Mary Pflum Peterson is an Emmy Award-winning producer at ABC News/Good Morning America where she has covered a broad range of stories from natural disasters to the royal wedding to the Academy Award ceremonies. Before joining ABC, she was a producer and reporter for CNN where she handled subjects as diverse as the Middle East, the Afghanistan war and ballrooms in Vienna. Peterson grew up in Wisconsin, but lives in New York City with her husband and four young children. It was in Manhattan that Stay Thirsty Magazine had a chance to visit with her for this Conversation.
STAY THIRSTY: Your book, White Dresses, is "A Memoir of Love and Secrets, Mothers and Daughters" and has been praised as "A candid, moving memoir about the many complexities of family." You dedicated the book to your mother, Anne Diener Pflum. How did writing this book help you understand your mother and your childhood?
MARY PFLUM PETERSON: Writing White Dresses provided me with a terrific ability to take a step back and look at my childhood in full. Like a lot of people who grow up in dysfunctional families, I spent so much time just trying to get through it and just trying to get away from parts of it that I hadn't given a lot of thought to some of the patterns and themes of our family that went back a couple of generations. It was only when I sat down to write the book and started to conduct interviews with family members that I began to recognize there were patterns. And any historian knows the power of discovering those patterns. When you discover the bad ones, you have the potential to break, or at least, vary those patterns and hopefully pave the way for a brighter future for yourself and for the generations that come after you. In my case, it was difficult to take a hard look at some of those patterns.
For my mother, her life, in so many ways, was the story of loss. From the time she was born, she was dealing with loss after loss: the loss of siblings, the loss of a beloved dog, the loss of a first love. And then came the harder losses: the loss of her dignity and self-esteem and sense of self in the convent, where she was a nun for more than eight years. And then the loss of what was left of her sense of self-worth when her marriage collapsed and my father left her to embrace a gay lifestyle. It was a lot of loss and it took a tremendous toll on not only her, but on our life as a family. Something was definitely broken in her, in our home, by the time I came "of age." But mixed in with all of that loss was my mother's ability to unconditionally love. That was a pattern that was ever-present in my mother's life and that spilled over into my childhood. Love and loss are always themes in a family. I'm so grateful that my mother, no matter how much she lost, never stopped loving. That tug of war between love and loss, I suppose, defined my childhood more than anything else.
STAY THIRSTY: You included the following epigraph in White Dresses: "'White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities.' – Stephen Sondheim, 'Sunday in the Park with George.'" Why this quotation and what does it represent about you and the relationship you had with your mother?
MARY PFLUM PETERSON: My mother loved Broadway shows. And when she was introduced to Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George in the 1980s, she was very moved. She related to the story of Dot, artist George Seurat's lover, a woman who dearly loved a man she was never able to fully reach. After enduring a painful marriage to a gay man, she understood that ache; it spoke to her. And so did the line Dot uses in writing about George and his love of a blank canvas: "White: A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities." My mother would repeat the line often. She always believed in the possibilities in life. She always believed that there was time to right the ship, that tomorrow or even this afternoon or this evening spelled new possibilities. No matter what kind of hand she'd been dealt by life, she remained an optimist at heart. So while the notion of starting something anew, starting over, daunted some, my mother embraced the idea.
Even winter excited her in a way, as she used to say, it was sort of Mother Nature's way of hitting a reset button, setting the stage for a spring filled with infinite possibilities. It made her most excited to think about these new possibilities, new beginnings. When things got darkest, she used to say, she was almost relieved since it was always darkest before dawn and the very darkest moments meant that life was about to turn around. That fundamental love of life, even at its darkest, and that fundamental belief in the good in the world that was yet to come, played a huge role in our relationship. Because of her and that love of white and blank canvases, I, too, am, for the most part, a hopeless romantic and optimist.
STAY THIRSTY: In White Dresses you organize major personal and family milestones around the wearing of particular white dresses. What led you to the idea of structuring your family history that way and in making the white dress the vehicle to move your story ahead?
