“Happy Mother’s Day,” we say, as if it were that simple. It usually isn’t.
Complex, ambivalent, contradictory, with more layers than a baklava: that begins, barely, to describe the relationship my mother, Charlotte Zolotow, and I have with each other. That it has at last grown simpler and less ambivalent in the last couple of years, as she has entered extreme old age (she’s about to be 93) and I middle age, is one of the great reliefs of my life. And, I think, hers, too.
I think we will pull it off yet: when she leaves, we will be at peace with each other. The love between us, which has never been a question, is becoming more and more visible, as the matters that have made it opaque grow thinner and less obscured.(She’s pictured, left, in front of the house in which she still lives, now with a full-time care-giver. This photo was taken in about 1996).
(Baklava? Where did that come from? It’s layered, sure, but so are many pastries; why did the word baklava travel through my fingers, and presumably brain, to arrive on the screen? In the manner one might analyze a dream, I turn the object over in my mind. Sweet, almost too sweet. Delicious, but very, very sticky. Have to wash your hands after eating it. And it’s filled with — nuts! How can one not love a discipline, writing, that so surprises its practitioner, by delivering stuff like this? ! )
I could write a book trying to explain this particular mother-daughter relationship; in fact I did, when I was much younger (around 30), a novel called The Year It Rained . (You can buy the paperback British edition here; or track it down used online. I prefer the former, because then I actually make a little money.)When I wrote that book, I think I was still trying to explain what went on between my mother and me to myself, much more than to anyone else. For, to the extent I figure out anything, I usually wind up doing through writing. Now, in present-time, her and my relationship is clearer to me, as so much is. (And, Lord, I should hope so, 25 years down the line.)
A general, no doubt oversimplified rule: what makes people crazy and drives them to therapists and spirituality and self-understanding / healing / peace (if they’re fortunate) , or dope or booze or other forms of attempted or actual self-obliteration (if they’re unfortunate) is the gap, among intimates — family members, spouses/partners — the gap between what is said in words and what is said by actions. The wider the divide, the more crazy-making this is.
Such gaps are hard to even get, let alone take apart, let alone recover or heal from. I deeply believe it
can be done, and that to do so is vastly liberating. But not without effort. We’re too close to such gaps to see them, and they’re sometimes abysses; we may not want to see them, being afraid we might fall in and never emerge. And they affect us most at particularly vulnerable periods of our lives: we’re young and are pure unadulterated emotion, without comparative experience or analytical skills to back away, or we’ve just gone through some major life-tragedy. (Picture, left: CZ in a quiet moment, at her 90th birthday party. Photo, David Koff.)
My mother is a wildly talented, well-known writer of children’s books; she was an equally talented,
incredibly generous and insightful children’s book editor at Harper-Collins (then Harper & Row; and before that Harper & Brothers) for fifty-some years. She was and is much beloved by the many authors she worked with, including Paul Zindel , Francesca Lia Block, and Paul Fleischman. She has always been respectful and supportive of my talent, too. And oh, did she ever have the most gracious manners! And she was beautiful, too, though she never thought so at the time. (To right: a happier moment at that same birthday, which she shares with her sister, my Aunt Dot. Dorothy, in yellow, was turning 95 that year! Photo, David Koff).
(Recently, looking through a scrapbook I made her, she scrutinized a picture of herself and said thoughtfully, and utterly without guile, “I don’t remember being that attractive.”)
On the other hand: well, for now, let’s just say there is another hand. One to give, one to take away.
Until recently, but pretty much only within the family, Charlotte poured out major, almost excessive, generosity… but always, if you bit down on what was offered, there was a hook: bitter, sharp, ready to slice your your tongue or pierce the roof of your mouth.
This is hard for people who revere my mother to hear — there’s an interesting discussion of this re The Year It Rained, the novel I mentioned above, at a post called “The Polarizing Express” (It’s an excellent, thoughtful blog called Collecting Children’s Books , by Peter, a writer, reviewer, collector, and cataloger of same). But as for me, I think love and anger often coexist, as extreme selflessness and extreme selfishness sometimes do. (This picture, taken in 1998, was when I accompanied to Charlotte to the award given in her name, the Charlotte Zolotow Award, at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. I’m at the far left, CZ next to me. This is one group that definitely falls into the “we revere Charlotte” category.)
This — public graciousness, undeniable talent, and a lot of private anger, manipulation, love, and controlling behavior — is how it looked to me for a long, long time. Until fairly recently, but thankfully, thankfully, not much now. I grew up; she grew old. Things are different now.
Some poems of mine, then; never intended for publication. This first batch dates from the period around 2002, 2003, 2004; when she was, in old age, starting to lose it. For awhile, all her worst qualities (victimhood, a tendency towards melodrama, rage, manipulation, control) took over. For the first time, this side of her was visible to those outside the family (friends, caregivers – she went through seventeen of them in three years!).
That it was somewhat validating to me to have others finally recognize (with shock) this side of her at last, was the saddest, most bittersweet victory you can imagine; not victorious at all, just sad. And as it fell to me to “fix things” — to retrofit her house after she fell and broke her hip three times in one year, for instance, oh, it was difficult. I was still grieving Ned; I felt bereft, beleaguered, adrift. My mother was angry all the time. I was traveling back and forth from Arkansas for some of that period, then from Vermont to Westchester, New York, a four hour drive each way…
One day, back in Vermont after a particularly hard week, I had a latte at L.A. Burdick’s (a fabulous cafe and chocolate shop about twenty minutes drive from my home). Pen and notebook in purse, as almost always. Without conscious forethought, I began to write, and found myself spinning out mother-related haiku after haiku.
