Monday, January 24, 2011


When my father died in 1995, he immediately strode back into my imagination as the healthy, middle-aged man of my childhood, adolescence, and young-adult years. When my mother died four months later, my imaginary clock refused to turn back. For a long time I had a hard time seeing her any way except the way she was during her painful last years - unable to speak, unable to walk, profoundly depressed.

I've spent a lot of time going through old photos since then, and I can now - at least part of the time - see both my parents as the intelligent, attractive, well-respected people I knew throughout most of my life. I also enjoy imagining their life during their 17 years together before I was born (hint to mothers: if you have kept the shoebox full of letters you wrote your husband during your engagement, you might want to consider the merriment they will someday provide your children). I came to understand that my parents were not supporting actors in my personal drama, but leading actors in their own. I now realize that, though my mother and I were close in many ways, I never really knew her.

That realization was one reason I particularly enjoyed Ruth Reichl's Not Becoming My Mother, happily renamed in the paperback edition For You, Mom, Finally. And that was also why, when a friend recommended Circling My Mother by novelist Mary Gordon, I expected an equally satisfying read.

I immediately identified with Gordon's story. Her mother was born in 1908, mine in 1910. I was born in 1948, she in 1949. Both mothers suffered from dementia; both spent their last years in nursing homes. My mother died at age 85; hers lived to be 94. Gordon, like me, was trying to get her mother back. Explaining the book's title, she writes:
I came to realize that I couldn't see my mother properly by standing in one place, by standing still. For the last eleven years of her life, the years marked by dementia, she was much more a problem to me than a joy. I wanted to move from the spot where I thought of my mother as a problem. To do this, I had to walk around her life, to view it from many points - only one of which was her career as my mother.
Gordon does this through ten essays, three of which were previously published. Many of the essays' titles begin "My Mother and ...", as in "My Mother and Her Bosses," "... Her Sisters," "... Her Friends," " ... My Father." In them, Gordon gives us a composite view of Anna Gagliano Gordon, daughter of a Sicilian immigrant father and an Irish immigrant mother, first of five daughters (there were also brothers), crippled by polio at age 3, a hard worker from age 17, married at 39, a mother at 41, widowed at 49, extremely devout Catholic, eventual alcoholic, and wearer of Arp├Ęge.

In the end, though, we learn a lot more about Mary than about Anna.

This is Mary's memoir, not Anna's. It is the story of a relationship as perceived by the daughter, not a portrait of the mother. It's the kind of book that all of us who have lost our mothers should write for our personal catharsis, but that few of us should publish.

Fortunately, Anna's daughter is a fine writer who entertains us with tales about mid-century Catholic immigrant life, moves us with stories of injustice and dysfunction and missed opportunities, and lets us share her pride as she pays tribute to a flawed but decent, imaginative, and self-giving woman.

Still, Mary Gordon knows she has not yet found her mother:
I will try to keep my mother from vanishing. I will try to understand distance, but to understand that I will also have to understand closeness. I must enter a world of undulations. A world where everything is moving, nothing is forever still....

I am trying to see my mother. I must begin now to learn how to look.
Memoir aficionadas will find Circling My Mother a treat. Women looking for ways to understand their own aging or dead mothers may also enjoy it, though it offers no advice beyond Gordon's own approach: To understand our mothers, we must circle them repeatedly. We must learn how to look.

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