A life in writing helped Tacoma university teacher cope with string of family deaths

Growing up in Illinois, Ann Putnam knew what she wanted to be but was wise enough to have a backup plan.

“I wrote small plays as a child,” Putnam explained. “I knew I wanted to be a writer — and a star in Broadway musicals.”

Putnam stuck with writing, and as a sophomore at the University of Washington, she read Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” It changed her life.

“I wrote my doctorate at UW on Hemingway’s short fiction, and I’ve written about how, as a feminist, I can so love his writing,” Putnam said.

An instructor at the University of Puget Sound for the past 20 years, Putnam teaches courses in women’s literature, creative writing and a seminar on Hemingway. Twice, she visited Cuba, the first time for a scholarly conference on Hemingway.

Though any list of must-read books often changes for her, two of her top five at the moment are Hemingway’s. Putnam loved the truth she found in his spartan prose and honesty.

It influenced her own work, which includes two unpublished novels and a 2010 non-fiction book “Full Moon at Noontime, A Daughter’s Last Goodbye.” This month, the University of Iowa Press published it as a paperback.

National Book Award winner Charles Johnson said in publicity materials that Putnam’s book “transforms pain, suffering, and loss into a literary gift of beauty and redemption.”

Much of the pain the book illustrates is Putnam’s.

In the span of about 18 months, she watched her uncle — her father’s twin brother — grow ill and die. Then her father. Then her mother.

“I was with them for all three of their passings,” Putnam said. “You could see it was their time. My mother embraced it. My uncle pulled away from light touch a few days before his death, and a nurse talked to me. She said, ‘He doesn’t want to be held back from where he’s going….’”

It didn’t stop there. Weeks after her mother’s death, Putnam’s husband, Ed, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was with him when he died in 2008.

Putnam’s book is about those years of loss, the life before those deaths, and her own guilt, loss and grief.

“My uncle died first, at Virginia Mason in Seattle. At one point he was on the sixth floor and my father had collapsed, been admitted and was on the 18th floor,” Putnam said. “I was sitting in the cafeteria and I thought, ‘I’ve got to write this down.’

“As a writer, I just wanted to get what was happening down on paper.”

She found the writing kept her sane in the midst of a madness of loss. Each death diminished the lives of everyone in the family. When her father lost his twin, he declined precipitously.

Once her father died, her mother went quietly, gently, to her own end within months.

And as her husband lay dying in their bedroom, Putnam wrote an afterword for the book.

“It was about Ed, but I couldn’t read it to him,” she said. “He didn’t live to see the book published.”

The only time Putnam would open her own book was at signings or readings.

“I lived that book,” Putnam said. “I didn’t need to read it.”

Many have found solace in the grace shown by those Putnam wrote about, both those who died and those impacted by their deaths.

“The best responses, to me, are from those who tell me after reading the book they no longer felt alone,” Putnam said. “There are those who say the book helped make their path easier. I’m glad for them.”

In the years since writing the book, Putnam has maintained her teaching schedule at UPS. With the blessings of her three adult children, she has remarried and moved to Gig Harbor.

“For the first time in my life, I have a little writer’s cottage out back,” she said.

After handing in the final grades for spring semester last week, Putnam has laid out her summer plans. She will use that cottage to work on a revision of her first novel.

“I’d live a more diminished life if I weren’t writing. Writing sends you to a country of the imagination,” Putnam said. “I had so many losses in such a relatively short period of time, I had no idea what my future was. I did know I had my work. I had my writing.”