What if you never really knew your mother? You can still write a meaningful story. The following story excerpted from my guidebook, TellTale Souls Writing the Mother Memoir: How to Tap Memory and Write Your Story Capturing Character & Spirit is an excellent example of how one woman did just that. This story begins on page 99 of Act Three in the section entitled “Using Descriptive Imagery.”
You can easily find other stories I’ve posted from the book by searching “Bio-Vignette No.”
To run after a shadow and learn to describe it is exceptionally rewarding because you have brought a dim memory or fragments of remembrances into the light and have become wiser for the effort. TellTale Soul Lynn Scott uses this approach as she weaves together her Mother Memoir.
I’m Imagining My Mother
I am imagining my mother at three…a softly rounded little girl with huge blue eyes, set deep under lids like her papa’s. Her hair a thatch of white-blond, wispy-straight hair kept tightly pulled back in bows or braids by fastidious Mama or fiercely serious Bestemor, her Norwegian grandmother who speaks no English.
Mabel is a bit pigeon-toed, and, consequently, knock-kneed. This causes her some awkwardness over rough ground; perhaps why, on this sunny day in New Jersey, she falls into the pit her father is digging. He has a deep voice and huge hands. One booms in a thick Nordic accent, “Didn’t I tell you not to come near?” while the others plunk her miserable little muddy body back onto high ground where, with “achs” and “tish-tishes,” Bestemor leads her to the bath.
I am imagining my mother at ten…still soft, but getting very tall with big-boned hands and feet. She and her family live in a house supplied by the Fort Lee Orphan Home Society. It is some miles away from the building bought “for the betterment of homeless children.” Mabel and her sisters, Gertrude and Helen, have few things of luxury. So my mother’s pleasure at receiving a surprise gift, a silver chain bracelet from their sea captain uncle—well—it is not just pleasure, it is giggles and blushing and thank yous over and over again. Her first piece of jewelry—she loves it!
But now it is evening, after supper and prayers. Her mother says, “Mabel, it makes you feel good to receive that nice bracelet, ya?”
“Oh yes,” she rhapsodizes.
“So you know it is better to give than to receive, ya?”
“Yesss.”…Now her joy steps back as she feels what is coming.
“Well, my dear, you know that Johnny in the orphan home has arrived without a good pair of shoes. He could have those shoes for the money your chain would bring. If we sell it, he will have shoes. Wouldn’t God want that?”
She struggles painfully while her sisters watch wide-eyed. She knows she has lost. Who can win against God?
The three girls, perhaps 16, 14, and 12, sit around a tea table. The eldest sister Gertrude has her back to the camera; long cascades of slightly curled hair fall to her waist. She wears a casual skirt and a white blouse. Unlike the other two whose hair is still pulled severely into short and manageable styles, she seems to be on her way into that world outside. She holds up her cup. Helen, the youngest, head tilted like the teapot, is very focused on getting the tea into Gertrude’s cup. Mabel, facing out from the curtained window wall behind her, holds her cup near her lips and is looking down into it. Bestemor must be dead. Her superstitious religion couldn’t allow a soul to be snatched by the camera’s image, could it?
I am imagining my mother at sixteen…Mebs (no longer Mabel), Mickey (no longer Gertrude), and Helen, the beautiful Boswick sisters, growing into the Flapper Age with all the attributes one needs—warm blue-eyed beauties. They are both eager and terrified to enter the world of dating. They have been taught that their bodies belong to God. They’d muddled into menstruation—a word they don’t know. It is God’s curse for Eve’s sin of carnal knowledge. But there are opposing forces—their own ripe bodies, the sensuality of the ‘twenties, and their mother’s mixed message to wear lipstick, dress like other American girls, and be good girls.
I am imagining my mother at nineteen, flush with pride each time she looks at her likeness on the cover of Cosmopolitan, chosen by the illustrator from among many other girls. She keeps the magazine out of sight, not wanting a lecture about vanity, but the joy lasts among her sisters and friends. She is working now as bookkeeper in a Manhattan boutique and teaching Sunday school as a substitute for the church service that no longer holds her. She wears her abundant hair, slightly marcelled, looser now.
I am seeing you more clearly, my mother, twenty-three, standing in front of the big old Saddle River farmhouse where you brought me just after my birth. You are posing with friends stylishly dressed in the ‘20s short skirts, tight flat-chested bodices, legs turned ever so seductively, looking free from the old-time religion and all its limitations. I know now of the hole in your heart; the missing of the love of your life that your mother refused to allow because his father ran an Irish bar. I imagine it growing bigger by my father’s quite public lusts after the endless stream of women drawn to this Eden where the bathtub gin flows freely in the barn.
Here you are at not quite 70, lying in a nursing home bed. “Oh Lynnie, you’ll never guess what happened to me last night!” Your eyes are wide and your voice carries hair-prickling fear with a sly touch of fascination—a familiar prelude to sexual horror stories you fed me in my teens.
“I was lying here listening to that woman snore. Suddenly a priest came into the room and swooped me up from my bed and began walking out of the room with me. But I told him we have a car in Ridgewood, and we know the Monsignor, and we will tell him. So he put me back in my bed and sneaked out.” Ah, did you imagine it was your lost lover who, a lifetime later, returned for you too late?
I am reclaiming you, my mother, every facet of you. The chubby curious three-year old, the ten-year old with a healthy love of jewelry, the serious young Christian who early on found her shadow, the illustrator lifting you to the grand piano and toasting his favorite cover girl, the small town girl beloved (but not enough) by the dark and handsome father of mine; and yes, my mother, even the old woman whose disappointments splattered around me like sudden oil strikes, who, even at the end, questioned our rightness together. Forgive me please for loving you so late.
Short Bio, Lynn Scott: “I began writing seriously in 1988 at age 57. It began as an attempt to understand my place in my family of origin (very successfully) and culminated in three books and the crafting of pieces that have won prizes and appearances in several anthologies.” Featured photograph contributed by Lynn: “Mother seeing me.”
Daughters and sons from 9 to 90 use The Story Woman’s TELLTALE SOULS METHOD to move memory into memoir in a uniquely creative way, “Keeping Spirits Alive.”
You can easily find the stories I’ve posted from the book by searching “Bio-Vignette No.”