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Essays in 'What My Mother and I Don't Talk About' offer insight into our first bond

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Published May 3, 2019

Despite all the millions of sweet pastel greeting cards that will be sold this week, Mother's Day can call up mixed feelings.

Our relationships with our mothers are in many ways the closest ones we ever have, but they're rarely simple.

The many knots in the mother-child bond are the subject of the new essay collection What My Mother and I Don't Talk About.

The collection includes essays by 15 notable writers, including Andre Aciman (Call Me by Your Name), Julianna Baggott (Pure), Alexander Chee (The Queen of the Night), Kiese Laymon (Heavy) and Carmen Maria Machado (My Body and Other Parties).

The anthology was edited by Michele Filgate, who also wrote the title essay. It first appeared on Longreads in 2017 and produced a torrent of responses from readers, many of whom shared their own stories.

Filgate (who's also a book critic with whom I have a professional acquaintance) says it took her more than a decade to write the essay, and its subject matter makes clear why. It's a wrenching account of how her stepfather sexually and emotionally abused her — and how her mother never protected her. The fracturing of the mother-daughter relationship and the wall that grows up between them is the focus of the essay. Even as an adult, Filgate can't have the conversation with her mother she so longs for, as she writes:

"What I want to say: I need you to believe me. I need you to listen. I need you.

"What I say: nothing."

Melissa Febos' striking essay, "Thesmophoria," examines another aspect of sex as a point of conflict between mothers and daughters. Febos, a college professor who wrote the memoir Whip Smart about her experiences as a dominatrix, here employs the ancient myth of Demeter and Persephone to write about the inevitable cycle of a mother aging as her daughter grows into womanhood, and all the tensions it creates.

"That eros an engine that hummed in me, propelled me away from our home in the darkness," Febos writes. "I knew it was dangerous. I couldn't tell the difference between my fear and desire — both thrilled my body, itself already a stranger. And daughters were supposed to leave their mothers, to grope through the dark for the bulging shapes of men, and then resist them."

In "Fifteen," Bernice L. McFadden (The Book of Harlan) writes about four generations of mothers and daughters. The essay is sparked when McFadden's teenage daughter runs away after a fight, but it's addressed to the writer's mother. Her surprising reaction to the girl's behavior leads McFadden to write about her grandmother, a habitual thief and cruel liar, and how her failures as a mother have shaped the lives of three generations. Of one awful act, McFadden writes to her mother, "You went on with your life with that secret lodged in your heart like an ice pick."

Not all of these essays, though, are about difficult relationships. Some of the writers look more deeply into their mothers' lives because they love and admire them and want to understand them better.

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In "Are You Listening?" Aciman writes touchingly about his mother's deafness. They literally cannot talk to each other, but, he writes, "My mother, for all her deficits, was among the most sagacious people I have known. Language was a prosthesis, a grafted limb that she had learned to live with but that remained peripheral because she could do without it. She had more immediate ways of communicating."

Dylan Landis' charming, poignant "16 Minetta Lane" tells the story of the author's journey to learn about her mother's life before she was born. Landis' childhood is happy, and her mother seems content as a wife and mother. But a chance glimpse of the apartment where her mother lived as a young woman opens up a door to a fascinating and wholly unexpected part of her life.

Leslie Jamison (The Empathy Exams) takes a similar trip into her mother's past in "I Met Fear on the Hill." Jamison writes, "My mother before she was my mother has always lived in my mind as a collection of myths — half-invented, barely possible."

She finds an intriguing version of the myths when she reads an unpublished novel written by her mother's first husband, a fictional recounting of their brief marriage decades ago. Jamison learns maybe more than she wants to know about their adventures as hippies in 1960s Berkeley, a whirl of acid trips and sexual experimentation, ending in a painful breakup.

But she also learns the sources of her mother's resilience and integrity, the complexity of her long friendship with her ex-husband — and the qualities that made her a good mother.

Some of these essays are harrowing, some heartwarming, some — like a lot of mother-child relationships — a mix of both. All of them suggest, though, that if you can talk to your mother, you should.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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