roses in vase on background white wall

Dear mom,

It’s hard to believe you’ve been dead since 2003; that’s 18 years now. I think you would have loved your memorial. We held it at the Stave Kirke in Rapid City, South Dakota. Honoring your love of needlework, we hung the Norwegian bunad you meticulously made by hand. Like the tradition of the riderless horse, we had the womanless dress.

I don’t even know where to start to catch you up on everything. You always told me time gets faster as we age, and I now see you were right. Let’s see… I am mortified that I can’t remember the year Ann died, although I’ll never forget that it was on June 9. You’d think that the year my only niece — your only grandchild — died would be emblazoned on my brain. It hurt so much, I can still barely think about it. Alane couldn’t ever talk about it with me. I told her once that she could say anything she needed to about Ann. Alane turned icy cold and said, “No. I don’t like to process like you do.” It was more important to let her know I was open to hearing about one of the more contentious mother/daughter relationships I had ever experienced. They were often both too generous with their mean streaks.

Alane did tell me once that she believed her pregnancy with Ann, being unplanned and unwanted, was possibly the cause of Ann’s cancer. Imagine my sister carrying that burden around: the guilt, the self-recrimination. I’m so grateful that you and I had the heart-to-heart talk about “unwanted” that we did. When I asked if you had wanted me, I was sure you’d be honest. And you were, when you told me “no.” I’d be a hypocrite if I asked and then got angry for hearing the truth. And I would not be a good daughter and feminist activist for reproductive choice if I resented you for feeling that you had no choice. We got closer after that talk, and for that, I’m forever thankful.

Now for the latest family news: Alane herself died last year on July 27 of a rare blood disorder. Remember cousin Torvald in Bergen? He suffers from “Viking disease,” which is a form of overly iron-rich blood. I’m curious if I have any propensity toward it. Anyway, Alane soldiered through a lot of the indignities of aging and would not stop. I was incredibly proud of her for taking what she knew would be the last trip to visit her beloved grandson, Nico, and his new wife, Randi. Mikey was able to come, too, and I came up for a few days. It was as close to a family reunion that we had gotten in years. Alane proved to be a doting grandmother, and both boys and Randi adored her.

A significant part of my life is that I got married for the third time in 2008. Yep, the third time appears to be the charm, although I’m proudly still good friends with both my ex-husbands. I married Ken Gruberman in the first Buddhist wedding I’d ever attended — my own! We love each other, but even better, we enjoy each other’s company. We both work from home, and if you had told me I’d be working and living around the clock with a spouse, I’d say you were nuts. That could only end in a murder, and I’d be in prison for life. As it turns out, we love being together. That particular relationship asset has paid off, since we’ve been in a quarantine situation for more than a year thanks to a global pandemic.

I regret not asking you more questions. I also regret the questions you never asked me. I suspect you may have been a tad leery of hearing my answers, given my wildness in comparison to the nice, quiet Norwegian girl I never turned out to be. I am forever grateful to you for so many things. You never gave me a discouraging word even when my plans and dreams were so outrageous that you were no doubt stunned when you heard them. I am particularly indebted to you for turning me on to Eleanor Roosevelt, who was living proof that a woman could write a column.

I don’t know if there’s an afterlife or not. If there is, I wonder if you’ve been keeping track of me. If so, I hope I make you proud.


Love, Ellen


P.S. I wrote a one-woman show about you and have performed it all over the world. It’s called “Now That She’s Gone: Unraveling the Mystery of My Mother.” I think I finally figured you out after you passed away.

• Ellen Snortland and the Rev. Hannah Petrie are interviewing midwifery professor Dr. Mayri Leslie on the POP podcast on Friday, May 7, in observance of Mother’s Day. Like and follow @Radio Jornelero on Facebook to catch the midwife episode.

Ellen Snortland has written a column continuously since the early ’90s. She also coaches writers. Contact her at