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