The point of writing The Mother Memoir can be misunderstood. The guest post, below, by Laura McHale Holland, “Some Spirits Are Better Left Alone,” provides an opening for me to add some clarity. The Mother Memoir is not meant to be about extolling the virtues of or praising the woman you call mother, although mother’s positive merits are frequently in play when writing about a healthy relationship. In any case, a Hallmark greeting card The Mother Memoir is not. Rather it’s asking you to look at mom from the inside out and learn more about her, as well as yourself, from a new perspective.
I ask people to write one short story to capture the intrinsic character, whether positive or negative, of their mothers to keep spirits alive. In the case of difficult relationships, people can use what they learn from mindfully writing about their flawed connection with mom to honor themselves. Understanding ensues.
The Mother Memoir is about honoring the relationship with the woman who gave you life, with the word honor being multifaceted, implying more aspects than admiration. Looking at what honor means in the context of relationships is anything but clear-cut. In Laura’s guest post, her angst is palpable, her anger frank, due to the actions of the mother who shockingly abandoned her and for the stepmother who abused her.
As long as we draw breath, our feelings about our relationships with our mothers will be ongoing journeys, and their spirits will be alive within us, even if we think we’ve shut out them out. Cutting them off completely isn’t an internal possibility. Laura chose to write a compelling memoir, Reversible Skirt; as she stoked the spirits, she was honoring her own essential being in a powerful way. She also wrote a short Mother Memoir, which I’ve included in my upcoming book, TellTale Souls Writing the Mother Memoir… (Spring 2012)
Some Spirits are Better Left Alone
By Laura McHale Holland
Should you honor the woman who raised you if she abused you? How about a mother who abandoned you? I had two such women in my life: a mother who killed herself when I was a toddler and a stepmother who was a Nurse Ratched, not a June Cleaver. And, frankly, I don’t feel like keeping the spirit of either one of them alive today.
It jolts me, after decades of life as an independent adult, how mutable my feelings about both of them are. My mother and stepmother are long gone, yet my relationships with them are ongoing journeys. For quite a while, I’ll think I’ve reached a resolution and stopped wishing for what never was. Then an article or book I read or an anecdote someone shares will bring negative feelings to the surface, and one or the other of my mothers will be on my sh– list for a while. Over the years, however, I am more often at peace with their legacies than not, and for this I am thankful.
It has been a complicated process, sorting through layers of feelings about my early years. Take my mother. I wrote a memoir, Reversible Skirt, about what it was like to grow up in the aftermath of her suicide, which cast a long shadow on my childhood even though (or maybe because) her life and death were swept swiftly under a rug by my father. My stepmother was a major part of the aftermath, as she took a wrecking ball to any part of me that didn’t conform to who she thought I should be. And one of the things I was never allowed to be was my own mother’s daughter.
I couldn’t really portray my mother in Reversible Skirt; I could only convey my sense of who she might have been and why she came to a tragic end. I could, however, portray my stepmother because I had many years of memories to plumb. My goal in the book wasn’t to honor either one of them, though, nor was it to condemn them. The goal was more to honor the resilience of my sisters and me for finding ways to not only cope but also provide for ourselves the love and support our mothers should have given us but never did.
For my sisters, I will forever be grateful; for my mothers, not so much. I know they, like most of us, had their good points. I also know I’ve learned something from all of my experiences, good and bad. And I do have compassion for both of my mothers, especially my stepmother because I know much of her story and why she was so broken.
But neither of them is truly dear to my heart. They are far removed from the Eleanor Roosevelt mold; their memory doesn’t uplift the spirit. They aren’t unsung heroines who rose to life’s greatest challenges and gave it their all. Instead, each in her own way, gave up on herself and her family when her mettle was tested. And my stepmother in particular did me great harm. So I can love them and forgive them, but as far as honoring their spirits goes, I believe I have better things to do with my time here on earth.