So—you there, dear reader—I’m trying to decide how to start this, and all I can think of is the mayor of my hometown, who used to go on the radio every week to pontificate to the multitudes [or perhaps “minitudes” in this case]. His opening line was always the same: “Helloooo Menominee! Dis is yer mayor John Reindl spickin’….” For years afterward, whenever my friend Jerry called me, his first words were “Helloooo Menominee!” and I would crack up. We were such smart asses.
It seems appropriate that these memories of the U.P. (Upper Peninsula of Michigan) are surfacing. When you write about the past, all sorts of strange bits cling to the story you went back in time to retrieve. Or is it about time at all? I think of “time” as being out there, separate from me. But in some ways this feels more like going into the body, down deep to the cellular level, perhaps the molecular level. (Time travel through the body? Come to think of it, the body is a kind of time machine, retaining memories like geological layers.) As I write this, the feelings that come with the memories all seem to be centered in the chest. Interesting that I’ve been having persistent gas pains in my chest in the weeks I’ve been writing this issue—like bubbles arising from a disturbed sunken treasure at the bottom of the ocean. I don’t want to get too corny (oops, too late!), but the turgidness and pressure I’ve been feeling around my heart seem appropriate to the task of going back… back… back to the past… Helloooo Menominee!
the autobiography of my mother
This story starts wherever I say it starts, so I say it starts here, after an amazing therapy session with J. I went to her today, my belly knotted with anxiety about my writing voice. Why can’t I write about my childhood with the same detachment and lightness I bring to more contemporary stories? Am I doomed to write about my cat forever? I don’t want to write self-pitying narratives about all the awful things my mother did to me, yet I seem to be stuck back there—the aggrieved 8-, 10-, 12-, 19-, 36-, 53-year-old clinging to long-ago injustices, holding tightly to my pain. I loved my mother, but she was a very powerful person, probably narcissistic. They say you can drive rats crazy by rewarding them inconsistently. That’s my mother all over, the erratic dispenser of love pellets. And that’s me—the crazy rat. Your authoress. Let the tale begin.
Actually, let the tale take its sweet time. First, let’s establish mood, character, get a bite to eat.
Funny how I can never predict how I’ll feel after therapy: depressed, weepy, excited. Today I felt drained but exultant. I felt like celebrating—and like writing. I used to write extensively about what happened in every session—what she said, what I said. It was an attempt to prolong the intimacy of that contact. I don’t do that anymore, which I take as a sign of progress. Now I extend that intimacy out to all of you. Next thing you know, I’ll be having reLAtionships.
So after the session, I drove to Chevy’s and sat there in a daze through two margaritas, writing in my head, wishing for some paper to capture each dazzling phrase: “What a tangled can of worms we weave….” Just as well I didn’t have any paper. After lunch I went over to Molly Stone’s and walked around staring at all the goodies I don’t usually allow myself. Sometimes looking at them is enough, and I can get out of the store unsugared and unfatted. This time I succumbed (as I knew I would) to a giant pecan-caramel cluster that had my name on it. Like my mother before me, I am perpetually engaged in the ancient female art of indulging first and berating myself later. In fact, I remember now that my mother liked those pecan clusters too. The last time I was back home for a visit, when we were settling in to watch a video we had rented, she plopped down in her recliner with her huge carmelly treat and never thought to offer me a bite. I could judge her for that, or I could admit that I have no intention of sharing mine, either.
I could probably write a book about me and my mother and food—with a long chapter on sweets. We both liked Callard & Bowser butterscotch candies. One time, on the day of my departure after a visit home, I hid a roll of the candies, wrapped in an “I love you” note, under the TV listings where I knew she’d find them later. In her first letter to me after I got back to S.F., she wrote how thrilled and touched she was to find them. This form of communication was typical of us. It had the element of surprise, the element of sugar as a love offering, and, most important, the element of being in the same house when the feelings arose but on different sides of the continent when they were expressed.
But to get back to my story. By now I’m home (after therapy, after Chevy’s, after Molly Stone’s, after my pecan-caramel-inspired Xanadu of reminiscence). I’ve popped a couple of aspirin for my margarita headache, and I’ve decided I’m too distracted to work. Why not wait until tomorrow to follow up on my Italian author’s question about eosinophilia? (This is the beauty of self-employment.)
Oh, and I’ve listened to part of an old tape I made years ago, when I used to save important messages from my answering machine (why don’t we call telephones “calling machines”?). The message in question was probably the only one I ever got from my mother, who was calling to thank me for the trip to Denmark I had given her. On the tape she rattles on happily, wondering every so often whether her words are being recorded—I don’t think she even knew to wait for the beep, because the message starts in mid-sentence. The tape ends with, “Thank you and I love you”—pause while she chokes up—“good-byeee,” in this high, flutey voice. I burst out crying, as I knew I would. (She’s been dead almost 9 years, I should tell you.)