MARY PFLUM PETERSON: The idea for using white dresses as a means of framing my family's story came to me very quickly once I decided to write the book. I hadn't intended to write White Dresses, not at first anyway. I'd taken a writing class at my kids' preschool, Manhattan's Westside YMCA. I was taking the class in order to polish off a novel that I'd written. I'd just given birth to my fourth child in five years and my mother had died a year before. So I was caught up in a mixture of hormones and sleep deprivation and grief when my writing instructor asked me, three classes into the session, to write an in-class essay about where my name came from. I wrote about my name coming from my mother's time in the convent; a dark period of my mother's life out of which she was determined for something good to come. The class was moved by the essay when I read it aloud. And one classmate, a former classics professor at an area college, was so moved that she implored me to consider writing a book about my family. She asked me as she spoke what I would call such a book and I immediately said, without thinking hard about it, "White Dresses." She smiled and leaned in. "That's a wonderful title, but why white dresses?" And I smiled back and said, "Because my mother and I loved white dresses. They marked the passages of time and all of the significant days in our lives." And the woman clapped her hands and said, "Then white dresses it is. It's perfect." And it was.
For my mother and me, every big event can be traced back to some white dress: the dresses we wore for christenings and first communions and high school graduations and weddings. And the dress my mother wore when she became a nun and the one that I wore when I traveled the world reporting for CNN. They were all white dresses. The dresses were worn on happy days, on sad days, on decidedly mixed-emotion days. Above all, they were worn on days that marked transitions from one stage of our lives to the next.
When my mother died and I had to decide what I was going to try to save from her house, which was in such bad shape owing to her years and years of compulsive hoarding. It was one of those moments where I had to make a split second decision. And I knew all I really wanted were any photos and the white dresses that had marked the crucial milestones of our shared lives. For me, the white dresses literally made up the fabric of our mother/daughter history.
STAY THIRSTY: Your mother had many life-altering changes from becoming a nun to leaving the convent to getting married and bearing children to finding out that her husband was gay and ultimately, to becoming a hoarder in her later years. What do you admire about your mother's spirit in dealing with her life's challenges? Do you have her strength? Do you worry about becoming a hoarder yourself?
MARY PFLUM PETERSON: What I love most about my mother's spirit was her ability to never stop loving. She maintained a childlike sense of wonder about the world, even when life was at its darkest. And I can't tell you how much I admire that. In my line of work as a journalist, I meet a lot of people. So often when life has been hard, one of two things happens: either the person breaks or the person becomes hard and embittered. In my mother's case, she broke, to a degree. But she kept going. And she kept going not with a hard, gritty, embittered temperament but, instead, with a heart full of love. I marvel to this day at how she did that. I don't know how she managed to maintain that sense of wonder about the world when she had so much to be angry about. But she did.
Even in her final years, she didn't dwell on the "Whys" and "Why nots" and "What ifs" of life. Instead, she relished all that had gone right. She doted on her children and grandchildren. She marveled at her young students. She believed every child was perfect. She adored sunsets, reminding all who would listen that no two are exactly alike. She said the same about snowflakes. And nothing thrilled her more than a teeny tiny peony bud blossoming into a great big blossom the size of a melon or a fat bumble bee defying the laws of physics and whimsically buzzing around those peony plants.
I think my mother's strength in the face of adversity gave me a lot of strength. She certainly instilled in me a hard work ethic and the ability to just keep going, no matter what. My mother used to gently lecture me, even as a small child, that there was no time to play the part of a victim. When things get tough, she would tell me, just keep moving. Don't get me wrong. She also believed in the importance of having a good cry. But she definitely taught me that when the going gets tough, the worst thing you can ever do is to give up.
As for whether I worry about becoming a hoarder, not so much. My husband and I have worked hard in the past year to winnow down the things we keep in our New York City apartment. We're pretty good at giving things away, throwing things away. That's not to say that things are perfect. Far from it. With four small children in the house, our home is far from pristine and is forever cluttered with kids' debris (lots of artwork/ school work/ school projects/ toys). But I know because of my mother what happens when you try to hang on to too much. In a bid to save everything, you can destroy everything, including an ability to function. I think being as mindful as I am of my mother serves as a hoarding deterrent.
