The Daughters’ Stories
My Mother’s Funeral
By Adriana Páramo
Fort Lee, N.J.: CavanKerry Press, 2013, 274 pp., $21.00, paperback
My Mother’s Wars
By Lillian Faderman
Boston: Beacon Press, 2013, 264 pp., $25.95, hardcover
Nothing Holds Back the Night
By Delphine de Vigan
New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2014, 352 pp., $16.00, paper
You Animal Machine (The Golden Greek)
By Eleni Sikelianos
Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2014, 126 pp., $16.95, paper
Reviewed by Carol Sternhell
Among the hundreds of photographs of my mother I own and cherish, two stand out. In the first, a naked baby lying on a fake bear rug—somewhere in the Bronx, 1923—peers up at me with shining brown eyes I would recognize anywhere. In the second, a gnarled body curled on its side is covered to the neck in a white sheet—Long Island, 2009—the eyes closed forever. The first, faded, sepia, was taken on an ancient camera by a professional photographer. The second was snapped on a cell phone. The first is on display in an ornate silver frame. The second rests in privacy on my computer hard drive (in Libraries/Pictures/Family). Why do I keep, and cherish, a photo of this most beloved body as a corpse? I know she’d be appalled—but I am her child, her daughter, and this body, this photo, belongs to me.
In the same way, this collection of books—about dead mothers (and in one case, grandmothers)—are daughters’ stories, fiercely claimed. Mama, Mom, Mamá, Mereleh/Mary, Lucile, Carmen, Helene/Eleni/Elaine/Melena might be appalled, but the words go on without them. The daughters are bringing gifts, or indictments; the daughters are solving mysteries. And not always willingly. “I had neither the space nor the strength,” writes Delphine de Vigan, resisting—fiercely—telling her tale. “I don’t know when I gave in; perhaps the day I realised how much writing, my writing, was linked to her…. And then, like dozens of authors before me, I attempted to write my mother.”
Two of these books, de Vigan’s Nothing Holds Back the Night and Adriana Páramo’s My Mother’s Funeral, begin (or almost) with a mother’s death, a corpse. Two, My Mother’s Funeral and Lillian Faderman’s My Mother’s Wars, end (or almost) with the mystery of the author’s own birth. All are concerned with trying to find—to write—someone they don’t quite understand. As Eleni Sikelianos says in You Animal Machine, “I tried to drive out to the desert to see my grandmother, but she’d been dead twenty-six years.” The mothers, or their stories, come from Latvia, France, Colombia, Greece; the daughters become tourists of their pasts, historians, detectives, poets. The most rewarding journeys, for me, were Faderman’s and de Vigan’s, layered with novelistic detail—so exquisitely personal—and yet moving beyond the personal to the political and intellectual, again like the best novels. All of these memoirs, however, offer pleasures we can savor, family stories worth telling, and retelling.
Writing the mother: Before we talk about mommies in all their messy specificity, let’s talk about writing. The subtitle of My Mother’s Funeral is “A Memoir.” De Vigan, however—the author of the most literary and most complex of these works—calls her book a novel, even though it’s based on an enormous amount of exactly the material—interviews, old diaries, letters—that generally informs the most meticulous nonfiction. My Mother’s Wars is similarly well-researched, with a long bibliography of historical, scholarly, and journalistic sources, and is clearly intended as a memoir—yet like de Vigan, Faderman provides imaginative reconstructions of scenes she didn’t live. And You Animal Machine? Sikelianos calls her previous volume a “hybrid memoir.” Her publisher lists this one as an “essay”; perhaps it’s a scrapbook, a collage.
Lillian Faderman, the well-known scholar of lesbian history and literature, tells the story of her mother Mary, who as seventeen-year-old Mereleh of Latvia, a Jewish girl with hopes of becoming a dancer, moves to New York City in 1914. Mary quickly learns that she has no idea how to make it in show business, though “she planned to find out as soon as she learned a little more English,” writes Faderman. What Mary does know is “how to sew very well because she’d been doing it since she was a child.” Her story unfolds over the next few decades against a familiar—but vividly individual—Jewish immigrant backdrop: work in the garment industry sweatshops, the rising power of Hitler abroad. Mary’s particular story has two overwhelming themes: her hopeless love for the cad, a classic melodrama villain, who turns out to be Faderman’s father; and the growing Nazi threat in Latvia to her family, particularly her little brother Hirschel, the boy she’d promised to bring to America. She herself is no heroine, just an ordinary young woman who falls for the wrong men and would rather go dancing than save her earnings to help out di mameh and der tateh. But we read her ordinary life the way we watch a horror movie, always with a sense of doom. Each chapter starts with a news flash: 1933, 1935, 1939.
