self

My Mother’s Death Blew Up My Life. To Fix It, I Opened a Business.

I never wanted to move back to my hometown, but sudden loss ripped my plans apart.

Illustration: Celine Ka Wing Lau
Illustration: Celine Ka Wing Lau

In January of 2020, I started a new job. Senior copywriter for a large big-box home-goods retailer — in charge of all print media, and most importantly, the mailing of the store’s extremely beloved coupons. “Do you like it?” friends asked over $17 drinks and $15 fries at a bar where we swapped petty grievances about New York City life. “Yeah, sure,” I said. It wasn’t what I thought I’d be doing when I got my M.F.A. in fiction, wrote a novel, graduated, shelved it, began another. It was better than the prior one, but still just another step up the rung of a career ladder I never intended to climb, yet did, hand over reluctant hand, year after year, in order to pay my bills. I had a solid circle of friends, a consistent fuck buddy, a small savings account, and — finally, after a pay raise and a breakup  had made my apartment of eight years all mine, no roommate.

This might have been my life forever. But on the 15th of that month, my mom asked my brother and I to get on a joint phone call, something she had never done, to discuss some recent health issues of hers; ulcers, we thought. I took the elevator downstairs to my office’s personality-devoid marble lobby for privacy. Four minutes later, she delivered the news: stage-four pancreatic cancer. The doctors gave her a year to live.

Their optimism was laughable. She’d be dead in six weeks. After the terrible phone call, I sped home — to Ocean City, Maryland, where she still lived — to take care of her. Bought a car, my first in a decade, to commute for her treatments, which I only did twice before taking a leave from the brand-new job. And on March 5, 2020, I alone held my mother’s tiny hand and looked into her eyes as she took her last gaping, gasping breaths, the only witness to her exit from life. It was brutal and traumatic and shattered every part of me in a way I will likely, still, never recover from.

My mother was my foundation. A beautiful woman with espresso-bean-hued hair, preternatural grace, and the largest, most giving heart of any human I’ve ever known. She was a director of religious education, beloved volunteer at community organizations, and part-time sales associate at a jewelry store where her smile outshone the cases of gold and gems. The black hole her death ripped in my life swallowed everything good in my life. Hope. Ambition. Faith in the goodness and fairness of the world. Belief that anything happens for any reason. A week later, COVID-19 shut the world down.

I quarantined at home with my grief and my ex-boyfriend, because it seemed better to be in a house at the beach than to be in my tiny apartment alone. Suddenly, I had so much time to stare at her running shoes she’d never wear again and consider how little time we really have to live in the way we’d hope. During the day, I logged onto work to ensure people got their monthly 20 percent off coupons for Keurigs while feeling with every fiber of my being that this existence was bullshit. How could I pretend I didn’t hate my job while Jeff from Accounts asked again if the May sale mailer was copy-edited? “Shut UP,” I wanted to say. “My mother is dead. And in between our Teams meetings that could be emails, I have to slowly clean out all the things she left behind.” At night, I chain-smoked cigarettes, downed wine and gin martinis in a fruitless effort to feel better.

This went on for four brutal months, until June, when the house was going to be rented for the summer. Its mortgages and bills were too expensive for me to afford alone. I, supposedly, was going to get back to my life. My ex and I boxed linens in a closet labeled “OWNER’S DO NOT TOUCH”; wrapped wedding china and dozens of photos in bubble wrap to store in the attic. I loaded the still-new car with the clothes mailed to me by New York friends, some dishes of Mom’s, and her urn. I drove north — back to my home, I thought. And away from the grief.

But ascending the threadbare-carpet stairs in my prewar walk-up on Metropolitan Avenue, my feet were leaden. The apartment, with its lovingly scuffed floors from years of dance parties and careful art and book collections that were the light of my eked-out existence there, seemed cramped and dim. I did not feel home, was not back to my life, because I did not know what my life was anymore. As long as I could remember, I’d desired more than the ten miles of tourist-catering crab shacks and a year-round population of 7,000 my hometown could provide; I thought I’d be in New York for life. But COVID-bound to the apartment with my hurt heart, I began to wonder: Could Ocean City’s slower pace of life, lower cost of living, proximity to fresh air and lifelong friends, and more space actually … be … better?

“I think you should move back if that’s what you want,” my best friend in New York, Kaitlin, had said. “But consider what you’re going to do. For work, for sure, but with life, too.”

