Past, Present, Future
Perri: This book is about mothers, but I would like to begin with my father. Since his death, sudden and unexpected, in 2001, I have been carrying on a variety of conversations with him. Some of these take place in my car when I am driving. Ever since his death, I have found myself talking to him, often out loud, while I drive, sometimes filling him in on how my life is going or chewing over a dilemma or up- dating him on the world. For the first year after he died, those conversations—well, I suppose you might call them monologues, but I find it more comfortable and comforting to think of them as conversations, to imagine him there, in some sense, listening in—usually ended with me in tears in my car, trying to drive carefully, facing yet once again the hard, cold fact that I would never again hear my father’s voice.
But not all conversations—or even all monologues—take place in the spoken voice. I am a writer, and writing is what I do with my emotions, my stories, my insights, such as they are. I started writing essays about my father—an essay for a knitting magazine about knitting sweaters for my father, an essay for a newspaper travel section about travel memories of my father. I found I had many such essays in me—I still have notes for a piece about my father and food, for example, and another about my father and P. G. Wodehouse. And I think of the process of writing these various essays and articles as somewhere between tribute and conversation; the person I am really telling these stories to, I think, is the person who isn’t here to read them. By writing about him, I know, I am trying to conjure him and keep him with me.
Losing a parent is a life lesson you can’t learn from anyone else’s experience, or even from the collective human experience of all the millions of human beings who have lost their parents before you. That my father should be gone—so suddenly, when no one was in any way ready—that his voice with all its stories and opinions should be still. That I should go on now to live my life as a fatherless daughter. And in my bleakest moments, I had to acknowledge and accept that someday I would be not only fatherless but also motherless; the lesson I had learned was that parents die and leave you. Remember that comforting false assurance we all offer our children when they’re young and they first find out about death—Don’t worry, darling; I won’t die for a long, long time, not till you’re all grown up? Well, the part we don’t tell them is that no matter how many decades you’ve accumulated when the time comes, you don’t necessarily feel all grown up, or even moderately ready to carry on alone.
What I am trying to say, and I feel some trepidation in saying it, as if it might bring bad luck, was that for the first time, I began to have flashes of life without my mother as well as my father. I began to imagine myself writing similar essays about my mother—I could easily imagine the topics. My mother and writing, my mother and food, my mother and her iconic ethnic jokes. And I found myself rebelling against the whole idea of writing about my mother. My mother is a writer, and she is still very much alive and writing. What I wanted was not a collection, someday, of articles in my own signature voice celebrating her, eulogizing her, trying my best to capture her essence—what I wanted was the real thing. My father was gone, but my mother was available, and it was suddenly clear to me that I should take full advantage of that availability, that we should try together to come at the various interesting mother–daughter life issues, in our two different and distinct voices.
In some ways, we spend our lives telling stories about our mothers, making up handy cartoon moms. In high school it’s often the whine—Oh my God, my mother! The things she says, the things she wants, the way she acts! Later on, maybe you make up the story of the mother who is never satisfied, who wants you to be something you never will become, or else the mother who thinks you’re perfect, the mother who blames you for ruining her perfect grandchildren, or the mother who thinks that you and they can do no wrong. There is the aging eccentric mother (or sometimes the relatively young eccentric mother), the heroic matriarch, the disappointed lonely old lady. But all of these—true or exaggerated or downright false—are stories told in a daughter’s voice.
I don’t want to speak for my mother; I want her to speak for herself. I want to figure out together some of the overlaps in our lives, the ways in which we echo and resemble one another, and also the ways in which we seem to come from different species. I want to know how I look to her, and rather than telling the world someday how she looked to me, I want to tell it to her and see how she reacts. I want her to let me know when I am fudging it—or bullshitting—or confabulating and creating a false mother, a cartoon mother, a Hollywood mother. And after all, though many mothers and daughters struggle with these issues and these overlaps, here we are, my mother and I, both of us writers, both of us stubborn, both of us set in our ways. We live relatively close to one another, we talk on the phone almost every day—why shouldn’t we try writing it all down?
So, Mama, are you ready? I have been looking into my soul, and I have come up with some questions, which I know already that we will probably not answer—that probably no one will ever answer once and for all. But I am interested in circling round these together, worrying at them, trying to bite off pieces. And I invite you to offer up your own list for our mutual consideration:
First is a question about the past: Mama, you invented yourself. You came from a family where no one went to college, where girls were not supposed to be educated, a poor and extremely orthodox family, and you made yourself up: a college student, a young woman who lived alone in Greenwich Village, a writer, a teacher, half of a working two-professor couple. You know, travel, literature, art, culture—the whole deal. I live a life in many ways similar to yours, but I had nothing to invent; all I had to do was jump through all the hoops that were being held out to me, as I was cheered on and patted and encouraged by everyone in the world. Get good grades, go to a good college, go to medical school, have the kids, buy the house, see the world, develop a taste for fancy food. How do I understand the strength and the vision that it took for you to imagine a life that no one you knew had lived, and then bring that life to pass? Mama, I think you may be what we call in pediatrics and child psychiatry one of the supersurvivors, the one child who comes out of the devastated (and devastating) home and family and somehow not only survives but thrives. And I think that whatever I am, I am first and foremost a good girl, doing what was expected of me, doing what would bring me parental approval. What kind of life might you have lived if your parents had cheered you on and smoothed your path? Would you somehow have gone even farther, or was it the struggle and the originality that made you what you are? And if I had grown up in the family in which you grew up, would I have had what it took to change the life plan? Or would I just have been the good girl, playing by those rules?