Mary, Faderman writes, never forgave herself for being unable to save—for not trying hard enough to save—her family back home. Could she have saved them? We can’t possibly know. But Faderman says she “grew up in the shadow of my mother’s tragedy.” Mary’s first error comes almost immediately, when she angers the half-sister and brother-in-law who have brought her to New York and given her a home by going out dancing late at night. They throw her out, and she thus forfeits her right to beg them to bring over more of the family. She dreams, loves, parties away the early, ominous, years. She turns down the one good—but ugly—man who loves her, a man who promises to try to rescue her family. By the time she begins to panic, immigration is almost impossible. Even the Jewish refugee agency sends her away, saying that Jews in Latvia aren’t the ones in grave danger. She knows that they are from her brother’s increasingly disturbing letters, but no one will listen. We can write the ending for ourselves.
“Though she will never know for certain what happened to them, in her mind she will witness their murder almost every day of my childhood,” Faderman writes. “‘Zay hargenen Yidden!’—They’re killing Jews—she will yell, seeing it right before her eyes, as if it is happening that instant, though the Jews will have long since been killed.”
We know the Jews of Latvia will be slaughtered, and we know Faderman will be born—but her birth is itself treated as a mystery, as a plot device. “My mother—who was not yet my mother,” she often writes of Mary. Each time Mary gets pregnant, always with the cad, we expect Lillian, but two pregnancies end in unwanted abortions. When Faderman is finally born, in 1940, Mary is 43 years old and simply refuses to end the pregnancy: “This baby I’m gonna have.” The cad walks away forever. “Let me come out, Mama,” Faderman writes. “Let me come out so I can remember them, Hirschel and Avrom and Hinda, all of them….Seventy years and more will go by, and still I won’t forget, I swear it. That is not nothing, Mama.”
Adriana Páramo’s My Mother’s Funeral is also written around the puzzle of her own birth: “I wanted to know the history of my making,” she writes. By the time she learns the answer, Páramo—the youngest of six children who grew up in Colombia with a mostly absent father and a mother who called herself un burro de carga, a beast of burden—has moved to Alaska, “as far away from home as I could get.” She has a family, possessions, friends, a new language. “Still,” she writes, “there was something I had always wanted to know, something I needed to hear from Mom, foolishly thinking that this would close the chapter of my life as a child and start a brand-new one as an adult woman.” The story she finally hears, from a mother already on the foggy road to Alzheimer’s, poisons its way through this book.
“Do you remember when you were pregnant with me?” Páramo asks her mother.
“Oh yes, I remember each of my five pregnancies,” Carmen responds.
“Six,” Páramo whispers. And she writes: “I should have stopped talking, stopped pressing for details about her last pregnancy. I should have realized that forcing her to remember details from 1965 would be too much for her. As it turned out, it was too much for me.”
Unlike Faderman’s mother, who fought to have one baby, Carmen tries every method she hears of to abort Páramo: foul potions from an “old witch,” prayer, “a litany of workout routines that no fetus should have survived.” In the end, she tells Páramo, “You clung to my womb for dear life. Like a sanguijuela.” Like a leech.
My Mother’s Funeral contains other stories—and like all these books, attempts to recreate a mother’s life before the daughter’s birth—but for me it remained somehow stuck in this one pain: Páramo, an anthropologist, feels like an outsider in her family, and feels endlessly guilty for leaving them behind. When her wandering father comes back home to die, she isn’t there, but her urgent question over the phone is painful: “Did Dad ask for me? …. Did he realize that I wasn’t there?” Of course the answer is no: “No, mijita.” When a sister calls to tell her that their mother is dead, she assures Páramo that no one expects her to fly to Colombia: “Everybody knows you’re far away.”
This is very much a daughter’s story, both in apology and in resentment. At one moment Páramo writes, “More than anything, I want to apologize for leaving.” At another: “And, more to the point, what about me?”
