A more disrespectful, trash-reading, talking and watching woman in NC, FL or TX was not to be found. Hers was an itinerant, much-lived life, a Yankee Florida liberal Jewish Tough Gal who bowled ’em in Japan, rolled ’em in North Carolina and was a singularly unique parent. Often frustrated by the stifling, conservative culture of the South, Renay turned her voracious mind to the home front, becoming a model stay at home parent, a supermom, really, just the perfect PTA lady, volunteer, amateur baker and-AHHAHAA HA! HA! HA! Just kidding, y’all!
Renay — Rosie to her friends, and this was a broad who never met a stranger — worked double shifts with Doreen, ate a ton of carbs with Bernie, and could occasionally be stirred to stew some stuffed cabbage for the kids. She played cards like a shark, bowled and played cribbage like a pro, and laughed with the boys until the wee hours, long after the last pin dropped.
We learn that Renay, who died in El Paso, Texas, had lived in McKeesport, Pennsylvania.; Fayetteville and Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina (“where Renay’s dreams, credit rating and marriage are all buried”); that she drove a Chevy Nova; that she had survived pneumonia, infections, blood clots, breast cancer and COVID; that she’d had multiple abortions and bankruptcies; and she was a “talented and gregarious grifter.” That she exasperated her kids. And that, in the end, they loved her.
Corren, the youngest of Renay’s six kids, describes himself as a “Jewish Southern homosexual” who was born and raised in North Carolina and spent three decades as a talent manager. (His clients included Rebel Wilson, James Gandolfini and Lucy Liu). He said he wrote the obit with his family’s approval in lieu of having to pay for an expensive funeral. Corren says he was astonished at the attention it got: After a New York Times reporter tweeted it, news organizations around the world started calling, and he was interviewed everywhere from CNN to the Guardian in the U.K. The reaction convinced him that it was time to leave the talent management business to work on a proposal for a collection of essays about his mother, as well as a podcast pitch.
“I had a front-row seat to a very colorful life,” he says. “A person who didn’t hide who she was, who lived extremely often without any guardrails, let alone boundaries. At the end of her life, the most fitting tribute I could give her was not a big fancy funeral, but a story about her.”
Corren talked with Storyboard about his relationship with his mother, how he conceived of and wrote the obit, and his siblings’ reaction to it. He also addresses how the public reaction — it was viral on social media — has prompted him to make a leap-of-faith career change into full-time writing. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your role in your family in terms of being the storyteller?
I’ve always shared stories with my mom. She was really not a deep reader but a voracious reader. She read by the pound, not by the author. And that’s not a joke; that’s exactly how she read. We shared a great love of reading, and we would share books and stories. She had five living sons; her only daughter predeceased her. I’m the only gay son; we were very close, we were very tight. In many respects, I was also her first listener. I think a lot of times women, especially fat women, are made to feel or be seen as invisible. She wasn’t invisible to me. She spoke, and I listened.
Did your mother have that kind of close relationship with your other siblings?
Yeah. She loved her children very much; we just had a different playing field. Ours was much more open, emotional, intellectual. We shared books and ideas. Especially the last 15 years, we were thick as thieves.
Do you have writing or storytelling in your education or professional life?
I’ve been writing my whole life, but really picked it up first as a journal-keeper in the mid-1990s and then moving into narrative formats, whether that was a screenplay or short story or play. In the early 2000s I started getting into a very comfortable environment when storytelling shows were exploding all over the place. I was doing regular appearances storytelling shows hosted in theaters in New York, Los Angeles and Asheville, North Carolina. I was doing sketch comedy in New York and L.A. while pursuing a career as a talent manager. It just became impossible to do both, so writing became my private practice, my spiritual practice.
A lot of my early storytelling efforts were shtick, about hustling laughs. But I’m much more interested in the confident, authorial voice that you read in the obit, and that’s where I am now — having scope and scale and command, but also having fun. Being funny, and being loose enough to be funny, are important to me. It has taken me many decades, and I’m really just getting started.
Let’s talk about the crafting of the obit. Did you revise it a lot, or did you just write it in one hot take, or…?
It’s very much a product of my writing practice, which I take seriously and daily, and which is a direct result of our last three years in American life; I was able to seize my gifts and center them in a daily practice. I’d had a few close calls with my mother’s death over 15 years. Let’s just say I had a draft, a folder of drafts, because Renay had the most astonishing ability to just not die. When I was summoned home for what I thought would be a goodbye, it would turn out out to be a false alarm. A couple of times, on the plane or in the cab, I would dash off what I thought should be in an obituary or eulogy. They were just cribbed-together notes, but it turned into a short story.
While my mother was failing I was able to read her a section of the obit at her bedside, which was wonderful and silly. She laughed. Then I stopped working on it, because attending to someone’s death is quite enough. I would not recommend doing any extra work. So I came back to the Catskills and sat still for a few days. I revised and pressed “send” from a café here.
Did you look at other obits for guidance?
