When I started writing a memoir, I found it more difficult than I'd imagined to flesh out my mother (adoptive) and her impact on my life during my challenging upbringing. I pretty quickly arrived at a stalemate. With myself.
In memoirs, the narratives are intended to be robust enough that the characters and influence are complete, and the reader can end with an interpretation of the author's reality. At their conclusions, the protagonists and antagonists have been identified and their stamp in the stories noted.
As I stall with my own work, I consider my younger years: my disparate place in an abusive environment, the contentious goings-on and my mother's shared contribution to them. If I fully draft my life as it was, will my mother's darkest segments trump her lightest? Not fair to her, I think, and I'll risk losing the intended trajectory. I worry that I will write her too one-dimensionally. I worry that highlighting our hardest years would mire the memories I write and overshadow the beauty of my life (and some of hers) as it unfolds with my telling.
Do I need to fit my mother into one category for the purposes of completing an effective piece of work or for character analysis? Does anyone need that as a take-away? Do I? Innocuous vs. malevolent, impactful vs. ineffectual, good or bad, black or white, without a preponderance of grey area?
Impossible. My mother wasn't an "either/or"; she was a never-ending series of ampersands.
She was stunningly brilliant, charming, creative, a proactive human rights enthusiast and supporter. She was good at everything she did, the head of any task she undertook, whether in her work or in her personal life. She was also a gourmet cook heavily influenced by the French greats and thrived on entertaining and sharing the bounty of her culinary genius. Her laugh was infectious, and she was a head-turner, not solely because of her attractive pixie-like stature, but because people were infinitely drawn to her. They wanted to absorb her. My mother was a well-regarded television writer and artist who loved a good martini around the piano, surrounded by an assemblage of swashbuckling gay men and other friends she entertained with a sweeping high-rise view of New York City. Eventually, before the end of her life, she simply modified her activities as she maintained straight sobriety for a good 23 years, after 25 more spent in the dank throes of alcohol addiction.
My mother taught me that the universe owed me nothing, that I owed humanity something just by virtue of being alive, and to stop and take in a sunset because each was a gift and none was the same as the one before. When I was in my mid-20s, my mother dispensed advice to me on various issues concerning life, motherhood. She didn't impose, but suggested, which was entirely new. I was so receptive. I was able to ask her a bit about how life worked, and she told me I could do and be anything. She told me I was beautiful. She was spiritual and soulful and light.
Here comes the ampersand.
My parents adopted me, and often I've been asked rhetorically why. I don't know for sure, I say. I know they needed to feel like they had the best of everything, appearances included, and a small family likely appealed to Mother as an evident accomplishment. She wasn't actually too keen on children, but figured she could tolerate them well enough if she could mold hers well enough. I really didn't understand the imposing demands she ascribed to appearances. I was a scrappy tomboy with a strong will, living in the shadow of a very dangerous, alcoholic home where no one really knew how to function but simply went along. Home was a place that both fettered me and stripped me bare of even the most nominal semblance of self.
Mother watched as my father placed my plate on the floor and told me I was a dog and I should, therefore, eat like one. She watched my small body fly across the room when he slapped my mouthy bloody, never intervening, but reveling in the fact that she wasn't on the end of his vitriol. She left me exposed to elements, any and all elements, because she never thought it was within her scope to protect me. "Bad Seed," she'd say, nose wrinkled into a sneer, one of her most-reached-for terms for me, along with "gutter-snipe," or strings of the same as I grew older and fought back, "You're sick. We'll have you locked away, and you'll live on bread and water." Her appellations became a part of me, and I of them. Mother ceaselessly sought to mentally destroy me as a prepubescent, because I was the outlet most handy and available to absorb the pain of her losses and dereliction.
Still, in the end years of her life, unexpectedly tucked in the wake a new ampersand, I was the one left standing when she suffered a brain injury from a stroke that left her largely incapacitated and in the care of a nursing unit. I offered my hand, she gratefully took it, and I was enveloped in her grace. Our story isn't defined by one segment that lay on either side of those ampersands. My mother was so much more, and I, it turns out, am also so much more.
My mind reverts back to my writing and my mother's place in it, and I don't quite feel as at a loss for the right words. I think of my mother holistically, as a sum of her parts. Characters in books are not entirely the people they emulate, even in memoirs. They are interpretations, and in my interpretation, I was and am left with both the best of her legacy and the intestinal fortitude to navigate through the worst. She had a past and a future and a life as anyone else.
I can write without compromising integrity that throughout the course of my time with her, she was innocuous, malevolent, impactful, ineffectual, good, bad, black, white, and often, very, very grey. My mother had an impact on my life, and I loved her. She was the protagonist, the antagonist, the deuteragonist, the triagonist, but she wasn't my whole story. I am my whole story.
I think, perhaps, I have an avenue around my stalemate.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.