What We Write About When We Write About Our Mothers

“I knew that I had become the woman I am because of the grandmother I loved and the mother I came to adore.”
Maya Angelou

I have an unfair advantage over my mother, I write to an audience (though small). She doesn’t. I use words to speak my “truth.” She doesn’t. I can tell her story to people. She can’t and wouldn’t tell mine.

My mother is an intensely private person and a remarkable human being. I have to be careful not to speak for her when I write about her.

Short-story writer Alice Munro said she avoided writing about her mother until her mother died. I find that hard to believe, for we are always writing about our mothers.

'Rembrandt's Mother' by the school of Rembrandt van Rijn for use in post "What We Write About When We Write About Mothers"
Rembrandt (or that of one of his fellows) portrait of Rembrandt’s mother, Neeltgen Willensdr, ca. 1628. Her dark shawl and fur collar depict a respectable person admired by the painter. Learn more.

When American poet Robert Lowell pioneered the confessional poetry movement he wrote about his life and family, his rich Boston heritage, wealthy relatives and his contentious parents. From “91 Revere Street”1

My mother felt horrified giddiness about the adventure of our address. She once said, “We are barely perched on the outer rim of the hub of decency.’ We were less than fifty hears from Louisburg Square, the cynosure of old historic Boston’s plain-spoken, cold roast elite – the Hub of the Hub of the Universe. Fifty yards!

In this new form of first-person, autobiographical writing that discussed things traditionally private, Lowell exposed his parents (and their eccentricities, social aspirations, and anger) to the public. The work also advanced Lowell’s career as a major American poet (he would influence writers Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath.)

During the weekends I was home much of the time. All day I used to look forward to the nights when my bedroom walls would once again vibrate, when I would awake with rapture to the rhythm of my parents arguing, arguing one another to exhaustion.

Lowell’s mother appears with depth and personality. A mother longing for social mobility and lost in an unsatisfying marriage. But nevertheless, his depiction of Mrs. Lowell it isn’t a person. It’s Lowell’s memory of a person.

Mothers receive mention in most memoirs, “I associate my mother with a remoteness, which I did not at all resent, and with the smell of eau-de-cologne.” Wrote English novelist Graham Greene.2 With such details, Greene’s mother remains remote to us as well.

"Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1" by James McNeil Whistler for use in post "What We Talk About When We Talk About Mothers"
“Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1” painted by James McNeil Whistler in 1871. It is more commonly called “Whistler’s Mother.” His mother was made famous by the painter’s critical eye and painterly skill. Her existence is bound to the canvas by the very same. Learn more.

In other writings, the mother plays a primary part. She is blamed or vindicated for crimes only the writer knows, or frankly, cares about.

Although Mother kept her self busy in countless and pointless ways, it did not alleviate her worrying: her pervading sense that she was keeping nameless disasters at bay only by incessantly anticipating them, and that one moment’s lapse in this vigilance would bring them hurtling towards her. I once proposed to Dad that we should purchase a large hamster wheel for her.

The mother of comedian John Cleese was a central character in his autobiography. Without her our hero might not have turned out as he did:3

My ingrained habit of walking on eggshells when coping with my mother dominated my romantic liaisons for many years. Until it began to fade, women found me very dull. My own unique cocktail of over-politeness, unending solicitude and the fear of stirring controversy rendered me utterly unsexy.

Much of Cleese’s early comedy originated from this “infuriating desire to be inoffensive” and later in his career he created Basil Fawlty, a study of ineffective and bemused anger. Cleese’s mother isn’t his villain, she’s his alter-ego. Incurious where he is intelligent, anxious where he is comical, diminutive where he is expansive.

It seems – or maybe this is just me – that we often fail to see our mothers apart from ourselves or as humans in their own right. And equally, we fail to see ourselves apart from their influence. Mothers become a symbol, a theme, even a thesis. An actor, an alter-ego. Not a person. How they act to us and against us is how they are.

Paul Cezanne's "Portrait of the Artist's Mother" used in
“Portrait of the Artist’s Mother” painted by Paul Cezanne in 1867. So many of Cezanne’s portraits were full of brightness, this one is oddly dark. But the close-up reveals how much Cezanne cared for their relationship. His mother was an emotional support throughout his life.

