Genevieve Kingston, DID I EVER TELL YOU

Genevieve Kingston, DID I EVER TELL YOU

Zibby’s Book Club Pick alert! Playwright, actor, teacher, and debut author Genevieve Kingston joins Zibby to discuss DID I EVER TELL YOU?, a wrenching and heartfelt memoir about the gifts her late mother left behind in anticipation of birthdays and other milestones. Genevieve describes what it was like to lose her mother at 11—and to continue to connect with her through a chest of gifts and letters. Then, she reflects on the themes of memory, grief, and love; her writing process; and the impact of her mother's legacy on her life.


Zibby: Welcome, Genevieve!

Thank you so much for coming on Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books to discuss Did I Ever Tell You a Memoir, which is my Zippy's Book Club pick because I really, really love it, and it's so good, and you're a great writer, and the story is so moving, and it's really awesome. So congrats. Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

It's my pleasure. And you go by Gwen, right? I do. I answer to everything. But yes, most people call me Gwen. Okay. Bye bye. I mean, I could make up some names. 

Genevieve: Anything. 

Zibby: Anything. So, Susan. 

Genevieve: Yes. Yes, Abby. 

Zibby: Okay. Well, we've just survived you watching me try to set this whole thing up, so thank you for your infinite patience, which you have a very calming presence, and that was very lovely, so thank you for that.

I am honored and excited to be here. Okay. Did I ever tell you? Tell, now you have to actually tell me. 

Genevieve: I haven't told you yet, but I will. 

Zibby: Yeah, okay. 

Genevieve: So, Did I Ever Tell You is the story of how I lost my mother when I was 11, but continued to find her again and again at all these critical moments throughout my life.

So before she died, my mom put together a cardboard chest, and in it she packed gifts and letters for every one of my birthdays until I turned 30. 30 and for things like getting my driver's license and graduating high school and getting engaged and married and having my first child. And so in all of these letters, she sort of set down one side of a conversation that would continue for decades after her death.

And for me, writing the book in a lot of ways was like, it was me setting down my side of that same conversation, answering back, writing back to her, here's what's happened since you've been gone. And so it's a book that's about, it's about family and memory and love and loss, but I think more than anything to me, it's about how we can hold and honor our parents legacies while still carving our own paths forward in the future and finding out how, who we are and who we're meant to be.

Zibby: Oh, first of all, I'm so sorry that you lost your mom at 11. And it sounds like from the book, you know, she, she ended up, not that this is any sort of consolation, but she was able to live far longer than they expected, which is wonderful. You also knew that she was working on this project, which is another wrinkle to it, that she had all this stuff on the dining room table and you knew that she was working on the box for you, which you would then be opening, which is such a almost bizarre realization, right?

Like, you in the future were going to read what she's writing now, but you're not gonna read it now. And tell us about just how that felt at the time, watching your history sort of be made in front of you. 

Genevieve: Yeah, I found it actually challenging at the time. I, there's a weird way in which I almost felt jealous of my future self, that that was the version of me that she was spending this precious time on, was this like future hypothetical me when the real me was right there.

And I think that that's a real preoccupation when, terminal illness is in a home. There's so much preoccupation with like, how should this time be spent? Right? It feels so urgent to figure out the right way to spend the time. And I think that, you know, at the time I didn't quite understand what this would come to mean to me.

And it's, as I've gotten older, the fact, the way that this has stayed with me, the way that this, conversation, this relationship has been able to continue. I mean, it's just the greatest gift I can, I can imagine receiving and a gift that keeps on giving, right? Like I'm still not to the end of all of these packages.

And so she was able to see this bigger picture that I just couldn't conceive of. 

Zibby: And you had in your article too, you mentioned how some of the like are you going to get married or maybe not because you're happy with your partner. Are you still not married? I'm still not married. Okay, so and what about maybe you won't have a kid like should you open them up like one?

You kind of like cheated on a little bit, right? So should you how do you feel about the lingering letters and how do you make yourself wait? 

Genevieve: Yeah. Well So how I feel about them, I, I'm, a part of me is grateful that there's still sort of something left. But no, I think a big impulse for writing this book was I, when I was 31, I had opened all of the birthday gifts and what was left was engagement, marriage, baby.

Yep. I was trying to figure out if those were things that I wanted for my future. It was, there was a particular a particular intensity to it because of this experience, because of the box, but I think that that's an age when a lot of people are thinking, asking themselves those questions and seeking guidance and advice either directly from their parents or the example of their parents, or maybe they don't want to talk to their parents about it, but I think those are really a common experience.

