This is the first chapter of my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother–A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness.
This story begins to explore a three generational pattern of mothers leaving daughters–and what necessarily comes in the wake of such troubles.
The beginning paragraphs are from a dream I kept having about my mother and me after she died.
The train bisects the blue and the green, parting wheat fields by the tracks. Mommy and I rub shoulders, sitting in the last car, watching the landscape move backward, as if erasing my childhood, all those times when she would board the train and leave me aching for her. Now, in my dream, we rub shoulders, her perfume lingering. The old longing wrenches my stomach.
Click-clack, click-clack, the train’s wheels on the track, the language of my past, my future.
Her face is soft. Her wine-dark eyes glance at me with promise, an endearing look that gives me all I ever wanted. The click-clack ticks away the time, the mother time, moons rising and falling as the years fall like petals in a white garden, our body-and-blood song haunting my dreams. Mommy, where are you?
Even as she is with me, she is gone.
The train station is the center of the universe, with tracks going and coming in all directions. People stand shivering in the ever-present plains wind, their hair kicked up violently when a train blows by, especially a freight bound for Chicago where, as I understand it, all sensible trains end up. To me, the Windy City, as I hear my mother and grandmother call it, is the end of the known world. It is where I began and where my mother is off to as the three of us—my mother, Josephine, my grandmother, Frances, and I—stand in a miserable clutch. I am sure they are as miserable as I am, my mothers, standing there with their arms across their chests, hips slung out, like bored movie stars competing for the same part. Maybe that’s what they are doing—vying for the part of good mother, or bad mother, depending on how you define things. To me both of them are beautiful and thrilling.
But underneath their beauty and power, a secret is buried. A secret that runs in the blood. This moment repeats for the third time what has happened before—a mother leaving a daughter, repeating what Gram did to my mother so long ago, and her mother before her. It will be years before I find out the whole story about the three generations of women who will define my life. At this moment, the ticking bomb is set to go off when my mother gets on the train. No one here claims any knowledge of this dire pattern. I can feel it, though, deep in a silent place inside me, a place of desperation, the beginning of a crack that will split my life open.
The sun pinks the sky in the west, a place where the eye loves to rest in this open land. Already the lore of its history tickles my curiosity, even though at this moment I am four years old. I hear of Indian chiefs and the frontier, if not from books, then from the pictures all around town proclaiming our cowboy heritage—neon signs, billboards showing an Indian chief in full headdress, peace pipe slung from an arm as casually as a gun. Right now the picture of an Indian, wearing only a blanket and standing in front of the Santa Fe Chief, hangs on the waiting room wall, wreathed in smoke rising like a mysterious code to the ceiling.
I read the code here, tapping feet in open-toed suede shoes. I stare at my mother’s toes, as if to memorize an intimate part of her, bringing my gaze up her shapely legs, my stomach in a pang, the scenes that brought us to this moment fresh in my mind.
Mommy and I came here a few months ago from Chicago, where we had lived after my father left. I don’t know much about him, except that he went off to the war, and came back too, but not to us. She cries when she looks at his pictures. Every so often she shows me a small black-and-white photo of a man wearing an army captain’s hat and grinning as he leans casually against a brick building. The crease in his pants is knife sharp. With her slim fingers, she caresses a photograph of herself against the same wall, wearing a big fur coat.
“That was the night before you were born, a cold night in March. What a wonderful thing that was for your mother.” Mommy often talks about herself like that, as if she wasn’t in the room.
I remember our time in Chicago, when Mommy would talk on the phone forever in the evening, twisting her hair in tiny ringlets all over her head, or knitting scarves and sweaters. I remember the amber light that shone over her like a halo, and I remember that I’d do anything to get her to scratch my back with her sharp fingernails.
But a few months ago, we left Chicago; it was my first time on the train. The ride was thrilling: the sound of the whistle, huge clouds of gushing steam, great deep rumblings of the engines that sounded like scary monsters speeding us by green fields and blue skies all around, with little towns along the side of the track and people waving, waving as if they knew us. The whistle tooted a special hello to them. What fun.
