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.
Linda Joy, I’m moved to tears by your discovery. Thank you for sharing this letter, for reminding us both as daughters and mothers that motherhood takes many shapes and colors, that mothers do their best, regardless of how things look. Thank you for reminding us to look through cracks in the box, from many angles. I hear a message here: Hope and expect and persist and you shall find. I’ll never cease to be amazed at the way tiny shards of insight like this open portals into a universe of hidden truth.
Thanks so much, Sharon. These letters, which I have read before, gave me pause this time as I read them through my own awareness of the fragility of mother-child relationships. It turns out that saving things can offer unexpected rewards and insights, so I will continue riffling through my files to see what other treasures emerge. Thank you for your kind words!
having read your book I find this especially poignant. We write our stories but in fact they are our stories of our stories. You write on this day from such a healed perspective and in so doing a new story emerges. Writing takes us there if we allow it.
Thanks Jean, and I was hoping that those who had read the book might find a new perspective with this post, as I have. Best of luck with your own work!
What a revelation those letters must have been for you! How wonderful to see your mother’s love for you and to heal as you say “the frayed edges” of your relationship with her. Hats off to you for your persistence.
Thank you Sara for your encouragement. It’s a lifelong journey to discover and uncover new insights with family.
Linda Joy, I felt this so deeply. No wonder your mantra is “Be brave. Write your memoir”. To be able to look at your mother’s memory with new eyes and a spirit of forgiveness is perhaps the greatest gift of all. Thank you for sharing. I hope you had a wonderful Mother’s Day.
Kathleen, I know you understand the long journey of motherhood and compassion that you have been on as well–and forgiveness is truly a gift. We can’t will it, but we can work toward finding it. I loved your Mother’s Day thoughts too!
I find your post timely. It reminds me of my own childhood trying to win my parent’s love, to really see me…my mother wrote me a letter too, years ago with an apology for her abandonment of me, followed by scripted events that happened to me that made it impossible for her to see beyond the past unthinkable events in spite of who I had become as an adult…I learned during the last days of her life that no mother is perfect…failings happen, people can only give what they are capable of giving and there are no do-0vers. All we can do is move forward, reflect on the present and try to do better with our future relationships…I admire your courage and tenacity. Thank you for sharing.
Jewel, you’re so right that we need to understand that everyone is doing the best they can. I know you know the journey from being invisible to finding yourself. Thanks for your kind words!
Thank you for your beautiful and touching post. I know just what you mean. First you focused on the thread of one story that had informed your life. Now, you are fortunate to find another level in these letters. I always tell memoir writers that there are many levels to our stories, like a great Rembrandt, layers of sketches, paint, and more paint to give the full dimension to the portrait.
Dear Mani, the image of our writing as a layered painting has always been one of my favorites too! Thank you so much for your thoughts here.
I will read my mother’s letters, on the hunt for insights. Throughout her life, she kept everything. She wrote many notes inside the countless cards she sent over decades. She kept letters from lady friends from the early 1940’s. I kept her letters and cards to me. My cousin, Ellen, Mom’s goddaughter, kept every card and letter from her Aunt Lil. We have a body of work from which to draw references and build a story about this person, my mother.
But is it important? Does anyone care? Although my mother and I fought many battles over many subjects for many years, I literally stood by her while she made catastrophic mistakes, refusing to listen to or trust any outside guidance, not just her daughter’s. Is this important?
I loved her dearly, in spite of it all. She just passed away at 96 on April 21, 2015, and I was with her, had been at her side, literally holding her hands, caressing her face, untangling her long hair from matting up on the pillows, washing her hair while she was in bed, singing lullabies to her and saying the Lord’s Prayer, every time, each time. She knew I was there on the day and night and early morning when she took her final breaths, her little lungs and heart breathing and beating so hard. But does this matter to anyone? Do I need to write this story?
Beautiful, poignant, resonates with me in ways I wish we could discuss together over tea and scones.