This entwining is perfectly demonstrated in the writing of American activist and essayist Rebecca Solnit. According to Solnit her mother was blind to her daughter’s needs.4

My story is a variation on one I’ve heard from many women over the years, of the mother who gave herself away to everyone or someone and tried to get herself back from a daughter.

In Solnit’s free-flowing prose, The Faraway Nearby, about storytelling and narrative she (unwittingly?) narrates her own mother’s story. Solnit reclaims the power – the voice – she was denied. She writes:

She often visited her fury at others or at life upon me. She took pleasure in not giving me things that she gave to others, often in front of me, in finding a way to push me out of the group. She thought she would get something from these acts, and maybe she got a momentary sense of victory and power, and those were rare possessions for her. She didn’t seem to know she had also lost something through this strategy.

As true as any of this might be, and I don’t doubt it is, Solnit doesn’t say ‘I saw my mother as’; no, she writes ‘my mother was.

When we write our mothers they will exist in perpetuity as they were to us.

I’ve written about the burden of bearing witness, telling stories to engender collective memory. As there is variation in the teller, so there will be in the telling. When we talk about our mothers we witness a life, but when we narrow it to our drama, we deliver incomplete portrayals.

Gillian Wearing as her mother, Jean Gregory, 2003 for use in post "What We Talk About When We Talk About Mothers"
Gillian Wearing as her mother Jean Gregory, 2003. Wearing, famous for dressing in the masks and costumes of family members, makes a brilliant comment on how we inhabit our parents, and they us. Look closely at the eyes, you’ll see Wearing. Learn more.

In a smattering of people writing about their mothers, one stands out. Mom & Me & Mom is the last of Maya Angelou’s seven autobiographies.

How did I, born black in white country, poor in a society where wealth is adored and sought after at all costs, female in an environment where only large ships and some engines are described favorably by using the female pronoun – how did I get to be Maya Angelou”.

The answer, Angelou tells us, is the grandmother who raised her and the woman who became her mother. Vivian Baxter sent Maya and her brother to live with their paternal grandmother in Arkansas when they were three and five. Maya lived there for the next ten years until she returned to California to a mother she vaguely knew.

After a few weeks it became clear that I was not using any title when I spoke to her. In fact, I rarely started conversations. […]

She asked me to join her. “Maya, I am your mother. Despite the act that I left you for years. I am your mother. You know that, don’t you?”

I said, “Yes, ma’am.” I had been answering her briefly with a few words since my arrival in California.

“You don’t have to say ‘ma’am’ to me. You’re not in Arkansas.”

“No, ma’am. I mean no.”

“You don’t want to call me ‘Mother,’ do you?” I remained silent.”

Initially, Angelou was unable to use the word “Mom” because Vivian Baxter, whom Angelou learned to call ‘Lady,’ hadn’t earned the title.

Perhaps because Angelou only lived with her mother from age thirteen, or perhaps because she is such a keen storyteller she gives her mother independence, agency.5 This is the story of how Maya Angelou’s mother became a mother and how her love turned a young girl into a great woman (and mother).

In one glorious scene, Angelou describes her mother as “catching” her baby when Angelou gives birth. Both physically and emotionally. “Here, my baby, here’s your beautiful baby” Vivian says to her daughter. She caught. It is a wondrous, full word.

I consider my daughter. I catch her. I cradle her, I hold, lift, elevate, rock, sway and am always always there to catch her. And my mother to me. That fierce action. Mothers are action.

And yet we write them still. We paint them sitting.

I consider my own daughter who can nary speak let alone write. How much power she will have to write my story? And how flat or rotund will my persona be? Will I exist apart from how I affected her?

I stopped writing fiction for I found, as Munro did, I always wrote my mother. Whether I wanted to or not. Or maybe I wrote myself because ultimately, I am so much her. Either way. It did not seem fair. Nor accurate.

When Angelou finally left home to live on her own, with her young son and her ferocious power in tow, she finally calls her mother “Mom.”

