I rarely post an interview to the blog that was previously published elsewhere (you can read those on my publications page). I am making an exception today! Jill Talbot, a gorgeous essayist whom I have long admired, has put together a wonderful collection, The Last Year: Essays, about a unique moment (or year, rather) in time–the year before her daughter Indie left for college.
As an educator, who helps kids craft their college admissions essays, I connect with families during that pre-transitional year. Here’s an excerpt from an essay I wrote about that work and connection a while back, originally published in Lunch Ticket: “Starting mid-summer each year, I become swamped with rising seniors who must face the dreaded college application essay. It’s so scary for most of them to reflect on who they are and on who they want to become. It’s delicious, though, this magical coming of age exercise, and I feel so honored to be my students’ guide. I love those kids, and their parents, and every fall, I am witness to a whole new flock of families getting ready to make adjustments to the nest. It’s bittersweet and it’s beautiful, and I realize how profoundly I’ve been blessed.”
I find my work to be a blessing and I feel similarly about reading Jill’s book and our conversation. I am pretty sure that you will feel the same.
Jill and I spoke about the book and that year in our interview originally published in MER on July 15. (Jill and I added one bonus question and answer for this one, and, of course, we added all these lovely photos Jill took, many of which are from her and Indie’s “half-tank trips.”)
Chronicling Loss—and Joy: An Interview with Jill Talbot about The Last Year: Essays
Sending a child off to college or out on her own is an important life passage for parents. While preparing a child to successfully “leave the nest” is the ultimate goal and at least one of the measures typically used to evaluate one’s effectiveness as a parent, that new stage can be felt as a great loss. Jill Talbot’s The Last Year: Essays, a gorgeous collection based on her 2020 column for The Paris Review, chronicles the year before her daughter Indie leaves for college. Talbot, a single mother who raised Indie on her own since Indie was four months old, writes for parents in that space but also for anyone dealing with loss and grief, who struggles with restlessness, and who shares a longing to preserve memories. The collection is a stunning testament to the love and joy of deep connection between a mother and her child.
It was my great pleasure to interview Jill Talbot on Zoom, where we talked about anticipatory grief, that “last year,” and life beyond motherhood.
“As Indie’s Final Year of High School Began in 2020, I Wanted to Catalog It, Make a Record of It”
Diane: Congratulations on your gorgeous book The Last Year: Essays. It’s based on a column that you wrote for Paris Review about your daughter Indie’s last year at home before going away to college. How did that column come to be?
Jill: As Indie’s final year of high school began in 2020, I wanted to catalog it, make a record of it. Ultimately, I realized I could give the essays to Indie as a gift.
I had been publishing essays periodically in the Paris Review Daily since 2013. When I pitched the idea to Nadja Spiegelman, the online editor for The Daily at the time, she replied quickly, telling me she had been wanting to do a column with me, and she proposed a year-long column across the four seasons, so those are the sections in the book: Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer.
Diane: Are the essays in the book the same as those in the Paris Review?
Jill: While I was writing the essays for The Daily, Nadja gave me a word range for each essay, as she wanted the lengths of the essays to be varied, and some of the word counts limited how much I could develop. Only one of the essays in the book is the same as it ran in The Daily. The others—with the help of my sharp and generous editor at Wandering Aengus Press, Ana Maria Spagna—have been revised and expanded.
“I Focused on Developing General Themes Such As Distance, Grief, Longing, Joy, and Memory”
Jill: I received an email from the editor at Wandering Aengus Press, Jill McCabe Johnson, expressing interest in publishing the essays as a book. When we spoke on the phone, we talked, easily, for two hours and discovered that we have so many connections. She had been a single parent for several years, so she understood so much of what I was writing about that experience. I knew she would take the care with the book that I wanted. She also assured me that I would have a say in every phase of the book—from the revisions to the book design, including the book cover, which I love. It’s a photograph of a road Clifton Wiens posted on Twitter, and when I sent him a message asking if he’d allow me to use it as the cover image, he said, “It’s yours.”
When Jill and I spoke, I told her I wanted was to stay true to the spirit and energy of the original essays, and both she and Ana Maria truly respected me in that regard. She told me that the press is a labor of love for everyone involved in it, and Jill has proven that at each stage of my book. I’m very grateful.
Diane: I can’t imagine anybody reading this book without feeling connected to it.
Jill: I wanted to write for people who were going through or had been through that letting go of a child, but also for readers who don’t have children or who aren’t drawn to reading about parenting. So, I focused on developing general themes such as distance, grief, longing, joy, and memory.