The fact was, it might take me many more years to publish a book, and in the meantime, grief aside, I was miserable. I’d wanted to quit copywriting for years, hated office jobs, felt my time, abilities, and soul were being wasted in them. I’d felt secure as a single, independent woman with no want for children because Mom was there to call on when I felt alone. In her absence, I was unmoored; I needed a change.

My mother’s dying eyes had shown fear at leaving this world. She was not done. That sat with me, a primal and devastating realization that there is never enough time to live the way we hope is best. She had lived so well, and look where it got her. Cancer. Dead at 62. I wasn’t doing nearly as well as she had. The tattoo on my ring finger I’d gotten at age 24 burned. “NO TIME,” it says.

Nothing made any sense, so I did something concrete: put my life into Home Depot boxes, sold furniture, made rounds of social-distance good-byes at the few favorite spots open for outdoor drinking in summer of 2020, and 12 years to the day that I had moved to New York, on August 31, I left — looking in the rearview mirror and crying the entire way.

I moved back into my mother’s house along with my childhood best friend, Molly, who was able to do her San Francisco–based job remotely and helped me afford the house. She had grown up in it with me, was a second daughter to my mother, knew what it was to miss her. I worked from my bedroom desk, walked on the beach, edited my second novel in free time. In the evenings, we made cheese boards, drank wine, and rewatched Lord of the Rings. It was nice, but bizarre. To be home. In her house. To miss New York, yet also feel I’d done the best thing for myself. My grief was torrential, unpredictable, and riddling me with larger questions on existence — chiefly, what to do with my imploded life.

During the original quarantine, in need of both books to occupy me and wine to numb my pain, I would order both from places outside my town; books from McNally Jackson, shipped; natural wine from Domestique in Washington, D.C., which I would drive three hours each way to pick up cases of. Ocean City had only a seasonal used bookstore and no source for this better-made wine. By the fall of 2020, I had started delivering wine to friends I’d introduced them to, essentially running it from D.C. to the shore, and thought how silly this all was. On my long walks, I would pass a shuttered bank building and imagine it as an independent bookstore plus small wine shop. I was already running an Instagram account and online event series devoted to books and wine: the Buzzed Word. What if, my fed-up, grief-scrambled brain would whisper, it became a real place?

Since my broke college years, I’d been fastidious with finances, and by 2020, I’d put away about $25,000, mostly from freelance jobs — a nest egg in case I lost my job. But there was also something I didn’t like to talk about.
Unbeknownst to anyone, my mother had taken out a small life-insurance policy. For the price of our favorite person’s life, my brother and I each got a check. Not a large sum, especially compared to what we’d lost. We put the funds in money markets and tried to forget about them. It was blood money. It felt awful.

When the idea of the Buzzed Word as a physical space surfaced, I started to think about that check again. What was it really for? It seemed futile to use it for my student loans or car payment when I could get cancer and die at any time. If my mom had ever wanted anything, it was for her children to be happy. Maybe, I considered, the money should go toward that. Toward setting up something for myself, and my town, that would bring joy.

For a few months, I did haphazard Google searches at night while watching TV. On bookstore design or which wine importers I knew distributed in Maryland. Made spreadsheets of how much any item I could imagine cost: shelving units, book stands, display tables, bar fridges, couches, utility estimates. But I couldn’t just quit my job. Right? I hated it, but it paid really well — and I got to do laundry in the middle of the day now!

In March of 2021, six months into my new life, I noticed several for-rent signs in a local shopping strip. On a whim, I called the broker. Just to see. A day later, I followed him into the empty shell of a former linen outlet. And I saw it. My store, with shelves of books and wine, a cozy couch area, a marble bar. When he quoted me the very affordable rent, my heart gave a kick. I asked Molly to come see it again with me. We walked around the dusty space, imagined it white and gold and art-filled, without the mismatched tile and awful peach walls. We shared a lifetime-of-best-friendship look; a “this could be something really great” look. I knew my town, its locals and visitors, and becoming a transplant had shown me what it needed. For the bookworms who sought independent shops on trips; for the mom looking for a quiet spot (and nice glass of wine) from the weeklong family getaway; for the locals on date night; for the friend bartender who wants a delicious post-shift bottle for home. A not-beach-themed space to enjoy both in, and escape to, year-round. It was an entirely untapped market, and I could be the person to crack the keg. I told the broker I’d call him in the morning.

