“There are hurts that don’t go away. They follow us like the dead or the lost, and we mourn them as such,” Amanda Cook writes in the entry for Saturday, Nov. 15, 2003, early on in her amazing and heartbreaking poetic memoir “Ironstone Whirlygig,” just published by Lowell’s Bootstrap Press.

“This book has been a long time coming and is a long time. Reading back over it, it’s full of ghosts, ghosts I want to see, ghosts I don’t want to see, but they’re all there,” the Gloucester writer said at her book-launch reading to a crowd of more than 60 people packed into the Gloucester Writers Center on March 16 (listen). “It was often written late at night, often written nearly sober.”

Amanda Cook's 2018 book "Ironstone Whirlygig."
Amanda Cook’s 2018 book “Ironstone Whirlygig.”

“It was written as a blog. But the blog was written almost like a journal and like an open letter to friends,” Cook tells me this week. “…I guess I write the parts I want to remember or that I think are important to remember.”

It’s a sharply observed account, recorded like a series of dated diary entries, written with bracingly frank and poetic directness. The first entry—Monday, June 9, 2003—is about willing herself to go skinny-dipping. “This summer I will no longer be afraid of the ocean. I will go in on the first count of three. I dropped my kimono and stood there, in the moonlight, for only enough time to know I was there.”

In the second entry, dated Saturday, July 5, 2003, she writes: “The sky was lovely tonight. Sitting on the diving board I saw several shooting stars. No need for wishing, they never come true, but the sight of them.”

It’s the year before her first child, her daughter Abigail, is born. The memoir is about all the people she cares for—her husband, her children, her mother, her father, friends. It’s about cooking, cleaning, bills. It’s about lunches with friends, baking scones for neighbors, tending her garden, letting her garden go to seed. On Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2005, she writes: “Give the baby three oranges and watch her roll them around. Take a walk in the cold. Remember that you have a body. Remember what that means.”

The boiler breaks. The car breaks. The cat is sick. The kids are sick. The windows are dirty. Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015: “Today at the kitchen table we talked about words and poets and people. The sun is shining through the dirty window behind him. That window is my window, I thought. I am a housewife with dirty windows. I should clean that window, I thought. I know I won’t. / I don’t know what makes better words or better drummers or better poets or better people. I know what makes a window dirty. It is dirt on the window.”

The book begins as her father is dying. (April 30, 2004: “I realized how much pain he must have been in to decide to die and how long he must have been in pain.”) She’s had two miscarriages. Her mother is sinking into dementia.

“It’s a pretty miserable beginning,” she tells me with rueful humor. “I didn’t even bring up the hard stuff.”

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Amanda Cook hosts a reading at the Gloucester Writers Center, June 29, 2016. (Greg Cook)
Amanda Cook hosts a reading at the Gloucester Writers Center, June 29, 2016. (Greg Cook)

Surrounded By Ghosts
Amanda Cook, who serves as education coordinator and promoter and events host and various other roles at the Gloucester Writers Center, comes from a prominent family in Gloucester.

Gloucester is a beautiful rocky peninsula—an island really—jutting out into the north Atlantic and at the same time a gritty urban city of 30,000 people just an hour’s drive north of Boston. The community clings to its history of commercial fishing (a classic local bumpersticker: “Gloucester: A drinking town with a little fishing problem”) and has an overflowing legacy in the arts (T.S. Eliot, Winslow Homer, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Virginia Lee Burton, Charles Olson, Marsden Hartley).

Cook’s father and stepmother were city councilors. Her mother ran shops and was an artist. Her grandfather was a well-known pediatrician. Her husband is now principal of the high school. (Cook and I share the same last name, though we’re not family—but she is one of my oldest and closest friends.)

“I think because I’ve lived here my whole life, I’m kind of surrounded by ghosts,” Cook says. “You have to make nice with them, you have to deal with them, because otherwise it would be paralyzing.”