“Anticipatory Grief Is What I Was Experiencing”
Diane: I see the book as a study of anticipatory grief and how it may prepare you for a coming loss.
Jill: I once heard Paul Lisicky talk about the experience of writing his memoir, The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship, during the breakup of the man he calls M. in the memoir. He described writing about something while it’s happening allowed him to “summon psychic strength while also keeping a distance from it.” That’s what writing these essays was like for me.
Anticipatory grief is what I was experiencing. At the end of the essay “Ghosts,” I say, “This time next year, I’ll move through these rooms alone,” meaning my apartment, and realizing that in months, Indie wouldn’t be in her room or on the couch with me at night watching TV or talking. So yes, it is very much about looking at each last moment.
Diane: You weren’t alone in your anticipatory grief. In “All Our Leavings” you describe your morning ritual of blowing kisses and waving wildly as Indie pulls away to go to school. Even the neighbor who watches you from her balcony says, “Soon, I will miss your waving arms.”
I think the year before a kid goes to college is such an interesting stage. We all have losses in our lives, but we don’t all know when they’re coming. This loss, however, is delineated. Parents almost plot out the grief in some ways. I think it was a brilliant strategy to write about the year, to give yourself that distance and that strength.
“I Didn’t Want Her To Be At Every Significant Phase of That Final Year, Wondering What I Was Going to Write About”
Jill: I also think denial is a great part of loss. One of the things I noticed in June on social media was how many parents posted photos of them with their children at high school graduations, and it almost seemed like they were shocked, as if they didn’t see it coming. All of sudden, the day is here.
Indie didn’t know I was writing the column. I wanted to keep that from her because I didn’t want her to be self-conscious. I didn’t want her to be at every significant phase of that final year, wondering what I was going to write about, what I was going to include. I didn’t want that kind of veil over her joy and her experiences.
That was one of the challenges in writing them. I sat at my kitchen table writing every Monday, Tuesday or revising Thursday nights. Especially after the lockdown, where else was she but here? I was even writing the final essays when we were on the cross-country trip to take her to college—that was tricky.
Diane: You write a lot about being on the road, which is another thing that many people can relate to. What does being on the road mean for you and Indie?
Jill: There’s a line in the prologue essay “Road Grad”: “We are most who we are when we’re on the road.” Staring when Indie was 16 months old, we moved to nine states in eleven years. I’m in academia, and I struggled to find a permanent position, a tenure-track position, so I went between adjunct and visiting positions. The longest visiting position I had for four years, but most of them were one-year stints. So, we lived a pattern of packing up and moving.
“I Got the Idea That We Could Go See the World’s Largest Casino, Which Is 45 Miles North from Us”
We moved to Texas when Indie was in the eighth grade, and after being here for a couple of years, we were restless. We were accustomed to packing up and getting on the road and driving across the country to the next town. But after her sophomore year of high school, she asked, “Could we stay until I graduate?” By staying, we got to experience stability, connections, and getting to know her friends and their parents in ways we never had.
Diane: Can you tell us about your half-tank trips during the pandemic you talk about in “Road Grad”?
Jill: Indie and I have the same reaction to moments of stress or melancholy or frustration. We drive. After Indie got her license, she would drive around town. I do the same thing, but I’ll get on the highway and drive 30 miles in one direction and just turn around. I’ve done that everywhere we’ve lived. The best was in New Mexico, when I would drive the hour west to Santa Fe and back. What a gorgeous drive on I-25 South, which is the highway on the cover of the book!
To answer your question: There came a time during the pandemic when I could tell Indie was down. She’s a very active, social person; she likes to be out and about. So, I got the idea that we could go see the World’s Largest Casino, which is 45 miles north from us.
“Once Every Two Weeks or So After That, We Would Go on What I Called Half-Tank Trips”
I asked her one night if she wanted to get up early and go see what the world’s largest casino looks when it’s closed, and she beamed. We had such a great time that morning being on the road and feeling like ourselves and having a great conversation. Once every two weeks or so after that, we would go on what I called half-tank trips. I wouldn’t tell Indie where we were going until we got in the car, but there were a couple of trips where what we found was serendipitous. We watched a lot of Ghost Adventures during that time, and once while we were driving, she Googled, “Ghost Adventures locations.” That’s how we found the Baker Hotel in Mineral Wells. We always found things we weren’t planning on finding, and that was really fun.
