|My mother, in her twenties in Northern Ireland|
Today would be my mother's birthday.
I know the first question you want to ask me: how old would she be?
I am not 100% sure. This is because I cannot seem to remember her birth year, no matter how hard I try. Because I am in touch with some of her childhood friends, born the same year, I have some confidence in saying she would be 73. But I could stand corrected, certainly.
Recently I have begun writing a different kind of memoir. I know, I know, don't start writing another book, Miriam! But this one is coming out naturally, not taking energy from other projects. It's a different kind of writing, more standing outside and looking in rather than telling what happened from a scene-based experience. I am sure a lot of it comes from reading Abigail Thomas' latest memoir, What Comes Next and How to Like It. Anyway, as I usually share a post about my mom on these days, here's a tiny piece from my zygote memoir project, which I am calling (for now) Your Face Before Your Parents Were Born (after the old Zen koan). It's rough draft.
I have many stories I tell about my mother, and even more I tell about the two of us. In particular, I have single stories, threads with common themes I have told over particular eras of my life.
So there’s the lived story, which wasn’t a story at the time, it was just life. Then the story I was telling in my head at the time (because we are always telling a story, or a few thousand, in our heads at any time, and adapting what we experience to meld it), then the story I told not long after whatever happened as it adjusted to a new version of the story. Then the story I told ten years later, twenty, thirty – the story changing constantly, as well as the stories about the stories.
When I first started writing a memoir about my early experiences with sex and death, I cast my mother in the role of evil demon. Not quite that bad, but strong enough that when first readers got through it, they asked why the hell I hated her so much. They said they couldn’t see why I disliked her so much, but clearly they could tell I did. In my attempts to vindicate, I dragged out all the things she did or didn’t do to me, and still my readers said, ok, so? Moms make mistakes. Why did you hate her so much?
Then, suddenly, I start running into journal entries from the time periods I am writing about in the memoir that say I love her. I see in calendars how much time we spent together. During a period I supposedly couldn’t stand her (when I was fifteen), she baked me my favorite cake for my birthday and gave me a book of funny comics about sex.
Simultaneously, I also remember a very specific incident with rotten carrots. I depict that scene, slicing out myriad others with far bigger drama. I place my readers right in the scene with me – kindergartener, Mom forcing me to eat carrots (and not the cute pre-cut kind, but big bitter wedges), her finding my hidden rejection pile (I thought they just disappeared!) behind the National Geographics. After my readers read this chapter, they stopped asking me why I hated my mother.
But when did I start to tell the story that I hated her? Was I telling it then, in Kindergarten? Or did it really kick in in adolescence? On top of the usual teenaged-daughter-hates-her-mom stuff, there was some pretty intense trauma in the years after Dad died (I was twelve, just about to turn thirteen) as we both grieved in fucked up ways all over each others’ spaces.
Regardless of our special case of loss, it’s the kind of thing teens do, to say they hate their mom but secretly love them for baking cake and sharing Weenie Toons by Roz Warren. Sometimes so secret they don’t even realize it wasn’t totally true until twenty years later. If that. Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhists call this self-secreting – a truth so obvious you don’t see it until you are 100% prepared to understand.