Reading My Mother
Essay by Edith Pearlman
Anthony Trollope says that women are instructed by the books they read. When I realized that my mother, dead now for a quarter of a century, was still a mystery to me, a riddle in pearls and a peplum, I decided to take Trollope to heart. I would read or reread the books she was instructed by. Perhaps I’d finally figure her out.
At ten, my mother’s favorite book was A Girl of the Limberlost (1909), by Gene Stratton Porter. Girl tells of young Elnora and her widowed mother, who was delivering Elnora when her husband sank into an Indiana swamp. She has never forgiven her daughter, whose birth prevented his rescue. She grudgingly supports Elnora to the extent that the law demands, but Elnora must secure what she wants—a high school education and a proper wardrobe—by capturing and selling swamp butterflies. Her mother sabotages her efforts. This is a story of the conflict between dissimilar women whom biology has mischievously connected.
My mother lived in the new American shtetl—a collection of three-decker houses crowded near a malodorous river in a small New England city. The Yankees lived up on the sweet-smelling hill. My mother, familiar with city pigeons and neighborhood cats—what did she make of this swamp story and its woodsy heroine? What did she identify with, and continue to identify with, even as memory airbrushed the details?
I suspect it was the clothes. She discovered early the transfiguring power of dress. This was to contribute to our own later conflict, visible to anyone who saw us: the mother pretty, well-groomed, dressed in flattering suits; the daughter messy, bespectacled, dressed in warring garments. At least my socks usually matched.
As a teenager my mother adored Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona (1884) which is set in California shortly after the Mexican-American war. Ramona, the daughter of an Indian mother and a Scotsman, unaware of her mixed blood, is raised in an aristocratic Mexican household. She falls in love with a heroic Indian. Her adoptive family disapproves of this low alliance. She flees with her Indian, remaining chaste until they find a priest to marry them.
Ramona is a polemic. According to the novelist and critic Michael Dorris, it altered Americans’ conceptions about Indians by presenting them not as savage but as industrious, gentle, and devout. But to my mother, reading it sixty years after its publication, it was a love story, one about social structures and rules. The hierarchy of her own city—Yankees at the top; Jews, Italians, and Irish next; blacks at the bottom—was as strict as the one in Ramona.
Or in Middlemarch. My mother never read George Eliot or Jane Austen, But in her thirties she relished The Semi-Detached House (1860), a novel by Austen’s talented imitator Emily Eden. In this book, all the activity is directed toward one supreme purpose: to get the young women characters to the altar. Rachel, a hold-out, is pursued by a widower. Everybody—even Mrs. Hopkinson, the mother of the widower’s late wife—desires the match. Mrs. Hopkinson asks Rachel,
“Could you not just fall in love with him?”
“I do not believe it is in my power to fall in love with anybody.”
“Then my dear, you may just as well marry him as another.”
So Rachel does.
My mother would have given the same advice. All cats are gray at night, she often implied, so choose the cat who suits the life you want to lead. If you want romance, find it in books, movies, and popular songs; fairy tales (she read them all to me); gossipy conversations with other women; and, eventually, gossipy conversations with your daughter, no matter how difficult she is.I was a deceptively easy baby. My mother gave me a ladylike name. She might as well have called me Sass. By the time I was ten no one could tell me much. I refused to read the books suggested to me—I have yet to open Anne of Green Gables or Green Mansions. Instead I swiped popular novels from the lending-library stack on my mother’s night-table.
At least once a month she reminded me that she had won my father—a handsome, respected doctor—with her femininity, slenderness, and deference. By her beautiful forties, she lived in a fine house not far from the Yankees, played bridge, and kept up with national events. She kept up with local ones, too: who loved whom, who married whom, who brought money to a match, who was carrying on with somebody else. When the news was exhausted and housework done, she read.
By the time I was a teenager, we were reading the same books.
John Marquand was our favorite. We particularly admired The Late George Apley (1947). The book erupts with instruction. “There must be a class,” writes the Late George, “which sets a tone, not for its own pleasure, but because of the responsibility which it owes to others.” Marquand’s novels speak poorly of happiness—“I believe that a large part of life consists of learning to be unhappy without worrying … about it”; and of marriage—“The great thing … is not to think too much”; and of young passion, inevitably doomed. George Apley’s true love is an Irish girl. His father forbids the romance. In Marquand’s Point of No Return the hero’s true love is an upper-upper class girl. The hero is only lower upper. In that book, it is her father who turns thumbs down. The spurned lovers marry other people, and learn not to think too much.
Marquand was my ally. See: marriage is no guarantee of happiness, I pointed out, probably at the top of my voice. Without marriage there is no chance of happiness, countered my mother. How a woman looks—why should that influence how she fares?, I demanded, tossing my unkempt head. Maybe it shouldn’t but it does, she answered. I could not acknowledge that truth until I returned to my beloved fairy tales and saw that the message of “Cinderella,” for example, is not only that women can be counted on to be cruel to each other, but also that a cleansing bath, a flattering coiffure, and new clothes alter the outer girl and can change her destiny.