For me, I felt like to answer those questions, I needed to go back through all of my mom's letters and um, All of the things that she had taught me about the kind of woman that she was and the kind of woman that I wanted to be. And that's really sort of where the inspiration came from. People often ask me how I managed to wait and not open everything at once.

Cause, you know, I was a 12 year old girl with a box full of presents in her bedroom for like many years. And what I always say is like, I grew up reading fairy tales, like, I know what happens if you don't, if you don't follow the, you know, the rules of something that is clearly, I mean, the box is the closest thing to real magic that I can really imagine.

And so it's like, you just, you just don't, you know, you follow the fairy tale rules and it just seemed logical. 

Zibby: Oh my gosh, wait, talk for a minute about growing up and your love of reading. We were just chatting about that. 

Genevieve: Oh yeah, I, yes, um, books were always hugely, hugely important to me. And actually the, a way I engaged with them a lot was, it was audiobooks.

Because I was the kid who like, you could not read to me enough before bed. Like I was just, one more, one more, one more, you know, and then, you know, I couldn't sleep, you know, I, so they would, my parents said when they couldn't possibly read to me anymore, would put an audio tape on. And I just, hearing a story was the most comforting thing in the whole, world to me.

And I had the great pleasure of recording the audiobook for this book, which was an incredible experience because I've just, they've given me so, so much over the years. 

Zibby: So talk about your acting, your love of acting as well, and how, I mean, I feel like there's this whole sort of storytelling, other world, escapist thing going on here.

Genevieve: Yeah. I've always told stories. Um, I've always been interested in, in, in how stories can actively shape and change our lives. Um, but I think for me, the way I found my way into acting was that I was dealing with these big feelings and these big experiences that a lot of my friends you know, who are the same age as me, just, there wasn't, they didn't know how to have those conversations with me or like how to engage with that.

And I didn't know how to have those conversations with them. And, um, I had wonderful friends, but I didn't, it didn't seem like there was a place in my day to day life for these big, big feelings of loss. And, and so, Being, inviting myself in an acting class, this, like, vivid memory of the first time I did this monologue.

Of course, I can't remember what it was, but I remember speaking the words and starting to cry and looking up and seeing that everyone else in the room was also crying. And that we, I was able, through someone else's words, to create an environment where we could share emotion together. And we could hold that space together in a way that I hadn't figured out how to do in real life.

And I was like, this is. It's, again, the word magic. This is magic. And so I've always acted and then I became a playwright and then now I have my first book which is a whole other dream. Oh my gosh. So is that how you met Samantha Hyde? Yes! Because we have her in common as well. Yes, absolutely! Yeah, yeah, we went to UC berkeley together and we were in the theater department there.

Zibby: Oh my gosh, so Samantha Hyde was in. My husband Kyle's movie, Wildflower, and I've gotten to know her well through that and different press events and stuff. And she's great. She's so funny. From actor to playwright, talk about that. 

Genevieve: Yeah. So I think that writing has always been my way that I make sense of my experiences.

And the first play that I wrote was after something that happened that is in the book. And I won't, um, I won't spoil it. I don't want to spoil it because it happens quite deep into the book, but I went through another big emotional tumultuous event in my life about 10 years after my mom died. I was in college and I was really struggling to make sense of it.

And so I wrote a pretty autobiographical play where I was studying with this amazing playwright, Philip Kahn Gatanda at UC Berkeley. And I wrote this, this play that was, you know, just, yeah, trying to, trying to put language around something that. There is no language for. And I was interested in that, in the limits of language, in the unreliability of memory.

And I found that to be such a satisfying experience, to be able to put that down, to be able to put other people into those roles and ask them to show, to tell my story back to me in some ways. That was, it was very healing. It was very cathartic. So then I knew I wanted to do more of that. And so I did.

When it came time to go to graduate school, I chose to go to Brown slash Trinity Rep because they're one of the only MFA acting programs of that caliber that allow and encourage actors to take playwriting classes. So I was able to take playwriting all three years with this wonderful playwright called Deborah Salem Smith, and I was able to develop that craft alongside my acting, which was great.

Zibby: Wow. I mean, it's a lot. Like, you've gone through a lot. And you've gone through, you know, Some slowly and some more suddenly, like you've had to deal with surprise and also preparation. And when bad things happen, like not that either one is easy, but that you've had to go through sort of the spectrum of this at a very young age, people say, you know, post traumatic growth is like such a thing.