No. If you look at an obituary page once, which we all have, it is not a place to go for any sort of lyrical narrative or poetic inspiration or heft. It’s the last place you’d look. Like a lot of people, I never felt that those pages did the lives they purported to celebrate any justice.
Obituaries in newspapers are horrifically expensive. So primarily what I did with Renay’s story was not just edit but extract, make it as lean as I possibly could. Even so, it was almost 1,000 words, which is insane. I put it in three newspapers because Renay live din multiple locales, and I think altogether it cost close to $2,500.
The obituary is funny and touching. That comes through in the details you use. Did you write those from memory, or did you call other family and friends?
I didn’t have to source it. She was my mother, and I was there for all of it. Even when I lived other places, especially the last 20 years, I entered a kind of care-taking arrangement with her, so there was never any separation. She would not have allowed it.
You’ve been telling stories for years. What storytelling rules did you follow and which did you throw out the window for the obit?
I do not have a degree in English; I have a perfectly useless BFA in theater. I don’t have a lot of rules; I have a voice, and it’s strong, and I don’t care if people like me anymore. So I threw out caring if anybody liked this; I just wanted to get it printed. I think a great rule in general for all writers is not to write to please anybody but yourself. Frequently I would just laugh while I was writing it. If I made myself laugh, or felt free, or felt sad, or felt, then I knew I was doing justice to a gigantically entertaining human being.
Personally, I didn’t really have a lot of other rules except to not have any typos because my mother was a typo fascist. It could be an eviction notice, it could be a check made out to her, it could be a death notice. If it had a typo on it, that’s all she could fixate on. So I wanted to make sure it didn’t have a typo.
Your mother obviously was a unique character. Was there something universal in her story, in her life that people could relate to?
One of the things I’m wrestling with in my storytelling, the work that I’m exploring now, is the perfect mother mystique. It’s a complete lie. But somehow this irreverent, grifting scamp of a parent of mine touched a lot of hearts. It really moved people to speak up — a lot of times about their own complicated relationship with their parents, and particularly with their mothers. If I could be a rallying cry for fucked-up mothers everywhere. By all means, let’s have that conversation.
There’s no question that women — particularly single mothers — are placed in an impossible, impossible predicament. Mine did the best she could.
Did you run this past your siblings? Were there any negotiations of what stayed and what was left out?
One of my brothers and two of my nephews had a chance to look at it because the fact-checker from Gannett had a couple of questions. Other than that there was no sharing with my brothers. They knew what I was doing, and they loved it.
What was your reaction to the obit going viral?
Completely unexpected, totally hilarious, overwhelming, exhausting. I would not recommend civilians go viral. I am not a civilian; I’ve worked in show business a long time, but even I was like, this is nuts. I’ve been with clients before where they’ve had hit movies, scandalous moments, a breakout performance, a No. 1 TV show, one of them is acting opposite a future duchess — stuff like that. But I’ve never been the target of that stuff, and so it is a different experience.
I stayed very clear, very sober and very present to it because I did feel that it was just another part of this gift of sharing Renay with the world. I treated it like a gift, enjoyed every second of it — and was glad when it ended.
Did you get any nasty responses at all, people who thought it was inappropriate?
There were people, I’m sure, who perhaps take issue with some the descriptions or language or whatever, who didn’t have the kind of experience I had and that’s totally their right. But I did not experience that up close.
Why do you think so many people did respond the way they did?
I think it has to do with the time of year that it came out, and the layers I explained to you. We have an authentic life, fully on display. Everybody’s got a mom. It’s the holiday season approaching and things are bad. Giving people something to laugh about or cheer on or embrace is a good thing. I’m not afraid of schmaltz; neither was my mom. The more chicken fat the better! There was schmaltz in there, just enough to let people feel, or at least see that it was OK to feel.
Was it that response that prompted you to let go of your talent management business and switch to writing?
I had been working on a book for the last year. The hours that I write typically are very early; I’m usually up by 5 and writing until 10 or 11 a.m. Then I have to pivot to the rest of my day and life, taking care of myself, taking care of my dog, taking care of my actors, taking care of this business. It was really crushing me. I felt like I couldn’t sustain that. So I was already one foot out the door, and then this kicked the door down.
It also felt like the best time for my clients to give them time to find new representation, to let the industry know that I’m grateful and this has been an amazing ride, and that the dorky little semi-performing talent manager that you have cheered on is going be a full-time writer now, so go buy his books.
I love the ending of the obit, what reporters would call the kicker: “Bye, Mommy. We loved you to bits.” It was so sweet and, honestly, it brought a tear to my eye.
Everybody deserves an act of grace in their final days and final hours on this Earth. Everybody deserves a good death. Nobody, nobody deserves anything else, anything less. And if it wasn’t clear up to that moment that I loved my parent for all of her many, many, many unique traits and characteristics, it needed to be made clear that she was a mommy, and she always was and always will be loved.
For me, with my mom, it was making sure that I closed the door gently with love.
Lisa Grace Lednicer is an editor of The Washington Post and an adjunct journalism professor at the University of Maryland.