No one is taught how to cope with the death of a loved one, arguably the most emotionally painful experience in one’s life. After Joan Cusack Handler’s parents died, she decided to explore the aftermath in her latest book, “Orphans,” and reflect on her family life.
Ms. Handler, a 75-year-old poet and psychologist, published the book in March after collecting 10 years worth of her poems that she never thought would form a cohesive body of work. This honest and intimate verse memoir delves into the vulnerability that comes with losing both parents and essentially feeling like an orphan. Although all of the stories are personal accounts, they discuss universal topics that virtually everyone with family members experiences.
Ms. Handler provides a glimpse into a household of strained relationships and religious conservatism from three different points of view.
She recorded her parents’ words when they were ill and turned them into poems. Eleven poems, titled either “My Mother Speaks” or “My Father Speaks,” are stories about their own upbringings that provide insight into the way they later raised their four children. Ms. Handler recorded their voices to hold on to a part of them after they died, unaware that these words would end up in a poetry book.
“I kept their diction and expressions and preserved as much of their actual words as I could, and then went in and shaped it into poems,” Ms. Handler explained. “As much as possible, I tried to avoid tinkering with what they were saying. It was an amazing experience, because I had no idea that I could do that and that their voices would cooperate.”
In the only poem titled “My Father Speaks,” her father, Eugene Cusack, talks about his wife, Mary O’Connor Cusack, who died in 1998: “I miss Mom these ten years. / But you get used to it — / the quiet. / And there’s plenty to do. I’m always busy. / Sometimes I’ll even hear myself talking / like she was still here in the room with me. / Mom was a great talker.”
Ms. Handler admitted in an interview to having had complicated yet strong relationships with her Irish immigrant parents. She struggled to understand her mother’s behavior toward her and her siblings, but she always knew it stemmed from her grandmother’s death when her mother was only 6. The loss and its impact are described in the first poem of the book:
“My mother never really got over that. So she was really very possessive of her children, very needy—she was wonderful and she was horrible.”
Ms. Handler and her father always had a loving and respectful relationship that lasted until he died seven years ago at age 99. Although she considered them very close, his conservative outlook—he was a devout Catholic—was consistently a bone of contention. Her different religious and political stances caused frequent fights between the two of them.
“There were lots of things we couldn’t talk about,” she said. “I grew up with awareness that there was a whole litany of feelings that I was never supposed to have and that I denied to myself and to everyone around me.”
Although she considers her first family “very broken,” she is grateful for the family she now has. She and her husband of 36 years, Alan Handler, split their time between New Jersey and East Hampton while raising their son, David.
She said East Hampton holds a special place in her heart: “In many ways, this is really our home. It’s where our heart is. My husband was in the process of building this house when I met him. It’s our oasis. We were married in this house.”
Joan Cusack Handler will have a book signing for “Orphans” at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor on Saturday, October 22, when visitors can meet her and discuss her poems.