Sheila: You give me too much credit, Perr. I didn’t invent myself. I stumbled upon myself. Desperation and fear started me as a child thinking that I had to escape my surroundings and drove me out of my parents’ house and into my life.
I began to realize when I was very young that I would not survive in the bitter conflict that was my parents’ marriage. Imagine a home where the adults never say a kind word to each other. D. H. Lawrence has a wonderful story in which the walls continually whisper, “There must be more money!” Our walls shouted it. Imagine a New York slum flat with no heat of any sort in winter and no ice to keep food from spoiling in summer, an unhappy overworked mother who (forgive me for this harshness, but that was how I thought of it) never shut up about how badly she had married and how her three children added to her misery by being noisy, dirty, careless—by being children. A scraped shoe, a torn dress, an injury in some game brought forth wrath and punishment. She hit me till I hit her back, and then she stopped.
I was basically by temperament a happy kid, I think, but my childhood seemed designed to make me feel unworthy of anything.
To be fair to my mother, she worked endlessly to keep us fed and clothed and healthy and Jewish and, hardest of all, to make us seem respectable. It was this last heroically impossible effort that was most destructive. Everyone knew we were poor, and she minded terribly.
I looked around me at the adults in my life and noted that most of them were unhappy. I read a lot and loved fiction and drama and poetry. I saw a few movies. I began to dream of other people’s kind of lives. My aunt Amy was my most successful relative; she was a public school gym teacher, having put herself through training school. Her job held even through the Depression, when my father—and everyone else—was out of work. I didn’t admire or even like her, but I’ve wondered if she was the model who led me to teaching or at least to the vision of a secure civil service job as the ultimate paradise.
As soon as I could, I got out. I ran away once, when I was a high school junior, then I left permanently when I was a college freshman. I never lived at home again. I had two siblings, both unhappy as well. My sister quit high school to work in a factory, then married a neighborhood boy to get out of that house. And my brother ran away at sixteen, enlisted in the army, and was killed in the Korean War. Our living conditions were unlivable.
I found my way because I was desperate and because I was lucky. I came upon sympathetic people and unearthed oddball jobs. I took the entrance exam and qualified for Brooklyn College—an absolutely free public college. I started college, I moved out of my parents’ house—and I loved every minute of this new life. The first taste of it was enough to nourish the dream through all the hard work and waiting. Happiness and beauty beckoned.
And Perri, just as you give me too much credit, you give yourself too little. Sure, you grew up in a middle-class suburb, in an academic home of modest income, but you made good choices. And what makes you think you were such a good girl? You were not an easy teenager. You wanted independence and privacy and freedom. It was hard for us, and it was not an easy time for any parents, I don’t think. All around us, your contemporaries in that same middle-class suburb were getting stoned on drugs. Don’t you remember that a couple of nice good kids you knew and liked in your high school actually died? And then there were the kids who grew into chronic shoppers fascinated by the New Jersey malls or turned into mindless jocks. We were afraid for you.
The seventies were a restless, frightening time, yet you kept your head. You chose books, you chose medicine, you chose writing. Suddenly you wanted to go into New York on your own. Not to buy drugs or hang out in Times Square, but to study Arabic and Hebrew. It meant letting you go by yourself into the city on the bus several times a week for classes, which was worrisome, but we let you, and you did it. Suddenly you wanted to volunteer to work with recovering addicts. You came home from those meetings stinking of cigarette smoke because the addicts smoked compulsively; you’ve always detested that smell. Suddenly you wanted to spend a whole adolescent summer volunteering on the hospital ship that gave slum kids free physicals. Superb choices.
You wore incredible clothing—the same torn jeans and T-shirts for years, it seemed to me, and you made your hair as wild as you could. It was a kind of uniform for you and your friends. You hated your high school and balked at going. As in my own life, luck intervened; our town, Leonia, started an alternative high school. You breezed through it in three years and were off to college at sixteen. You finished high school and went off to college and almost immediately met Larry, and the two of you began to work out your own destinies independent of the Jersey suburbs from whence you came.
I’m not clever enough to figure what we each could have been in other lives. You were smart and strong, and I think you would have made your way, but it would probably have been a very different way. Me? Who knows? I might have been Leo Tolstoy, after all. But I might have been an inveterate mall shopper. Both possibilities entertain me.
I do believe that a combination of factors determine our destinies. I ran away from home into a babysitting job with kind people who fostered my dreams of college and becoming a writer. My kid brother ran away and joined the army, where he managed to finish high school, and was making himself a good life when the Korean War broke out. He died at seventeen during the second week of the war.
I have always been a worrier, apprehensive and afraid of what might happen in any new situation. Papa, on the other hand, equally concerned and capable of more terrible mental scenarios than I, somehow managed to muster the strength to keep us all going. He had utter confidence in your good sense and judgment, and he reassured and encouraged me.
If I ever did any brave thing, I did not do it bravely, but desperately.
How and why we are who and what we are is a great mystery. It is perhaps what makes writing fiction so fascinating because an author is constantly seekng reasons for the way her characters behave and coherent explanations for what finally happens to them. In real life, of course, there may not be reasons we can see, or coherent explanations—and when we look back and try to construct them, we are partly explaining what happened and partly making up stories.
Excerpted from Every Mother Is a Daughter by Perri Klass and Sheila Solomon Klass. Copyright © 2006 by Perri Klass. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.