STAY THIRSTY: Catholicism, faith, hope and positivity are themes that resonate in White Dresses. How important are these in your life?
MARY PFLUM PETERSON: Catholicism, faith, hope and positivity are all important themes in my life. I remain Catholic as does my husband. We are raising our four kids Catholic. For us, conflicted though our relationship with the Church can be at times, leaving the Church was never an option. Thanks to my mom, I was raised with the understanding that you can still be a "good Catholic" even if you question aspects of the Church. In fact, for my mother, she didn't think you were really a good Catholic unless you questioned some aspects of the Church, as she always found some of those who presided over the Church to be decidedly un-Christian. Pope Francis certainly makes it easier to be a Catholic these days. I am in awe of what he has been able to achieve in just a couple of years. He's made single mothers and divorcees feel more welcomed. He's embraced the environment as a cause. He's increasingly warming the stodgy Church elders to the importance of gay rights. Above all, he's working to welcome back to the table all those that the Church alienated noting there's room for everyone at that table. I so wish my mother had lived to see a pope as compassionate as this one.
In terms of faith and hope, those are also key parts of our lives. My faith is one of the greatest gifts my mother gave to me and it is a gift that I want to give to my own children. I want them to have that as a foundation in their lives. And hope is something that we're teaching them about as well. Just as my mother taught me that when it's darkest, wait for the light. We're doing the same with the kids.
STAY THIRSTY: Your mother's hoarding is described as an illness by the encyclopedia of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) that causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other areas of important life functions. How did you learn to deal with your mother's illness and how did losing many of your childhood mementos, like photographs and clothes, to the chaos of a hoarder's house affect you?
MARY PFLUM PETERSON: I don't know that I ever really learned to deal with my mother's hoarding. It was something I was trying to fix or at least to help her keep at bay so that she could better function right up until the end of her life. Hoarding is a tough, tough thing. It's so easy for others who are not close to a hoarder to judge. So often people think that the "cure" to hoarding is as simple as pulling a dumpster up to the house and throwing everything away. But it's not that simple. The junk is not the problem. The junk is a symptom of the problem, which often lies buried deep within the hoarder. It took me years, as a child, to understand my mother was a hoarder. And it took me years longer, as an adult, to discover that no matter how many degrees or awards I earned, or how many calls I placed, that fixing my mother and the wounds that ailed her was not going to be an easy process.
Hoarding is a messy, complicated problem with no quick-fix solution. I remain fascinated and troubled by the fact that in our country of infinite possibilities and services, we have yet to come up with some services and solutions that successfully address the problems faced by hoarders and their loved ones. As far as how losing so many things from my childhood home affect me, I'm scarred, to be sure. I hate that I don't have more baby pictures.
After my daughter was born, the nurses in the hospital encouraged me to get out my baby pictures to see if she looked like me. They didn't know why their comments made me so sad. All of my photos had been destroyed in the piles of grime and debris in my mother's house. And I hate, too, that my sense of home has been irrevocably altered. Most girls dream of growing up and buying a house to raise their families in. But I was never one of those girls. I am content to live in my apartment. I saw the dark side of houses. For the last ten years of my mother's life, I was not allowed back into my childhood home and when I finally re-entered, after my mother's death, I was devastated by the horrible mess that it had become. My childhood house was not a place of refuge, it was an albatross and it's changed how I think about houses.
On a positive note, here's what having hoarding in my family has done for me: I am no longer so married to the notion of things. If something is lost or destroyed, I'm ok with it. Dean and the kids are my life. Of utmost importance to me are them and our collective health and their collective happiness. The things…the things can go. As long as we have each other, we're ok. A house doesn't make a home. The family unit and our deep love and understanding of one another, that's what makes the home.