That’s why I can start this story anywhere, because I’m discovering that our stories don’t necessarily belong to the past, they just keep looping around. If there’s no time except for the body, then all our experience is available all the time. My mother’s voice on the tape was speaking to me now, in the present. Was there any real difference (besides 13 years gone by) between hearing it today and hearing it back then? Was her voice any more alive during this first hearing, and is it any less alive now? I thought about the time some of the painters listened to our friend Dot’s message on Alice’s machine, which she had left a few days before she died in a river rafting accident. Barbara said quietly to Alice, “Listening to it won’t bring her back,” and Alice erased the tape. But today I felt like I was doing precisely that, bringing my mother back, or rather, amplifying her voice which already lives within me. Not bringing her back, just bringing her.
The theme of this meandering monologue—you knew I’d get back to it eventually—is voice. I’ve been obsessed lately with the idea that my mother stole my voice at a young age, that she silenced me and forced me emotionally underground. (One of the little-known facts about the U.P. is that it’s home to the largest known organism in the world, a giant fungus that extends for 37 acres underground. When I read about that impressive mass some years ago, it seemed like the perfect metaphor for my life—as if I had contributed to its growth somehow, perhaps by burying a piece of myself, like the eye of a potato, in a hole in the back yard.)
(If I were painting right now, I’d paint my back yard with dozens of eyes underground, growing roots, connecting up with other eyes. Eventually, they’d spread to take over the house, too, and the sky, and fill up the tree trunks, and hang from the ends of branches, until eyes would seem to be the very molecules of my world.)
Lots of stories have come to me since I identified this theme of my stolen/suppressed voice—all the times my mother wrote essays and school assignments for me, how she entered a radio contest pretending to be me writing an essay about her, how she reacted ferociously to a particular example of my own writing, and on and on. With these stories, I had quite a stockpile of ammunition, and I prepared to enter battle. When I fired one volley after another—by writing each story down, bare bones, my voice redeemed and reclaimed—I pictured myself sending cannonballs across a smoky battlefield to where my mother sat unarmed, silenced in death, unable to fire anything back at me. Finally, I get the last word!
Part of my revenge is the title to this piece, “the autobiography of my mother,” as if I’m firing the cannon right at the heart of the matter, paying her back for the time she wrote my autobiography for school when I was in the fifth grade. The first line was, “I was almost born a witch baby,” because I was born the day before Halloween. I regret that I have not come up with an equally pithy line with which to begin her autobiography. In fact, I haven’t really said much about her life so far, and maybe that’s my revenge too, this insistence on inserting myself into her story, even starring in it, you might say.
But what I learned in therapy today was that my voice—written or not—is not an isolated treasure to be guarded and watched over, for fear it will be stolen. For one thing, my voice isn’t just my own. My mother’s voice is now part of me—whether on tapes or in letters or in my heart. Her voice is inside me, as my voice was inside her—was born inside her and grew in response to her. Where did I ever get the idea that a voice is something separate, something that must never be influenced by another or shared with another? (Every time I type “another,” I hear “a mother.”) This feels big, like there should be a Greek myth about it. Something to do with thunder, maybe, but the female kind. Sorry, I’m not up on my Greek myths.
Here are a couple of brief, telling anecdotes about my mother.
Once, when a police car came up behind her car, lights flashing, she kept driving the two blocks or so to her friend Janet’s house. When she pulled into the driveway and rolled down her window, the furious cop wanted to know why she hadn’t stopped. “Well, I was practically here!,” she indignantly replied.
Another time, when driving me and Jerry down to college in lower Michigan, she missed an exit. We were on a divided highway, but she didn’t let that stop her. Without missing a beat, she made a U turn and started driving the wrong way back up the road. She drove a quarter of a mile in the right lane—which was the fast lane for cars going in the right direction—around a curve blinded by trees, so that it was impossible to see if any cars were coming at us head on—and when I mildly protested (mild protestation being my way of expressing stark terror around her) that we were going the wrong way, she said, testily, “Well, I have to go back!” My mother—driving to the beat of a different drummer.
Today I told J I had been trying to write about some of these old stories, but they sounded wooden, stilted. Yes, like I was trying to stand above the past on stilts, trying to keep my voice out of the clutches of the actual participants, one in particular. But I had surprised myself by accidentally slipping a bit of my mother’s point of view into one story. I had written, “Over the years, my mother routinely wrote the beginnings of essays for me—to win scholarships, to enter contests—always leaving the pages on my dresser. My heart would sink as I saw them sitting there, all hopeful and fresh with her own unused voice.”
