Whether or not we are mothers, we all have mothers. Some have been great, some not so great, and some downright awful: think Medea. Some classic mothers serve as witnesses to suffering: think Angela’s Ashes.
I’m forever looking for books that clarify and illuminate what it is to live in families. I’ve collected some good reading about mothers and family life. Many of these books are entertaining and insightful. (I prefer books that don’t hammer me with too much advice.)
Erma Bombeck wrote a series of essays called Motherhood: the Second Oldest Profession. She makes mocking comments on pieties about the selfless mothers we women are supposed to be. She knows we need to accept who we are as mothers, and when we fail we are in good company. In fact, the company of the human race.
Bill Bryson had a rather un-present mother. You know the type: distracted, forgetful, more interested in thinking deep thoughts than keeping track. Bryson wrote The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid about growing up in the ‘50s, and several scenes feature his mother. I remember one in which she insisted on continually serving him cottage cheese, a dish he hated.
Bailey White is a favorite of mine. In her book Mama Makes Up Her Mind and Other Dangers of Southern Living she gives us little moments of her life in Georgia when she was an unmarried schoolteacher living with an eccentric mother who thought nothing of putting house guests in a Murphy bed that folded into the wall without warning.
Nora Ephron was a screenwriter, journalist and comic genius. Her recent death was a shock to everyone who enjoyed her movies. Her piece on her mother in I Feel Bad About my Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman is wonderful. It’s writers like Ephron who wake us up to our selfishness when she admits her own.
In Judith Viorst’s little book Love and Guilt and the Meaning of Life she gives us some insights into motherhood and guilt that are perfect: “It is all right to leave your sick child with a sitter to go to a PTA meeting or to a save-the-whale meeting or to the drugstore to buy a heating pad. It is not all right to leave your sick child to go to a movie or out to lunch with friends or to the drugstore to buy eyeliner.”
Guilt, I think, is one of the gifts my mother gave me. I’m not criticizing, mind you, I’m just saying. Why is it that when we feel guilty we often hear our mother’s voice or see her watching from behind a tree?
The play Driving Miss Daisy takes us in its gentle way to new insights about bigotry, even in sweet mothers. Miss Daisy spoke politely and softly, but she permitted her black chauffeur — her only real friend — to remain subservient to her because she lived by absurd, artificial conventions.
We understand Miss Daisy because we are like her. We carry our biases with us and pass them on to children. That’s one of the dark sides of motherhood. To be better than Miss Daisy is to be fully aware and critical of our culture where it is limited and cruel — a moral challenge of the highest order, I think.
The truth is that mothering is really hard.
An Arizona woman, Nancy Mairs, is a radical Catholic who with her husband raised not only their two children, but also took in lost children over those years. Her book Ordinary Time: Cycles in Marriage, Faith and Renewal is one of my treasures.
Of late political conservatives have raised a terrific hue and cry about ‘family values.’ These words are general to the point of stupidity. After all, the followers of Charles Manson identified themselves as a family. In an ideal world, Daddy hasn’t lost his job at the copper mine, and Mummy has never attempted suicide. Dick hasn’t just come out of the closet, Jane isn’t scheduled to have an abortion in the morning, baby Sally wasn’t born with cerebral palsy, and certainly a scrawny kid from a nearby detention center — no relation at all, not even a member of the same race — hasn’t recently moved into the spare room and started classes at Dick and Jane’s high school.
Mairs adds that those of us who want a genuinely new world order — equitable, inclusive, tolerant, pacific, filled with jokes and festivals — must develop our ideas about family in the light of a new family order. What’s at stake here is not the world as we know it, she says, but the world. Period.
Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years.