I walked away and was back in my bedroom before I heard my own words echoing in my mind. I had called Lady “Mother.” I knew she had noticed but we never ever mentioned the incident. I was aware that after the birth of my son and the decision to move and get a place for just the two of us, I thought of Vivian Baxter as my mother.

I like to think that at that moment, both women felt like mothers.

We all tell stories. These days we all tell stories about ourselves. We involve others in our drama. Some echo more strongly than others, some reverberate off the pages, some slink into the margins. But there they remain, contained.

When we write about our mothers – these individuals with whom we’ve shared a body, a name, a home, a day, many days, a space and countless memories which could be summed up with the word “past” – when we write about our mothers more than anything else, we are really writing about ourselves.

Touch, Its Meaning and Importance

“To forge an untouchable, invulnerable identity is actually a sign of retreat from this world; of weakness, a sign of fear rather than strength.”
David Whyte

Register touch anew. This ability to intake information through skin, legs, toes, and, mostly, fingertips. And lips, which are the threshold to touch and taste, like ears are to sound and touch.

As humans, we take in so much through sight that the other senses, like touch, weaken. Touch is vital.

I sometimes strum walls. Brick walls scratch the flesh and curve around us everywhere, showing us where to go, what to avoid. I rub smooth curves of park benches; they are there to be touched. And then there is the heat of sun-warmed tummies. There are so many things to touch, ways to be touched.

Touch, Its Meaning and Importance
There’s a cruel irony to museums. Behind plastic, glass, and warning signs are all these marvelous items. This pair of oak doors with ironwork dates from ~ 1250. A miracle of survival against elements, they would have been both protective and decorative for a home. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

“I never had a sense that the ability to win came from me,” wrote artist Patti Smith in her memoir, Woolgathering. “I always felt it was in the object itself. Some piece of magic that was animated through my touch.” Smith imagined igniting latent power in her beloved marble collections, but only when she touched them.1

At night, I’d pour my booty upon my bed and wipe them with a chamois. I’d arrange them by color, by order of merit, and they’d rearrange themselves—small glowing planets each with its own history, its own will of gold.

We touch, without thinking, the things most precious to us. We stroke them to release memory, to bring coolness or warmth, to engage. To love.

The first time I held my daughter, my hands were woefully inadequate. I felt a compulsion to lick her. (Although kissing sufficed.) To touch her with some warm, wet stimulating brilliance, the kind she had been used to before she came into the cold air. To enclose her the way I had done.

Touch, Its Meaning and Importance
For this post, I visited London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. The greatest art and design museum in the world. This exquisite outer kimono (uchikake) is from the Japanese Edo period and was made ~1870-90. With silk and metal-covered thread it depicts scenes from well-known kabuki plays. It would have been worn by a courtesan. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I’ll never forget reading Walt Whitman’s epic poem “Song of Myself” and his lines of rapture, held captive by joy:2

I mind how we lay in June, such a transparent summer
morning;
You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged
your tongue to my barestript heart, And reached till you felt my beard, and reached till you
held my feet.

This is touch. This is to be touched. Both physically and in some higher implication of what it means to be touched. Affected. To be wrapped in the presence of another being.

It’s the poetic version of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St. Teresa,” a monumental Baroque sculpture scarved of white marble of a woman caressed and brought to intense ecstasy by an unseen and violating divine hand. Her toes curl in affectation.2

“We are made for unending meeting and exchange,” wrote American poet David Whyte.3 Whyte believed that being touched – and moreover, being touchable – is something we desire, something we long for. Not necessarily as a sense or perception, but a feeling, an emotive act of understanding and being understood. Whyte concludes:

To forge an untouchable, invulnerable identity is actually a sign of retreat from this world; of weakness, a sign of fear rather than strength and betrays a strange misunderstanding of an abiding, foundational and necessary reality: that untouched, we disappear.

Touch isn’t necessarily being around people, even when alone we commune through touch. It’s more than sensory; it’s exchange.

Consider Japanese novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, who navigated us through the materiality of Japanese construction—ceramics, walls, doors, wood—embracing the texture of paper that gives us “a certain feeling of warmth, of calm and repose.”4 Tanizaki’s 1934 essay on the Japanese aesthetics invited us to engage with materials, spaces and objects in a way hitherto ignored.