I had startled myself with those words, “hopeful and fresh with her own unused voice.” It unnerved me, in fact. Whose story was this? Mom, get out of my story! I know how it goes, I know how I felt when I saw those pages, as if you had so little confidence in my ability that you felt you had to do it for me. How dare you try to suggest you had a motive that had nothing to do with demeaning me?
As I was launching into yet another Mom-stole-my-voice story that J had heard many times before (me still marshalling and lobbing my cannonballs of righteousness at the surrogate mother sitting across from me, her legs curled up in her chair, willing to listen, someone who enjoys my voice, Mom!), J asked me to tell the story in her—my mother’s—voice. Well, that stopped me dead in my tracks. Tell it in her voice? But it’s my story. In fact, it’s the quintessential story, the heart of my childhood, the brink of my adolescence. (The fifth grade autobiography was nothing compared to this.) It’s the story of when my mother entered a local radio contest in my name, writing an essay on “Why My Mother Deserves To Be Queen for a Day.” I really, really didn’t want to tell this story from her point of view. What would happen to me then? I would be swallowed, finally—obliterated by her powerful voice once and for all.
But I dutifully switched to my mother’s point of view and started the story again. “I heard about a contest on the radio. It was a contest for children, but I’m a pretty good writer and I had a good story to tell. I just knew I could win it!” As I continued to tell the story, I could feel her excitement—J said my body seemed to wake up. I felt the vast difference between her motives and the ones I had assigned to her long ago. Not only could I see that she had her own voice, her own story, but I could acknowledge the fact without crumpling under its weight. In fact, I felt lighter, as if I were no longer clinging to the injustice of it all, insisting on staying 12 years old.
I interrupt this story—hers and mine—to bring you up to date on what is happening as I write this. More proof of the never-dead past. A letter from my sister Barb comes in the mail. She writes that she ran into my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Mayer (the one who thought I wrote clever lines like, “I was almost born a witch baby”), and he told her I had written him a nice letter. She had just heard from our other sister K the day before that my best friend from the fifth grade had heard about the letter too. So the letter to my teacher is hot news in my old hometown, the word is spreading like wildfire. That’ll teach me to underestimate the power of my voice. It was just a “here’s what I’ve been doing since fifth grade and you were always one of my favorite teachers” kind of letter, prompted by my having received an invitation to a grade school reunion.
I’m happy that I got to reach back into the past and stir that old cauldron again. See? It’s as if everything is happening at the same time—or is all infinitely able to be affected somehow. Maybe in a parallel universe—or somewhere hidden within this one—my mother herself is sitting at a computer… no, too unlikely… at a kitchen table at 3 a.m. writing a long letter to her “dead” (because who knows if the dead are dead to themselves or if we are dead to them) daughter like she used to. I tell you, this Time thing is getting stranger and stranger, the more I think about it. For one thing, I’ve discovered I have absolutely no control over the constant changes in tense as I’m writing this. Sometimes today is in the past and 40 years ago is now. I struggle to give in and let it go where it wants to go.
My sister also writes that the town fathers came to the little park across from her house and shot (with silencers) 77 deer that my sister and her husband had been feeding. I am sick, thinking about this. I wish she hadn’t told me. Let me dwell in the house of fifth grade synchronicities forever.
People in my family have a tendency to take a very long time to tell a story, have you noticed? They usually do this by starting at the beginning, and the beginning is always way back there. After my mother died and people would ask us what she died of, my sister would always start, “Well, five years ago, she went to the doctor…” and after a few retellings of my mother’s entire medical history, I took to groaning and leaving the room when I would hear those magic opening words.
Perhaps my one variation on this tendency is that I’m jumping all over in time. I don’t know if that’s an improvement or not. Do you want me to start back when my mother’s parents immigrated here from Denmark? I didn’t think so.
I have stories to tell about how my mother appeared to me in dreams—including one amazing lucid dream—after she died, but I have barely said anything about her life yet. Let’s face it, this isn’t going to be much of an autobiography of my mother, but then her autobiography of me wasn’t any great shakes either. (Take that, Mom.)
I just realized I haven’t actually told the radio story yet. Approaching the telling of it, I don’t know if I can do it. I feel like I’m perched gingerly on the end of the high diving board, looking down at the impossibly far away goal, the water that will slap and swallow me, take my breath away. Up here on the board, all time stops, as time seems to do when you least want it to, and I marshal my courage. Jump!
