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New Hampshire author channels grief and honors her mom in one-woman play 'Keeping It Inn'

A gray haired woman with red shoes sits on a chair and smiles as she performs on stage.
Karl Sonnenberg (Sonnenberg Shots Photography)
Cindy Pierce performs Keeping It Inn at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks, Calif., on Jan. 23, 2022. Pierce wrote the one-woman play about her mother, Nancy Pierce, after her mother's death in 2019 as a way to channel her grief and celebrate her mother's life.

New Hampshire author, educator and comic story teller Cindy Pierce likes honesty and, when possible, a healthy splash of humor. So when her 93-year-old mother died in 2019, Pierce channeled her grief into a one-woman show intended to honor her mother's life and resonate with others caring for aging parents.

The play is called Keeping It Inn, a title that refers both to the rustic New Hampshire inn Pierce’s parents ran for more than 30 years, and the devastating emotional losses people often keep tucked inside.

A woman with chin length gray and brown hair smiles for the camera in a sunny room, wearing a black coat.
Nina Keck
Vermont Public
Cindy Pierce is an author, educator and comic storyteller who also runs an inn with her husband Bruce Lingelbach in Etna, New Hampshire. She says after her mother got dementia, becoming her caregiver was one of the hardest jobs she's ever had. When her mother died at age 93 in 2019, writing about her helped her channel her grief. Pierce is currently starring in a one woman play about her mother's life called Keeping it Inn.

“People say, 'Oh, the show’s about dementia ...‘The show is a comedy show, a one-woman show.' No," explains Pierce, "It is about so many things. It’s about family, it’s about a relationship, it’s about a crazy inn.”

It’s about the complicated bond between mothers and daughters, about love and loss and what stays in your mind when your mind starts to go.

“It’s about life,” says Pierce, specifically the last six decades of her mother Nancy's life.

"She was a fiery, smart, funny, no nonsense lady,” she adds.

A collection of family photos, scraps of paper and other memorabilia hang on a cream colored wall.
Nina Keck
Vermont Public
Family photos hang in the inn's small office. Cindy says that space is like the nerve center of the inn since it holds family and inn history.

Nancy Pierce was born in 1926, went to Smith College and fell hard for a Dartmouth student named Reg. Cindy recalls her mother telling her, "Your father was the first guy I knew who didn't want me under his thumb. He appreciated my opinions. He liked my sense of humor. He let me finish my sentences.”

Reg and Nancy Pierce got married in 1949. Reg worked in advertising and the couple lived outside New York City. They had nine children.

Two of their sons, however, would never grow up. Angus died from measles just before his 4th birthday and Rodney died at 3 months. “And that, really wrenched," says Cindy. "And that happened five months apart and my mother was pregnant with my older sister."

A black and white photo of 6 children dressed in suits and dresses. 4 children sit on a couch in the back row, and two sit in front
Cindy Pierce
A photo of the Pierce children taken in the early 1960s. Angus is seated on the far right. Cindy Pierce says her brother Angus died of measles just before his 4th birthday. She says his death came five months after another brother, Rodney, died in infancy. Her mother was pregnant with her older sister at the time, and Cindy says there wasn't much time to grieve.

There wasn't much time to process their grief, says Cindy, adding that her dad's high pressure, boozy, corporate lifestyle didn't help.

In 1971, her parents hit the reset button, bought a rustic inn and moved to Etna, New Hampshire.

“On a whim, they bought an inn and moved us up here with four kids in college thinking my dad's like, 'I went to business school, I'm a pretty good business guy, I can figure this out.'"

But Cindy says being an innkeeper was a lot harder than anyone expected, and after two years, the family lost all their money. At that point, she says, her father handed the business over to her mother and he took over all the housekeeping, the toilet cleaning, the bed making. "They just did it differently.”

At the inn, Cindy says her parents were a team and her mom was in her element despite — or maybe because — of the chaos of guests, so many kids and money problems. Cindy, the baby, remembers a crazy but wonderful childhood.

A man and woman stand holding each other and smiling at the camera
Cindy Pierce
Reg and 'Nance' Pierce having fun in the kitchen of their inn in Etna, New Hampshire in the 1990s. The couple was married 53 years, when Reg died in 2003. Nancy passed away in 2019. Her life is the subject of a play written and performed by her daughter Cindy Pierce.

After her siblings grew up and moved on, Cindy and her husband Bruce Lingelbach took over the inn, and they watched Nancy navigate first widowhood, then memory loss.

"And there were times, you know, in the beginning when she started to lose her memory, and she'd say something, and I'd be correcting her hoping like, I could mop that up, that I could get her back on track because you're in denial."

She says Nancy's failing health impacted her children differently.

“And the thing is, if you don't want to see that your parent has dementia, and she doesn't want you to see it, she can do 10 minutes — she's got a few bits that she can throw out. And everyone's like, 'Look, sharp as a tack.' So once again, keeping it in, like, let's pretend everything's wonderful,” Cindy says.

As Nancy’s dementia worsened, long buried grief over losing her children resurfaced, which Cindy says was tough to see. And she says her mom would get understandably frustrated.

"But my mom and I, we laughed and loved and hugged right to the end. We had such a strong connection. It was a beautiful thing. But caregiving ... It tried my patience more than parenting three children and more than being a first grade teacher," she admits.

Writing about her mother helped. As a comic storyteller she tried to find the humor of it all and the love. Her siblings, she says, supported her and provided stories.

An older couple holds hands surrounded by their seven children who stand behind them.
Cindy Pierce
Reg and Nancy Pierce hold hands and pose with their seven children in 1992 at the inn they ran in Etna, New Hampshire for 30 years.

While the play has comic moments, it’s also painful in its honesty, and there's an underlying message that Cindy hopes other families will take away.

"Life is glitchy, parenting is glitchy ... same with being a sibling," she says. "So be kind to yourself, let yourself off the hook. That's what all my work is about."

Writing the play was one thing. Performing on stage as her mother was another. Cindy says her director challenged her to not just imitate her mother in the show, but become her.

“That was a transition that took me a bit," she admitted.

She remembers rehearsing a particularly hard scene when her mom is 82 and dealing with the loss of her husband.

"And all of a sudden, it felt like she came into me. I suddenly had new gestures, I had the neck position of her neck pain, her slight hunch," Cindy says. "It was the strangest sensation to feel her with me. I mean, it was powerful.”

She says her mom has helped like that more than once.

In fact, the night before her interview with Vermont Public, Cindy admits she went to bed worrying she’d forgotten how to do her mother’s hairstyle and what products and sprays she needed.

A woman stands in front of a stone chimney and red barnlike inn.
Nina Keck
Vermont Public
Cindy Pierce stands in front of Pierce's Inn in Etna, New Hampshire. Cindy's parents Reg and Nancy Pierce bought the inn in 1971 and ran it until 2002 when Cindy and her husband Bruce Lingelbach took over. Cindy has written a one-woman show about her mother's life before, during and after running the inn.

When she woke up, she says her husband told her he found a strange message on their land line’s answering machine.

“And it’s from at least five years ago," says Cindy. "It’s the hairdresser and the person comes on and says, ‘Hello Cindy.' I don't even think she says her name but she talks about having me drop my mom off after her doctors appointment as late as possible."

“That's when I feel like big Nancy is like, 'Hey, I know if I appeared in the living room to say hello you would die on the spot. And I know you got a few shows coming up. So I think I'll make sure you know I'm here in this way.'”

Cindy Pierce performs Keeping It Inn May 11 at the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester; May 31 through June 2 at Main Street Landing in Burlington; and at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction June 7-9.

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