It’s a question that people have been asking me: why write another memoir? This summer, I’m excited to be involved with book launches, reviews, and discussions about my new memoir Song of the Plains. I asked myself, what still needs to be said after my first memoir Don’t Call Me Mother?
Don’t Call Me Mother—A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness
My first memoir is about three generations of mothers who abandoned their daughters. It’s a coming of age story through a child’s eyes that begins when my mother left—I was four. The book follows the theme of mothers and daughters who were estranged, and struggled with their relationship. When I discovered that my grandmother had left my mother when she was a little girl, I knew that something was wrong, that there was a generational pattern that demanded to be explored. The story takes the reader on a journey that shows how I coped with a volatile and rejecting mother, and my grandmother. She had saved me and raised me with great flair—sharing her passions about music, history, and literature, but she deteriorated as she got older into an angry, punishing person. My mother’s diagnosis of manic-depressive illness on her deathbed offered some insights into our family pattern—it often runs in families. Having a name for some of the crazy things that happened as I grew up helped me to understand the struggles I’d witnessed. Knowing that there was a mental illness explained in part what happened in our family and helped me to have compassion for my mothers by the end of the book.
Song of the Plains
The themes of this book had been whispering in my ear for decades, though the cadence grew louder last year, which reminded me that I’d been gathering books and quotes about the Great Plains for years. I was a history buff fascinated by archeology, geology, and the westward-ho movement that sent pioneers across America, not yet knowing how deeply that history was engraved in my DNA.
Growing up in Oklahoma put me in touch with western history—wild and reckless and “Indian country” until well into the 20th century. I had a personal relationship with the Great Plains—its huge spaciousness felt like a protection when I was stressed by my grandmother and mother’s conflicts. The beauty of the azure sky and huge towers of clouds offered peace and inspiration. And the wind has always been a character in stories about the west.
Since I was a child, I had a powerful curiosity to know what happened in the past, ever since my great-grandmother whispered her stories to me in a featherbed when I was eight and she was eighty. From that time on, I was a genealogist and a historian, always searching for more insights.
The voice for this book began to whisper in my ear, and there also was the familiar inner critic voice: haven’t you said too much already? Isn’t one story enough about all those people? What’s new that hasn’t been said? Aren’t you writing too much about yourself?
We all have that voice, but there’s another voice that whispers invitations—have you heard it, too? It goes like this: What if…
My voice said:
- What if… you learned more about your grandmother’s life—maybe that would change your perspective about her.
- What if… you could find out what happened to your mother as a little girl—maybe that could explain why she was so angry and sad.
- What if…there are more stories about them you don’t know. Aren’t you curious? Don’t you want to find out?
These questions led me to do decades of genealogical research, which for years had still left me without a story I could piece together. The “What if” questions are what drove me to the courthouses and graveyards for the last forty years as I tried to discover the hidden stories about my family. I found a treasure of information in the small town newspaper in Wapello, Iowa.
For seven years, I searched for our family names in the microfilm archives, and luckily was rewarded by finding pieces of my mother’s story—when she was born, where she lived. It was exciting to see my mother there as a little girl, and my grandmother, when she was only twenty-one years old. Suddenly, people who had a story in the misty far past became real and in focus. They came alive to me, proving that history is not only something that happened long ago. History is a living story, lived moment to moment, and when we can follow the breadcrumbs, we can find to a deeper understanding.
My book weaves the themes of history, of land and people, and hope and failure. Hard work and adventures across the sea. It’s bigger than me and my story—and I’m happy for that. I hope my book encourages you to look for your roots and celebrate your heritage. Perhaps you will even want to write about it!
This is “Mental Health Week.” It amazes and pleases me to see that there is a week set aside in our culture where we’re invited to celebrate health of the mind. In contrast to the fifties when I grew up, nowadays we’re informed about things that previously could not be named: depression, bi-polar illness, anxiety, and PTSD among others. PTSD is a condition that only recently has been given a name and treatment plan in the diagnostic manual used by therapists and doctors.
Having grown up in an atmosphere of extreme shame and silence, with only the term “eccentric” to apply to the extreme behaviors and patterns of my grandmother and mother, it still amazes me to see ads for medicines on TV in that promise to combat these conditions. I loved my mother, who left me when I was six with my grandmother, and I loved Gram too. I don’t know if it was karma, payback or simply synchronistic timing, but I was the same age as my mother was when Gram left her behind to seek her fortune in the big city of Chicago. I grew up in an atmosphere of arguing, broken dishes, weeping, and watched the two women I loved tear each other apart when my mother came to visit us. I also watched my grandmother literally sink into a hole in the couch in the living room, endlessly smoking. She’d pace, rant, and seemed lost in some kind of darkness that I wanted to escape. They both had abandoned their daughters. My mother denied me as her daughter. These behaviors and conditions had no name.
Years later, during my own career as a therapist, and as I was writing my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother to try to shape what happened into a story that made some kind of sense, my mother was diagnosed on her deathbed with manic-depressive illness. Finally, this thing that had haunted us for decades had a name.