That night the porter unfolded the special bed that was our seat, pulling down a shade made of thick green cloth. I loved the little tent he made for us. My mother had a dreamy look on her face, staring at the sights as the wheels click-clacked beneath us. She wore her cotton nightgown, and I my pajamas. We cuddled between fresh cotton sheets. The train rocked us back and forth, back and forth in a sweet rhythm that one day I would remember as the best moment we ever had, Mommy and me. On the train, together. The next day, we arrived in Wichita where I met Gram, Mommy’s mother.
She looked like my mother, with the same pretty face. Her voice was soft as she sifted my fine hair away from my forehead in a gentle gesture and smiled at me with soft brown eyes so dark I couldn’t see the pupils you can see in most people’s eyes. She was nice to me and called me Sugar Pie. But Mommy and Gram—whew—they sure did surprise me by fighting all the time. I’d watch, or hide in the hall, while they yelled, screamed, and cried. Almost every day. It was terrible to hear; it made my skin itch. I scratched the itch, making red marks on my arms. Their cigarette smoke filled the air.
When Mommy rushed off to work each morning it was quiet and nice in Gram’s little house. Windows let in the sun through the Venetian blinds, making pretty patterns on the hardwood floors. Gram read stories to me, and we made bubbles with soap in the sink. She taught me to eat prunes every morning. I began learning how words make stories come alive—Cinderella, Snow White, the Three Bears. Every day I waited for Mommy to come home. I loved her throaty voice, the way she touched my hair for a moment. I was always slinking around trying to get more hugs out of her, but she was not much for that.
One evening, everything seemed different. Mommy yelled. Threw down her purse. Lit cigarette after cigarette, the frown between her eyes deepening with each puff. Gram edged around her, as if she were looking for a way to either blow up or not fight at all. Finally the explosion came, my mothers opening and closing angry mouths. I kept my eye on them while I put dishes on the table.
“I hate this place,” Mother said, stomping her heels on the floor.
Gram made a nasty face. Their voices had sharp edges, and got so loud I had to put my fingers in my ears. They were so loud, so angry, sounding like screeching birds. Then something happened. Mommy got really quiet, which scared me even more, and said, “That’s it; I’m going back to Chicago.” I can’t say how I knew it, but I could tell that she wasn’t going to take me, and that if she left me now, it would be forever.
I watched her walk back and forth across the floor. The seams in her hose were crooked. Mommy never had crooked seams. I sat on the floor, my stomach in a knot, while I traced the patterns in the Oriental rug. I wanted to get lost in those swirls, like in a dark forest in the fairy tales. I could get lost and never be found again.
So here we are, waiting for the train. My chest is tight; there is darkness and ice all the way though me. I am shivering. How can she leave? She knows I don’t want her to go. My mother stands apart from me and from Gram, far enough to show that she is the one leaving, the one who will go alone on the train. I dread the train that’s about to take her away. All around me everyone acts normal. People bustle around getting ready, the train men push luggage carts, kids jump up and down. Words that I cannot say gather in my mouth, fill my whole body. Every muscle wants to run to her, grab at her and scream, “Please don’t go,” but I know that she and Gram don’t want me to do this. I don’t want to make them mad; I don’t want them to look at me with those dark eyes of disapproval. I couldn’t stand it. So I pretend.
The wind blows through me, whirling my dress. Then the sound of the whistle cries out, as if in pain. A deep sorrow lurches through me. I hold my breath to keep myself from crying. The light appears at the far end of the tracks and gets bigger. I can’t stop any of this. The huge train tears into the station, rumbling the earth beneath my feet, kicking up my hair with the blast of wind. A scream comes out of my mouth, but no one hears me. The locomotive is too huge, too powerful and frightening, and it is coming to take my mother away.
Mommy and I are wrapped in invisible gauze, wrapped tight so it can’t break, but as she touches me softly with her fingertips, and leans over to give Gram a kiss, I can feel the fabric unwrapping, unwinding us until just a thin piece is left. She hugs me lightly, as if she’s afraid I’ll cling to her. Her musky smell clings to me. She click-clacks toward the train on her high heels, almost as if she’s glad to get away. Her seams are straight, and she is so beautiful with the sun on her face as she climbs into the train car.