STAY THIRSTY: How has the Catholic Church dealt with the issue of hoarding and does the Church reach out to help those with this illness? What role has faith and the power of prayer played in your life as you dealt with your mother's illness?
MARY PFLUM PETERSON: You raise an interesting question. I am not aware of any programs that the Catholic Church has in place that specifically address hoarding. My mother has been dead for five years and the Church is a constantly changing institution that works to keep up with the challenges of parishioners. So some programs may have come up in the past five years or may be in the works or already established at certain parishes. But in my mother's parish, no such programs existed and hoarding remained a dirty little secret in our community. Even at the time of her death, very few people, even close friends and colleagues, were aware that she was a hoarder. She was a wonderful actress in that respect. She managed to keep her hoarding a secret by not inviting people over and by meeting people out in restaurants and hotels instead of in her home.
When you ask about faith, yes, faith remains a very important part of our lives. The funny thing is, which a lot of people find surprising, the adversity in our family life is what makes me believe more, not less. I am a firm believer that things happen for a reason; that we're meant to meet the people we meet and learn from them and go on to meet others we might in turn teach during our lifetimes. I believe my mother had so many wonderful gifts to give and among those she taught me were that God works in mysterious ways and that there's goodness all around. All around. She often marveled (and she was right) that all of us humans spend our times fretting over what's wrong with our worlds instead of what's right. She was especially confused by this fixation on the flaws of the world, since, she said, the amount of right in the world outweighs the wrong.
I was given a few hurdles in life, but I was given something greater than all of those hurdles combined and that was a mother who loved with her whole heart, her whole soul, and then some more. At the end of the day, love is what we need most. And the fact that I was given a source of unconditional love that was my one constant throughout the storm of childhood and that gives me the kind of faith of a deep and unwavering quality that the curveballs of life might cause me to question now and again, but that's never going to be taken from me in full.
STAY THIRSTY: As a child growing up in a small town in Wisconsin, did stigma about your father's sexual orientation affect you or your siblings then and now?
MARY PFLUM PETERSON: Growing up in a small town has its pluses. But when a family was as unconventional as mine was in the 1980s, small town life had its challenges.
Last summer was a watershed moment in American history. When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage, everyone hung their rainbow flag proudly. I'm so happy that my children are growing up in this era in American history. But I worry the wonder of last summer has (quickly!) caused many to forget what it was like a few decades ago, particularly in small towns like the one in which I grew up, in which many people honestly believed that noone could possibly be gay. It's a tough thing for any family to go through a "break-up" owing to divorce. But when a family has to go through that breakup and then be shamed on top of it, because a husband and father are gay, and being gay is considered the "work of the devil," that's tough.
When my father came out and left, my mother was frozen out of many circles of friends who had once invited her to dinners and meetings. My brother and I were treated differently by certain teachers and neighbors. Many treated us as pariahs and acted as if we had a disease that could be spread. Kids know when their family is being whispered about. I certainly did. I distinctly remember the unkind remarks uttered by grocery store clerks, even a secretary at the Parks and Recreation office when my mother was just trying to sign me up for Tee-ball. The woman eyed us suspiciously, looked us up and down as if we were diseased, talked to my mother with cold clicks of the tongue, asking her about her fairy husband. My mother retreated to the public bathroom and cried and I stood by helplessly not sure what to say or do, but knowing that something very, very bad had happened that could not be undone.
I love so much about what my town gave me: a sense of community, a wonderful education, a quiet confidence that comes in everyone knowing your name. But I think I've embraced New York so much because of its ability to not think twice about whether I come from a "dysfunctional background." In New York, coming from a dysfunctional family is not only the norm it's sort of a badge of honor. Our differences are, of course, what make all of us so special. But in small towns, especially in the 1980s, coming from a different kind of family was not viewed as something favorable. It was unfortunately just the opposite.
STAY THIRSTY: You were a star student who went on to become a reporter for CNN and today you are an Emmy Award-winning Producer at ABC News for Good Morning America. How has your experience growing up in the family you did affected your view of people, of American and of how you think about presenting stories on television?
