Of her daughters:
“We share something new now—a recognition of the depth and fierceness of a mother’s love for her children and the similar ways we navigate those waters.”
Watch Out for the Rocks
Read at Out of the Mouths of Babes March 2013
“I wanted to tell her how happy I was she asked me to part of this, how delighted that she thought I could do it, and even though she is an adult now and lives across the country from me our relationship is a road we travel together, will always travel together.”
I didn’t train
Read at Out of the Mouths of Babes March 2014
When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.
Michelle Gillett sent me this quote a few years ago, right after the poet Adrienne Rich died. Michelle and I had an ongoing conversation that spanned the 8 years I knew her closely. It was a conversation that was fed by our mutual passion for women writers and families and children, gun control and cooking and gardening. I had no interest in dogs, though she loved hers and often spoke of them. I was older than her daughters, but she would speak often in a motherly tone to me, usually when I really needed it. My family life was too busy for me to take her writing workshop in the early years of our friendship and then when hours began to ease up for me, I started studying and teaching my own writing workshops. We both loved to travel, to watch birds and had a taste for beautiful scarves. She wrote prolifically and regularly. It was her work with The Women’s Times and her Op-ed pieces in the Berkshire Eagle that first identified Michelle as a beacon to me, early in my mothering life here in the Berkshires, long before I met her in person.
Michelle was a community leader, a teacher, businesswoman and an inspiration to many. Though we lived different lives, hers a very private writer’s life swirled with a very public journalist’s life, I met Michelle’s mettle in two very different arenas.
One was at a thrice-weekly work out class in South Egremont. Ari Zorn ran a Boot Camp for women and this is where I first encountered Michelle. As we hoisted medicine balls or did push-ups, lunging with weights in our hands, or scissor stepping with taut elastic bands around our ankles, I learned that this woman was fierce and unstoppable. She may talk a lovely quiche recipe or tale of her clematis, she may write a poem that perfectly captures the nuance of silence in a long marriage, but I learned never to get in the way of Michelle and her medicine ball. She was not to be messed with. I had a secret mean thought every time we picked up the balls, noticing when Michelle picked up a heavier one than I could manage. Oh I hated being bested by this slight woman, dressed in lavender tops with soft colored jackets and matching hats. I hated it and she made me work harder every time we worked out, always thinking, “well if Michelle can do this then I have to do it.”
Michelle did as Adrienne Rich describes, she made things possible for me simply by doing what she did herself. Lifting the 12-pound ball instead of the 8. Submitting her work to be published instead of hiding out. Michelle could spout off VIDA statistics about women writers just as easily as rattling off ingredients for some light summery soup garnished with pinches of tarragon from her garden. She was fierce and feminine, knew the power of her “no” and taught me about feminism in daily life.
But where Michelle laid me out, kept me in my seat for the honesty of her writing, was in the yearly event I produce for the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers. For three of the four years that this event has taken place, Michelle answered the prompt to write “from inside motherhood” with pieces that had us weeping and laughing, sighing and catching our breathes while she, in her deadpan manner, would hold the audience with her stories. Michelle taught us about being a mother and being a writer, being a daughter and being a grandmother. She poured herself in to these pieces with a truthful discernment so that you sensed the deeper emotional tones while also being enchanted with her self-effacing descriptions of kayaking or running a marathon or baking.
Michelle Gillett died yesterday, surrounded by her family.
I don’t know another way to honor Michelle than to keep writing.
Her books, her pieces in the Berkshire Eagle, her work with the Women’s Times, her poems, her writing workshops, her mentoring of young poets through the Railroad Street Youth project, all of these and much more were Michelle’s assurance of possibility for the future of the world in which she lived.
We all will lose friends and mentors, workout buddies and neighbors over the course of our lives. I hope upon hope that we can live as Michelle did, with grace boldly, taking the heavier weight because we can, never holding back from the sheer span of humanness that we must illuminate with truth.
Thank you Michelle.
Your spirit lives on in all of us.
Here is a piece by Derek Gentile, a colleague of Michelle’s at the Berkshire Eagle. She wrote a bi-monthly column there for 30 years. Yes, you read that correctly. 30 years, every other Tuesday.