Mommy, Mommy, I chant silently, bringing my fingers to my nose to inhale her memory, her scent on my skin.
How I want to be on the train, to cuddle up with Mommy the way we did before. But when Gram looks at me with such sadness in her eyes, I know that I need to stay with her. It’s funny that she was so mad before, but now I can tell she is sad, though she doesn’t say it in words. I take her hand and stand with her as we watch the train disappear down the track in a puff of smoke.
The train whistle cries its lonely song, lingering in the wind that crosses the plains. It will call for me all my life, in my dreams and while I am awake. The train song, the train’s power and promise, are etched deep in my soul from this day forward.
Yes, I say mothers, plural because my mother’s mother raised me after I was six, and I saw my mother once a year as I grew up. In my first memoir, Don’t Call Me Mother, my mother, grandmother, and all the other adults who shaped my life were viewed through the eyes of a child who grows up to adulthood and motherhood through the book. It ends with the death of my mother, where I fall into a spiritual experience of love and forgiveness with her. She’s unable to talk or reject me any further–a lifetime of rejection is reflected in the title Don’t Call Me Mother. When my mother was ill and dying in Chicago, my arrival to help her was news to her friends. “We didn’t know she had a daughter.”
It was a long journey to rise up from shame about my often hysterical, warring, dramatic mothers as I wrote my first memoir. Still immersed in the dramas and pain through the twelve years of writing, and not writing, the book, I found a healing path as I peeled away layers of feelings, diving deep into the memories of missing my mother, her many arrivals and departures on the train, and the complicated years of history with her mother, the grandmother who was raising me.
Everyone gathers on the platform. I stand right on the tracks and gaze down to the silvery place at the horizon where they meet, trying to imagine what is beyond it. The whole day is magic – my mommy will be here soon and all will be well.
A beam of light hovers far off down the track. The train seems suspended for a moment as in a mirage, not moving, then the earth begins to tremble and the whistle splits the air. The power of the onrushing train shocks me, my heart pounds hard. People scatter as the steel beast roars in fast. When the brakes take hold, the train keeps going for a few moments, its brakes screeching. I put my hands over my ears. Finally, amazingly, the huge train shudders to a stop.
I wonder if I will recognize my mother. I watch a heart-stoppingly beautiful woman step down, my heart pounding. She wears open-toed shoes, carries a paper bag and a small suitcase, and walks purposefully toward Gram. I watch them watch each other, and then I know it’s her. I break into a run, patent leather shoes tap tap tapping on the bricks. “Mommy, Mommy.” I fling myself at her, grabbing her legs, looking up into beauty itself, my mother’s soft eyes, her dark wavy hair. She smiles and kneels down so I can kiss her cheek. I can hardly believe that she is real.
“Hi, Mommy. Do you think I’ve grown?”
“Hi, Linda Joy,” Mommy says casually, as if we’ve been apart only a few hours. She kisses my cheek lightly, stiffens, and gets up.
“Hello, Josephine,” my grandmother says in her cool voice, stiff too, her shoulders taut.
“Hello, Mother.” Her cool gaze is full of something I can’t translate, her voice thick.
The great silver train growls and coughs under the wide blue sky. The drama that will come next is set in motion, accusations, broken dishes, cries in the night.
Josephine, red hair and flair
Even at the age of eight, I could see that something profound and troubling existed between the two of them, a seedling of insight that grew into an extended research project throughout my life. I was obsessed with solving the puzzle–why they tensed up and looked grimly at each other instead of hugging and smiling like other families did at the train station.
Some of the clues came from other members of our family in Iowa. My great-grandmother Blanche, the storyteller-holder of history in the family, told me some stories for the first time as she hacked at the weeds in the garden.
“Did my mama know your mama?”
She grunts as she hoes a patch of weeds. “Oh Lord, yes. When your mama was a little girl, she’d visit my mama in Muscatine. Your mama, Jo’tine – that’s what we called her – would come to see me at the farm where the rest of my kids were growing up. Such a pretty little girl she was, with those big, brown eyes. Poor little thing.”