Diane: Music was important on these trips. There’s nothing like driving and listening. You both sang along?
Jill: Oh, yes. We both love music. We love to sing. In “Texas History,” I wrote about Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits going with us on those half-tank trips. That’s such a good CD to talk and listen to, and Indie would put it on shuffle, and we’d take off.
“I Loved How Many People, People Following The Paris Review Column, Posted Photos of Their Postcards”
Diane: Tucked into the gorgeous copy you sent me of The Last Year was a postcard with a photo of an orange van (photo credit to Indie). There’s a story behind this postcard. Can you share it?
Jill: Yes, Indie took the photograph from the passenger window during our cross-country trip to her university in August 2020. The van is a classic orange Volkswagen Van, in stellar condition. A VW Van has always been our dream car, and we take photos whenever we see one. In fact, I have a red Lego VW Van in my office that Indie made me when she was twelve—I keep it on top of a bookshelf. (The van has curtains and even a tiny wine glass on a table in the back!)
To the postcard: During the pandemic, I sent vintage postcards to people, to strangers, on Twitter (and many sent ones back and still do!). It was a way to connect with others in a more personal way, and it was also something for me to do, as I was alone in my apartment and missing Indie. I loved making morning trips to the post office with a stack of stamped postcards.
When I got back from dropping off Indie at her university, I decided to make my own postcards from Indie’s photograph, and I posted on Twitter that I’d be happy to send one to anyone who DMed me their address. I loved how many people, people following The Paris Review column, posted photos of their postcards on their refrigerators, end tables, bulletin boards. August 2020, by the way, was the last month of the column. I don’t think anyone could have realized how seeing those postcards in faraway places, on seeing Indie’s beautiful photograph, gave me comfort and joy in those first months of missing her. I eventually ran out of postcards, so I ordered more and added “Photo Credit: Indie Talbot August 2020” to the back.
Now, when I send personal, signed copies of the book to people—strangers, friends, fellow writers—I place one of the postcards inside the book, because now that postcard has become an artifact of our road trip in August 2020, and I like sharing that with as many readers as I can. And I plan to bring a stack of postcards to my readings, too!
“I Learned That My Mother Loved Me in the Ways That She Could”
Diane: One of my favorite essays, one I think everyone can relate to, is “Pendulum,” with its four generations of women. Can you talk about that one a little bit?
Jill: Sure. “Pendulum” is about my maternal grandmother, my mother, and then me and Indie. It’s about three relationships, the one between my grandmother and my mother, my mother and me, and then my relationship with Indie. My grandmother and my mother had a strained, complex relationship due to my grandmother’s alcoholism, and my mother and I struggled to communicate and understand each other. When people are not shown love and affection growing up, it can be difficult for some to show love and affection for other people. I learned that my mother loved me in the ways that she could.
It has never been difficult with Indie. We’ve always gotten along. Still do. In “The Rooms,” I write about a time when we did have a moment of conflict that shook us both because it was the first time it had happened. For “The Pendulum,” I felt the need to press upon readers the significance of my relationship with Indie for me, so I had to give the context of the mother-daughter relationships that have come before me, and how I was so determined to reverse that direction. That’s where the pendulum comes in, the swing of the pendulum to move in a different direction, not to swing in the way the ones that had come before, and there’s that moment in “Pendulum” when I knew that Indie and I had done it.
Diane: It’s beautiful. Where did your strength come from?
Jill: Both of my parents. My mother was a very strong woman. In fact, when Indie and I both said our goodbyes to her separately and unknowingly, we both thanked her for teaching us how to be a strong woman.
“Indie Has Always Been the Reason for Everything”
My father was a high school football coach in Texas. He taught me to pick myself up and keep going, regardless of circumstance or pain (“Don’t give into it,” he’d say.)
Also, sometimes we don’t have a choice but to be strong. I’m the one who was there for Indie, and I alone had to provide, so we’d pick up and move on. Or I’d go on the fifth campus visit interview in four weeks or teach extra classes online or do manuscript reviews to make it to the end of the month, financially. But Indie has always been the reason for everything.
My strength comes from her.
Diane: In “We Lived Here,” you write about a lovely ritual you and Indie had. Can you tell us about it?
Jill: Each time we moved, we left pennies in the house or apartment or duplex. We’d each have a penny we’d place, and then we would place one penny together. We put them in a place significant for us, and we didn’t tell each other where we had put our penny until we were driving away from where we lived. The one we chose together had a shared significance. It was a wish of good luck for the people who came after us and a hope that they had as good or better time there than we did.