MARY PFLUM PETERSON: I think my complicated family has helped me to appreciate the many nuances in life. The vast majority of news stories we put on the air are not simple. They are made up of shades of not black and white, but, instead, various and often complicated shades of grey. My family has helped me to look for those nuances, to understand those nuances, to write about those nuances and work to explain those to others.
The struggles of my family have helped make me a more compassionate interviewer and storyteller. I have seen first hand the impact of mental illness on a family, of loss. I have learned from my family and the prejudices that were lobbed at us over the years to never ever bow to the dangers of stereotyping or of prejudging or misjudging. Human beings are complicated, multifaceted creatures. No two of us are exactly alike. No two families are exactly alike. To think otherwise is to be not only over-simplistic, it is wrong.
I am grateful to my family, my mother in particular, for exposing me to so many complicated life scenarios so early. It's enabled me to be a better citizen of the world, a better friend, a better wife, a better mom and, I hope, a better journalist.
STAY THIRSTY: In the quiet of the night, what do you miss most about your mother and what three kernels of wisdom from her do you envision passing along to your children?
MARY PFLUM PETERSON: What a wonderful question. I confess I don't have as many quiet moments as I'd like in which to think. As a full-time working mom of four, I generally collapse at day's end, my head swimming with thoughts of what permission slips need to be signed and kids' homework projects need to be completed and stories for work that need to be pitched or edited or wrapped up. But here are a few kernels my mother taught me that I try to draw from as often as possible and am trying to pass on to my kids:
My mother taught me to be kind. She was a big believer that people may not remember what you taught them, but they'll certainly remember how you made them feel. So she wanted me to do the right thing, the good thing, at all times. She forever lectured that being good may not seem to pay off in many cases in the short term. But it always pays off in the long term. And she's right.
My mother taught me about the importance of accepting others for who they are. At so many times in her life, my mother had the opportunity to be as inflexible as the fire-and-brimstone Church she'd grown up with. But she never became that hard woman. Instead, she embraced those other teachings of the Church, the ones that preach forgiveness and acceptance. And so when my father came out to my mother, she took a deep breath, and told him, "If I can accept who you are, why can't you?" It was revolutionary at the time for a wife to be so accepting of a gay husband. The psychiatrist treating both of my parents marveled at her compassion in an era in which some women had their gay-leaning husbands committed to facilities aimed at "rehabilitating" them. My mother's inclination to accept others for who they are had no bounds. It explains her ability to be such a wonderful early childhood educator. She didn't obsess over what her young student's shortcomings were, what flaws befell them. She accepted who they were and celebrated their uniqueness. I don't know why more of us aren't wired to be like that, to celebrate what's there in a person instead of mourning or ridiculing what's not. But I'm glad I was blessed with a mom who was her own special brand of Yoda (I mention the Star Wars character since that was among her favorite cinematic characters of all time. And for good reason – they saw eye-to-eye on virtually everything).
Finally, my mother taught me the key to being a terrific mom lies not in being perfect, not in material things. It's all about one thing that money can't buy: love. She showed me that you don't need millions of dollars or the ability to stay home fulltime or a huge support network or lots of hours of sleep to be a good mom. What you need above all is a huge and unwavering love of your children and a commitment to them. We had no money, little heat, and all kinds of things stacked against us growing up. But what we had in spades from my mother was love and that enabled us to look beyond all of our shortcomings to life's infinite possibilities. So now when I start to kick myself for not being able to give my children more material things, I remember my mother's example and know if I keep my love for them the focus, they're going to be fine.
I'll leave you with a confession: Yes, my mother was flawed. She fought a long and complicated life that included lengthy bouts of chronic depression. And for the better part of three decades, she was a compulsive hoarder. Still, in spite of all of that, I want to be my mom when I grow up. And if I'm lucky, I'll be half the mom to my kids that she was to me.
All photos courtesy of Mary Pflum Peterson.