I wonder what she means.
“She don’t do right by you, I tell ya. At least Lulu has the sense to take care ’a you. But this business ’tween Lulu and Josephine . . . well, you’re too young to understand. I don’t know about those two.” She stomps on a beetle that had been working its way toward a tomato plant.
I try to imagine all these mothers. Our history, my history, reaches so far back. Blanche, Gram, Mother, and me – we all come from here. Next to Blanche I feel very small and young. I look up at her, the mother of the mother of the mother. She knows everything. I decide to stick to her to find out things.
I stick to Blanche all her life, and she delivers the history of the family. I gather clues for the next sixty years, and they lead to my memoirs– Don’t Call Me Mother. And now the clues have led me to discovering my mother and grandmother all over again in Song of The Plains.
Blanche and Lulu, my grandmother-1895
My new memoir is a love song to the Great Plains, Mother Earth who embraced and nurtured me in the long emotional deserts of my life when either I was rejected or I had to protect myself against various kinds of assaults. I could always go out into the landscape and be received.
The Great Plains is a wonder of contrasts.
The deep-indigo night sky is splashed by a wash of stars scattered across the dome above your small self.
In the white brilliance of daylight, it echoes with lonely notes from meadowlarks and red-winged blackbirds resting on stark tree branches and fence posts, dangerous barbed wire trembling in the wind.
The sounds of the birds and the sense of space, so large you can’t grasp them with your two-dimensional mind, etch the edges of your loneliness, giving it form, making your heart reach out for the simplicity of light and wind, red dirt and birdcall.
In this moment you are at one with All That Is. You are free.
Blanche’s wisdom and stories about our family and her youth in the nineteenth century–midwives delivering children, boiling the laundry every week in a pot outdoors, cooking on a wood cook stove–and the fragmented truths she was unable to string together into a cohesive story about my grandmother leaving behind my mother as a young child, about the distress she felt about my mother leaving me behind when I was a little girl. Perhaps her stories were meant to give me the threads I would need to weave together the layers of the deeper truths of their story, things I could never have known until I pursued them through the hallways of history and landing us finally on the pages of Ancestry. com.
There I was able to find the heart of my mother and grandmother. They each had told me bits and pieces of their story but nothing that wove together. I discovered that “facts” can unearth insights–I’d always thought psychology created insights more than events and information.
Carl Jung says we inherit the unresolved issues of our parents. They live on in our bodies and our dreams. Perhaps the past itself is a dream, a saga made of all the bodies and yearnings of all those who went before us. They’re silent then, after death, but for wisps of remembered stories, ghosts in photos, the line of a cheek or the shape of an eye. They mark us with their stories; they’re in us and with us. But we must separate from them and create our own narrative.
I see now that my mothers were once children, aching for love, and they grew up in a world where women had no power, no permission to have a life, no way to say no to the traditions that were strangling them. I found them young, as girls, with hearts full of hope. Then, as young women, a magnet for men, who for a time would ease the ache. I know such moments too–each of us repeating our search for wholeness in our own era. In my new memoir, I walked in their shoes and told their stories, weaving a mosaic of the stories I’d been gathering for a lifetime. Now that the book is published, when I hold it in my hands, it offers me peace. Finding the true essence of my mothers, chasing our story through more than 100 years of history, I see the love they tried to offer, I understand them better, and the old ache is swept away. Sometimes I read their letters to me, wishing I’d answered them. Sometimes I look at their photographs and feel the soft touch of their fingers on my cheek. Though they have been gone for many years now, the relationship still continues and softens, and finds its center in love and in compassion.
Two memoirs celebrating generations of mothers
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.
It’s an old story really, the girl who’s missing a father. Either he’s dead, or drunk, or doesn’t care. Or perhaps the parents are divorced and he’s gone or banished. Perhaps he’s an angry man, or neglectful. Hopefully he’s not mean or violent. Hopefully his hands don’t stray to his daughter, but it’s an old story.