We went home, ordered takeout, cued up mindless TV. I Googled “how to open a bookstore” and “how much money do you need for wine store inventory” while Molly pored over Pinterest for design ideas. We consulted my spreadsheets. By the end of the night, it seemed, a little bit, possible.

“Should I do this?” I asked her.

“I think you have to,” she replied.

I rang the broker the next day. There was not much time to make it work — in our town, all the money is made in the summer. If I was doing it, I’d need to be operational by July.

And I was doing it, I decided. NO TIME, remember?

I have to emphasize how much I did not know. The areas of expertise that convinced me I should start the store were not nothing: I’d worked adjacent to the literary world, as a book reviewer and events coordinator, for years, and been studying and writing about wine for as many; had an early background in the service and retail industries; and spent time in my marketing career. My gut told me I could make this great, via thoughtful design and inventory, gleaned from a lifetime of analyzing every retail, food service, or art space I’d ever entered. But the fundamentals were missing. I didn’t realize how much they would matter.

No contractor wanted to work with me because they didn’t take me, a young woman, seriously. Permitting and electrical wiring and plumbing were mysteries, their systems in a small town ancient and without rule books; I’d find too late, after walls were sealed or the bar built, that I needed hot-water hookups or another drain. Fellow business owners gave insight into pricing and inventory management, but the advice only went so far; quite literally, no one sold what I did. My one-ton bar fridge was delivered an hour before a storm and left outside; I had to ask the manager of the grocery store next door to help me move it inside with a pallet forklift.

The design process was a delight — everything Art Deco–inspired for a refreshing departure from beach-town décor. There were moments of immense pride and agency, like selecting a stunning, black-and-white, two-ton slab of marble for my bar top at a quarry, ordering how I wanted it cut, and watching it be installed. But I’d ended up spending $15,000 more than my budgeted $40,000 on the build-out and had multiple breakdowns when writing checks, missing deadlines, and calling government officials. All while still working remotely, which I did until two weeks before the shop was set to open; taking meetings camera-off, covered in paint or sawdust, from the floor of the shop in between construction projects. My sanity was threadbare, but I was determined to make it work.

The store on the eve of opening. Photo: Alex Ashman

Midday on July 15. Fourteen hours to opening. There is no way I’m going to get this done. Deliverymen were trying to unload 40-plus cases of wine amid teetering, unorganized piles of $11,000 worth of books. I needed to stock the entire store, plus assemble 14 barstools, organize the bar, and set up a POS system. I should not have been doing all that one day before opening, but fights with the health department about bathroom flooring (one of the many things I didn’t anticipate) had put my liquor license on hold — two nights prior, I’d been laying tragically checkered, last-ditch, $2-a-foot linoleum sheeting that looked as cheap as it was with my friend Alex’s recently retired dad until midnight praying I’d pass our third inspection and be able to open on time. By sheer will, I did — leaving less than 24 hours to give my wine distributors the okay to deliver and me to pull everything together.

I’d told everyone about the July 16 opening. The town was excited. I couldn’t miss that deadline. And I needed help.

No small business comes together by itself. The benefit of growing up in a small town, and of returning there to lick your wounds, is its people. People who helped me assemble furniture, paper the bathroom walls, build shelving, climb ladders to paint the 12-foot walls and scaffolding to hang string lights. Alex’s dad was a lifesaver with build-outs I’d overestimated my ability to do alone. Her mom painted the shop’s logo on the wall. In pure panic mode, I called them all up that final day-before. And they answered. By 4 p.m., a roster of friends rolled in. Helped alphabetize by author, bottle-stock by region, press gold pins into bar upholstery, set up social media. It was a tornado, and I was in the midst, running around with a box cutter in one hand and laptop in the other to check stock. Alex was among them; she is a photographer, and as I shouted directions and ripped open boxes, she snapped a few photos.

“You’re going to want to remember this later,” she said.

I will not, I thought. I had never been more stressed in my life, was covered in sweat and cardboard dust, wearing days-unwashed cutoffs, sneakers splattered with white primer paint, and an animalistic expression of stress.

In the quiet, I cleaned and made final adjustments. Set the bottles I’d pour the next day on the bar. Ran my mental checklist, now blown to smithereens. I knew I was forgetting many things. Oh well. By two in the morning, I thought I was probably as ready as I’d ever be.

Before I left, I looked around at the space, representing the sum of my taste, professional experience, and all of the money I had in the world. I had to smile. It was gorgeous. Adrenaline and exhaustion pulsed in time with the hot-pink neon sign in the front, glowed proudly.

