Two days prior to Queen Elizabeth II and former CNN lead anchor Bernard Shaw shuffling off their mortal coils (as Shakespeare would say), my cousin Gregory passed away. My mother called me from Philadelphia to let me know – she didn’t want me to find out via social media (which has happened in the past). I’m glad she did this. Finding out via social media that someone you care about has died is never optimal.
Their passings made me think about how there are a lot of absent relatives in my stories. In Snowbound, Mia’s deceased grandparents figure quite heavily in the story thanks to her memories of spending time with them in their home in Vermont (which she has inherited and retreated to after a failed affair with a married man).
In Maybe Baby and Maybe Tonight, both Laney and Mads have been scarred by the death of a beloved mother during their teenage years. For Laney, it’s losing her mother to breast cancer and still dealing with the anger she feels towards her father, who left her and her mother when they needed needed him most. In Mads’ case, it’s losing his mother in a tragic bike accident when his mother is mowed down by a drunk driver. Like Laney, his father lets him down when he needs him.
In an unpublished novel that I have been tweaking over the years, the heroine’s police officer father is killed in the line of duty. His death is partly why the hero and heroine split up and have a fractured friendship over the years.
And even now, in one of the stories I am planning (and will be brainstorming next week with some friends while in Italy), a main character – the husband of my heroine – is missing, presumed dead.
So what is it with absent relatives? Why do they keep coming up in my stories? I often wonder if it’s because both of my paternal grandparents died before I was born. They’ve been constant ghosts in my life. My dad never had any pictures of them. I didn’t see any photographs of them until I was nearly an adult.
Absent fathers come up a lot too. I think it probably stems back to my own childhood and teen years of dealing with a father who, though I loved him very much, was physically present but emotionally absent. At times, he was physically and emotionally absent. By the time I was an adult, he’d had several strokes and was suffering from premature dementia. He didn’t remember any of the things I still remembered about growing up with a father who could frequently ghost me because he’d decided I was ungrateful or, once he and my mom were separated, he prioritised his girlfriend over me. Once the dementia took hold, he thought he was a child and I was his older sister. He didn’t remember that I was his daughter.
When I was going through grief counselling following the deaths of my father and brother, my therapist said that I was working through my anger towards my father through my writing. It’s been ten years since my dad died, I am still working through some of the issues from our fractured relationship.
But the last few years, losing people has been a constant in my life, just as it has been for so many of us. COVID, cancer, diabetes, old age – and for some, the gun violence epidemic in the US or war have robbed us of loved ones.
Some people say loss has no place in romantic fiction. That we read it to escape. I read to live another person’s life. I don’t need a perfect version of the world. I want it with all its flaws. And I still want people to fall in love in those flawed worlds. Because, no matter where we are or what we’re going through, people are falling in love. Even when we’re in the midst of the worst things we think we can go through, we often find love. And it’s what gives us hope. It makes us feel we can go on, despite the chaos and despair around us.
So I will keep writing about people falling in love. I’ll try to write a story or two where there are no absent relatives…but that might be difficult. I rather like ghosts. Sometimes, we learn from them.
Which makes me think of when my maternal grandmother died. My husband and I were in Amsterdam. We’d got married in May of 1999 but couldn’t go on our honeymoon immediately. He was still working on his PhD and I’d just got a proper full-time job here in Sweden. We had to wait until July to take some time off. I remember dreaming that I woke up i in our room at a small bed and breakfast in Amsterdam, and the entire room smelled like roses. There was an armchair near the bay windows and my grandmother was sitting there. She told me that everything was okay, that I would be okay and that she loved me very much. I remember asking her how she made it to Amsterdam and she said she’d be gone soon. She just wanted to tell me she loved me and that everything would be okay.
That dream felt so real that I still feel like she visited me somehow in her final hours. The next day, my husband and I took a flight to the US. We were on our way to visit my grandparents. We spent a night in Washington, DC and then took the train to Richmond. My ex-roommate met us at the train station. She told me as we were driving to her place that my grandmother had died.
She’d died the same night I’d dreamt of her.
She still visits me from time to time in my dreams. So do my brother (who died in 2019 the day before my birthday), my grandfather, my brother-in-law (whom we lost last year), my dad and so many other friends and relatives I’ve lost over the years.
And there’s a little piece of them in everything I write.