Another old, and much happier, story is the father who IS there. He protects his family, teaches and guides. He looks into the eyes of his children and sees through to their souls. He joyfully, most of the time, shares what he knows about life, and interprets and explains the confusion of right, wrong, good, bad, and how the world can be too overwhelming and challenging sometimes. He’s not perfect either. He gets angry at the wrong time, but he apologizes. He forgets the PTA meeting, but he takes you out for ice cream and listens as you talk about your new project. Even if it’s hard for him, he tries to listen and understand emotions, but maybe just trying is enough. Maybe he shows his love by sharing what HE loves so you tune into it the rest of your life, letting the memories wash over you.
I know some of what a good father does by the ones I adopted. My own father left by the time I was eight months old. I never spent a holiday with him, and saw him a few times in my life. His presence was huge though in the ongoing battle with my grandmother who raised me, a battle that lasted until they both died the same week. But luckily I had other “fathers” to look up to. I watched the neighborhood fathers go to work, come home, embrace their wives, play with their kids, spank their kids, go to the school programs, fix the car, barbecue once in a while. Mow the lawn. They were there every day.
But one of the most important figures in my life was my first cello teacher Mr. Brauninger. I write about my first encounter with him in my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother, and you can read an excerpt here about our first meeting. For three years, he guided us fledgling musicians like the little birds we were into a love of music, especially Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn that we have never lost. I still know some of the “kids” I played music with so long ago, and we mist over when we talk about Mr. Brauninger. His third year teaching in the public schools in Enid, Oklahoma, Eva, a 5’2″ bass player and firebrand teacher, came to town, and together they became our musical mother and father. They fell in love and got married, and when I was 13 moved away. I lost track of them, but for 35 years, I dreamed I was looking for them.
Finally, I found them in Des Moines, Iowa, and I came to see them; we embraced each other as if no time had passed. They had silver hair, and I had grown up, but the time we had shared was still part of us. He told me something I would never forget as we talked about the shy, skinny insecure little girl I was. I said to him, “I always felt that you SAW me.” He said, “Linda Joy, when I looked into your eyes, I saw the face of God.”
That shocked me a bit–I knew he was religious but…God? Then I got it. One of my memories of him were how he’d look into my eyes and I could feel that he was there. Really there. No one else did that. Not my mother, not my father. It was a bolt of lightning and a great comfort all at once. I suppose now I’d call it an energetic connection. Or simply call it love.
We were on the best wavelength you can have in those moments, and there were many of them in the four years he was with me, back when I was a bit lost, but for him and the music. I know in some ways he helped to save me, and I have always loved him for it. Luckily for the next ten years, I got to thank him again and again, as I visited him several times before he died. On the last visit, as he was struggling with cancer, he held my hand and looked into my eyes once more. “I guess I have been like a father to you, haven’t I?”
Yes, Jim. You were there for me. Thank you and much love always. Happy Father’s Day.
PS in the photo I’m with my good friend Keith, three years older than me, and later the first boy I loved. I’m 11 here and he’s 14.
The day in 4th grade begins as usual: the pledge of allegiance, the Lord’s Prayer, a round of spelling. Melodious music wafts into the room. Then a tall, willowy man enters, bright red hair tumbling over his forehead, a violin tucked under his chin. He dips and sways, his enchanting sounds making us stop what we are doing.
His violin sings melodies from heaven. We leave our seats to gather around him and drink in the enchantment. He plays and dances and charms us like a leprechaun. He kneels, grinning, his blue eyes shining. He rips through a toe-tapping “Turkey in the Straw,” then an unfamiliar melody that makes me think of clouds and God. My chest hurts. I want more than anything to draw such sweet sounds into the world.
“Hey, folks. This is called a violin. It is one of the stringed instruments in the orchestra. How many of you want to play an instrument?” I am hypnotized by his violin. It speaks in high notes and low sultry tones, silky and intimate. His violin laughs and tells jokes. Magically, his bow flies into the air and comes back down in just the right place.
“My name is Mr. Brauninger. I’m the orchestra teacher. Do you want to join our orchestra? You could play the violin or any other of our stringed instruments. You just have to take a slip home to your parents to be signed.”