How do you feel about that? Like, do you believe, like, you've gone through so much, right? Do you, are you, do you have that sort of sensitivity to everything? I would argue, yes, having read your book, you know, you'd pick up everything. But talk to me about that whole concept and what you think about it. 

Genevieve: I certainly do believe that because I know that, yeah, in the wake of this sort of, yeah, later tragic events in my life that I, this extraordinary thing happened for me, which is, my whole childhood was really ruled by a deep, deep homesickness and fear of leaving home because, because I was always trying to be safe.

I was, you know, afraid that my mother would die. I knew that would happen at some point, and I was afraid of missing out on time with her, that if I went away from home that she might die while I was gone. So I was preoccupied so deeply with place and proximity to the people I loved and so afraid to go anywhere or do anything, you know, and it was really a limiting factor on my life.

Like, I couldn't, I couldn't figure out how to go to college. I couldn't, for a long time, I couldn't even spend the night at a friend's house. And in the wake of the second big tragedy in my life, I was miraculously. freed from those anxieties and those fears in a way that I never could have anticipated or expected and I certainly don't think it was worth it.

Um, but, but so I know that post traumatic growth can really be a thing that just happens. It's not, I didn't choose my reaction, right? It just, it happened. So yeah, I don't, I don't believe that everything happens for a reason, but I do believe that there are hidden opportunities within all events, even the most tragic ones.

Zibby: And so where do you look for love and comfort? 

Genevieve: In books a lot of the time. Um, no, I mean, I have a wonderful network of friends and a wonderful partner and, uh, so much community. But yeah, there are times when what I need is to lose myself in someone else's story and just read something that reminds me of all of the, the good stuff, you know, the love and the humor.

And so books have always been very, very helpful to me at the lowest points. 

Zibby: Are there books that are touchstones that you read repeatedly, or are there any that sort of rise up to the top of the list? 

Genevieve: Yeah, absolutely. Lately, I've been reading a lot of memoirs, finding, sort of, filling in my knowledge of that landscape.

I think I have read slash listen to Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett like seven or eight times. So good. Um, and of course reading it in conversation without a biography of a face. Um, and I just, that friendship, um, that story of female friendship, which is a place that I've always found a great deal of stability, um, and love in my life is that's, that's something that's the one that pops to mind.

I think I've probably read that book the most in the last few years. 

Zibby: Wow. Yeah. So good. Amazing. Who do you hope this book reaches the most? 

Genevieve: I hope that one group is, I hope that people who have had the experience of being a child of a terminally ill parent, See themselves, you know, see a version of their experience reflected in this story.

It's something that, for one reason or another, I haven't seen depicted a whole lot in literature. And I know we're out there, uh, we children of terminally ill parents, because I've been in the support groups. But I haven't, it's, it's a story that I struggled to find, and one where there isn't a magical ending where the parent gets better, you know, and, so we see that story a lot, but what it is actually the, the day to day of it.

And then, yeah, any family going through the impossible. impossible journey of loss, a young family that is living in the shadow of a looming or a recent or a not so recent loss. I hope that there's some comfort, some hope, or just some thread of shared experience that, that this book can offer. And it's not a roadmap.

It's not, this is not the way to handle terminal illness or grief. Um, this is one way that one family coped with our impossible situation. 

Zibby: Did you see the movie? Our friend with Jason Siegel? No. You should see that. Okay. So, not to just keep plugging projects and friends and family, but this was my brother who produced this movie.

It was based on a, a long form essay somewhere that they adapted, but it's about a mother who is terminally ill and she has kids and, I mean, maybe you don't want to watch the movie. Maybe it's too close to home, but the friend comes in to really help out as the husband is dealing with the loss. And it's actually quite uplifting because you see all the love and how it can, it will be there even after you go.

And there actually is a scene where, The mom is writing notes to her kids. So I don't know. I think if you feel like crying. 

Genevieve: Yeah no, I love to watch that and I I do you know, I think that sounds familiar this thing of oh I'm worried that it might be too sad. I think people have that fear with this book.

They worry. It's gonna be too sad I'm not gonna want it and I just I had such a joyful experience writing it that I Really hope and believe that that translates to the page that it's actually a joyful book and you know A hopeful book at its core. It's a it's a book about Everyone doing a really good job in a really tough set of circumstances.