Touch, Its Meaning and Importance
With its vast collection of decorative arts, the V&A is a museum of things meant to be touched. This Venetian carved marble well-head stood in the courtyard of Tintoretto’s home circa 1490. The marble is worn from daily use. Note the notches on the far side where ropes cut into the stone. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Touch is fundamentally a sense, a way for us to perceive the world. But it’s more than registering data. Touch is an extremely intimate and lasting form of interaction, of engagement.

I return to the first time I held my daughter. Senses scrambling to make sense of the unfamiliar. I heard crying, a large sound that seems completely impossible given the small source. Seeing is nothing—a newborn body isn’t like anything I’d ever seen or ever will again. The scent is extremely powerful and would be very meaningful but more for her, not me. Not yet.

Touch. It’s all there is. Holding her… It was the first time I touched her. (Of course, the walls of my uterus can’t feel what it was like to touch her.) She had, however, been touching me for nine months. She cuddled up and showed me how and my hands learned quickly.

“The minute that comes to me over the past decillions / There is no better than it and now,” wrote Whitman.

That moment of first touch was such a profound engagement that it carved out a space, a memory, something I can reenter for the rest of my life. Something that will always affix me to her.

Touch, Its Meaning and Importance
This Mexican ceramic pot, circa ~1700, can be touched. Mexican ceramics developed when trade routes brought ceramics from China through to Europe. Imperfections in the pot can be felt on the inside, where the potter’s hands shaped the clay. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

David Whyte assures us that touch, though it makes us vulnerable, affects us positively.

Patti Smith wrote Woolgathering for her 45th birthday, from the depths of what she called melancholy and from the corner of her garden near a willow that blew on her shoulders. Her reflections, including touching mementos in her home to a moment where she cuts her own hair, is full of touch. A way for her to reach from that melancholy to find meaning, to break through an untouchable identity.

To touch and be touched. It is how we expand our vitality into the world and receive the world’s vitality into us. It is a forceful power, a vulnerability. It is a tremendous gift. As we carry it ourselves, we must respect it in others.

Whitman’s majestic poem was a song of light and human connectedness. Our intense need to engage. To be affected.

I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I consider all these museum objects, cold and untouched. Apart. And all the things in nature that long to be touched gently, noticed. And humans longing to be loved, to be given kindness. It brings me back to something American poet Mary Oliver (who called Whitman “the brother she never had”) wrote about stones being touched by rain.5

After rain after many days without rain,
it stays cool, private and cleansed, under the trees,
and the dampness there,
married now to gravity,
falls branch to branch, leaf to leaf, down to the ground

[…]

and soon so many small stones, buried for a thousand years,
will feel themselves being touched.

Oliver knew solitude was not a departure from people, but rather, from the “busyness” of society. She knew likewise, somewhere, there is a part of all of us longing to commune. Longing to be touched.

The Meaning and Metaphor of Stars

“The stars awaken a certain reverence because though always present, they are inaccessible.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Stars. These constant companions we frequently contemplate. They place us firmly on earth and lift us in transcendental transmogrification.

Maybe because we see them at night when we are at our most thoughtful. Or because we are made of the same elements, the same dust. Whatever the reason, we understand stars more than ever and yet they deliver such imagined greatness.

The Meaning and Metaphor of Stars
Starry sky over Snowdonia National Park, Wales. Captured by photographer and conservationist Joshua Burch.

Biologist Rachel Carson spent her life uncovering the grim reality present in impossibly small stretches of life, yet she stood in simple rapture at stars.1

We lay and looked up at the sky and the millions of stars that blazed in darkness. The night was so still that we could hear the buoy on the ledges out beyond the mouth of the bay. Once or twice a word spoken by someone on the far shore was carried across on the clear air. A light burned in cottages. Otherwise there was no reminder of human life; my companion and I were alone with the stars.

