Actors, Mother-Daughter Duo Laura Dern and Diane Ladd Talk Life, Death, Love (and Banana Pudding)
How well do we really know our parents? Laura Dern and Diane Ladd have always been close, but after a terrifying medical diagnosis gave Ladd just months to live, Dern realized how little she really knew. Ladd had been diagnosed with scarring on her lungs due to pesticide exposure and in an effort to expand her lungs, Dern decided the two would start going on walks.
Over the course of many months, their walks continued, talking about anything and everything—starting with death. Dern and Ladd asked all the questions they never had before, leaving nothing unsaid, and turned these conversations into their bestselling book, Honey, Baby, Mine: A Mother and Daughter Talk Life, Death, Love (and Banana Pudding). We chatted with this mother-daughter duo just days after they ended their book tour, and right before reuniting for Mother’s Day, to find out why we need to have these uncomfortable conversations and why talking about death isn’t that scary at all.
A CONVERSATION WITH LAURA DERN & DIANE LADD
How can talking about death help us make our lives more meaningful?
Diane: If you're not dead, you got breath in you, and you ought to be jumping up and down for joy.
Laura: Confronting the conversation with a loved one, especially in a health crisis, was so freeing. I feel like grief and death are the conversations we never have. We're a culture that has not given guidance to the next generation ourselves in terms of how we navigate things that are a part of the life experience.
Diane: You're absolutely correct, Laura. We run away. We pretend death doesn't happen. It's kind of sad, because you got born—and that happened—and you can bet your bottom booth, death’s gonna happen too. So you need to concentrate on living and making it a wonderful time. If we talk about death or if we prepare for it—no matter what age—it's always a shock because you have a cord with a loved one broken and your sensibilities are shattered. It's nice to be prepared together, and help each other be prepared for life itself and death itself, and the continuation of the immortal soul. You do it through love and joy, living a great life, holding the door when somebody comes behind you, and saying “Thank you,” and “Please.” I mean, it doesn't hurt to be a little kind and raise up our evolution here and be a bit more evolved. That doesn't hurt or cost us anything. It helps make paradise, paradise.
Why do you think that we, as a culture, are so afraid of grief and dying?
Laura: Well, I think America has its own origin story of avoiding the hard conversations and being rather puritanical. We have tried to progress in how we share land, thinking, ideologies, and religious conversation, but we haven't done a very good job of it. We’re at the worst divide yet. If we can find our way back to the commonality, the shared experience in living, then maybe we can also open up to even our own families, partners, and relationships. But there's still so much judgment and self-loathing that people run from the truth, and we've become a culture of “Take a pill if there's a problem,” or “Don't let them see you hurt.”
Diane: Religion—religare in Latin—is a word that means to understand, to be aware. I think the more aware we are, the kinder we are, and we take away the cruelty associated with death. I think a fear of death, or fear of pain, or fear of loss are very common and normal feelings. But I think sometimes they are played out against people. I think we need to evolve more and remove those stigmas, remove those patterns. Then we can talk to each other more, understand each other more, and help each other more. I mean, that's what the whole human race is supposed to be—a family.
So as we celebrate Mother's Day, how can we help mothers and daughters talk about the things that are unsaid, even if they're not dealing with an experience of grief or death, and open up these conversations into the light of day?
Diane: By reading our book, Honey, Baby, Mine. That's why we wrote the book, because we spill the beans. Parents lie to their children, and children lie to their parents in order to be loved and keep anything that might scare somebody away. We don't always tell each other the truth, which stops the communication and stops the flow of the river of love. We heard from siblings that hadn't spoken in 40 years and after reading the book, sat down and ended up having a long conversation. Maybe they won’t become best buddies, but at least they're talking to each other, and they're listening to each other. We don't have to always agree with each other.
