We Are All Welcome Here - By Elizabeth Berg
In September 2003, I received a letter from a reader named Marianne Raming Burke, who had an idea for a book she wanted me to write. She began, “I don’t know if you ever do this kind of thing….” My first thought was, I can tell you right now, I don’t. I don’t like to take ideas from anyone—it goes best when I work alone.
Marianne went on to say that she would like me to tell the story of her mother. Pat Raming was given up for adoption to parents who died before she was five, so she spent most of her growing-up years in foster homes. She contracted polio when she was twenty-two years old and pregnant with Marianne, and gave birth to her in an iron lung—a medical miracle. Her happiness was tempered by her learning that she would no longer be able to move anything but her head and would require almost continual mechanical assistance in order to breathe.
Pat was divorced by her husband. He offered to adopt out their children before he left, but Pat refused. She spent three years in an iron lung, then came home to raise her family. Later, after thirty years of being away from school, she went back to the classroom and earned a degree so that she could become an addictions counselor. She was also an activist for the disabled.
Impossible for me to attempt this, I thought. I’m a fiction writer. I would never try to tell someone else’s true story. But Marianne had enclosed a photo of her mother, and I was captivated by the image. It showed a beautiful young woman in a wheelchair wearing a portable respirator, her little curly-haired daughter standing behind her. Both of them were smiling. There was something so strong and clear in that young mother’s face; I couldn’t stop looking at it. There was not a trace of self-pity there. Instead, there was a kind of joy.
I called Marianne and told her that if I wrote about her mother, the story would be completely fictionalized, that her mother’s circumstances would serve only as inspiration for a different story that I made up. I suggested that if she wanted her mother’s real story to be told, she should find a nonfiction writer, or she should try to write the book herself. She said she wanted me to do it, in whatever form I chose. I told her I’d try.
Over many months, we exchanged e-mails, mostly with my asking questions about technical matters, although we once got into a discussion about pies. Marianne was remarkably patient and willing to provide me with any information I requested, no matter how intimate that information might be. She told me over and over that she was happy for me to have complete freedom with fictionalizing; her only request was that one “real” thing be represented in the book: her mother’s love of Scrabble.
We Are All Welcome Here is indeed fiction, but it is absolutely true in this respect: Pat Raming inspired it. She endured extremely difficult circumstances from the time she was born, but she never lost faith, never lost her desire to learn, her feistiness, her sense of humor, her good looks, or her love of life. It was her spirit I imagined when I created the character of Paige Dunn, and it was in honor of her memory that I attempted this novel in the first place. While writing it, I often felt as though Pat were sitting beside me, urging me on. Say what you will about such supernatural events; I say I felt a presence nearby. I am deeply grateful to Marianne Burke for doing her own kind of urging, for writing to me with a hopeful suggestion that led to the creation of this book.
Oftentimes on summer evenings, I would sit outside with my mother and look at the constellations. We lived in a small town, far away from city lights, and our skies were inky black and so thick with stars it felt as though somebody ought to stir them. I would stretch out beside my mother’s chair, and she would lean her head back and gaze upward, smiling at Orion’s Belt, at the backward question mark of Leo, at the intimate grouping of the seven daughters of Atlas. Sometimes I would pick some of the fragrant grass I lay in to put under her nose. “Ummm!” she would say, every time, and every time there was a depth to her