Like, I think this is a book about people at their best. People behave so well in my story, which is, you know, remarkable. It's such a gift. 

Zibby: Well, I feel like it's also a celebration of your mom. 

Genevieve: Yeah. 

Zibby: Right? I mean, this is about a life. It's not just about the death. It's not the end of the life, right? It's about her life and who she was and things that she was able to do and pull off and things that she continues to do now.

By, you know, having you take her story and just keep it going. 

Genevieve: Yeah, I often joke that my first draft of this book was, My Mom Was Cool, The End, by Gwen Kingston. Like, because I do, I do think that what she did was extraordinary, and I think she was an extraordinary person. And I know, I believe that if she had lived longer, that she would have had another chapter, another act to her life.

And I don't know how she would have chosen to spend her time, but I feel like it would have been really cool to watch what she would have done with the last part of her life. And my hope is that this is one way of getting to give her that other, that final act, sharing her with other people. Describe, tell everybody more about her.

So my mom, her name was Christina Maillard, and she was a fiercely intelligent, kind of formidable person. She was a real rebel as a kid and in high school, which I was absolutely not. She didn't graduate high school. Instead, she like went backpacking around. She went, she went on an archaeological expedition in Europe, like, followed, like, a boyfriend there, like, skipped out instead of going to her high school graduation, and, and then somehow ended up, like, going to the U. S. Business school and becoming an entrepreneur. And like, she had all of these interesting chapters to her life. She was always interested in public service. She's founded a nonprofit in her twenties called gray bears that still exists in Santa Cruz that provides free produce to senior citizens who are struggling financially.

So she had all of these different interests and all of these different things. Um, she was a challenging person. She was, had some hard edges and high standards. And I think that my brother and I. got the softest sides of her. We got her, her, her softness, her love, her warmth in a way that a lot of people, I think, didn't.

So yeah, she was a complex, challenging, interesting woman. And my huge gratitude to her with this project is that she really allowed us to know her as a person and not just as our mom. I mean, we were too young to have those conversations when she was alive. And so she offered us the gift of if we wanted to know more about her, that was there.

And it was more than just the box. It was asking friends to, of hers to be resources. There's this great experience where I reached out to, when I was writing the book, I reached out to that old boyfriend of hers who she went to Europe with, and I never met him. And within hours he'd emailed me back saying, Oh yeah, like, Your mom said before she died, if you ever came asking, I should tell you anything you wanted to know.

Aww. So the gift of not just, you know, trying to show us, not trying to remain this perfect image of some angelic, you know, mother figure, but saying like, no, if you want to know me, you can know all of it. The darkness and the challenging stuff and the rough edges. 

Zibby: How do people, other people who know her, I know the book hasn't even come out, but it will have by the time this airs, have you shown it to other people in her orbit, friends, family, everybody?

Genevieve: Yeah, yeah, no, it was really important to me to do that because again, this community, her siblings, her friends, People who lived through this story with us have been such an enormous support for me and my family through this whole journey and those relationships are so important to me. And so I really hoped that this book would feel joyful to everyone and not feel intrusive or, you know, anything.

So I was trying to be very transparent with everyone throughout the process and everyone has just been so supportive and excited. Was there anything you had to take out? No. Like, did you show any early drafts to anybody, or? I showed, I showed early drafts to a lot of folks, and yeah, no one, no one asked me to.

Oh, my brother. So my brother's my favorite person, like, you know, my partner, my favorite people. We're very, very close. I sent it to him. He was sort of the most important person that I wanted, you know, because he's in so much of this story. And I think his note was like, he was like, I would like the record to show that I also had to take piano lessons.

That's like his one note. It wasn't just you. It's like, okay, great. I'll put that in there. 

Zibby: It's so funny. It's funny, the things that people find the most important to I know. 

Genevieve: I mean, he was joking, but it was pretty funny. 

Zibby: Great. Oh my gosh. What projects do you want to accomplish? Like, when you think about the next ten years or something.

Genevieve: Mm. 

Oh, great question. Well, I'm working on another play right now, so going back to my theater roots, I miss being in a rehearsal room so much. So I'm very excited for that. I would love to write another book one day when I'm not, uh, when it's not my first book. I would love to write a book when I'm not learning how to write a book while I'm writing it.

