I was newly pregnant with the first of our three daughters when I was hired by The Detroit News in 1989. I remember being nervous about telling the managing editor interviewing me, as this was long before family-friendly policies in the workplace became the norm.
I needn’t have worried. In the spring of 1990, following a generous four-month maternity leave, I wrote a first-person essay about how my entire life had been redefined by this marvel of a miniature person in our midst.
Little did I know that I’d be writing for the next quarter-century about my life’s highs, lows and the humdrum-in-between and get paid for the privilege.
When an incentivized offer to leave The News coincided with the resignation that I really was old enough to retire, I decided it was time to hang up my spurs.
A couple weekends ago, I was up in the attic looking for the Christmas decorations when I came across an old Girl Scout carton from the treacherous year I spent as an ill-suited cookie mom. The cardboard had bite marks in it from Bear, our dog, who’d gotten into Troop 362’s boxes stored in our garage and then scattered, all across our lawn, the remains of thousands of Samoas and Dosidos. If memory serves, that disaster made it into one of those humdrum-in-between columns.
Inside the box were yellowed and flaked newspaper articles spanning decades. Because I was one of those unfathomably lucky feature reporters who wrote both a column about home and hearth and also covered stories I could convince my editor were worthy, my beat was wide open; in essence, all the news that mattered to me.
There was the story about the week I’d spent at Wellness House of Michigan, a residence in Detroit during the height of the AIDS crisis where young men, who had been fired, evicted and disgraced, came to live out their last days. There was the crack mom who’d left an infant, her sixth child — all of whom had been ordered to foster care — in a drug house after she’d scored. There was the Southfield woman who shot her husband dead in an accountant’s office when he discovered she’d been lying about investment returns, and she later got off claiming self defense. The interview with a young mother whose mind was stuck in 1990 because a car crash destroyed her ability to retain any memory beyond three hours. There were Post-it notes on every drawer in their apartment identifying its contents. Of her 3-year-old son, her husband said: “She could not pick her own child out of a lineup.”
I went to Oklahoma City to shadow a Red Cross worker in the days after a madman named Timothy McVeigh drove a bomb into the federal building, killing 168 people. I will never forget the wretched, hollowed-out remains of peoples’ offices in mid-air, the panoramic cascade of hearses for all those funerals. When we put boots on the ground during Operation Desert Storm, I wrote a column about my father reliving the torment of having lost his first-born son in Vietnam. Like many, I could not resist Lorena Bobbitt’s revenge, and the Clarence Thomas hearings. Then came Princess Diana’s death, stockpiling on New Year’s Eve in fear of Y2K virus, the horrors of Columbine, 9/11 and the tsunami, the Catholic Church pedophilia cover-up, and Katrina. I will never forget the faces in the crowd in Chicago upon the election of our first black president, the financial crisis that sent so many executives and staff — my husband among them — out on the street in one afternoon. The atrocity of Sandy Hook. The saving grace of Pope Francis.
I’m as amazed by the sheer volume of what I wrote as I am by the fact that I was fortunate enough to do what I love; that my job description was to research subjects about which I cared deeply, ask any question I wanted, then make sense of it all in that wondrous process of putting one word in front of the other, was nothing short of a dream come true.
None of it would have be possible were it not for people who give journalists interviews, especially when it would have been far easier to simply hang up or shut the door. Instead, they trusted that this heretofore stranger sitting in their living room would put aside attendant baggage of her own and portray them accurately, with balance and sensitivity. It’s an awesome responsibility and during every interview I ever did, I felt that in my bones.
Because people took that leap of faith with me, the stories I wrote were really gifts given to me. I am indebted to so many, like the women who opened up about their secret shame borne long ago when they were teenage unwed mothers forced to give up their babies for adoption and expected to go on with their lives as if none of it ever happened. And, too, for Maureen Neary Dooley, a 43-year-old mother of three and the wife of a fireman, dying of colon cancer, who allowed a photographer and me to document the last six months of her life, and the families who will never stop fighting for answers in the four-decade-old and still unsolved Oakland County child killings case.
That baby I first wrote about with the bobbly head and the all-gums smile is 25 now. Her sisters are 23 and 21. I am indebted to them, my husband and my large, noisy and eminently quotable Irish family, too, many of whom will no longer dread being seated next to me at the dinner table. As one brother repeatedly warned: “Be careful what you say around Marney, I hear she has writer’s block.”
The biggest thanks goes to the readers. Thank you for letting me wear my heart, my gender, my politics and my immodesty — when it came to my children — on my sleeve. To be sure, what people now call over-sharing I mastered in spades. By turns, you were my confessor, my sparring partner, my grief counselor and more often than not, my comrade in arms. I could not have written a better script.