As the book starts, Cook is living with her husband in an attic apartment in her grandfather’s house in Gloucester’s Annisquam neighborhood, right on the water of the Annisquam River and Ipswich Bay. Her father dies. She remembers a friend, Galen Gibson, killed in a school shooting. She moves into a house downtown. Her two children are born.

“As I get closer to being a mother it feels like I am fulfilling some kind of prophecy” she writes on Wednesday, June 16, 2004. “The decision was made by my hips and breasts before they knew to show themselves. My body is heavy and will always be. My troubled mind is in my bosom and womb and I can’t seem to get my arms around it. My body feels like the vessel it is and I can’t make it feel any different.”

At the heart of the book are harrowing accounts of her mother’s dementia. Cook describes her mother getting a spinal tap on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2006: “She cries out, whimpers, moans. Her ankles hurt. Her left leg jerks. She cries out in pain. … I want to remember this so I don’t judge her too harshly.”

Thursday, Feb. 22, 2007: “She thinks she has bugs in her fingers and is picking them out.”

Saturday, Aug. 25, 2007: “Stopping in the art store the man asks how she is, if she’s better. He’s known her for years. And I tell him no, she’s not better. She’s not going to get better. I pay for my paper and leave. / That evening I bring her to the hospital to meet her newest grandchild. She manages the crowd, laughs at the wrong times. She is quiet on the way home. / This is how our hearts break. We watch the people we love hurt and nobody can say a thing.”

Wednesday June 5, 2011: “Everywhere we go she runs away from me. … She calls me You or Fat Face. I sit around the corner, trying not to talk, listening to make sure she is safe. When she goes for the door I stop her. I try not to let her see me. Not to look at her. She stares at me with the hate mothers reserve for their daughters. I try not to talk.”

Monday, Feb. 6, 2012: “Today she said my name. / She hasn’t said my name in a long time.”

Monday, Jan. 30, 2017: “There is a story I didn’t tell you. It was years ago, not too many but a lifetime, really. My mother was in the nursing home. She couldn’t sit still … We walked in circles for hours, me holding her steady. She hadn’t said words to me for some time but as we walked that day she said the same thing over and over again: Kill me. …. That was five years ago. Today my mother lies in a hospital bed in the basement of her lover’s house, carefully tended by women who don’t know I am her daughter. For years I have felt like I let my mother down. I keep waiting for the story to end. I have done all I can.”

Amanda Cook reads from "Ironstone Whirlygig" at an event celebrating the debut of the book at the Gloucester Writers Center, March 16, 2018. (Greg Cook)
Amanda Cook reads from “Ironstone Whirlygig” at an event celebrating the debut of the book at the Gloucester Writers Center, March 16, 2018. (Greg Cook)

Things I Didn’t Write
Over lunch in Gloucester the other day, Cook tells me, “There are parts of it that when I read I have a lot of feelings. The thing is I know all the things I didn’t write between the lines and it brings them all up.”

“Writing, it helped me clarify my feelings. It sort of straightened them out. And also there are some many things in there that are just crazy,” Cook says. “Writing the details down made me less crazy in dealing with them. There are also so many little beautiful things and it also let me focus on some of those. Like watching [my baby] Abigail play with oranges or the way the air feels. There’s definitely a point where I realized that nobody’s going to be able to tell my mother’s story. She’s gone. My grandfather’s gone. My father’s gone. There’s no reliable narrator for her story. One of my biggest fears is that I too will lose my mind. And at least my kids will be able to see who I am now if that happens. Fingers crossed.”

Her mother is still alive—but her mind is far gone. It’s been years since she’s recognized her daughter.

“The one about her asking me to kill her, that’s the one I made last because I felt it needed something to explain where things were,” Cook says. “It didn’t end, but I needed it to have an ending.”

She adds, “I have a beautiful life. And all these things are what got me to this place. I don’t have regrets. … There’s a fullness in my life. Because I really enjoy the little things. Sometimes you don’t really have much more in a day than the sun is shining in the window or you have a 13-year-old daughter who still loves you. Some days you have to make whatever it is enough.”

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Categories: Books