My mother Josephine, age 10, with the dark hair. She had lived with her great-grandmother since she was 6.


All of humanity has something in common: we were born to a mother. We might not know who she is/was, or we might have been blessed to be bathed in her love–however she might have shown that love. Perhaps we were close to our mother, or yearned to be closer. Once she became a mother, she may have lost her original identity–what was her maiden name. Do you know what her life was before she had children–before you were relating to her as “mother?”

 Look at photographs of your mother–was she smiling? What was she wearing? Is there a familiar mood she exudes? Can you tell what she was feeling; do you know what she was doing just before or just after the photograph was taken? What do you imagine she felt/thought/did that day so long ago?

I’m often asked by people who are writing memoirs, “How can I write about my mother’s life? I don’t want to write fiction, but of course I wasn’t born yet for a lot of what she lived through. The stories I know are from others, from letters, from journals.”

 Here’s a great way to learn about your mother or grandmother:

1. Read about the era she lived in–clothes, furniture, food, holidays, schooling, expectations of those times. These can be found in history books, online, in diaries and in fictional stories set in that era.

2. Look at a photograph of your mother–is she smiling, posed or casual, what is her body language, what do you know about her at that age?

3. From what you know or imagine about your mother, write some pieces about her–from her point of view. Write a letter from her to her mother when she was 18 years old. What might she have said?

4. Write a diary entry about a secret your mother had, or might have had. See what comes out.

5. Write a diary entry she might have written on the day, or week, of your birth.

6. Create a scene where something in her life that was negative turned out to be positive. Rewrite her history.

7. Journal about your experiences as you create someone new in your imagination. Call it fiction, call it body knowledge or intuition. Who knows? But these exercises might tempt you to know more about her, or see her as separate from you–as a person with her own life, hopes, dreams, and disappointments.


It’s Muscatine Iowa, circa 1926.  Josephine is playing with another child in the family who lives with her great-grandmother, also called Josephine, the mother of Blanche.

The woman who became my mother was an abandoned child, like me. As a little girl she would wait and wait for her mother to visit, and melt into her arms for the few moments of ecstasy before having to face the “real” world, which later she would describe as dingy and depressing.

Muscatine was the home of several generations of her mother’s side of the family. Her father lived about 20 miles away with a new wife and their baby daughter. I see her feeling displaced, I can see the sadness in her eyes from the time she was very young. This photograph was given to me by a relative after she died. I stare at the photos of mother when she was young, and I can see her then, her small limbs, her dark wistful eyes.

Little Josephine used to walk up and down the sidewalk on Iowa street, glancing at the boats and barged that plied the Mississippi River just a few blocks away. The button factories, the alcohol plant, the industries along the wharf were more interesting to her than the women’s life at home, cooking, taking care of everyone.

She yearned for Chicago where her beautiful mother would come from on the train. She ached for the big city clothes and excitement. Her mother has planted hope in her heart. “Someday,” she says, brushing the dust off her smooth wool coat.

For now, Josephine must practice piano, study her lessons, and put up with farm people who have no dreams. She squeezes her eyes shut, and grits her teeth. One day, she will have her mother and all the finery and live in the big city. One day.