Designated Daughter: D.G. Fulford

Mother and daughter collaborate in this new memoir, a celebration of a new life stage familiar to every caregiver and her aging parent.

By Wendy Rodewald
Mother and daughter: Phyllis Greene and D.G. Fulford (Photo: Marcia Smilack)

When her father passed away, D.G. Fulford knew what she had to do: At midlife, after 20 years away, she moved back home to Ohio to support her widowed mother. She became, in her words, a Designated Daughter.Fulford’s new book, Designated Daughter: The Bonus Years with Mom (Voice), co-written with her mother Phyllis Greene, offers a glimpse into the close relationship that develops between a dutiful daughter and her aging parent — a familiar subject for many midlife women, who make up 60 percent of America’s 50 million family caregivers (one memorable quote: "If mine was the sandwich generation, I felt like a six-foot sub"). Their alternating voices take the reader through eight years of changes large and small — births of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, deaths of friends and family members, health scares that leave both mother and daughter grateful for more peaceful days marked by mundane errands and Bob Evans lunches. D.G. Fulford spoke to to kick off her leg of the Getting Better All the Time workshop tour sponsored by MORE and Voice First things first: How do you define a Designated Daughter? D.G. Fulford: I am a daughter born between two sons, and when my father died I instinctively knew that I had to come home and be my mother’s companion for this next stage of life. [Being a designated daughter] is walking beside your mom, trying to take up the empty space that has always been filled by Dad. The term "designated daughter" came to me as I was turning right onto the street that leads to my mom’s house. We were either going on errands, or we were going to the hairdresser, or we were going to Bob Evans, and I thought to myself, "I’m the designated driver." And then I went, "I’m the designated daughter."And these are the "bonus years" with my mom — I never even thought about them [before]. I never even thought of it as a segment of life. These are years we’re afraid to think about: the years before a parent is going to die. But it has been such a bonus and such a surprise, and that’s what being a designated daughter is about — to recognize these years as an opportunity. One thing that surprised me about the book was how humorous it was. You and your mother are constantly cracking each other up with these incredibly wry jokes. How essential a role does that sense of humor play in a relationship like yours? DF: I would say, a hundred percent, or ninety-nine. People ask me what I’ve learned about my mother through this book, through this time, and I say I’ve learned that she is hilarious. We’re funny as a family, and that’s how we get through things. The format of the book is really unique, with your mother adding her take at the end of each of your chapters. How did that actually work — did you write simultaneously? DF: The funniest thing is my mom and I couldn’t be more different [in our writing styles]. We did figure out what the general segments were, how we would break the book down into chapters. And then she would write and then send them to me to add on to my Word document. So I would read hers for the first time. And I’ll tell you, when I read that first writing she did about the elephant whose name is death, that threw me backwards in my chair and made me gasp. So we each wrote separately, and I think my mother’s beautiful voice comes through, and I think it sounds like a very different voice than mine. It’s just like having a conversation with the both of us. Let’s go back to that elephant. In her first chapter, your mother writes about the two of you, "We are companions on a beautiful road to a journey’s end. We are not alone; lumbering along is an elephant. ... His name is D E A T H. " How do you deal with the idea of death? Is it always in the back of your mind? DF: Well, for Christmas my brother gave me an elephant pinata. That was really great. [laughs] But, you know, we deal — we’ve made our plans, we know what the end is — we don’t dwell. We’ve had all the talks, we’re of a like mind, and we never know whether we’re being realistic or completely in denial. I’m going to fall down on the floor that day, but my brothers will be there, and maybe that’s where they come in as "designated." You’ve dedicated yourself to preserving family histories — you wrote To Our Children’s Children with your brother Bob Greene, you co-founded to help people tell their life stories, and now in Designated Daughter you’re passing down a part of your own story. What’s so valuable about these histories? DF: All this business is floating around you all the time, as far as family history. Our minds do it naturally — our minds are always going home. Even if you think about wheeling your grocery cart by stew cubes, and you remember your mom’s beef stew and the pot she cooked it in — I mean, it’s just there. For me it comes naturally and I’ve made my living this way. I was columnist for seven years, [writing about] my daughter and me; and you gain perspective by writing it down. You begin to see things when you put them on the page, and you begin to gain a lot of self-respect. You don’t have to be a writer — start with a few writing prompts, questions. I am an evangelist for family history because I know what this means to people. How has your relationship with your mother affected your relationship with your own daughter, Maggie? DF: Maggie and I have both grown up a lot. She has become my shoulder to lean on in long, long-distance phone calls, which speak straight to my familiar heart. Maggie can see the forest for the trees when I cannot, and she can talk me through a breakdown, and make me laugh. We have reached another level of love and I am one button-bursting Memaw. It’s yet another bonus from the bonus years. More joy to temper the sorrow. What have you learned through these last nine years as a Designated Daughter? DF: I’ve learned that this time I’ve feared since I was a child and watched Bambi’s mother die — I was so traumatized, truly — getting to 59 years, nine of them which have been spent in the true light of my mother — I have learned that this scary, scary time can be the most wonderful surprise. For the first time, I’ve felt like I’m in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing, and that feels terrific.Join MORE and Voice books for "Getting Better All the Time," a workshop series featuring D.G. Fulford and more authors. See dates and interact with fellow readers at Learn more about the series Visit Voice books online Get started writing your family history at The Remembering Site, co-founded by D.G. Fulford and Sarah McCue. Originally published on, July 2008.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:11

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