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Q & A | Excerpt | Schedule a Book Talk | Rediscover Your Mother

Q & A with Margaret Edds

How many letters and where did you find them?
About 300 all told. Some letters were between Sara and my father during World War II. Some were between her and her closest sister, Eleanor, or their mother. About a half dozen were from a man she almost married and that I barely knew existed.

The great gift was that neither Eleanor nor my father threw away much of anything. So when they died, and we were going through their papers, we found the letters.

How much of your mother’s life did they cover?
All of it really. The earliest letter was written in 1927  when Sara was 11, the latest was written the day before she died in 1950. I also found an autobiography written for a college class that covered the first seventeen or eighteen years of her life.

What did you learn about your mother?
Oh, so much. About her personality, but also about the events in her life and her world.

Maybe the biggest shock was discovering that some people thought my birth had contributed to her death. I’d never been told that, so of course, I wanted to find out  whether it was true. Then there were the love letters from the man she DIDN’T marry, which were a bit of surprise.

But the main things I learned were how brave she was approaching her death, how devoted she was to me and my sister, how much my father loved her and—though she was more ambivalent than he about their decision to marry—how deeply she respected and trusted him.

How about time and place?
Her writing also created such an intimate, detailed portrait of a slice of America in the first half of the 20th Century, and I was fascinated by that—two places in particular: Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the so-called “secret city” that sprang up during World War II as the nation was trying to produce an atomic bomb. Sara worked there as a secretary for about 17 months in 1943 and 1944, and her letters are very descriptive of that restless, rootless community in wartime. And then, Lynch, Kentucky, a model coal town in the heart of the “Bloody Harlan” coal fields that really defied many of the stereotypes of Appalachia. That’s where I was born.

Describe some of the scenes or moments in these
letters that stood out to you.     
Well, of course, I treasure the letter where she’s just arrived in Lynch—which was really a bustling, vaguely cosmopolitan little place in those days, so different from what one imagines—and she’s met my father. History buffs would enjoy the letter where she lost her badge and keys in Knoxville and had a devil of a time getting back into Oak Ridge because of all the secrecy and security. There’s a chilling account of the day a police officer was killed and my father’s nose was broken during a labor organizing skirmish in Lynch. There’s a heart-wrenching letter in which she describes trying to get out of bed and change my diaper after she became ill. And many, many more. 

How were you impacted by this search? 
It’s been a great healing. Losing a mother at age 3 has some very particular challenges. You’ve been with this person long enough for her to be ingrained in your psyche, but you aren’t old enough to comprehend at all the loss when it comes. “You’re toddling along when you’re three and, suddenly, wham. You’re whole world is turned upside down. You don’t know why,” a therapist once told me.

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“Reading this book is like discovering a box of old letters in the attic, untying the string, sliding the handwritten pages from the yellowing envelope and settling down for
the afternoon.”

Anne Shelby, Kentucky poet, political activist, and author of The Adventures of Molly Whuppie and Other Appalachian Folktales