The family photo on the wall depicts four generations of women. Helen Kelly stands in the middle. Her daughter is to her left, her granddaughter to her right.
Two great-grandchildren anchor each end, beaming with happiness. Time is passing by, and Kelly is smiling more these days, at least when you compare her state of mind to the past few years – years spent healing following the suicide death of her son, Jamie.
“You get past the worst of your grief, and you move forward,” said Kelly, seated in her home on a chilly fall morning. “New babies come, and the new people in my life have made it really special. Getting this book completed was a huge thing for me, too.”
That book, “Fatuous Twaddle,” has been a labor of love for the past three years – back when Kelly had her son’s newspaper columns scattered across the kitchen table and no idea what she’d do with them.
Daunting though it was, Kelly had a promise to keep, one that began shortly after 2 p.m. on Aug. 7, 2014, when Jamie ended his life.
“He left me a note when he died and the last line in it said, ‘The book I never wrote is written in the stars, and it’s dedicated to you.’ ” said Kelly. “That line haunted me. I didn’t want him to not have that thing that he wanted, and I was the only one who was going to be able to do it. I think that planted the seed for me.”
While her son’s request played heavily in Kelly’s thoughts, years would pass before she could read his work. But as time marched on, she began to dig into those columns. Over the course of several Montana winters, she saved 50 of her favorite pieces.
Jamie had served as a columnist for the Missoulian newspaper, and he was rather prolific in his writing. He had a reputation for blending humor and sarcasm. He poked fun at the establishment, and at himself. He revealed family memories, including the way he duped his mother into believing he had cocaine stashed under his pillow.
“You should have seen the look on her face,” he wrote.
But Kelly also had a sensitive side. At the Missoulian, he had the occasion to complete a missionary trip to Kenya with the First Presbyterian Church. When he returned, he wrote a feature article that surprised his mother in many ways.
She still considers it one of his best pieces of writing, and she included it in her book.
“His humor tended to be kind of sarcastic, and he liked to poke at things,” said Kelly. “But in that story, you saw so much of the real Jamie. He was so touched by that trip, by the poverty and the conditions he saw there, and his experiences with people. It was how Jamie really was. You see it in that story.”
Kelly describes a cynic as a disappointed idealist, saying it goes far in depicting her son. He was an idealist to the core, she said, and he was often left disappointed by the ways of the world. Coupled with depression and alcohol, Jamie began a downward slide in high school, though Kelly believes it took hold while her son was in college.
He would struggle for the rest of his life, she said.
“I think when people die of a suicide, that ends up being the memory of them – how they died,” said Kelly. “I don’t want that to be the way people remember Jamie. He was so intelligent and so funny. He had a great sense of humor. He had a laugh that was just contagious.”
Even with the columns sorted, Kelly couldn’t see her next step. But Missoula is a writer’s town, and she found guidance during the Montana Festival of the Book and a presentation on self publishing.
The stars would align, and Kelly found the help and guidance she needed.
“The gal that put the book together designed the cover, got all the articles scanned and did the formatting,” said Kelly. “She was a graduate of the journalism department at the University of Montana, and when she did her internship at the Missoulian, she knew Jamie.”
As Kelly tells it, Jamie took the intern under his wing and served as a mentor.
“She sent me an email saying it was an honor for her to do this book,” Kelly said. “I felt there was that special connection.”
Kelly is now working on distributing the anthology of her son’s work and has secured help through local bookstores, including Fact and Fiction, Shakespeare & Co., and the Book Exchange. It’s also on Amazon, and she’s working on other avenues.
“I don’t know how many copies it will sell, but it’s important for me that it’s there,” she said. “A lot of people have said to me they remember his columns and loved to read them.”