We found a hero we both loved—Vladimir Nabokov’s feckless Timofey Pnin. Pnin’s first appearance in The New Yorker (in stories later collected in a book, Pnin ) coincided with my father’s death after a long illness. We pretended that the two men were similar—the unworldly, unmarried Pnin, with few human ties, and the beloved husband and parent snatched from us. Really they shared only a birthplace—Russia. My father’s Russia was a country of poverty, hopelessness, and forced conscription into the Tsar’s army: a place to fit only to leave. The self-exiled Pnin’s was an idyllic birch-and-cloud country of liberal hope destroyed by the Bolsheviks: a place to long for. Never mind: for my mother and me, the Russia of the shtetl and the Russia of the dacha were the same.
Together we admired the tragicomic Pnin’s struggles with English. We were enslaved by Nabokov’s prose. He spoke directly, lushly, to our grief. When we read his descriptions of illness (Pnin, in a moment of cardiac distress, speaks of the heart as “a strong slimy untouchable monster that one had to be parasited with, alas”), how could we not think of our own lost man? When we read Pnin’s plaint—“Why not leave their private sorrows to people?”—we sorrowed: privately as well as together.
Pnin united us. Nabokov’s Lolita (1955), a few years later, divided us. I adored it. My mother refused to read it. Nymphophilia was an unfitting subject for a novel, she insisted. Humbert Humbert was not someone that she (or Timofey Pnin, for that matter) could sympathize with. Sex, she believed, should occur in private, like sorrows, as it did in Helen Hunt Jackson, Emily Eden, and John Marquand.I went to college and read Eliot, Marcel Proust, Trollope—assigned classics. At home my mother read James Michener, Herman Wouk, and Bel Kaufman—the best sellers of the day, almost forgotten now. But here and there our choices matched: we both read Carson McCullers and John Cheever. The popular could be literary, the literary popular. The mother seeking entertainment and the daughter hell-bent on enlightenment sometimes found what they wanted—and found each other, too—on the same pages.
But we no longer discussed books when we met. We didn’t discuss looks, either—I had capitulated; I now dressed up and combed my hair. We didn’t discuss anything at all, really, for the next decade or so, because every sentence my mother uttered, whatever its topic, mutated into the sentence that was on her mind—every noun became “men,” every adjective “eligible,” every verb phrase “have you met any?” For single-mindedness and firmness of purpose, Captain Ahab had nothing on her. For murderous resentment I was a match for Hamlet.
And then I got married, after all, and even bore a couple of lovely kids.
But after a decade of this conflict, my mother and I could not return to the comfortable days when George Apley was our banker and Timofey Pnin our cousin—not until the year when, along with the rest of the world, we both read a novel with cardboard characters and silly dialogue and a shrunken plot. Sharing scorn, we approached each other again.
The heroine of Erich Segal’s Love Story (1970) is Italian American. Its hero is a Yankee who hates his father. The heroine, doomed to die, fails to reconcile father and son. “A Jewish girl would have managed things better,” summed up my parent.
She was still in her sixties, this woman who had relished Marquand and Nabokov with me, who had managed the ironies of Cheever and ambiguities of McCullers without my learned assistance. But she was beginning to fail—she’d had an early stroke—and for a few years after Love Story she read mainly magazines. Then she entered a nursing home, and in its twilight comfort she returned to books.
She enjoyed Nora Ephron’s Heartburn (1983), a moderately funny roman à clef in which the marriage of two spoiled Jews is souring because of the husband’s adultery and the wife’s wisecracking. He believes in self-gratification. She believes in faithful love and chicken soup, but her runaway tongue makes her less than loveable. An Italian girl might have managed things better—but I didn’t say that. “There’s a lot of sex,” my mother impishly told me; old age had broadened her outlook. Indeed there is a lot of sex in Heartburn, but description is limited to passages like this: “And then we went to bed. We stayed there for about three weeks.”
(In Lolita, on a Sunday morning, the bewitched Humbert Humbert holds his stepchild on his lap, both fully clothed, and surreptitiously masturbates against her seemingly unwitting twelve-year-old body. For three breathtaking pages, the surf breaks against the land, the world falls away, the reader loses track of time and place and responsibility, until at last Humbert “crushed out against her left buttock the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known.” This thrillingly mimetic passage—I didn’t mention that either.)
I read to live. I’d drop my computer keyboard down a ravine before I’d surrender my library card. My mother too found elevation, excitement, and relief in books. And so, when I think of her as a fellow devotée, I can peel the outer woman—the one who advised me to take off my glasses and for heaven’s sake keep my mouth shut—from the woman who grew misty remembering Elnora and Ramona. With her interest in who marries whom and her obsessive insistence that I marry, oh, anybody, she reincarnated some memorable fictional parents: Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice; the determined mama who engineers her daughter’s marriage to Dickens’s Dombey. That resentful daughter is named Edith, and Dickens is my favorite novelist; perhaps some day my own daughter—true to family tradition, she finds me irritating—will undertake to relate my character to my taste in reading. I hope, as she turns the pages, that I rise in her estimation. My mother has risen in mine: she was as persistent as Elnora Comstock, as faithful as Ramona, as worldly as Mrs. Hopkinson, as snobbish as George Apley, as sentimental as the young wife in Heartburn—that is, she was full of lively contradictions and forgivable faults. She was also, I regretfully admit, as underappreciated by some of those around her as Timofey Pnin.
Edith Pearlman is the author of three story collections: Vaquita (1996), Love Among The Greats (2002), and How To Fall (2005). A fourth, Binocular Vision, is forthcoming in 2011.