I am drawn to him by his bright blue eyes and his golden-toned violin. He asks my name.
“What a pretty name you have, Linda Joy,” he says, looking directly into my eyes as if I’m a real person. He talks to me as if what I say matters to him. I’ve never met anyone like him before. He gives me a permission slip and tells me that I have to get my parents to sign it if I want to come to the orchestra next week.
“I don’t have parents. I live with my grandmother.” He doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with me because of this, though I know I’m the only kid in the class whose parents are divorced, and I’m sure none of their families fight the way my mother and grandmother do. Mr. Brauninger’s smile makes all that go away.
Mrs. Rockwell tells us to sit down in our seats and fold our hands like polite children. Next Mr. Brauninger plays something soft and sweet, his face tender with the music, his lips quivering. His left hand vibrates back and forth. I want to cry. I could sit at his feet all day. I have to be included in his orchestra or I’ll die. I begin to plan what I need to say to convince my grandmother.
When I go home that afternoon, my determination to play the violin sits in solid clarity in my chest. I will make any promise, I will do whatever it takes to be with the man with the red hair, the man whose love flows from him in waves.
I tell Gram about the man who came to class with his wonderful violin. I promise her that I’ll practice; she won’t have to remind me. “Please, please, please let me play the violin.” She nods and takes a drag on her cigarette. The room is filled with smoke. I see from her coldly calculating eyes that I need to let her think about it.
I know that Gram wants me to be a famous musician, so my foot is in the door. Later that evening, I try to convince her that the violin is what I am meant to play, but I promise not to neglect my hour of piano practice each day and to finish all my music theory assignments.
I hear her talking to Mr. Brauninger on the phone after I go to bed. She tells him about Vera and about my divorced parents. The next morning I find out that they’ve decided I should play the cello instead of the violin. Gram tells me, “You’ll be more popular with the cello.”
I am disappointed, but she says there is a cello waiting for me. I’ll play anything just to be near Mr. Brauninger.
The first day of orchestra is on Thursday. My shoes squeak on the polished, walnut-colored cork floors. I run down the stairs to the basement music room. The room smells of oil, wood, and the musty dust that is caked in the thick window curtains. Mr. Brauninger greets me with a sunny smile and shakes my hand.
A group of kids has gathered in the room. I am surprised by who is here—a few of the popular boys, the “guy” kind of boys—Roger, Michael, and Dennis. They talk and laugh among themselves, but then listen when Mr. Brauninger starts to explain about the stringed instruments. “This is a violin. Next to it is a viola, a little bigger.” He plays a few notes to demonstrate the deeper range of the viola. Then he picks up a cello.
“Linda Joy, I talked to your grandmother, and we thought maybe the cello would be best for you. It’s a special instrument for a special girl like you. I picked out one just your size.” He holds up a burnished brown cello, half-sized to fit me.
We gather around him as he shows us how the stringed instruments are constructed: the curves of the ribs, the maple coming together in the back to make a beautiful wavy pattern with a perfect seam, the intricately carved bridge, the nut at the top of the fingerboard, ebony tuning pegs, the graceful scroll, and the strings made of steel and catgut. Curlicue F-holes carved in the top allow the sound to emerge from the belly. The sound post connects the top with the back, creating vibrations along the whole instrument. The bow is made of Pernambuco wood from Brazil. Hair from real horses is strung from an ivory tip all the way to the ebony part, where we hold the bow, called the frog.
“Ribbet, ribbet,” he says, grinning, his blue eyes shining. We look at him with wonder. He makes us feel important, not like the other teachers who treat us like silly children. I am surprised that the boys take Mr. Brauninger so seriously. I thought all they wanted to do was joke around.
In this very first lesson, he shows us how to drape our hands over the frog. We take turns holding the bow, learning to place it on the strings and pull it smoothly. I notice how the string widens as it vibrates. When I press down on the ebony fingerboard, I can feel the hard tension of the string under each finger pad. It hurts my tender fingertips, but I don’t care. I am making music. I am playing the cello.