I wouldn’t see Alex’s photos for a year, but there is one that I conjure when I remember that day. I’m sitting on the floor — the floor I’d paid $8,000 to have epoxied and on which I’d had multiple epic cries — behind the bar with a guy friend. My face is the picture of scatterbrained exhaustion. You can tell I’m wondering if this was the worst idea I’d ever had in my life; if I should have done this, taken not only the first real chance of my life, but the biggest one possible.

The Buzzed Word opened at 11 a.m. the next day, just four months after I walked through its empty space. When our first customers stumbled in, unaware it was our first day, the register iPad had just crashed. I had to ask them to pay for their two glasses of wine and a book — Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer — with cash. The dollar bill they tipped me with hangs behind the register now: our true first sale. When my loved ones arrived for the afternoon opening party, I realized I’d forgotten to order beer and had to ring people up with the Square app on my iPhone. But the bar was full of cheers and gratitude and love. They stacked up piles of purchases; I popped Champagne. I had done it. Opened a business, yes. But most importantly, I’d figured out a way to live.

People love to ask me now, “Was this store your dream come true?” And I say, wildly, “No!”

I opened the store wanting to bring great writing and wine to my town, and believing I was the person to do so. And I had been right. I trusted my gut and my taste. Our book selection leaned literary, with a diversity of voices, yet peppered with titles I knew would sell — small numbers of BookTok-approved beach reads allowing for whole shelves of translated literature and small-press poetry. Handwritten tasting notes hung from every bottle. But I also opened it because I felt I had nothing left to lose. Because of that futility mind-set, I gained everything.

Over the first few months the store was open, I would find what my life had been missing: satisfaction. A level of fundamental happiness I hadn’t known was possible in the slog of my former life. Gained from pressing a beloved book or bottle into someone’s hands, just as I imagined, knowing they would bring joy, and in operating a space I built, literally (mostly), with my own two hands. Mopping up a customer-shattered bottle is infinitely more satisfying than cleaning up a blundered Dyson vacuum sale.

Two and a half years later, we are flourishing. I may work constantly — when you own your own business, it’s never off your mind — but I love the job deeply. The same goes for my life. I have ownership: of my freedom, time, career, and soul-filling pursuits. I do not answer to Jeff in Accounts anymore; over Teams, I have a team of faithful, fantastic employees who are friends, too. (I delight now in telling people — or men, really, it’s always men — who ask what my husband does that “lets” me do this that I am the sole owner and single.) The fear of being alone is soothed by knowing I could and can find a way to live without my mother and with myself. Happily. I took up surfing, exchanged the late-night martinis and cigarettes for daily dawn patrols, coffee on the dunes with friends. When my grief twangs, I walk the beach and look for dolphins in the waves.

There are always mistakes: major tax mishaps and license panics, wildly expensive dishwasher repairs. And there is an emotional toll, too. The plain fact is that the business that fulfills me is only possible because I lost the best person I’ve ever known. That death check enabled me to open it without a loan. But, also, I wouldn’t have moved home if she hadn’t died.
In his memoir, How We Fight for Our Lives, writer Saeed Jones talks about the guilt of being able to quit a job to start his literary career through his mother’s life-insurance money. I remember reading this in the fall of 2019 and feeling but not fully comprehending his pain. At the time, my own mother’s cancer was already metastasizing, though we didn’t know it. Now, I am plagued by the same feeling.

“She would love it,” friends say. “She would be so proud of you.” I suppose she would, but I can’t think about that. The world in which my business and my mother exist together does not. They are separate. They have to be. Otherwise, I could never carry on.

And I do. In spite of what I’ve lost, and because of it, too. There isn’t enough time to waste on just fine, or in going through the motions of a life you designed when you were 16 and that doesn’t fit you at 30-something. I was lucky enough to be able to realize that, albeit in a fit of grief, and do something about it. And now, every day, I get to go to work and talk about my two passions that also make others so happy. When I am at my lowest, when I miss my mom with every fiber of my being (which I do, constantly), I am grateful that my shattered sense of order and fear of death drove me to do this crazy thing. Because in it, there is so much life, and so much love.

“Books and wine! Two of my favorite things!” people exclaim, almost daily, when they walk in.

I smile. “Mine, too.”

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My Mom’s Death Blew Up My Life. To Fix It, I Opened a Store.