Or consider this simple, poignant observation from neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, who looked to the stars as he was dying to anchor his existence and provide a measure of time.2

A few weeks ago, in the country, far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky “powdered with stars” (in Milton’s words); such a sky, I imagined, could be seen only on high, dry plateaus like that of Atacama in Chile. […] It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience – and death.

Stars keep time preposterous to our own. Maybe that is why they speak eternity to us. And yet, they have materiality, they are made of elements (elements that came out of the stars and also form us).

Elements fascinated Sacks, elements were things he collected and held dear. In his last months alive, however, he didn’t see the materiality of stars, but rather their metaphor of light and life.

We now know stars to be turbulent, fraught with change. But only centuries ago – a blip in human time – we believed stars to be sentinels of heaven, part of a perfect celestial sphere occupied by gods.

In 1543 Nicolaus Copernicus formulated a heliocentric model of the universe. But it was only a theory. It wasn’t until 1610 when Galileo Galilei, aided by his own hand-fashioned telescope, conjectured that “stars” around Jupiter were not stars but moons that astronomers began to change their view of the heavens. He also noticed mountains and valleys on our moon.

Galileo’s findings meant earth was not the only body around which things orbited, and that our moon, situated in the perfect sky, wasn’t perfect.

Nighttime Activities Done in Solitude
Super wolf blood moon. Photograph by Joshua Burch.

The arrow of time and discovery tracks from Galileo’s brilliant use of instrumentation, which changed our conceptual notions of space, to the recent photographs of a black hole, which again changed our notions of space.

And yet, despite all of this knowledge, data, science, and understanding of what stars are, both themselves and in relation to us, we persist in giving stars human and even divine meaning.

We return them to their perfect spheres.

In 1836 American writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (who would have known stars were material, not aspects of the gods) wrote in his essay, Nature:

If a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds will separate between him and what he touches. The stars awaken a certain reverence because though always present, they are inaccessible.

These “inaccessible stars,” formed the essence of Transcendentalism. Something that lifts us up and scatters us into an expanded feeling of wisdom, as well as knowledge of ourselves and the universe.

Emerson, standing on the ground in Massachusetts, saw the same stars as physicist and humanist Alan Lightman more than 150 years later. Lightman, a writer and academic forever in search of anchorage in an uncertain universe, stood on the Maine shore (just like Rachel Carson) and found infinite power in the scope of stars.3

I felt an overwhelming connection to the stars as if I were part of them. And the vast expanse of time – extending from the far distant past long before I was born and then into the long distant future long after I will die – seemed compressed to a dot.

Lightman’s calm rapture triggered a sort of contemplative journey of life, death, and, much like Sacks, meaning. The stars lit the way.

Can a ball of gas do all this? Stars do possess virtuous qualities: they are bright (light has always meant knowledge, sometimes goodness), predictable, unaffected, relatively constant. They give us direction and security.

The Meaning and Metaphor of Stars
Starry sky folding into dawn in Snowdonia National Park, Wales. Captured by photographer and conservationist Joshua Burch.

One of my favorite features of humanity is we allow meaning to exist apart from knowledge. Stars are a metaphor. “Metaphor is a way of thinking before it is a way of seeing” writes James Geary in his curious and methodical study of metaphor, I is An Other. Geary continues:

Metaphor systematically disorganizes the common sense of things – jumbling together the abstract with the concrete, the physical with the psychological, the like with the unlike – and reorganizes it into uncommon combinations.

We seek metaphor – and use metaphor – more than we realize, and have done so for thousands of years. We know what stars are and yet they both remain “inaccessible”. We cannot truly know a star – cannot see it close, touch it, taste it or feel it – thus, we turn it into metaphor.

The Meaning and Metaphor of Stars
Trees set against stars, creating illusions of size and space. Snowdonia National Park, Wales. Captured by photographer and conservationist Joshua Burch.

My siblings and I have a star named after us. A gift from an imaginative relative. We have a certificate, our three names and the ampersands between them. One-third of a massive ball of gas is named after me. Delightful.

And yet… Will I consider it when I am dying?

“I would like to see such a sky again when I’m dying,” wrote Oliver Sacks. I wonder if he did. No doubt he imagined them in his mind.

No doubt he imagined them to be greater than he ever knew them to be.