Friday, December 30, 2011

my mother's ski sweater

In honor of what would have been my mother's 72nd birthday, today, I wanted to write something thoughtful to honor her. I wrote some notes about what she called the "clothing museum." It included clothes of hers and mine that were special in some way. I have not finished this piece for many reasons. I will get to it, soon. For today, I will post one photo of one item from that museum: my mother's ski sweater from the 1950s. It was handmade, tiny and wool.
I would never have worn it--even if it would fit me--because wool makes me itch. And I never saw my mother wear this sweater. But I picture her in it when I read her short story, "The Circle," in The Hottest Night of the Century, which revolves around a skiing trip.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

James, James (or Slippery Crockery)

I am reading the pages of my mother’s unfinished novella, first named Slippery Crockery, then James, James, after A.A. Milne’s poem:

     James James
     Morrison Morrison
     Weatherby George Dupree
     Took great
     Care of his Mother,
     Though he was only three.
     James James Said to his Mother,
     "Mother," he said, said he;
     "You must never go down
     to the end of the town,
     if you don't go down with me.

She writes of a family—mother, father, son, daughter—that in structure alone reminds me of her own. The story plays with who is like whom: the mother defining the two “plodding,” capable ones—herself and the older son—and the “geniuses”—the father and younger daughter. Yet the daughter and mother can repel each other like magnets: “like forces repel.” So she suggests the daughter must also be like her mother.

I think of my grandmother, who died at the age of 91 in the year 2000, whom my mother said went silent when angry and would not talk, sometimes for extended periods. I never saw this sweet, tiny woman angry, but I was not her daughter and did not know her before she was in her 60s. I read how the mother in James, James wordlessly leaves the house:

     Our mother had taken to leaving us, slamming the front door and 
     walking, almost trotting, to the bus stop at the corner.

     "J.S.O.," our father termed it. "Just stormed out." The first time 
     she stormed out, he said it with astonishment, but gradually it 
     became a simple statement of fact, like "how do you do." J.S.O.

I wonder if my grandmother ever stormed out. Now, as a mother myself, I know I threaten it sometimes. I keep promising myself that I will stop this practice, but I often want to close the door and walk down the street when my two boys go at it. Sometimes I do walk out the front door and sit on the front stoop and take a deep breath, but the boys follow me, crying, within moments. I wonder if I share a certain anger style with my grandmother. But I can certainly yell—more than I think my mother ever did and unlike the closed silence my grandmother dealt out.

This novella is not autobiographical, and it mixes parts of real people together into one. I see my stepfather in the father, as well as seeing bits of what I know of my grandfather, who died long before I was born. But is makes me think of who is like whom in families, how we label each other, take on roles.

And I am also beginning to think I could finish up this novella for my mother—if I could find all the pieces of it. I have two drafts in hand, and some computer files. I have heard there are 50-75 pages total. I have much fewer in hand. 

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Sunday, December 30, 1979

On the day my mother turned 40, she wrote in her journal, and a fair bit of it had to do with me (which is actually unusual in her journals). I have left out what was personal for her alone. I wish she had not felt so frustrated with my 8 1/2-year-old self, but I find it interesting, even reassuring, to read what she was feeling. And, as a mother, I totally understand:

"My fortieth birthday, and I’ve just had a quarrel with Caity, the same old thing, a contest of wills, with each of us knowing we were in the right. Our first fight since Friday lunch on the train, when I made her throw out the apricot yogurt she had ordered for lunch and then not wanted. We have both made new year resolutions. Caity first, and she wrote 'no to much fiting with my mom,' and then I wrote 'not too much fighting with my daughter.'

Caity troubles me. She isn’t how I would want her to be. She seems to bully and cheat and cry and sound like a brat. On the other hand she is sweet, too, and innocent, not crafty, and she is responsible and trustworthy. I have messed up rearing her. She thinks I am terrible—mean, angry. And yet I hear these other kids on the train and they sound obnoxious, some of them. The children at the Hilton with older brothers, or any siblings, seemed to be able to cope in the world more gently and amiably that Caity. Everything terrible I have caused her."

I may still not be gentle and amiable deep down inside, but I hope I am not a bully or a brat anymore on this day, my own 40th birthday. 

Monday, February 28, 2011

philosophical? (July 1970 and July 2007)

I may be including some of the too-personal stuff I hoped to avoid (for example, in the first quote, G is my father), but this passage from July 13, 1970 captures something I share with my mother:

“The only things that concern me are philosophical questions and observations of life and passions. And everyday my experience becomes more intense. I wish I could share this. But when I rattle on about the thoughts crossing my mind—I admit they may seem puny and uninteresting to G—then he gets a bored look, interrupts me mid sentence, or replies on a completely different subject. I don’t know if I embarrass him or bore him. But I do need an exchange—for it is the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me, and I want to share it, to take the plunge into the mind with someone. If he were to confide in me the same way I am ready to confide in him, I know I would be interested and listen and empathize and respond. But I feel a blank wall from him; and I really feel he is not really interested in my inner workings, in me as a person.”

My mother is one of the few I know who thinks (thought) like this, thinks as I do. I miss it. The piece I wrote for her funeral in July 2007, long before I had her journals in hand, included a bit about “philosophical questions and observations of life and passions”:

I already miss talking to her on the phone – being able to call her and talk about nothing important. With the time difference between us, we often talked at odd hours for her, even 11 or 12 at night. Even the “nothing important” stuff was interesting to her. She could discuss anything as if it were a story or a philosophical question to be examined – whether the topic were something trivial like a bad haircut or something meaningful like becoming a mother.”