You Animal Machine, the granddaughter’s tale, also contains birth imagery of sorts—of pretty strange sorts. “It’s not a wound, it’s a birth-hole,” Eleni Sikelianos writes at one point. “I climb inside and look around. So, this is my grandmother’s womb. Kind of cavernous and dark….Down the corridor, a desert night, empty and cold.” This book, Sikelianos tells us, is the second volume of a longer family history—the first was about her father—the story of her grandmother Melena, a Greek immigrant burlesque dancer, “the toughest, hardest-assed woman to ever eat wood and bite nails on the face of the earth: Melena the Cat Lady, Woman-with-the-Bullets-over-her Breast, the Leopard Girl, Marko, my grandmother, the Golden Greek.” In some ways this is, unfortunately, the most coherently expository sentence in the book. You Animal Machine is a collage, or hodgepodge, of poetry, newspaper clippings, photos, and puzzling comments either (I can’t tell) portentous or profound: “But what is the key that turns the lock of the poison dress? Who is us? (Me and my mother.)”
Sikelianos, a poet who directs the Creative Writing Program at the University of Denver, needs to tell it slant. “I want to tell you a story, a straight story, but I don’t know how to do it, said the cat,” she writes. Herself? Her grandmother? Cat lady, Leopard Girl, mountain lion? “I can’t seem to keep her in reality; she keeps slipping out into the desert.”
The gorgeously written Nothing Holds Back the Night, translated from the French Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit by George Miller, is in a way the opposite of collage: a meticulously layered, endlessly interrogated, deeply colored family portrait. Written in the wake of the suicide of Delphine de Vigan’s vibrant, beautiful, suffering, bipolar mother Lucile, this book is both a mystery and a eulogy, a monument and “a coffin made of paper.” The story is shadowed from the beginning by death—Lucile’s brother drowns in a well just before she turns eight, and two other brothers die later—by madness, by suggestions of incest; but the large, talented, unconventional family of Lucile’s childhood is also home to pleasure and success. De Vigan’s own childhood, with her young sister Manon and their increasingly disturbed mother—who at one point believes she controls all the taxis in Paris, who attempts to stab Manon’s eyes with acupuncture needles, who after her first hospitalization is vague and lethargic, “as though a grimy film covered her eyes”—is not just marked but defined by her mother’s illness: “Lucile’s pain probably formed my sister and me.”
De Vigan, a novelist, claims this book as fiction, as the novel she tries hard not to write. Although she interviews all her mother’s living siblings, her sister, family friends; reads letters and diaries; listens to tapes; studies photos, the story resists. “I had probably been hoping that a truth would emerge from this strange material,” she writes. “But the truth didn’t exist. I had only scattered fragments and the very fact of arranging them already constituted a fiction….Writing can do nothing. At very best it allows you to ask questions and interrogate memory.”
But is this remembrance, built from facts, a novel? As the facts collect, de Vigan writes, “I thought I would have no difficulty introducing fiction and no qualms about filling in gaps. By which I mean I thought in a sense I would remain in charge.” Of course, she finds, that isn’t how literature happens:
Instead of which, I am unable to alter anything. Instead of which, I feel as though I spend hours with my hands in the air and my sleeves rolled up to the elbow, tied in a horrible butcher’s apron, terrified by the thought of betraying history, getting dates or places or ages wrong; instead of which, I fear I shall fail to construct the story as I had imagined it.
Unable to free myself completely from reality, I am involuntarily producing fiction; I’m looking for the angle which will allow me to come closer and closer still; I’m looking for a place which is neither truth nor fable, but both at once.
And even later:
Sometimes I dream of returning to fiction, I revel in it, I invent, fantasize, imagine, opt for the most novelistic, the least probable, I add adventures, permit myself digressions, follow tangents, free myself from the past and its impossible truth. Sometimes I dream of the book I shall write after, when I’m set free from this one.
Is that why women write the mother, to be set free? To solve a puzzle? Or maybe just to hold her close, the jar of ashes on the mantle, the photo in a polished frame; the pale and sad and beautiful beloved corpse? Because in the end, that photo belongs to me.
Carol Sternhell teaches in the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, where she was the founding director of the undergraduate women’s studies major in NYU’s College of Arts and Sciences.