Meet NW IA author Mary McSwain Steele, reflecting on "Betty: A Memoir"

2021-04-07 10:38:28

Letters written to mother after her death evolve into a memoir

People experience the death of a loved one differently. Experts say there’s no perfect formula for dealing with grief. For a Spencer  woman, writing was instrumental in finding her way through a difficult period in her life.

Mary McSwain Steele says she began to realize she wasn’t coping well after the death of her mother, Betty McSwain, in 2009. 

“I started writing letters to Mom after she died,” says Steele. “Writing was therapy for me – a way to get through the sadness and anxiety that continued far longer than I thought was ‘normal.’” 

Her letters, written over the last several years, along with memories of growing up in southwest Wisconsin, evolved into a memoir, Betty: A Memoir, published in September.

“My mom was an unconventional single working mother who raised three children in a conventional small town in 1950s Wisconsin, Steele says. “She struggled to secure a future for her children without losing herself. When her kids were grown, she worked as a nurse in Saudi Arabia for nine years and traveled the world.” 

After retiring, Betty could have lived anywhere, but she chose to move to Spencer in Northwest Iowa to be near her children and grandchildren. 

“Mom led a healthy lifestyle and was very active – golfing, walking, and volunteering after retiring,” Steele says. “A nature and animal lover, she especially enjoyed her volunteer job at an animal shelter in Spencer. She also worked part time for several years at Iowa Lakes Community College.”

Betty lost her youngest child, her only son, Michael, to AIDS at the age of 47. His story is part of the memoir. Seven years later, Betty started having concerning symptoms.

 “When my mom’s doctor told her that she had endometrial cancer and that it wasn’t treatable, she asked only that she be kept comfortable,” Steele remembers. “We didn’t know it at the time, but Mom had only 32 days left on this earth.”

Steele and Betty’s other daughter, Susan McSwain Garvin of Storm Lake, granted her last request by caring for her at home during her final days.

“We expected that time to be awful, seeing Mom very sick and then dying,” Steele said. “But what we didn’t expect was that it would be beautiful as well. We laughed, we cried, we reminisced about the past and talked about the future, and we grew closer than the three of us had ever been.”

“My intention wasn’t for the memoir to be a playbook for others providing end-of-life care for a loved one, but I hope it’s helpful to readers who are caregivers,” Steele says. “Looking back, there are things my sister and I wish we’d done differently, but there are many things we feel we’d done well.” Steele dedicated the book to her sister, Susan, whom she describes as a "natural caregiver."

Steele says that although the topics of grief, death and anxiety are a part of the book, they’re not the main theme of the memoir. 

“The book is about adventure, humor, strength, dignity, and resiliency; but more importantly, it’s about finding joy, hope and, finally, grace,” Steele says. “It’s about family secrets revealed in my mom’s last days that led me to startling discoveries. It’s about looking for information about a father who was only in my life for four years. The book is also about the need to know where we came from and what from our past has made us who we are today.” 

Steele says she has been gratified by the positive response to Betty. “People seem to relate to the book, especially those who have lost a parent or who grew up in living in a small Midwest town."