If women are looking for an inspiring heroine, a likely choice would be Kelly Corrigan. The best-selling memoirist is all about the sisterhood and how women can empower themselves, support each other and deal with their own complex roles as mothers, wives and the adult children of aging parents. She speaks to women though her books, charitable work and fundraising activities, and is not shy with her opinions.
Her new book, “Glitter and Glue,” is the Bee Book Club’s choice for March (Ballantine, $26, 240 pages). As for the title, Corrigan’s mother, Mary, once told her, ‘Your father is the glitter (of the family), but I’m the glue.’ ”
“For me, (the book is) about the difference between adventure and life experience, fathers and mothers, and liking someone and loving someone,” said Corrigan. For readers, it explores the bond between mothers and daughters, and tells how the young Corrigan’s experiences abroad helped her connect later with her mother.
Corrigan, 46, and her husband, Edward Lichty, live in the Bay Area with their two daughters, 10 and 12. “I’m sort of known for saying my three-part recipe for deep contentedness: ‘Make yourself useful doing something hard with good people,’ ” she said. “If I can do that in front of my kids, I think they will have a shot at being happy.”
When she turned 40, Corrigan wrote an essay for a newspaper – an ode to women – that ultimately became an online hit. “Transcending” is about “women’s remarkable capacity to support each other,” she said. “I first read it to a group of women in a friend’s backyard and somebody videotaped it and put it on YouTube. It’s had 5 million hits.”
Obviously, the emotional “Transcending” is inspiring to women, but what is it that inspires Corrigan? “People who go quietly about the business of getting things done, with absolutely no reward,” she said.
People like herself: Corrigan is a co-founder of Notes & Words, an annual program that brings well-known writers and musicians together on the stage of Oakland’s Paramount Theatre. So far, it’s raised $2.5 million for the Children’s Hospital in Oakland, where one of Corrigan’s daughters was treated for meningitis.
Corrigan published her first memoir in 2008. On the face of it, “The Middle Place” is about her battle with breast cancer, but “it’s actually about my father, George,” she said. “We had cancer at the same time (his was of the bladder) and it’s the story of that year. Every other chapter is a flashback to childhood, partially to explore the idea of what it was like to be a kid when I was his kid, and what it was like to be his kid when I was ‘all grown up.’ ” (They are both cancer-free now.)
The second memoir, “Lift” (2010), is about the risks and rewards of parenthood as based on a trio of harrowing true stories. “My daughter was rushed to the emergency room with meningitis, and then a month later my favorite cousin (lost her son) in a car accident,” Corrigan said. “At the same time, one of my best friends was trying to figure out whether to have a baby by herself.”
Ballantine editor Jennifer Smith worked with Corrigan on “Glitter and Glue.” “Kelly is tireless and determined, and one of those writers who comes back tenfold when you ask for something,” she said. “She takes stories from her own life that are funny and hard and tells them in universal ways. By the time you finish one of her books, you want to be part of her family.”
The heart of “Glitter and Glue” is the relationship between Corrigan and her mother.
Corrigan was out of college and in her early 20s in 1992 when she traveled to Australia to be “a hippie explorer.” After a few months, she got a job as the nanny to two children whose father was a widower.
“(Not having a mother) the kids were extremely interested in my mother,” she recalled. “Every time a letter came, they would rush from the mailbox up the steps and want to read every word of what a mother would say to her child. They wanted to trade photographs with her. My mother was ever-present in my mind as I went through each of those days.”
Another connection between Corrigan and her mother was “the book.”
“She was always bugging me to read ‘My Antonia’ by Willa Cather,” she said. “But I tended not to follow my mother’s suggestions, so I would probably never have cracked the spine. But I had a lot of free hours in Australia and was really curious about what kind of book she would think was marvelous, so I read it.”
Corrigan was taken aback. “It was super-nostalgic and romantic, and that was not my impression of my mother at all,” she said. “I think of her as a stoic, highly competent, independent, unemotional woman who despises public displays of affection and thinks everyone is over-emoting, including me. And she secretly loved this book, which caused me to rethink her. One question it made me ask was, ‘If I love my father so much and think we’re such birds of a feather, why did he pick her?’ ”
He later told Corrigan “it was because she was smart, funny and had a big-time relationship with God.”
Corrigan returned to the United States a few months later, filled with “tender feelings for (my mother) that been building up,” she said. “But by the time I got home and into her kitchen, it wasn’t two minutes before we started irritating each other again.”
There’s a second act in “Glitter and Glue,” about “my coming around to her years later,” Corrigan said. “That (involved) having my own children and becoming sick. My mom was sort of a retired mother in Philadelphia and I was in California. I got sick and she came. I knew she would. She may not want to snuggle, but she definitely wants to take care of me. It made me feel safe.”
Which was the catalyst for their reconciliation, yes? “No. The funny thing is (any reconciliation) was never explicit,” Corrigan said. “To take her by the shoulders and look her in the eye and say, ‘Mom, I love you’ would make her skin crawl. She would say, ‘Stop it! Why are you saying that? Are you dying?’ That is not how she wants to relate.”
Their reconciliation came in a moment of revelation: “I realized I was not going to try to change her anymore, to make her more effusive and liberal. That’s not my job. If she prefers to stay home rather than go to the party, that is totally legit.”
Corrigan spoke with her “incredible optimist” father about the situation. “He said something like, ‘Aw, Lovey, don’t overthink it, it’s going to work out.’ He wouldn’t get down in the weeds with me and go line by line through the interaction.”
Her father is now 84, her mother is 74, and they live in the same house in Philadelphia where Corrigan grew up.
“They have a good bedrock (for their relationship),” Corrigan said. “Part of the reason is she doesn’t do things she doesn’t want to do, and I admire her for that. Too many women do things they’d rather not.”
Corrigan has been called “a warm hug to the messiness that is motherhood.” In this era of the Tiger Mom, parenting apps such as “How To Con Your Kid,” and parenting best-sellers such as “All Joy and No Fun,” where does she stand?
“I can get to a point of view and then some big book will come out, saying that everybody has a tutor or every kid should play three sports, and I’ll start to doubt myself and think, ‘I’ve screwed up again.’ ” she said. “That’s when I wish I had my mother’s stamina for (parenting). It takes so much grit and the willingness to be deeply unpopular with your own children in your own home.”
Too often, Corrigan said, she gets “pushed off my (parenting) line. My mother said once, ‘You changed me more than I changed you.’ I was so struck by that because I didn’t think a child could change a parent. Now I understand.”
“Sometimes I say to my kids, ‘Wait a minute. When you presented this new piece of information, I thought it over and made an adjustment to the plan, and I expect you to do the same for me. But I feel that I’m adjusting more often than you are.’ And that’s crazy.”
If Corrigan has any big parenting regret, it’s her temper. “I’ve worked on it and made a lot of progress, but I regret the times I have totally lost my cool and yelled at my kids,” she said. “I don’t want them to ever think that’s OK. I’ve said to them later, ‘One, I’m very sorry. And two, don’t ever let any roommate, boyfriend or boss talk to you the way I just did. It is completely unacceptable.’ ”
By design and circumstance, Corrigan has become a champion of motherhood, personified by such tears-to-the-eyes advice as this:
“Parenthood is much more confounding than it looks from the outside. We’re each other’s best chance of getting through it with any grace and humor, so let’s carry each other through this thing. We’re the only ones who really know.”
The sisterhood evidently agrees.
Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.