Laura: We don't, right? And honestly, you know, just in my own experience as mom said, we took these walks and started these talks to save mom's life and expand her lungs, her health, her life. What we discovered was a profound deepening in our own relationship. Some of the most joyful and meaningful conversations we had were around what seems mundane. Everything from favorite color and food, to what was the favorite present you got at Christmas as a kid? Or, you know, “Mom, actress to actress…” I'd never even asked her what was the first movie she saw, or the first piece of art that made you want to be an artist from a small town in Mississippi. So this Mother's Day, I wish for everybody the same thing I asked my own mom and my kids for, which was: How about we stay home? We cook food, some of our favorite family recipes, and we ask each other questions we've always been curious about. Ask nothing you already know and let's put all the devices away and have a few hours as a family where we just talk about stuff and have fun. I have questions for each of them. You know, it's my Mother's Day present to go, “Hey, I never asked. What did this feel like?” Or to my daughter, “Who in a week is graduating high school?” I haven't said, “How are you feeling? Are you scared? Are you thrilled?”
In Judaism, you write an ethical will. You don't just give away your stuff, you give your thoughts and your feelings. What you guys have done is a version of that. You've taken the time you've shared, your stories, and you've imparted your wisdom—not only to each other—but to the world. Genuinely one of the greatest gifts you can give. So how do you feel knowing this legacy will be passed on? You are now keeping this tradition going this Mother's Day, but how has it changed the way that you relate to each other on a daily basis?
Diane: The legacy is to share. The legacy is you don't let the lessons go to waste even from the hard, painful things. We all have a rough path in life. As they say, “No one said it would be easy.” I almost died. We didn't plan a book. They told my daughter after I was sprayed with 10 pesticide poisons that I'd be dead in three months. Instead of dying, I starred in two movies, a TV series, and wrote a book. Now, it wasn't so easy to accomplish all this, but I did it with faith, spirit, hard work, prayer, and everything combined–including and especially–the walks. Most of all, the love that my daughter shared with me on our walks together. And because we thought I was dying, we took away the ordinary mask and fears that we human beings wear day to day, and we just, as I say, “spilled the beans,” and told each other everything. The harsh things, the fun things, and we had a lot of laughter. We had some arguments, we have things we still disagree on, and I'll say I'm right, she says she’s right, but we still respect each other. We allow each other a difference of opinion, but in that talking, in that reaching, there's so much joy and laughter to be found. The love and joy of reaching out is so rewarding. Don't run away from the hard questions. The legacy is love, and love and light are the best legacy we could all have.
Laura: We've lost ritual, but also the ritual of being in community because of social media and being on our phones and devices 24/7. As we all know as families, the family table—which at one time we had for the ritual of communicating, of sharing our day, of talking about your high point, your low point, sharing something that made you laugh—has been removed from our culture for probably a majority of families. Somebody's got an iPhone or a tablet and kids are watching cartoons at the table. People aren't sitting as a family and having the experience of passing along legacy and storytelling. I'm so grateful for all the things that we got, that this was a celebration of us learning about bringing back that tradition in our own family. Yes, it was because of a crisis, but now we don't want to let it go. We can grab onto those moments, even if we only have 20 minutes to check in.
Diane: On this book tour we found so many people reaching out to be heard and wanting to communicate. I think that today, the communication and love that we can reach out anytime is of the utmost precious gift. Especially on Mother's Day.
Laura: I just want to throw out too because so many friends who've now shared the book– I have friends who don't speak to their mother, I have friends who have lost their mother, I have friends who wish to be closer or weren't raised by a mother. So I would love that Mother's Day represents nurturing. Whether you are mothering yourself, mothering your children, mothering your mother, your grandma, your stepmom, your adoptive mom, your sisters who have mothered you because you don't have a healthy relationship with your mother or you lost your mother young. I mean, Mother's Day should also represent mothering ourselves, our community, and each other on a much more global scale. And that's certainly what Mom and I hoped. We happen to be mother and daughter who went through this journey together. But as Mom said at the beginning, our hope is that it inspires all of us to listen to each other, all of us to ask life's questions, and all of us to be willing to be a global community, even if we don't agree, even if we can't always forgive, that we're at least listening.
So, will banana pudding be a part of your Mother’s Day?
Laura: I'm going to surprise my mom right now and tell her, yes, I am making banana pudding!