Carole Railton interviews Anne Mayer Bird, aged 87, about the book she co-wrote with her daughter, Catherine Mayer, entitled “Good Grief: Embracing life at a time of death.”
The book is ostensibly about coping with grief, sorrow and becoming a widow. But it offers the reader much more than that. It is also a love story between a wife and her husband and explores filial love- in this case, the love between mother and daughter.
Anne also says the book has given her a platform and a “voice”- not just for widows but for older single women everywhere. Anne still works which is a great example for all seniors.
I interviewed Anne Mayer Bird in late December 2020 and although she lives in the same road , the interview was conducted by telephone to abide by UK lockdown rules.
I decided to conduct the interview after her book was released. The hardback sold out within two weeks; the publisher expected it to take a year.
As a result of the book’s success, Anne has been interviewed extensively for the national press, women’s magazines, including Good Housekeeping, as well as for radio and television.
The subject on which it is based is undoubtedly "sad” - some may say “morbid”. But it is a subject that most of us will relate to, either now or in a few months, or a few years, time
John Bird, very much the archetypal English gentleman, died on 22 December 2019 after an extended period of illness. Forty one days after John died, Catherine Mayer’s husband, Andy Gill, who was the lead for the band Gang of Four, also died.
Catherine is one of Anne’s three daughters, from a previous marriage. Catherine is the youngest and she is a journalist and author of several books, a prominent feminist and co-founder of The Women’s Equality Party in the UK. Catherine and Andy had been married for 20 years, Anne and John for 40 years
The longevity of the marriages shows how both women were devoted to their husbands, and the book is as much about this abiding love, and the love between mother and daughter- which grew stronger as a result of a shared loss- than it is about coping with loss, sorrow and grief. Despite their devastating losses, the women continue to have, and perhaps have boosted, their very busy social lives.
The family has always been close-knit- even though the three daughters were from Anne’s previous marriage, to an American academic. Anne is and remains an American. John also had two daughters from a previous marriage. When her then-husband came to the UK, to take up a posting, Anne naturally came with him. That marriage didn’t last.
It is not surprising then that the deaths of Anne’s and Catherine’s husbands, almost simultaneously and on the eve of the pandemic, which is now in full swing, hit both women hard.
The world changed. Covid restrictions and lockdowns all over the globe came into force. It’s a “world he [John] would not recognize”, Anne says.
She explained how Covid affected everyone in a long letter to him written in March 2020, three months after his death. Anne first started writing to John in March because she wanted to tell him how much she missed him, how she was coping without him and to let him know what was going on in the world. Writing to John, the love of her life, was her solace.
Since she had never been alone before, having to manage her time was something she was not used to, she told me. She was no longer able to attend Pilates, go for a walk or go to the physiotherapist. Her days were without structure but structure was necessary during a lockdown. Writing to John helped to provide that much-needed structure.
Even though Anne and Catherine were both widowed almost simultaneously, and this shared bond had brought them closer, it didn’t necessarily make things “easier”. This is especially the case when people ask: “How are you?”. This, says Anne, is a complicated question and is one of the issues that the book explores.
When mother and daughter first started collaborating on a book, Catherine applied for special dispensation to visit Anne, which she did once a week, changing her duvet and doing other small chores around Anne’s house. At this time, London was in Tier Two lockdown; at the time of the interview it was in Tier Four.
Catherine saw the letters that Anne was writing to John – 16 in total although not all are in the book- and thought they were “really beautiful” . She forwarded them to her UK publishers, HarperCollins.
However, although HarperCollins thought the letters were “lovely” they said they could not be published standalone. Instead, it was agreed that a book be written. The downside was that Anne and Catherine had to finish most of the writing within two months of this being decided, so that a book could get on the “Christmas List”. A daunting task.
Anne had to finish her part of the book by the end of July; Catherine by the end of August.
Catherine and Anne began co-writing the book, which was not difficult since both women are highly organised. For example, Catherine writes without interruption from 5am to noon every day. Both women read and edited one another's copy as they went along.
HarperCollins edited the book and then the legal edits were completed. In October, an audiobook was recorded in Catherine’s late husband’s recording studio, where he had recorded for the Gang of Four.
Unlike Catherine, Anne, who had been in theatre PR for about 30 years and had published over 1,000 press releases. “Press releases of course, never survive for very long, whilst a book lasts for ever'’, she says enthusiastically about the book venture. “'I feel now that I have a platform and future”, she adds.
Even though Anne has been through a great deal of pain and suffering she is living her life to the full. “You have to pick yourself up”.
You realise that you are never alone in life, she says, adding that lots of women give up when they can’t be mothers and partners. “You need to find your individuality and not say you are without a partner.”
“You might not have your long standing partner but now is the time to have an adventure, learn something new or go travelling .You are not alone just because you are a certain age.”
“You are a person no matter what happens to you - even though you have to deal with probate, legal issues, and you might even discover awful stuff,” she says. “In the words of Eartha Kitt: ‘I am still here’.”
Photo: Anne outside her house in London