Though I'm sure it will be, you know, its own unique challenge. But yeah, I think those are, those are the two things I would like to do. I'd like to keep developing my craft basically. And how was it writing this book and teaching yourself as you went? Oh my gosh, it was incredible. I mean, I, I just, I tried to read every wonderful memoir that I could get my hands on that people would recommend to me.

I felt like I spent years kind of like, it's like I was still and I was, a wall of books was moving. Just trying to absorb, trying to educate myself. And then, and then just, I mean, it's just hours in the chair, just spending the time. Um, I. I actually loved it. I felt so purposeful and so certain that this was what I was meant to be doing at this particular moment in my life.

Zibby: That's a blessing. 

Genevieve: Yeah, it is. It's very cool and rare to have that feeling. 

Zibby: Did you have a deadline? Like, I know you sold, well, talk about selling it to Modern Love, the essay. That's also a huge deal. 

Genevieve: Yeah. 

Zibby: Congratulations. 

Genevieve: Oh, thank you. Yeah, I started working on the book first. I was feeling around in the dark.

thinking this might be a book length project. And then I really, almost as an exercise for myself, I was taking some writing classes. And as like an exercise, I wrote what became this essay, which was the kind of the miniature version of the story, the beginning, middle, and what is the scope? What are the, what are its boundaries?

What is its, what is the, you know, the central dramatic question? And that became this, this essay that then I was able to publish in Modern Love, which was so wonderful because. You know, suddenly my inbox was filled with all of these messages from folks who had gone through sometimes something similar, sometimes something quite different.

But people of all different ages, genders, backgrounds seemed to be able to see something of their experience in it and then share that their experience back with me, which was such an honor and a gift. So that was so, so meaningful to me. And then through that, um, through, through that piece, I was able to find my way to my wonderful agent, Brittany Bloom, with the book group.

Oh, she's amazing. And then, uh, yeah, she helped me to put together a book proposal and we were able to sell the book on proposal to Mary Sue Ritchie Books. And so, yeah, so I did have a deadline. I had basically from that moment on, I had about, about a year to write it and deadlines are very helpful. 

Zibby: I agree.

Genevieve: But no, but I had begun that process. Already, and found my rhythm and my writing routine, and I would have written it even if no one had wanted to buy it. You know, I had to write it. 

Zibby: That's great. Oh my gosh. Do you have advice for aspiring memoirists? 

Genevieve: Mmm. I think it's about that, what is that one burning story that you must tell, and kind of, as I just said, that you must write whether or not anyone else wants to buy it or wants to read it.

You have to write it. And then you hope that it's of use or that it makes someone feel less alone. Even if that's just one reader, there's probably some one person out there who needs to read it, you know, who might help. 

Zibby: Do you have one gift that you wish your mom had left you? Like, is there something you're hoping to open?

Are you some piece of advice, some event that happened that you're like, Oh, if only I had a letter for this. 

Genevieve: Oh, I think there were, there were times like that throughout my life, things that she couldn't have anticipated. that were challenging where I thought, oh gosh, I wish I could find out what she would have said about this because of course she couldn't anticipate everything and the box, you know, isn't, you know, magical and can't, can't compensate for her loss.

But no, now I feel like the gift was the whole experience of the box knowing that deeply and that consistently that you have been loved and thought of and that someone has cared that deeply about you and your path through the world. I think that that certainty, like that is the gift. And so now when things come up, of course, I would love to talk to her, but that, yeah, such a gift to have been that deeply cared for.

Zibby: So if there's somebody out there struggling and sick and trying to figure out what to do about their kids, should they take on this project? 

Genevieve: I think it's such a personal individual decision. I think that everyone There is no one right way to die. And if they take one thing from the book, it would be my, my belief that honesty and communication in families and with children about death and illness are so important, and it's so much better to be open than to try to protect the kids by, by hiding things from them.

I do believe that. But I don't think there's any one right path. Through that. It's just everyone has to figure out how to walk it and hopefully you have the kind of extraordinary communities around you that I did to help but there's no one right way 

Zibby: Well, I think your book itself is now another gift for everybody else.

I know there are a lot of motherless people out there daughters and sons and everybody whether it was a slow illness or a sudden or you know, and having your mom's love and the fierce conviction of how much we parents love our kids and will for all of eternity, it's just a, it's just such a blessing.

Genevieve: Thank you so much. 

Zibby: Thank you. 

Genevieve Kingston, DID I EVER TELL YOU

Purchase your copy on Bookshop!

Share, rate, & review the podcast, and follow Zibby on Instagram @zibbyowens