Mothers in Memoir, still Mommy Dearest?
When I started writing the memoir of my relationship with Byrne Miller – “The Other Mother: a rememoir” – I collected recommendations. I devoured any memoir recommended by a trusted friend, even some from dubious readers. My goal was to be different from all of those memoirs, while at the same time learning all I could about the genre.
What struck me was the fate of mothers in those memoirs. I wasn’t a fan of the genre and expected to be inundated with Mommy Dearest airing of dirty laundry. I was curious about mothers in memoir mostly because I was trying to decide how much of my mother’s story to include in my other mothers’.
One of my favorite research reads was Mary Karr’s “The Liar’s Club.” The title actually refers to her father – the champion liar. “His stories got told and retold before an audience of drinking men he played dominoes with on days off… Certainly not much of the truth in any technical sense got told there,” she writes.
But it was her mother’s story that stuck with me. “All Mother’s marriages, once I uncovered them in my twenties, got presented to me as accidents.” She was a flawed but fascinating character and I moved on to another memoir searching for mothers.
In Alexandra Fuller’s memoir of a white African childhood, “Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight,” I met a mother I recognized. One who loses not just one child, like my own mother did, but two. A mother who can’t fight the grief head on and a daughter who found a way to write about it. “I watch Mum carefully. She hardly bothers to blink. It’s as if she’s a fish in the dry season, in the dried-up bottom of a cracking riverbed, waiting for rain to come and bring her to life.”
In Jeannette Walls’ “The Glass Castle” I found a mother whose crazy had crossed over into her daughter’s seemingly perfect life. The first line crystallizes a feeling that every embarrassed daughter will recognize– but a hundred times worse. “I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.”
So far my search for the best way to write about mothers wasn’t comforting. It seemed like only the most egregious, unforgiveable mothering behavior made it into memoir. And then I found an Other Mother.
She came in the form of LaRue, the ninety-nine-year-old step grandmother in Franz Wisner’s “Honeymoon with My Brother.” Even though this memoir starts with a jilted groom story, it ends up being a travelogue of the heart. What grounds Franz is his relationship with LaRue. This is how he tells her of the honeymoon with his brother:
“We’re going to quit our jobs, sell our houses, and travel around the world for a year.”
“Wonderful!” she said without pause.
“You know, you’re more than welcome to join us for a stop of two,” I said.
“Well I just might,” she said. “I love travel. It’s one of the few things in life you never regret.”
He writes to her along the way.
“Dear LaRue – I won’t tell you much about our accomodations (felt more like a Ralph Lauren showroom than a middle-of-nowhere safari) because I want you to be under the impression that we roughted it. Don’t want to completely ruin our backpacker image. Love, Franz.”
I knew had finally read the memoir I was looking for. When I asked Franz Wisner for a blurb for “The Other Mother,” he cheerfully wrote back from travels in Spain.
“Of course,” he said. “I love the book. Byrne brings back a little of LaRue for me.”