Interview by Ceri Wheeldon
So often we hear the phrase ‘late bloomers’ to describe women to come into their own during the second half of their lives. Pam Valois, author of Blooming in Winter: The Story of a Remarkable Twentieth-Century Woman tells the story of a woman who inspired her throughout her life – and how she sees her as a role model in how to approach the ‘winter’ of her life.
Tell us about you
I am 77 and live in Berkeley, California. My career was in health care; I retired the day I turned 65! My husband and I now live in our dream house—the house we’d admired for years when we lived across the street from Jacomena Maybeck.
When did you start to write?
I met Jacomena when I was 35 and she was in her late seventies. She was tarring her roof, outfitted in a halter top and shorts. I’d never met anyone like her. We rented her cottage and became good friends, hanging out with her friends in their “old age”. Finding their lives and spirits an inspiration, I interviewed and photographed women over 65. I met the women by asking friends if they had an older woman in their lives whom they admired. Some women were lucky, but many answered that they wished for a mentor— someone who was thriving in those years. In an interview, Julia Child summed it up: “A passionate interest in what you do is the secret of long life, whether it is helping old people or children or making cheese or growing earthworms.” The project became a book. Although I wrote the original text for Gifts of Age: Portraits and Essays of 32 Remarkable Women (Chronicle Books, 1985), I partnered with a seasoned writer, and the book sold over 125,000 copies.
What have been the challenges for you?
In my forties, I worked part-time as a dental hygienist, and enjoyed life with two young boys. Jacomena had reared twins and understood the need for creative work which she found in her fifties as a ceramicist. She suggested that I hire a sitter for four hours a week to devote to photography. No matter whether I felt O.K., or whether the light was good, I worked hard in those hours. The dilemma of being a working mom and doing creative work has always been an issue for women.
Blooming in Winter
What was the inspiration behind your latest book?
Blooming in Winter: The Story of a Remarkable Twentieth-Century Woman will be published in June 2021. I started writing it six years ago when we bought Jacomena’s home, and realized that I knew little about her life—what had shaped her and provided support for the years when she was widowed at age 61, and then lived a long and creative life until age 95. Her uncommon approach to life is a story that needed to be told.
What can you share with us about the book?
Blooming in Winter is not only a biography, but a memoir of how Jacomena influenced my life when I knew her, and now as she influences me when I am the same age as she was at that time.
As an immigrant from Holland, Jacomena’s early years were spent moving from house to house until her family bought land in an isolated forest in northern California. There she developed the skills of a land owner, hiking miles into town to trade fruit for venison, learning to garden, and chopping off the heads of invading rattlesnakes.
Graduating from college in the early twenties gave her the new status of “modern women” exploring and adopting new values. She soon married into the bohemian Maybeck family. Her father-in-law was a well-known architect, building several family houses where Jacomena and her family moved from one to another, never feeling that a house was her own until the senior Maybecks died. Then she was suddenly widowed at age 61. Now in the “winter” of her life, Jacomena slowly learned to be happy again. “These years since Wallen died are like a tree that began to put out little leaves and blossoms where before, it was a bare tree.” Her letters and diaries reveal intimate thoughts that will inspire readers also widowed or in their winter years.
What do you want readers to take away, and how do you hope readers over 50 will relate to Jacomena’s story?
Jacomena is a model of zestful, hands-on living. The ways in which she met challenges in each season will inspire readers to reflect on how their current journeys may prepare them for their own “winter” seasons. “Fabafterfifties” will experience new ways to think about their next decades—perhaps a time when they’ll be less burdened with careers, children, and family responsibilities. As a ceramicist, Jacomena no longer felt obligated to compete and make things that would look good in an exhibition: “These years, I calibrate the work against pleasure.” Readers will perceive the value of finding a mentor who may understand her concerns, as well as share her own.
What’s next for you?
Not sure! I still love taking photos and talking to women about their lives and dreams. As my cohort enters our eighties, perhaps a new project will come to mind.
What 3 tips would you offer to women looking to write their first book?
- I wish I’d started my writing career earlier, taking advantage of the many classes available. I can remember taking a memoir class several years ago and being thrilled to learn things I’d never considered!
- Take your time—plan to write and re-write, and then write again.
- Look into publishing with a hybrid press. Mine is She Writes Press and among other benefits, I’m in a cohort of fifty women of all ages publishing in 2021. We’ve been able to support each other throughout the long process of finally publishing.
To contact Pam directly: