No Apologies: On Writing About My Mother’s Life

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My mother asked me to order her a cocktail—“nothing too sweet.” It was June 2019 and we were eating dinner in a restaurant by ourselves. Since the birth of my son, two years earlier, we had rarely been alone together. I was nervous and ordered her a drink at random. She took a sip and cringed.

“I need your permission for something,” I said.

“Okay,” she said.

“I want to write a book about your life.”

She took a second sip of her sugary cocktail. “I do think you had an interesting childhood.”

“Not my life,” I said. “Yours.”

My pitch: the next time I went home to Portland, she and I would take a road trip. We would drive through the deserts of eastern Oregon to Rexburg, Idaho, down to Salt Lake City, and farther south to Provo, Utah. My mother’s past would be our roadmap. At each campsite, cabin, or motel she would tell me about her life before she became a mother. I knew the highlights already. As a high schooler she had lived alone in a trailer park off McLoughlin Boulevard outside Portland. At 18, she had a job counting wild horses on Steens Mountain for the Bureau of Land Management, and a boyfriend 10 years older. She was engaged three times before her 21st birthday. She was married in the temple in Salt Lake City—but her first husband turned on her when he found her packet of birth control pills. After leaving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, my mother moved back to Portland and met my dad. She remembers thinking, I’m twenty-two now. If I don’t get it together…something bad is going to happen to me. For years afterward, Relief Society sisters would knock on our door. “When are you coming back to church?” And my mother’s answer was always, “Never.”

Maybe other women have more tumultuous, unsettling, or revealing stories about the Mormon Church or the American West. My mother interests me not because she is exceptional—though she may be—but because she is mine. And also not mine. Prying into the details of her life feels both natural and threatening. When I asked if I could write a book about her, I hoped she would say no as much as I hoped she would say yes. That night, in the restaurant, she said that I could.

I wanted to render her young adulthood in novelistic detail. As a novelist, blurring the boundary between memoir and fiction would make the form less daunting. I planned to fill in the background of my mother’s memories, conjuring phone calls that probably happened, songs that likely came on the radio. Interspersed would be reflections from her daughter: dispatches from the 1990s, early aughts, and present day. These sections would give the reader some relief from the saturated palette and shaggy texture of the late ’70s—and would offer a glimpse of who my mother became once the debris of her youth had settled, once motherhood was the role by which she was most often defined.

To complete the portrait, I would include transcripts of our conversations. I wanted to interview my mother beneath the jagged mountain ranges of her past, because those had been my mountains too. She first began to tell me about her life when I was about 13. On long weekends, we would drive to Central Oregon or the southern coast. We would camp or stay in cheap motel rooms whose balconies, at high tide, dangled over the Pacific. She told me how alone she had felt as a young woman, neglected by her own parents. How she cycled through men and clung to Mormonism—in spite of her sins—because she was desperate for unconditional love. How she sometimes endangered herself and manipulated other people to get what she wanted.

I do not believe she told me these things to extract my own confessions—and if she did, it didn’t work. As much as I loved our talks, I concealed my own reckless streak, my tendency to date older boys, and even my ambivalence about the evangelical Christianity in which she and my dad had raised me. Still, it comforted me to learn about the mistakes my mother had made. It was a relief to know that she had been flawed, and it was a relief to know that the narrative of her adolescence was stitched into her adulthood. I didn’t want the years I was living through to mean everything, but I often worried they would eventually mean nothing. By revealing to me the weight of her girlhood, my mother acknowledged the weight of mine, while—artfully, generously—allowing me my privacy.

In her 40s, it would have been easy for my mother to let her teenage daughter view her in shades of bland maternity. And it would be easy for me, now, to let my mother calcify in my mind as “Grandma Ellen,” smiling at my son over FaceTime. I could let her life story fade into half-remembered family folklore. More than ever, though, I want to understand my mother—not as my origin, not as my background—but as a woman who happens to have children, one of whom happens to be me. I want to create an impression of her that’s uncorrupted by shame (she made me), or criticism (she made me), or sentimentality (she made me). To be uninterested in the ways my mother made me a better or worse person than I might have otherwise been is a gift. One that she gave me. Because, yes, mothers can be bad. Mothers have the ability to harm their children, and some do. But in general, I think we are still too hard on moms, too quick—in our therapy sessions and tweets and memoirs—to retroactively judge their performances. My mother was good, and imperfect, and good because she was imperfect.

Almost all of my friends have children. Sometimes we confess our darkest mothering moments: hands tightening around small shoulders; ferocious screams that send the dog into hiding. “Grow up,” I once yelled at my three-year-old—as if he was doing anything else. My friends and I talk about the “rage hangover” that descends as the heart regulates itself, the remainder of the day passing in the nausea of self-loathing and regret. We text each other because we need to hear I’ve done that and It’s okay. Surely, my mom, who had three children, felt herself flicker between mother and monster. She has also witnessed my own meltdowns, spreading her hand across my back as I hold my son and sob. I don’t believe my mother and I owe each other apologies or forgiveness. All I really want is to know her and to let her know me.

In 2019, the project seemed clear: take a road trip, write a book. But that summer, when my mother gave me permission to write about her life, we did not take a road trip. I was living in Richmond, Va., parenting a two-year-old without childcare, and finishing a draft of what would be my fourth novel—a story about professional basketball and celebrity, as far removed from my life as anything I’d ever written. By the time I was ready to begin a new book from scratch, it was September 2020. Travel was no longer an option. And so, having not seen my mother in eight months, I began interviewing her over Zoom. As of March 2021, an entire year since I last saw her, we are still at it. The interviews are hard to schedule. She works until five or six p.m. Pacific Time; I go to bed around 10 Eastern. Our calls last an hour, sometimes two, and take twice as long to transcribe the next day. Watching the recordings, I am struck by the ease of our conversation, our constant laughter, the way we smooth our hair in sync. Talking to my mother, I sound like I am talking to a close friend.

Sometimes I avoid the manuscript for weeks. The document, minimized on my laptop screen, fills me with dread. For one thing, failure feels inevitable. Maybe I can only ever see my mother as accurately as I can see myself: not at all. It crushes me to imagine her as a young woman for whom no one on earth was watching out. Finally, I don’t enjoy dwelling on the unfathomable fact that I haven’t seen my mother in a year. If, at any previous point in my life, you asked what events might lead to such a long separation, I would have known only that it was something very bad.

At the end of each interview, we veer from the 1970s into the present. In September, the air in Portland was choked with smoke, unbreathable. My mother, a nurse manager, arrived at work one morning to find the hallway crowded with incubated preemies, transferred from evacuated hospitals. That just about did me in, she said. As the months went on, she told me about sitting through emergency staff meetings to prepare for a second surge of COVID-19 cases. The ICU at full capacity. Crying in her office. Wanting to retire; the math not working out. I never meant to write a timely book. I had envisioned a nostalgia-fueled memoir about re-immersing myself in the landscape of the west, inhaling as much alpine air as my lungs could handle. Instead, as I write, I wonder if I’ll see those places again. A book that was supposed to be about coming home is instead about severance. My nostalgia has never felt more useless.

I am halfway through a first draft. On bad days, I long for the comforts of fiction: the anonymity, the deniability. When I write a novel, I only have to worry about depicting a character whose humanity is convincing. With this memoir, I worry that I am writing a book about my mother in which my mother won’t recognize herself. What if my literary reenactment of her past feels gauche, like a Renaissance fair? What if I’ve gotten it all wrong? On good days, I think this might be a project for which writing fiction has prepared me: to look at the woman who gave birth to me—from whom I have no prayer of hiding—and to know her at least as well as she knows me. If nothing else, the book has bought me time with my mom. Impossible time. Through those decades before I was born, and through 12 months of a pandemic, and years from now, when she is gone.

Image Credit: Piqsels.

A Year in Reading: Emily Adrian

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In 2020 I had time to read. I spent March and April sitting in my parked car while my son “played steering wheel.” I could have read a lot of books in the passenger seat while Wes beeped the horn and pressed all the buttons on the broken CD changer. But mostly, I didn’t. Mostly, in 2020, I stared at the news, or at the sky, or down at the top of my dog’s head where his orange fur is turning white. I went for long, thought-obliterating runs—first along the James River, sweating in the Virginia heat; and then through the New Haven fall, past the dorms full of quarantined students who were not allowed past the padlocked courtyard gates. In 2020 I got stronger and faster, and I gave myself an uneven bob with the kitchen scissors. I watched too much pandemic basketball, moved to my third state in as many years, published a novel, and yelled at my adorable son more times than he deserved. I did not get on a plane; I did not see my family. I hardly read. It feels bad to admit it.

It also feels a little dishonest. Because I did read. More
than most people, maybe. But the events of the past year have compromised my attention.
Apparently, in order to slip inside a fictional world, I need to have some
amount of faith that my actual world will remain fixed for thirty minutes or an
hour—whenever I choose to put down the book. And it’s an unreasonable requirement
now that the virus kills more than a thousand Americans a day; now that the
president refuses to concede an election he lost; now that I am quarantined in
my living room with my three-year-old, who was exposed to Covid last week. If
I’m exaggerating how little I read this year, it’s because I want to confess that
under duress I surrendered one of the great pleasures of my life. Reading,
which was always easy, became hard. 

But because it has been hard, it is also the case that the
books I finished in 2020 have not blurred or dissipated in my mind. I remember
them vividly, think about them constantly.   

I read Ling Ma’s Severance at the end of February, as the virus loomed imprecisely—the kind of crisis that would wreak havoc in other places but let America off with a warning. I read Severance for the same reason a lot of people watched Contagion, or the reason English majors always read A Moveable Feast after a trip to Paris. To think, I’ve been there; I’ve seen that. To feel the chill of recognition. In March, I read an early copy of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham (and wrote about it for the Los Angeles Review of Books). There is something irresistible about a counterfactual history, especially in an era when our own political fate feels infuriatingly arbitrary—both avoidable and nearly avoided. When we can’t stop tweeting: “It didn’t have to be like this.” I read The Knockout Queen by Rufi Thorpe as summer eclipsed spring in Virginia. I carried the book with me as my son and I roamed Richmond, searching for deserted parks where we could go maskless. Thorpe is one of my favorite writers: nothing could prevent me from losing myself in her fiction, which has a way of remaking the world without veering into fantasy or surrealism. Everything is just slightly heightened, vibrational. Like when it’s ninety degrees at nine a.m., as it often was, this spring.

At the start of summer I picked up Toni Morrison’s Sula, having last read it ten years ago. I wanted something I knew I loved and would finish in an afternoon. This was June, when a lot of people were sharing “anti-racist reading lists” with Sula or The Bluest Eye slapped on at the end, as if Morrison was in the business of giving white people self-improvement lessons—a point made most memorably by Lauren Michele Jackson in Vulture. The main reason to read Toni Morrison remains that she was a novelist of unparalleled brilliance. Soon after Sula, I got my hands on an ARC of Want by Lynn Steger Strong, a riveting, relatable book about two things that often obsess me: running and economic anxiety. Next I tore through Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, wanting it to last forever. Truly great novels make me forget I’ve written a few. I become a person who would never try, would never want to try to write a book, knowing the effort wouldn’t compare to the satisfaction of reading a book as well-plotted and tightly controlled as Bennett’s. 

The fall was when my attention fractured irrecoverably. When I gave myself over to the running, and the NBA, and the whitening patch of fur on Hank’s head. Thankfully, my friend Kerry Winfrey sent me her forthcoming romantic comedy, Very Sincerely Yours. The best thing about being a writer is befriending other writers who send you their unpublished, unedited manuscripts. Not because those drafts represent the apex of their talent, but because those drafts have the most of your friend in them. Kerry’s manuscript made me laugh at a time when almost nothing made me laugh.

For every book I read, I picked up and abandoned three more. Often they were books I had read before, which I revisited for the particular insights I knew were there. While watching the U.S. Open, I picked up Citizen to re-read Claudia Rankine on Serena Williams. While missing my hometown, I dipped into Chelsey Johnson’s Stray City, a deliciously detailed and accurate portrait of the old Portland, Oregon. In the middle of one night between November 2 and November 7, I stood in front of my bookshelf reading the first chapter of Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich for the thrill of June Kashpaw saying to a stranger in a bar: “You got to be different.”

Sometimes, when I’m running, I hurt myself. And then I have
to stop running for a day or three or ten. It feels bad; I imagine my muscles melting
into muck. I imagine that, because I am not presently running, all the runs
I’ve run before no longer count. I try to remind myself that the point of
running is to run all my life. No particular day or week really matters; there
is no endgame. Running is a project with which I’ll never be finished. The same
is even truer of reading—and I’m glad I spent the first thirty years of my life
inhaling fiction, as if I suspected there would come a year when books would
be, if not scarce, impossible to read. In 2020, all the books I didn’t read
sustained me as much as the books I did.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

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