If you read my first memoir Don’t Call Me Mother, you learned about the fragmented mother and daughter relationships in my family. My great-grandmother Blanche told me that my mother had been left behind “when she was a baby.” Curious about my mother’s past, I researched our family, eager to learn “the truth.” I searched in courthouses and libraries and read microfilm newspapers where my family had lived in the early 20th century.
The clues told me that when my mother’s father remarried, my grandmother, Lulu, left my mother, Josephine, with family and went to Chicago where she was a clerk, a telephone operator, and later a glove buyer in Europe. At least I think that’s what Lulu, who became Frances once she left Iowa, was doing taking ships to England for several years in the 1930s.
I have heard about how mother and my grandmother fought when they were reunited when Mother was fourteen. They were listed in the census as living in a boarding house, but Lulu remarried a few months later, taking mother with her. There is no record of mother’s elopement and brief first marriage when she was 17, but I track her through the decades until she marries my father.
Why does all this history matter? I have asked myself this question many times, especially when people wonder why I’ve been so obsessed with what happened so long ago. As I watched the three generations of mothers react to the frayed edges of their relationships, I wanted to understand why they were all so upset by things that had happened decades earlier. I saw the past as a live thing operating upon these beautiful women as they cried and fought, and even showed tenderness from time to time. When I was ten, I made a decision not to re-enact the mother-daughter fray I’d grown up with. I felt that knowledge could help me avoid it, and even change our legacy, but the history was so fraught, so frayed. I wanted to understand these two troubled women who were both my mothers.
Until my mother died, I tried to get her to claim/love me. When I was twenty, she’d made it clear that no one in Chicago where she lived knew that she had a daughter, and I was not to call her mother—thus the title of my memoir. I loved my mother despite her rejections when I visited her in Chicago over the years. I was convinced that one day she’d say, “Oh, I’ve been so wrong. I love you and I’m proud you are my daughter.” When I was little, I couldn’t wait for her visits–I grew up with my grandmother, her mother, after my mother left when I was five. I’d inhale her sweet musky scent and purr as she lovingly scratched my back. She was beautiful with her dark eyes and perfect complexion, so lovely I was sure I could never be as beautiful as she was. When I was older, I realized she was troubled, perhaps marked psychologically by being abandoned. On her deathbed, she was diagnosed as Bi-Polar, which now I know has plagued our family for decades.
As I completed my memoir, one of my writing coaches questioned why I was so gullible in wanting my mother to love me, why I felt she’d finally claimed me as her daughter in her last days. When she asked this, I felt ashamed that I’d always held such high hopes for my mother and me, despite everything. I believed that at the end of her life, she finally allowed me me to be her daughter. I worried that perhaps I had dreamed up a positive ending to our story, that I was some kind of Pollyanna.
As I’ve been organizing my files this last week, I found my mother’s letters again. They date from when I was five years old to the last few months of her life. I see a woman different from the scary, critical, hysterical woman who appeared in person. I was afraid of that mother, never knowing when she might attack me or reject me or even slap me. In some of her letters, I find a tender mother who wrote loving letters, calling me baby and Miss Pudding, and signed her letters, “Love and Kisses, Mother.”
I find this other mother in fragments of four letters:
Dear Baby, hope you are looking forward to a happier future. It is best to forget the past, bad as it may have been, and look forward and not make the same mistakes. I don’t know what to say to you to make things better. You are living life and learning about it—as does everyone and it’s full of ups and downs and joys and troubles, and that’s just the way it is. But you have to try to be happy anyway. You are so pretty and charming and nice so things should be better…
Anyway, I suppose it is all my fault in the end. I hope you will forgive my mistakes and errors in judgment, and that I have not lost your filial affection, which would be another tragedy for me, altho perhaps deserved. You need to understand that in the past friends knew I had been married and had a daughter but later I didn’t want to tell the new people I was divorced, so how could I have a child?…
I guess I am not a very good mother… If I were only married and leading a normal life which includes … attending my daughter frequently. But guess maybe this may never happen—I seem to always fall in love with the wrong people and can’t love the right ones, or something.
Hope you had as happy a birthday as I had happiness on this day so many years ago. Perhaps I haven’t realized that I have not been articular enough to you. Be assured that every day I think of you and have always missed you…
I love you,
All these years later, as I read decades of her letters, I remember how irritating it was when she gave me orders writing in all capital letters or strongly criticized me—those letters are part of the record too, but now I hear my mother’s voice in a new way as I read these more loving passages. She was trying as best she could to be a mother. This was not a woman who could tolerate cuddly intimacy. In the letters signed over and over again in her perfect flowing handwriting “Love, Mother,” I see her as simply doing the best she could. it was easier for her to be a mother from a distance. I’d forgotten that she had apologized to me in one of these letters, despite rejecting me in person until her last days. But in the letters, she is the loving mother I yearned for. I was not imagining her. I wanted her to be that mother, and now she can be.
I take the blue and white stationery, the yellow legal paper, and the delicate air mail papers and tuck them away again in the files, wishing her a happy Mother’s Day.