Indie told me when she’s moved out of her dorm at the end of each year at school, she’s left a penny.
Diane: That’s lovely. There are so many moments of generosity in the book.
“There Had Been All These Moments of Joy or Triumph or Silliness”
And your sentences! “Maybe we go back to places not to ask questions, but to realize we don’t have them anymore,” and “I think we harbor our longings for places we’ve left because we miss who we were in them,” both from the essay “The Return.” I think that’s one of the pieces that will hit home whether or not you are a parent. Can you talk about that essay a bit?
Jill: “The Return” is about Indie and I going to Colorado. It was Thanksgiving break of her junior year, and I wanted to take her to Boulder, which is where she was born, and where her father left. The last time I saw him was at the final custody hearing there. That afternoon, my father and I sat on a bench on Pearl Street, and he said, “It must be hard to leave such a beautiful place.” But, at the time, I felt there was too much sadness there.
I took Indie to Pearl Street. I wanted to find that bench, and I wanted to take a photograph of it.
On that trip, I took Indie to places where I had hung out with my friends in graduate school and to where I had finished running a race and to the Boulder Bookstore, where I used to set her infant seat on the floor while I looked for books. There had been all these moments of joy or triumph or silliness. I thought, Why didn’t I pay attention to those times more than the loss and his leaving? Why all of a sudden does someone get to own a town in your mind when it’s just as much your town?
“I Get to Make Decisions About What I Want to Do and When I Want to Do It or Not Do It”
It was an important trip for me because it helped me recognize that. Of course, Indie was curious to see the place, too. The last time we left Boulder, she was in her infant seat in the back seat, and now, there we were. Indie was standing next to me when I took the photograph. Going back and taking that photograph felt like something I needed to do for both of us.
Diane: Here are the last two sentences of the book: “Last month, I turned fifty. In many ways, it feels like a pause button’s been released, and I can return to thinking, for the first-time in a long time, about who I am—beyond a mother.” Have you discovered who you are “beyond a mother?”
Jill: I think I’m starting to now that Indie has finished her junior year. For the first year or two, I put my head down and did my work and worried about her more than I should. But she has become her own woman. When I went to visit her a couple of weeks ago, I saw that she is very much living her best life, which kind of gives me permission to say, “Okay, Jill, now you have to figure out yours.”
Indie didn’t come home this summer because she has two fellowships, so this is the first summer I’ve lived alone in over 20 years, so the days and the nights are my own. She and I still text daily, but I get to make decisions about what I want to do and when I want to do it or not do it.
“She Said, “Momma, You’ll Always Be Raising Me’”
Diane: Is that fun?
Jill: Yes! It is. Not that I’m doing anything differently, but after you are responsible on a minute-by-minute basis for someone and you realize you can finally say, “Okay, I’m done…”
I’ve mentioned before to Indie what a pleasure it has been to raise her. And she said, “Momma, you’ll always be raising me.”
And that’s true because something as simple as Indie going to Spain for a geology field research trip, she called to go over her packing list with me to make sure that she had everything. She said, “It just helps going over it with you.” Those are glorious moments, of course.
Diane: How has this book changed you?
Jill: When I got the print proof in the mail of The Last Year, and I held it in my hands, all I could think about is years from now when I will be able to gift it to Indie.
She gave her blessing on me publishing the book, and she now knows about the column, but she still doesn’t want to read the essays. She says, “I have my own memories and I want to keep them. Maybe in a decade or so.” I’m thinking, should she decide to have children, I might give it to her as an encouragement to keep the pendulum swinging in the right direction with her own children.
“The Response to the Column Was What Really Inspired Me to Turn It Into a Book”
Diane: What a gift to her. The book was a gift to me, so thank you. And it’s a gift to everybody who will read it, a huge gift.
Jill: The response to the column was what really inspired me to turn it into a book. Online essays, they can come and go or be forgotten about or disappear. What surprised me about the emails I received from people was how many young parents with infants or toddlers were following the column and telling me how it made them realize they need to pay attention to the moments. But my favorite was a college student who wrote to thank me for the essays because they made her rethink her relationship with her parents and made her want to connect with them.
Hearing things like that has been a gift to me.
And if you want to read more about Jill and Indie, pick up Jill’s wonderful memior The Way We Weren’t.
As always, I’d love to hear from you. Please write a comment or send me an email.
See you soon!
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