Why I wrote My Mother?s Daughter
One January morning in 2005, I sat down at the desk in my home office and wondered what to do with the next phase of my life. I had just left my job at Chatelaine — a job that had defined me for a decade.
I had no meetings to attend, no calls to answer, no stack of invitations to black-tie parties. For the first time since childhood summers, I could do exactly as I pleased. So I did what I used to do then: I began to write. How hard could it be to write a book?
I didn’t plan on writing a book about my mother. Perish the thought! She had claimed enough space in my head during her lifetime, when everything I did was either an act of rebellion against her or a grudging submission to her rules as I perceived them.
I wanted to become my own woman, but I also wanted to remain her daughter. The story of that wrenching conflict was not one I dared to tell, so I focused on the other people in my life—the man I married in spite of her objections, the friends who encouraged me gently when she would have prodded and cajoled. I wrote about winning what my mother, born too soon, never could—an office with my nameplate on the door and an assistant standing guard.
I tried to keep my mother on the edges of my story. Every time she strode into the spotlight, with her big hats and bigger laugh, I hustled her offstage in short order. She’d written four books of her own. Dammit, she was not about to run away with mine.
After eight months of writing, I showed the manuscript to a wise woman, Beverley Slopen, who became my agent. “You’re a wonderful writer,” she said, “but your book needs a theme. It seems to me you already have one between the lines. Your mother’s an extraordinary character. You might want to zero in on the bond between the two of you.”
No, no, no! I put the book aside. Surely I could find some other theme. Months passed, and no new ideas came to mind.
Instead I kept thinking about women and their mothers. I read a profile of Diane Keaton in which she poignantly denied that any of her famous lovers had been The One: “There was no love of my life except my mother.” I saw an ad for a designer handbag that was “big enough to hold everything except your issues with your mother.”
I remembered my 10-year conversation with Chatelaine’s readers, for whom mothers and daughters were a favourite subject. Every time I wrote about my mother in an editorial, I used to notice an upsurge of mail. No other theme evoked such a storm of mixed emotion: yearning and regret, passion and pain.
One column in particular opened the floodgates—a Mother’s Day column from 1996. I wrote for all the women who, like me, no longer had a mother to receive a spray of roses. We belonged to the sisterhood of motherless daughters.
In the column, I recounted my first year of mourning my mother. On cold nights, I’d sleep in her old flannel nightgown, wrapping myself in her memory. An odd little habit, I thought—until Chatelaine readers set me straight. I heard from a woman who wore her mother’s socks, and another who refused to part with her mother’s bifocals.
I discovered that even wildly difficult mothers could evoke a primal longing in their daughters. A friend of mine had a mother who was mentally ill, and beat her at the slightest provocation. Yet my story, she confided, was her story, too.
Women taped the Mother’s Day column to their fridge doors. They carried it in their wallets and passed it on to friends who had lost their mothers. I know this because they would write to me, asking for another copy. When I left Chatelaine at the end of 2004, the odd request was still coming in.
Women wanted to read about mothers and daughters. I had a mother/daughter story to tell. And I gradually realized that until I told it, I couldn’t write anything else. My mother was standing in my path, inviting me to know her in all her riveting, perplexing glory for the very first time.
My manuscript had been sitting untouched for four months when I returned to it in January, 2006. As I wrote, I could hear my mother’s outrageous stories and the clink of her Mexican silver. I breathed in the scent of her Pavlova perfume and the lavender sachets she used to tuck in my lingerie drawer. I thought of all the questions I should have asked her. Now the answers were lost to me forever.
Then again, maybe not.
I immersed myself in her letters, hundreds of them dating back to before my birth. I reread the poems she had loved, and studied old photos of her face (why had she thought her sister was the beauty?). I listened to the silence, and I found the answers I’d been seeking.
If not for the readers of Chatelaine, I might never have written My Mother’s Daughter.
If not for my mother, I would never have had such a story to write. I became my own woman in spite of her—but also because of her.
Posted by Rona August 15, 2007 @ 3:45 AM. File in The writing life