Dear Readers: I’m stepping away from the column this week to travel the country and meet readers. This is an edited version of an essay I wrote a year ago.
I’m about to celebrate another anniversary of writing this column, and – after almost 15 years –- I will admit that I have already outlasted my original expectation for this experience. When I started the “Ask Amy” column in 2003, I think I assumed that my readership would run out of questions.
I also thought that we might simply tire of one another, in the way that happens in so many long relationships. This column runs 365 days each year, and aside from some brief breaks while I worked on other projects, I’ve consistently assumed the role of Ask Amy while this column grew into its adolescence. I’ve written while onboard planes, trains and ferryboats, sitting in the public library, and in my home office, which is located in an old red barn. I’ve opened bushels of postal mail, run through eight laptops and (by my estimation) clicked open 520,000 emails.
When I started writing this column, I was a middle-aged single mother with a teenage daughter, living in Chicago. I am now married, with four more daughters and two granddaughters. Like all of you, my own life has taken many unexpected turns. Like all of you, my own journey has been crooked and fraught with challenges and complication.
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Several years ago, I left my office at the Chicago Tribune, and with the acceptance of my employer moved back to my hometown of Freeville, N.Y. (pop 505), to be with my elderly mother.
Like the almost 4 in 10 Americans who help to take care of an ill family member, I entered a period of challenges that I was not prepared to face. After living in New York City, Washington, D.C., London and Chicago, I was plunged back into the universe of the small town where I was born and raised on a dairy farm. After 17 years of being (mostly) happily single, I fell in love, and, after a whirlwind courtship, I married a man I have known since I was 12 years old. I became a stepmother, and then, quickly, a grandmother.
Our marriage, which was launched on the gossamer thread of a romantic fairy tale, has continued firmly grounded in real-life graces. When you choose a partner in late-life, you are really picking out the person you would most like to push your wheelchair. I chose well.
My two sisters and I struggled through the bewildering minefield of medical caregiving so that our mother could stay at home at the end of her life. Our mother’s death, and the deaths of other family members in quick succession, tore a hole through our family. I entered a period of deep sadness that no remedy seemed able to touch.
Through it all, I have continued to do my job (as all of you do yours, during good and tough times). Although I am someone others turn to for answers, I have often been surprised by my own frailty and failings. My search for ways to live my own best life has taken me through a shelf of self-help books, into therapy, nature, art, music, meditation and a return to my faith through my hometown church.
Today my memoir covering these years of my life, “Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Coming Home” (Hachette) is published in paperback.
The constant and most inspiring through-line in this phase of late-middle age has been the deep connection I share with my readers and the people who are brave enough to air their problems in this space. At my deepest moments of personal questioning, I have anchored to the inspiring reality of this connection, and the sure knowledge that I am not alone. None of us is alone, if we are brave and generous enough to hold onto each other.
With the exception of my immediate family, my relationship with you has been the longest of my life. It has lasted longer than my first marriage and longer than any of the succession of brazen and beloved tabby cats who have wandered through my household. This connection has grown more fierce and faithful with time, and I am truly grateful. And so I have dedicated my memoir to the readers of the “Ask Amy” column. You have been generous with your own stories. You have trusted me, and have taught me so much. Thank you.
Email Amy at firstname.lastname@example.org.