they would pay closer attention. They agonize over all the wrong things, cycling through one inane idea after another: seat belts, flossing, the Golden Rule. The living mother-daughter relationship, you learn over and over again, is a constant choice between adaptation and acceptance.”
She wrote that passage looking back, as a 20-something talking about her mother. Suddenly, she is on the other side.
Finding good ground
“The biggest surprise,” she says, “is that they don’t want my advice or need my advice.” Her daughters have not read any of her books. “And they almost refuse to. I suggested we could read them together, but there’s this real iron gate – so at this point, they don’t want to know anything about me.”
She spent years feeling that way about her own mother – as so many daughters do.
Her relationship with her mother is ever evolving. Mary Corrigan read the manuscript before it came out. She didn’t really ask to change anything, and in fact, was supportive of including even the worst story: teenage Kelly, caught shoplifting, had to call her mother for a ride home. In the car, Mary Corrigan slapped her hard enough to draw blood. She didn’t flinch then, and didn’t flinch about having it included.
Different as they are, it seems they have found good ground.
“I think she prays for me,” Corrigan says. “Her sense is, I will get there.”
And very likely, so, too, will Corrigan’s teenage daughters.