Characters, Families, and Challenges: A Personal Story

by Ann Jacobus

It’s fitting that I’m writing about family from my mother’s house where I’m staying for a few weeks to help out. She is under hospice care after battling colon and lung cancer for the last two years.

Families are there for us when we encounter hardships and challenges. In real life this is great. In fiction, it’s problematic.

Children’s book writers put young characters in trouble and then let them solve it. Allowing an adult to solve a child’s story problem is a no-no. It squelches character growth (art imitates life) and young readers won’t be interested. What if the Mounties found Brian as soon as his plane went down in Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet?

Writers know that it’s a good idea to get the adults, especially parents, out of the picture–render them distracted, impaired or otherwise missing.  Or kill them off. A parent’s death can even be the challenge the character is facing, as in Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech.

Some of the loads of fictional orphans out there who spring to mind are Harry Potter, Gilly Hopkins, Sara Crewe in A Little Princess, Mary in The Secret Garden. Maniac Magee, Corinna in The Folk Keeper, the four siblings in Dicey’s Song, and Cinderella, of course. Even in Good Night Moon, there are no parents—in the story anyway. Just a quiet old lady who appears to be some sort of temp.

Many more children’s characters live with only one adult: siblings in Little Women, Sarah, Plain and Tall, and The Penderwicks; protagonists in When You Reach Me, What Jamie Saw, One Crazy Summer, and the Joey Pigza books, to name a few.

Fictional children do of course have intact families and involved adults.  As a fourth-grader, I loved The Little House on the Prairie series where Ma and Pa and the kids worked so hard they made me long to chop wood or boil some clothes. Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had loads of family, and they all loved and believed in Charlie. Their problem was being desperately poor and about to perish, as the four grandparents in one bed aptly illustrated.  More recently, the challenge of having an autistic member within a traditional nuclear family came alive for me in Cynthia Lord’s Rules. And Sophie Hartley, from the eponymous series by our own Stephanie Greene, has a wonderful family and still has plenty of problems to solve, including her relationships with her family.

So my real-life family is facing a challenge—the final days of our mother’s life, although happily my siblings and I are long past childhood. And like a good book, it is a journey, filled with tears and laughter, and the remarkable process of letting go. The last few evenings, Mom takes her morphine, I have a generous glass of Chardonnay, and we watch a couple of episodes of Modern Family from the DVD my cousin delivered. I admire the writing and the deft blend of humor and poignancy in this series. Mom and I laugh because we recognize ourselves and our extended family that is a mishmash of young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight, able and disabled, Republicans and Democrats, Religious and non, Blue and Red State residents. We’re nothing if not fodder for good comedy.

Because of the pain medication she is taking and also because of the disease itself, Mom’s losing short-term memory, word recall, and sadly, now reading. She taught my three siblings and me to love books from an early age, reading aloud to us such books as E.B White, Dr. Seuss, Margaret Wise Brown, Karla Kuskin, and Maurice Sendak.  She reports that now The Dallas Morning News looks like it’s printed in a foreign alphabet. As we have always done, my brothers, sister and I joke around with her, presently by breaking into charades when she is frustrated in recalling a word. Then she cracks up. It’s also fitting that I can now read to her; from the paper, her beloved mysteries, emails and cards from friends, a manuscript of mine (she’s always been my best audience), and I hope soon to read her some of the wonderful spiritual readings from

I’m grateful that I can be a part of my mom’s last stage of life, a challenge and joy for us both. We’ve returned to our easy familiarity and occasional sniping, the memories we share, the hardships we’ve been through, the many laughs we’ve had, and now our reversal of roles. This is what family is for.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah November 14, 2011 at 11:34 am

Oh Ann, thanks so much for this. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your amazing mother. xxoo

Stephanie November 14, 2011 at 6:29 pm

This is lovely. Thank you for writing it and letting us peek in on these special days and hours with your mom.

Ann Jacobus November 14, 2011 at 6:39 pm

Thank you, Sarah!

Christy November 15, 2011 at 12:21 am

Ann — What a courageous and inspiring piece of writing. Thank you for your honesty in this portrait of a close family coping with a parent’s dying days with laughter and love. I’m sorry to hear of the sadness, and will be thinking of you.

Shannon Wiersbitzky November 15, 2011 at 12:58 am

Ann, thank you for sharing. I’ve gone through this myself with a close friend and a grandfather, and you’ve captured the sweet and the heart-breaking….

Cheryl November 15, 2011 at 7:36 am

Ann, what a beautiful post. Thinking of you and your family. I’m so glad you can be there with your mom. xo

Bruce Frost November 15, 2011 at 8:00 am

Ann, your article is such a powerful spotlight of families and how each member deals with the ups and downs of being in a family. Not only that, you show — as do children’s stories — how family affects the external life of each member and the decisions they make.

But more than anything, thank you for the incredible story of you and your mother. Just the ways in which you share your moments together is such a beautiful illustration of “what family is for.”

My thoughts are with all of you.

Frances Lee Hall November 15, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Thank you for this post. I love how you, your family and your mom can laugh even during this difficult time. That’s the ultimate hope. So happy your mom shared and passed on her love of reading to you. Miss you and look forward to seeing you soon.

Ann Jacobus November 19, 2011 at 12:05 pm

Thank you Stephanie, Christy, Shannon, Cheryl, Bruce and Frances for your kind comments. Our caregiving continues, and I am grateful for your supportive words. Wishing you happy family gatherings, large and small, over the holidays.

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