I’m grateful that depression is not a dirty word like it was when I grew up—though I never heard the term until I was in my twenties. At that time, it seemed to apply to suicidal people like Virginia Woolf or Hemingway, which meant it was a very bad thing, something that could lead to death, but only for “other people,” many of whom were famous. No one in our own family would/should/could have such a problem. The stigma against mental problems of any kind was paralyzing. Even when a classmate and good friend of mine killed himself when I was sixteen, the word “depression” was not uttered by anyone. And within a few weeks, people were trying to get back to acting cheerful despite this tragedy that I mourned for years. It was understood that the good people of my small town didn’t want to be tainted by discussing the death of a boy who was so desperate that he took his own life. And none of us knew he wanted to die.
There’s still a huge need for more education about what mental health and mental illness is. People need to know that there is a continuum and that each person’s struggle is unique. No two people experience anything in exactly the same way. It’s interesting that “OCD” has become a household term that we can claim as an issue without having to die from shame. It’s become a joke: “I clean my house a lot, I’m a little OCD about it.” People now speak about depression more openly—there are memoirs, movies, and blog posts about it, but still, depression is still a grey cloud that hovers over people all over the world, and too many people still struggle in silence.
Amy Ferris, editor of Shades of Blue: Writers on Depression, Suicide and Feeling Blue has set out to do something about this silence and loneliness and shame. Last year she put out the word to friends and writers who have stories about depression and suicide, and many people responded with a huge range of stories—naming what could not be named, offering hope and support and community that will help others who are still lost in the silence. Seal Press will release the book in October but you can pre-order it.
I am inspired by the quote by Louise DeSalvo, author of The Art of Slow Writing and Writing as a Way of Healing, who explored the psychohistory of Virginia Woolf and her family in Virginia Woolf-the Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on her Life and Work. In her introduction, she says, “…as [Virginia] put it near the end of her life, ‘Only when we put two and two together–two pencil strokes, two written words,…do we overcome dissolution and set up some stake against oblivion.’ Virginia Woolf was engaged in a lifelong effort to put together those words which helped her overcome her own feelings of dissolution, which set up her own stake against oblivion. And, fortunately, we too can read her words.”
I believe that writing and exploring the deep truths of our lives, especially the ones that society wants us to keep silent, is a way to help the world heal from the stigma that only words can offer.
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.
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 spoke with Victoria Costello, author of A Lethal Inheritance at the National Association of Memoir Writers member teleseminar. about the legacy of mental illness.
Those of us who come from families with hidden or diagnosed mental illness feel “Other,” the ghosts of our legacies chasing us in our dreams, making us shrink down in our waking life.
In my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother, I talk about beautiful women who have a pattern of leaving their children behind, beautiful women who scream and rage irrationally, but who are just thought of as eccentric or different. As a child, of course this is “just the way it is.” After my mother’s terminal diagnosis of cancer, she tormented the nurses so much that her doctor ordered a psychiatric evaluation. That’s when she was diagnosed as Bi-Polar, that’s when behavior that was cruel, irrational, and off-the-wall finally got a name.
In her informative and teeth-clenching memoir, Victoria does a brave thing: she combines her considerable scientific research about the causes and treatments of mental illness—the history of and the current state of treatment—with her own family’s case study—the story of herself and her children. She makes an excellent point with this book—that no matter how much we know or how smart we are, there are mysterious forces in life that blindside us, that bring us to our knees. Mental illness does that to families, and worse—it’s often a hidden illness shrouded in ignorance, guilt, and shame, and often a secret even from the sufferers themselves.
As ubiquitous as mental illness is in our society, too often diagnoses are incorrect or non-existent when, if properly understood, lives could be saved and immense suffering prevented. Since funding has consistently been cut for programs that include treatment for the mentally ill, too often treatment even for adolescents is non-existent, leaving people to fall upon impossible conditions—living on the street and/or families trying to help someone who is beyond their help or expertise. And for families like Victoria’s, once the child is of age, the parents no longer have any power to insist on medication or treatment, even if it were available. Since the teen years are when children are more vulnerable to the onset of mental illness, it stands to reason that the child might not be out of danger when they become of age and have to make their own decisions. One of the frustrating aspects of trying to deal with the mentally ill is that they believe that they are either fine or all-powerful, when in fact their thinking and perceiving are distorted. What a nightmare for any family member.
A Lethal Inheritance also points us toward the need to understand and research the genetic and genealogical backgrounds in our own families. In her family as in mine, mental illness, mostly undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, has planted seeds in later generations, the societal, biological, genetic, and psychological factors all aligned for a perfect storm. Victoria’s book is easy to read, despite the intensity of the material. Perhaps it’s because she weaves the cool-headed research in with her often painful story. It’s a success story too—told by someone who knows the journey and can help you on yours.
Is this subject part of your story in some way?
Have you ever looked into your family legacy and found secrets that explain things? What was that like for you?