Monday, February 7, 2011

cupboards and tables

Jan Hutchinson interviewed my mother for Fine Line, Number 4 (1988). The bit that jumped out at me today:

"When I start a class I urge students to write memories, remembered images. I'm not advocating that you have to write about real people and what really happened. I don't care about that, but I do care about the world that's created on the page. Tabling a lot of these details and experiences starts to show you the writer's process and your true subject matter. It's your source, your cupboard of supplies." (p. 46)

I can picture a cupboard and table, and words and images being pulled out of the cupboard and put on the table, sorted, measured, gathered, piled up. I love it: the cooking, tools and housekeeping aspects of writing seem so solid, reliable and powerful.

Side note: My mother had an actual cupboard not unlike the one in this photo I found. Very Australian. Hers is light wood and a little broader than this one. It has the glass double doors, the little drawers and assorted-size cabinet doors. It is in storage waiting for me; I wish I could ship it here.

Friday, February 4, 2011

my mother has a wikipedia entry

My mother can be found in wikipedia. I had no hand in this, but maybe I should add to, correct or update the information there. It is not especially long, but she is the only family member I have who has an entry.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Sunday, 12th July, Brussels

About her writing process: 

"What today?—more or less ‘normal’. I suppose, but still very impatient with other people’s words. This morning my volcano episode began to click into place. It is always a mystical experience when this happens with a story. I know I have to think lot about the feeling and the atmosphere of anything I want to write; and I know I have to do a lot of testing in my mind of situations. And I know that after thinking about it, it usually at one point clicks into place. But the amount of time needed for this to happen is out of my control. I have been thinking since we arrived 12 days ago—but it has not been high quality or concentrated thinking. In other words, I haven’t had my heart in it. And it is only yesterday and today, last night and this morning in bed that I began to see what I had to do with my three girls and the volcano. I expect to finish this process today, provided I can keep a bit to myself and not be distracted by others’ words and presences, and tomorrow, it should be flowing from the fingertips. I commit myself like this because I am interested to see if I am correct in my assessment of how I function, when it comes to writing. I can only contrast the present with how it was, say, from December to April, when I wrote what I feel are the best things I have done to date, when every spare moment, in the subway, doing the dishes, walking here or there, or just sitting, was enveloped in my story; my mind grew big enough and all-consuming and predominated, so that the story aggressed into other domains; whereas since May, what with M. leaving S. and organizing a household of four, and preparing to leave, it is everything else that has intruded into my mind and pushed out the story. I am impatient to go out into the beautiful sun of today and sit in the forest, to let G. and C. talk while I follow through with my story. I am tired of hearing the same old Columbia stories, told with the same adjectives and phrasing, as if it were a script. Just as I have become tired of telling the M.-S. story. I want to sweep all this old stuff out of my head for it is time to start with new and exciting things, thoughts."

Some notes:
1) Is this the volcano episode in Games of the Strong, which was not published until 12 years later?
2) My father told me the story of M. leaving S. with, I'm sure, the same phrasing and vivid bits--four heads leaning out of a window to see S. arrive home a few apartment entrances down and to see him emerge again, running out after finding an empty apartment--that they all repeated 40 years ago.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

more from July 11, 1970

Here's where my mother was almost wrong:

"One of the sadnesses of life is that no one, but no one, is as interested in oneself as one is oneself. Nobody would be interested in the quirks of my mind and the dilly little thoughts I’m putting down here; a husband or wife certainly wouldn’t be; a psychiatrist, well he couldn’t be, and he has his own set of quirks, etc. into which mine would be interspersed; the only person who would willingly listen and try to understand is one’s mother, and that’s the very person one can’t say all these things to. It is only from a parent, especially a mother, that one can demand and get attention."

If I were not interested, would I be reading these yellowed pages and typing them up? 

She is right about the mother thing, though, at least as the main person with whom to share one's "dilly little thoughts." And she certainly listened to mine. She was an amazing mother, and she wrote this a year before I was born, before she herself had the maternal perspective. I miss her and her thoughts, dilly and deep and brilliant.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

July 11, 1970

Not yet pregnant with me (It is hard to avoid measuring my mother's journals with my personal timeline), my mother was at a party in Brussels and had an odd experience, as if she were watching a movie:

"It reminded me how little the experience of watching movies jibes with the realty one lives in—watching Women in Love I could empathize with almost all of the four characters in turn, and I particularly remember a beautiful scene in which Birkin (Bates) and Ursula (Jenny Linden) run towards each other, naked, through forest and ferns, but with the camera turned sideways, so that she was running upwards and he downwards, giving the whole scene a powerful symbolism. Now I was there with them, also running through the ferns; but were I in fact running towards a man like that, it would in no way resemble the sensation of watching two others run together and imagining that it were I. Very subtle difference. And I often have wondered why thus and such a situation (a picnic, a ride on a bicycle, standing on a bridge and watching the water) does not have the power of an identical situation on celluloid. The answer is not that celluloid glamorizes, distorts, romanticizes, for I find real water as enchanting as water on a film; it is that, with a movie, one it watching and taking part vicariously in a perfect situation, with one’s whole concentration; with real life, one is actually part of the action and cannot step back and see the whole as a third, disinterested person. But last night I did feel I was watching a movie. Watching these people move about, and I don’t mean playing parts or acting. The parallel comes from my own lack of real involvement. R. made her entry, and it was as if I were watching her on cinemascope."

A few thoughts:
1) Is "Women in Love" (which I have never seen) the origin or just an example of the running-toward-each-other-through-the-grass cliche?
2) This reminds me of my own how movies/stories relate to real life: How I expect each situation to have a solution (good or bad), and I look at life as a story, with "perfect" constructions, "fated" (may be the wrong word) choices. It is hard not to, right? But there is not always a solution, and I don't necessarily believe in fate and tend to support the idea of free will, which does not fit the idea of a set, "perfect," movie-like story.