Mary Potter Kenyon, Winthrop Library Director and mother of eight, has been writing ever since she was little. Her book, Coupon Crazy: The Science, The Savings, and the Stories Behind America's Extreme Obsession was published by Familius in August 2013, and Chemo-Therapist: How Cancer Cured a Marriage was released in April 2014. Mary has been kind enough to share with us some of her thoughts, feelings, and wisdom in regards to her most recent book, Refined By Fire: A Journey of Grief and Grace which was just released this month.
Tell us about your family.
I was married to David for 33 years before he passed away in March 2012. I have eight children, ages eleven to thirty-four. My oldest two, Daniel and Elizabeth, are married, and I count their spouses, Lydia and Ben, as children of my heart. Elizabeth and Ben are the parents of three children on earth and one in Heaven.
What initially interested you in writing?
I’d always enjoyed writing as a teen. I filled notebooks with angst-ridden poetry and was one of those annoying students who loved essay tests in high school and college, and the opportunity to expound on any subject. After giving birth to my fourth child and dropping out of a Masters program in Family Services, I thought writing might be a way to bring in an extra income from home. It wasn’t much of an income, but it was a wonderful outlet for my creativity. For eight years I wrote articles on saving money, homeschooling, and couponing for magazines, picking up some freelance work for a local newspaper. By 1996 I was also writing for anthologies and had sold my first book.
What inspired Refined by Fire and for whom is it written?
Long before I’d lost my own husband in 2012 I’d read books that would help pave the way for a journey of loss. I’d read Madeleine L’Engle’s “Two-Part Invention” and Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking,” and could imagine how it might feel to lose a spouse. Except nothing really prepares you for that. My husband was a five-year cancer survivor. Our marriage was the best it had ever been. We were looking forward to getting old together. He survived a heart attack and came home from the hospital after a stent surgery, only to have his heart stop sometime in the night three days later. I was 52 years old and didn’t even know any widows. None of my older siblings had lost their spouse. The only widow I’d known was my mother, and she had passed away on my birthday seventeen months earlier. I didn’t know how to be a widow. There were days when I thought I might be going crazy with grief. Was it “normal” to run out of a store because the peanut butter aisle made me cry? I couldn’t turn off the kitchen light because David had always been the one to turn it off and on. Was I going to be okay? I filled two journals with anguished thoughts, questions, and prayers. I blogged about grief. I knew I needed something to hang onto, but I wasn’t sure what, or how to find it. It was a journey of faith, as much as grief. A thin thread of faith would eventually become a thick cord, one that held strong when I faced the impending death of a grandson less than a year after my husband’s death. This book is for the newly-widowed, yes, but it is also for anyone who wants to understand someone who is grieving or for those who have yet to lose someone, because we all will inevitably experience the loss of a loved one. In the space of three years, I lost a mother, husband, and grandson, a dark period indeed. But during those three years I got glimpses of light in the form of hope and the love that surrounded me. I found grace.
How has writing improved the quality of your family life?
Writing made me a happier mother. It may have begun as a way of making a little extra income, but it soon became a necessity for my mental health. I sometimes think that writing kept me sane in the midst of raising a large family and homeschooling. My husband noticed it before I did; if I wasn’t making time for writing, I became a crabby mother and wife. “You haven’t written in a while,” he’d tactfully comment. “Why don’t I watch the kids while you go out for breakfast and write?”
I believe every mother should find their “thing,” whatever it is that they have a natural talent for. They should develop it and take the time to hone their craft. I also believe that every woman has a talent. Whether that is sewing, painting, music, gardening, or writing, there is something they once had an interest in that they may have abandoned upon becoming a mother. I speak to young mother’s groups and when I ask if they believe that each of their children have talents, they nod their heads decisively. Then when I ask if they believe that they also have a natural talent, their facial expression becomes wistful or sheepish. As mothers we have a unique opportunity to teach our young children that learning never stops. It doesn’t hurt them to see the example of an adult who happens to be their mother, continuing to try new things and finding joy in utilizing their talents in their everyday life.
By the time our family faced the specter of cancer, writing had become the way I worked through my emotions. I wrote my way through my husband’s cancer and my stint with caregiving in 2006, and then through grief when I lost my mother and then the husband who had become my best friend. When I began writing my book, I knew I wanted to include sections of my personal journal and blog because looking back on that first year wasn’t going to be as powerful as living it right then, through the words I wrote as I was in the thick of grief.
Thank you for your time! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
“You can become broken…Or broken open.” I read that somewhere recently, and now use those words at the beginning of the presentations I do for libraries, retreats and hospices. We all know someone who became broken and closed because of loss. Well, through loss my heart was broken wide open, making room for the hurt and pain of others. My world is much bigger now. Through the loss of my loved ones, I have become like the best of them. I believe I became who God meant me to be all along.