GRIEF is a very individual thing, Maggie Mackellar concedes.
The author turned to a blank sheet of paper to deal with hers.
What materialised is When It Rains, a remarkable and moving memoir about loss, love and recovery.
“Writing forced me to think through what I was experiencing,” Ms Mackellar said.
“For me writing has always crystallised my thinking and it forces me to put those thoughts into sentences that made some sense of what had happened to me.”
In 2002, six months’ pregnant and with a five-year-old daughter, Ms Mackellar’s husband took his own life.
Two years later her mother died after a 12 week battle with cancer.
“Losing a mother is a grief or fear that’s in all of us and for that reason, one of the themes that runs through the book is the complexity of dealing with two very different sorts of grief at a similar time,” Ms Mackellar said.
“It was as if I was just starting to come out from under the weight of my husband dying, then my mother died so it was one piled on top of the other and it complicated my understanding of what I was going through.
“I think a big part of the grief I experienced over my husband is the shock you’ve planned a life together and you had always imagined growing old together and raising children together but you go on, there’s no real choice about it.
“Practically speaking, mum was the reason my wheels were still turning after husband died.
“But once she died the wheels fell off.”
Once they did, Ms Mackellar quit her job as a history lecturer at the University of Sydney and moved her children Lottie and Charlie to the farm near Orange where she spent her childhood.
“Being a lecturer is a fabulous job but you have to be very on top of everything and there’s only so many times the students can cope with you not getting your act together,” Ms Mackellar said.
“I did one semester after mum died and thought, ‘that’s it, I have to take a break from the city for three months’.
“But we’re still here and I love it.
“People aren’t afraid to embrace family and friends here as much as they are in the city.
“Out here people seem to be able to look at my two children and say, ‘oh, there are some kids without a dad’, and they are more confident about being involved in my kids’ life, whereas in the suburbs there was always a hesitancy about engaging in this way.
“Of course I miss that sense of being on the cutting edge of latest research and journals, but that’s more than made up for by richness of community life out here.
“I just came here to escape and then I started to see the different lifestyle my kids were experiencing and I couldn’t take them back.
“The lifestyle is too unique, too good.”
Ms Mackellar began writing her memoir shortly after moving to Orange,
Five years later, it’s being published by Random House.
“Why write it was a really huge question and one I battled with,” Ms Mackellar said.
“A memoir by its very nature is an indulgent genre, you’re writing about yourself so my question was why should this story be told?
“The way I answered that was to think that there were very few intellectually engaging books I could turn to during my own grieving process.
“The book is not about my husband or how he died, the book is about how I coped with that.
“It tracks my anger at the whole experience and I’m now at a different place when I think of my husband.
“Now when I think about him, I still feel sad that he’s missing out on my little seven-year-old running up the sideline and the look on his face when he scores a try, but I also think far out, we had a decade of the most fantastically full and exciting time together.
“When I think of him I’m more in touch with those positive things. Five years ago I wouldn’t have been in that place.
“Time is a wonderful thing.”
Like the content of the memoir, its title also has its own rich story.
The working title, Anatomy of Grief, was dumped after a wall hanging in Ms Mackellar’s kitchen inspired When It Rains.
“When I was eight my dad [Ian Mackellar] was immigration minister under [Malcolm] Fraser and he was embroiled in the Vietnamese boat people controversy,” Ms Mackellar said.
“We were leading a very strange life where we had protestors camped on our front lawn, and bomb and and death threats.
“One day at school we were given this writing task where we had to write two poems about what we thought about when it rains.
“In an effort to help us understand what was going on, dad had brought home pictures of the refugee camps he’d visited in Vietnam, pictures of children under dark clouds with no clothes on, so I wrote dark clouds make me think of children in another country.
“At the same time we were also in the middle of the drought so I wrote when it rains I think of the good things it brings.
“My grandmother was very creative and an embroiderer so she made two cushions out of those two poems I’d written and years later my friend was helping me unpack when I moved out here and we found the two moth-eaten old cushions.
“I got them framed and hung them in the kitchen and another friend said to me when I was trying to find a title, ‘why don’t you call it when it rains?’”
When It Rains is available at most book stores and will be officially launched next week.
An early manuscript won the Peter Blazey Award for memoir, autobiography, biography and life writing.