I look at this photo of my mother, age 30, as I lay somewhat untethered in her lap. It’s before everything happens, before my father leaves her, before she leaves me. It’s the beginning of our story. There we are, innocent of the future, and unknown to both of us, we are part of a pattern that will continue. When I’m four, she will leave me with her mother. My mother was left behind too, and this legacy will haunt us to the end of their lives.
One word. It’s just a word: “mother,” but it’s never a neutral word—it’s always imbued with emotional meaning. Each of us has a story about her, each of us is somewhere on a path of dealing with the person we know as mother.
As Mother’s Day approaches, pink flowery cards spring up like gardens in every store saying things like, “Who is the person who always listened to you, the one you could always count on—Mom! Celebrate her today.”
Some people feel that their mother is their best friend, with no doubts about her loyalty and her abiding love, and Mother’s Day can make some people feel celebratory while others feel sad, angry, and confused. I was one of those in the second group. My stomach would begin to ache as Mother’s Day approached, and despite my intentions to ignore it or find a neutral card, I’d remember things I wanted to forget: my mother leaving on the train after her once a year visit to me and my grandmother. Another part of me wanted her to leave, because the visits were fraught with conflict between her and her mother. Sometimes my heart would soften toward my mother as I thought of her being motherless. I knew how that felt.
As an adult, after my mother made it clear that she wanted no one to know I was her daughter—my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother: A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness is the story of the mothers in my family—I was left with two feelings: to change her mind and PROVE that I was worthy for my mother to love and claim me—thus the need to find the “right” card. Or perhaps that year I’d feel like expressing my anger at her abandonments refusing to send her a card. Which was right? Was it being a small-minded person to refuse to send my own mother a card? After all, she had birthed me, she was indeed my mother, even if she felt conflicted about it. I knew that in every day life, her mother was my “mother” in the sense of she was the one who took me to the doctor, tucked me in, got me to do my homework, bought my clothes, and encouraged my development. So I had two mothers, really. When my grandmother was alive, and we were speaking—things were complicated between us as well—I would send her a Mother’s Day card, as I did an aunt who mothered me, and a friend who had taken the role of mother for many years. So the motherless me adopted several mothers.
I’ve been a therapist for over thirty-five years, and during this time I’ve encountered many emotional “orphans.” Some people feel motherless because they grow up with very distant mothers, mothers who are distracted or sick, mothers who have too many children, or who start off well with mothering but then become overwhelmed or have other interests, or have a stressful marriage, or no marriage at all. There are so many stories about mothers—and each mother has her own story as well about who her model of mothering was and the challenges she faced as a person.
It seems to me the best way we can manage the complexities about “mother” is not to remain in judgment of our mothers, no matter how hard that is. If we can find a way to stand in her shoes, and to learn who she was before she was a mother, we may find ourselves seeing her as a whole person, someone who had her own life, her own struggles and problems to solve.
It doesn’t work in the deep mining of memories and the past to pass over the true feelings we may have, even if they are dark. I had to learn this over and over again. First, we may need to speak out or write out the raw truth of how we feel—now and in the past, the good and the bad. We may need to scream or cry or write poetry, stomp around or simply sit still with a range of insights and feelings we discover on our journey to healing.
There may come a time when we can look into the face of the girl or young woman “mother” was long before she knew of us, when she was simply herself. You may visit her, or simply look at a photograph—and pause to get to know her, thinking of the possibilities and hopes she might have had for her life, how she wanted her life to turn out. You may have this information, or you might need to imagine it based on what you know.
As a memoirist, I encourage people to write the stories that beckon, the untold stories, the secret stories. And yes, you can write a story through your mother’s eyes, become her, and see her world. Think of the era she grew up in, the clothes she wore, the political and historical demands on her life and write from her point of view. Look at the photographs and write TO her, share what you think and understand now. And write about that word, “mother.” See how it speaks to you.
In honor of Mother’s day, my eBook Don’t Call Me Mother is on sale for .99–just for today!
Video: Judy Mandel and I talk about Discovering our Mothers through Writing Memoir.