The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #12: Joen Madonna in Conversation with Cherry Crawley (Her Dead Mother)

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This is an interview with my mom. I was hyper-critical of her when she was alive and never gave her enough credit.

She was an only child, raised in DC by older over-bearing parents. She married the first man she dated, and at 21 joined him in his rural Oklahoma Episcopal parish. He died from skin cancer six years later, leaving her a widow at age 28 with three kids, no education, and no prospect of a career. She never remarried. After her children were grown, she went back to school and started writing poetry, and began a journey of self-discovery. She didn’t get very far, breast cancer ended her life when she was 53.

I have the collection of journals she kept over her last 8 years. I never would have touched them while she was alive. Recently, I have started asking her questions, then going to the journals and randomly opening up to a page to look for a reply. I decided to conduct an interview of her in the same fashion. Her replies are transcribed direct from her journals.

Joen Madonna: After us kids moved out, you started searching for who you were and went to stay at a friend’s cabin in Virginia to begin your first novel. What did you discover?

Cherry Crawley: I am a near 50ish woman in search of herself in an apple orchard in the Blue Ridge Mountains of VA. I’ve been lost wherever I’ve been so it makes just as much sense to begin here as in OK. Besides, there are too many of my children in OK. They are part of the shield that keeps me lost. I caught a glimpse of myself while they were gone. I became lost – disappeared at 2 when my mother threw my doll down the stairs, crushing her head. I began emerging at 45 after the third and last child left home. I was doing fine until they all returned. Somehow I get lost in the family I created. I was lost in the family my parents created as well. It’s frightening to think I can only find myself if alone. I hope who I am likes being alone.

Madonna: We never talked about your death while you were dying. I was scared shitless. What was it like for you, dying of breast cancer at age 53?

Crawley: I just really don’t know what to say. This health experience has shed new light on my life. I’m making some changes and they are for the best. I like myself more now, even enjoy myself some. What do you do the day your hair falls out? You buy a sports car you have always wanted, that’s what you do. I wonder if I’ll ever make love again – I love it so much I hate to think not. Will my whole body itch as the hair grows back? My eyes are moist almost all the time – my nose runs a lot.

Madonna: Do you have any departing thoughts about yourself or your self-discovery?

Crawley: I had moments of beauty, but I never knew it. I had glimpses at times, but never full recognition. As a woman becoming older, I was saddened by my lack of understanding about myself. I seemed to always catch on just a little too late. In my forties I realized half was over and that I probably had a better chance at happiness then. Not until my 50s did I realize what could actually have been. I could have had a different life if my attitude hadn’t sucked. My mantra during the 70s & 80s was attitude. Took a long time to take affect. I need to let go of the past and get on with the future. It has taken a toenail, a few teeth and a left breast to get the wake-up call.


Joen received her Bachelor’s degree in Cultural Geography from UC Berkeley at age 35, where she received an honor’s designation for her thesis analyzing the cultural landscapes of cannabis clubs in the Bay Area. The research was funded by an academic fellowship, so you could say UC Berekely paid her to study pot. Joen lives and writes in San Francisco, blending her love for urban evolution and human culture with travel, and the exploration of emerging art. In the past few years she’s spent time in Paris, Rome, New York, Los Angeles, Ethiopia, Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, Dubai and Washington DC. Joen was given her unusual name by her father, who took it from the author of a textbook on Gestalt therapy, and pronounced it incorrectly. He died 19 days later, never getting to experience the awkwardness the legacy of her name gave her. More from this author →