Photo: Craig Sunter
I began to write to ease my sorrow – not professionally but in a series of journals that now fill three bookshelves. Most of my private students and many of my creative friends have often been impelled by pain rather than joy to create. I’d love to hear from you whether that is true for you. Here’s my story. When you’ve finished reading it, write for at least fifteen minutes and, if you want to, send it in the comments section of this post.
ONE NIGHT in the mid-Forties, an ambulance took my mother away from our home. She had tried to kill herself. The psychiatrists named my mother a hysteric and depressive. They prescribed electric shock treatments (a terrifying and brutal regime in those days) and the family doctor prescribed sleeping pills. The doctors told her that she liked her “bad moods,” that she used them to get attention.
I grew up with three mothers: the bright-eyed mom who played jazz piano, drew abstract designs for me to color, learned to stencil the folk-art of her Pennsyvania-Dutch origins, hand-painted Easter eggs and turned our home into a candle-lit shrine during the winter holidays; the sallow mother who grew more and more silent, who took to the living-room couch on long winter afternoons, who burned our dinners and closed the cover over the piano keys; the thing that looked like my mother but contained a howling void.
All three mothers were the perfect teachers for what I do best, for that which seems to be the only act that fills my soul, for what I do in this perfectly imperfect moment – writing. My bright-eyed mom read, not just to me and my brother, but for herself. She took me to the library when I was six and introduced me to the librarians. She told me they held the keys to magic – and since she had introduced me to The 1001 Arabian Nights’ Scheherazade, the women who told stories to save her life, I knew the librarians were guardians of an endlessly replenished treasure chest. When I begged off washing dishes or doing chores because I had a book to read, my mother shrugged, laughed and said to my father, “You know Liz. She always has her nose in a book.” And when I began to write my own stories, she read them. She never pushed me to write them or snooped in my diary. But when I brought her my writing, she read it carefully and told me what she liked.
My silent mother gave me more than she could have ever guessed. When she came home from the hospital, she, my father and I must have believed that it – the “nervous breakdown” – would never happen again. We were wrong. Two years later, the color began to leave her face. There was strained quiet at our dinner table. I came home from school to find my mom stretched out on the couch. And then, I was awakened in the middle of the night to the sound of her retching. I pulled the pillow around my ears and struggled back into sleep. In the morning, my mother was gone. My father told me she was back in the hospital. Then, for reasons I can’t fathom to this day, he said, “She took too many sleeping pills. She wanted to die. I made her drink a quart of milk so she would throw up.”
In that instant, I became a radar screen. I learned to pay scrupulous attention, to monitor people and surroundings as accurately as any creature who relies on external information to survive. And I learned to store away what I learned. It would be years before I would hear the political slogan: To Understand the Present, Study the Past. At eight, ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen and eighteen, I became an encyclopedia that contained every nuance of my mother’s face, moods, laughter and silences.
The mother skin bag that contained a black hole gave me the third great gift. I was five. I’d been kept home from kindergarten. I sat in my parents’ big bed with a coloring book in my lap. I didn’t read yet. My mother was in the kitchen. Someone was singing, a tuneless, wordless high-pitched croon. Then there were footsteps coming toward me. I knew my mother was the only other person in the apartment. I tightened my hands on the coloring book and stared down at the page. There was a tree, a little house, smoke coming out of the chimney. I began to tell myself the story of whoever was in the house. That’s the last thing I remember of that morning.
My mother and I made peace when I was fifty-five and she was eighty-three. We were brought to a sisterly ease with each other through miracles, hard work and, as we would have told you, “Who Knows What?” For the next two years of her life, we talked openly and with love about our time together as mother and daughter. She died at eighty-five. I was with her a few weeks before her death when she gave me the second most valuable thing she has given me.
She was drifting in and out of consciousness. I held her hand. She came wide awake, looked into my eyes and smiled. Her eyes were wet with tears. “Oh Liz,” she said, “I don’t have many regrets, but the one I have is so big.” I waited. “It breaks my heart,” she said, “that the god-damned depression robbed me of being able to be the mother I longed to be.” We were quiet for a while. She knew I had my own battles with mood swings. Her hand was warm in mine; mine warm in hers. “I know,” I said. “Thank you.”
And the greatest gift? The writing. My bright-eyed mother gave me trust in what I write. My silent mother unwittingly taught me to become a gathering net. The not-mother jolted me out of the ordinary and into the safe world of story. I wish she were here to read this post.