So the local radio station, WAGN, is sponsoring an essay contest for kids, and the topic is “Why My Mother Deserves To Be Queen for a Day.” The term “queen for a day,” of course, is taken from the popular TV show, on which working class housewives compete to outsob each other for prizes and a phony cape and crown that they probably don’t get to keep. The stories are uniformly heartbreaking. Contestants learned early on that the winner is always the most selfless one. “I don’t want anything for myself, but my crippled child would love a new bike.”
I see the radio contest as a great opportunity. I love my mother desperately, and I want so much to win—not only to get her all the prizes, but so she’ll be proud of me, amazed at the power of my love for her. On birthdays and Christmas, I never have much to give her, because I don’t have an income. Our family barely has an income. So this would be a way to give her something really big that I could never afford. There’s something O’Henryish about this story, but I won’t push it.
And my mother totally deserves to be queen for a day. She works fulltime in the service department at Montgomery Wards to support three children and a husband with multiple sclerosis. My father and I run the concession stand at Henes Park that summer—when he can still get around with a cane—where we manage to eke out a few dollars selling Hershey bars and soda pop to rude boys in bathing suits in the dank, dark concrete building. On weekends my mother joins us at the counter, and of course she has to do most of the work at home, too. She rarely gets a break.
Rereading that paragraph, I can see that my father has a point of view here too. Good lord. His days of being king of the castle are long gone, he’s on a long, slow slide into total helplessness. The family itself is sinking, would sink if not for my mother’s diligence, faith, and, yes, stubbornness (see driving stories above). But it’s easy to forget my father in this story; I have a habit of trying to forget him.
I don’t remember if I even tried to write anything for the contest—again, her words overshadow mine. She writes a sprightly essay in what she thinks is a 12-year-old’s voice about how hard she (“my mother”) works. The clincher is a postscript about how my father is OK too, except that when he cooks he puts onions in everything and “I hate onions!” At 12, I am so far from being the person who could have written that essay, it isn’t even funny. I would have written something very earnest and stiff, intoning the sad story of our difficult circumstances.
It doesn’t get any funnier when she submits the essay in my name and wins the contest.
What is probably a high point in her life is certainly a low point in mine. It’s as if we’re obeying some natural law of mothers and daughters in which the feeling state of one is inversely proportional to the feeling state of the other.
She is thrilled—and undoubtedly vindicated in her belief that she has taken the most efficient, direct route to the goal—which was, of course, to win. We all benefit from it, after all. The prizes are practical, but many are luxuries to our strained budget. I get all the glory as the “author,” she gets the satisfaction of knowing she actually won something with her writing. I should say here that she didn’t get to go to college, though she was the reader and dreamer in her family. She married right out of high school, took care of her ailing mother and newborn me, bore a second child, a son, who died of leukemia at the age of 2, battled with her alcoholic husband until his life sentence of MS was pronounced at the tender age of 33. But the bare facts don’t tell the whole story. What doesn’t come through is her strength of spirit, the “hopeful, fresh” voice that kept us going through all those hard times. That she wasn’t fully—or even dimly, as far as I can tell—aware of what her actions might mean to her 12-year-old daughter is, perhaps, finally?, 41 years later, a little easier to understand.
So the “winner” and her mother get to spend a glorious day driving around town to collect the loot from all the merchants who had donated prizes: sweet rolls from Lauerman’s Bakery, nylons from the Bell Store, a bag of groceries from Ray’s IGA, that sort of thing. Of course, I am introduced at each store as the good daughter (good writer, cruel irony) who has won all this fabulous stuff for her deserving mother.
I can only imagine what my face looks like as we make the rounds that day. To say I am humiliated is an understatement. I hate the lying, I hate the phony congratulations (worse yet, the heartfelt ones), I hate feeling bested by my mother, to have my gift for her thrown out in favor of something she has picked out for herself. But I am still 12, not yet 14 and in full-blown rebellion, when I would sneer at God and the 4th of July, visibly rejecting everything I was raised to believe. At 12 I will still do anything for my mother, and I am indeed being called on to do something big that day, which is to keep my mouth shut. I discover I’m good at it, and I spend my entire adolescence in sullen withdrawal, to my mother’s uncomprehending chagrin.
The biggest prize from the contest is dinner for the whole family at the Silver Dome, a local supper club. My mother laps up the attention as if she’s literally wearing the faux cape and crown, luxuriating in the high-falutin’ (to us) surroundings and crowing excitedly over her triumph. Perhaps a few brain cells are registering the sight of her daughter, sitting there in stony silence as if something has robbed her of her voice, her gift of love. But this is my shining moment—the subject of this autobiography interrupts—me, the mother, the deserving queen for a day who has won for a change, with my own words. (They may have been put in my daughter’s mouth, but they were my words.) This is my story, regardless of who’s writing it down how many years later. I am not just a mother, I have my own dreams. God knows, I’ve sacrificed and held this family together through a little thick and a whole lot of thin, and no one’s going to take this away from me.
As I tell this version of the story to J (remember her?), I am struck by the similarity in the voice problem, then and now. I have come to J concerned because I’m too lost in my own painful point of view to tell the story in anything but the voice of an injured, humiliated 12-year-old. My mother, too, would never have won the contest with a voice of doom and despair. She won by taking another voice. Though I thought, not surprisingly, that it was my voice, it was really the voice of my “character.” She instinctively knew that only this character, the spunky, cute 12-year-old daughter, could tell our story lightly and convincingly, with humor and self-deprecation—surely, the winning touch was my hatred of onions. The implication that shines through that simple postscript—“my father is OK too, except when he cooks he puts onions in everything”—is that I loved my father, too. (It was generous of her to include him.) This character would have argued for him to be crowned as royalty for a day, too, if only there had been a contest to honor fathers.
What my mother knew that I didn’t was that we were all in this together. Maybe no one knew best all the time, like on TV, but we were a family, and what we had, we shared—the pain, the laughter, the ups and the downs, the prize winnings, the glory, the truth and the lies that get so confused sometimes.
J says that to write truthfully about my mother, I need to see her as a “character.” That’s what will help me see her side of the story, because there is really nothing left to prove anymore, we’re not in court bringing suit against my mother for all the mistakes she made. I have gotten my own delayed revenge—in the sense of “living well”—because I eventually discovered that I have a voice after all, one that is unique and unstealable and maybe even directly attributable to my mother’s sensibilities. In the old cliché, the older I get, the more I remind myself of her, in both the good and the bad ways. When she wasn’t scowling and dispensing the silent treatment she perfected as punishment of her loved ones, she was laughing, seeing the funny side of things. She had a hard time looking me in the eye—it was easier to express her love on answering machines and in letters—but she was irrepressible in the face of great challenges. No wonder a puny policeman or a wrong-way highway couldn’t stop her.
I like to think I have inherited something of her stalwartness and humor, despite my injured persona, the character I have created for myself—the character that is changing and deepening with the help of another character named J, who does not take sides in the drama of Mary versus her mother but who is always rooting for me, the amalgamation and fruition of all my mother’s hopes and dreams. When I told J my mother’s words to me as I left for college—“Do it for me, girl”—she gently pointed out that my mother got her wish. She sent a little piece of herself out into the world (not, after all, buried in the back yard), and I brought the world home to her, sometimes literally—the trip to Denmark, if you recall. There was a true partnership between us that I have never been able to acknowledge, for fear of being cast as the silent partner only. She may have won the radio contest, but my later essays, in the form of letters home, convinced her to go to college at the age of 50. She attained her dream of working in a library and surrounded herself with books that filled every room of the house after the rest of us were gone.
In a sense, she pulled herself up by my bootstraps. She got to share in all the stories I brought her from the wider worlds outside our hometown, to learn about points of view beyond her own—the gay world, the world of religion beyond her Lutheran upbringing, even the world of radical politics. (She professed to disapprove of my rabble-rousing college years, but in her fury at her pastor’s support of the hospital administration in a nurse’s strike, she didn’t just write letters to the editor, she barred the doors of the church during a Sunday service!) She got to see me earn an astronomical (to her) wage with the talents of language she herself had passed on to me. She got to see that she could truly surpass the mother role she had been cast in and could mold herself and her life into a real work of art, of excitement and possibility, of constant learning, of irrepressibility in the service of her own good without, any longer, the danger of clumsily stepping on her daughter’s development.
I once drew my mother a comic book (“The Midwest Meets the Mideast”) based on the story she had told me about her hilarious/disastrous adventures on a church trip to the Holy Land. She wrote me later that she laughed so hard when she read it, she practically fell off her chair. She said it was the most precious gift I had ever given her. One of the characters in the comic book was her pastor, Ruge, with whom she had something of a love-hate relationship. He was a grandstanding type, a showman, and she was a perpetual thorn in his side, teasing and goading him mercilessly. He was no match for her, poor guy. The final drawing in the comic book is of her and Ruge wearing t-shirts. Hers says, “I survived the Mideast.” His says, “I survived Lorraine.” Nine years after her death, still sifting through the rich, complex compost of our relationship, I realize that I survived Lorraine, too.
Louise Lorraine Larsen McKenney, 1921-1991. Rest in peace.