What I saw as her point of view:
shall I start counting for you?
my life’s very hard
if you understood,
you’d agree, clearly love me.
I’ll explain again.
call me when you’ve got
some real time, an hour, two:
not this pissant call
I love you dearly
surely you could improve things
if you would only try
my daughter. Too bad
she won’t fix my painful life.
Doesn’t fit. You’re wrong.
No one is doing their job.
Sure I’m unhappy.
And, imagining how outraged she’d be at my statements about this:
my daughter places
mean words, bitter sentiments
in my mouth. Tragic.
And my own frustration, futility, anger at not being able to make things better, nor to stop caring or get some emotional distance:
I’d gladly give you
what you want. But it’s always
changing, never right.
busy redefining what
perfect is. Trouble.
I can’t get no, no
satisfaction. Is it Mick?
No, just Mom again.
My intentions are
I’d like to give you
what I feel: two cats purring,
And this, perhaps about both of us:
Why want what you don’t
have? Human nature? Greediness?
Refusing to see?
But I was wrong on this one:
Contentment won’t make
an appearance in Mom’s life
not now not ever.
Because, occasionally now, it does. (In the picture below, taken in September of 2007, CZ in such a moment. Photo, David Koff).
About two years after the poems above were written, I found myself writing what follows, in a class with
Pat Schneider. (Pat is herself a very fine writer and remarkable teacher, based in Amherst, Massachusetts. She founded Amherst Writers and Artists in 1981; her book about her method of teaching, Writing Alone and with Others, will have every writer underlining and asterisking and, finally, using. She is also a woman who has written extensively, honestly, and beautifully about her own complex issues with her mother, in her memoir Wake Up Laughing: A Spiritual Autobiography. If you live at all close to Amherst, you have the opportunity to study with her once a week on an ongoing basis; an experience which should not be missed.)
The assignment Pat gave us had to do with “what matters.” Writing it, I’d say, may have been the beginning of the so-long-in-coming sea change in being with Charlotte.
At last, at last, Relationship School, even in this most fraught of relationships, was teaching me again how to love and be loved:
What matters, then? What remains?
Subtract the fact
that there was always “Yes, but – ”
to any moment that might, for her,
have threatened complete happiness.
Subtract the flat
of blue-velvet-faced pansies,
cheerful shocking yellow centers.
She taught me how to plant.
Subtract the water
she taught me to pour around each.
Subtract even the soil (or its memory),
turning to mud, and how
each seedling must be settled
down and in a second time,
patted as its element changes:
how, when I gasped
at that pink soft curled moving thing,
she said, “Oh no, it’s a worm, it’s good,
it won’t hurt you.”
Subtract that she has lost
the knack of naming:
Monday, Friday, January, June –
Joan, Jules, Josephine, “You know,
the one who pays my bills…” “…who used to live
next door…” “…that poet…” “You know,
your brother’s friend, who lives in –
that city, with the painted houses,
by the water, that’s always colder
than you think it ought to be, and
overcast each morning…”
Subtract the huge unbending joints
on tiny hands;
subtract the rings which, thus,
she gave to me.
Subtract the green eyes
browned by medication,
the ambulettes, subtract
“They tell you things
about me that just aren’t true;
they lie and you believe them,
no one asks how I feel, what I want.”
Subtract the gauze dress, pink and blue
she sent one spring, which I wore
to the ribbon-cutting
of a business I no longer own
in a town where I no longer live
when I was a wife
to someone who, being dead,
is now without address.
Subtract the rage.
Subtract the gaps between
what’s said and meant.
Subtract the future and the past,
sciatica and death and birth,
glaucoma, osteo, and Fosamax
exasperation, hopelessness, and repetition
Subtract the old, old shapes and patterns.
Subtract the body, once my height and weight,
now 75 pounds, though still fond of salmon,
drowning in a twin bed, always cold.
Subtract duty, money, obligation, and their grip.
What matters is, not because I must,
I love her.
So. And now that so much is falling away, I not only know, as I always have, that she loves me, but sometimes she simply expresses it: no buried fishhook, no agenda, just joy and acceptance. Who would have thought?
Whether your mother is living or dead, whether your relationship with her is basically resolved and happy, or more ambivalent, or fatally flawed; whether you even know her or not; whether you are
a mother or are without children, I hope you celebrate Mother’s Day.
No matter what else she was or is, your mother was the imperfect portal through which you entered your own imperfect life, and took temporary residence on this imperfect earth.
If we preface the holiday with “happy”, and of course we do, let it be the kind of happiness with breadth
and depth, radical acceptance (even if it takes awhile), transparency (at least in one’s own understanding), and, perhaps, forgiveness (but not if it has to be forced, not if you do it because you “should”).
Such happiness is bittersweet, but then, so is good chocolate. Such happiness embraces it all: broken dishes, broken promises, passed-down delicate heirloom lusterware tea-pots, scents that may mix Chanel Number Five with Clorox, cigarette smoke, dilled chicken soup, Jergen’s lotion, nail polish remover. (Photo left; holding hands: the knobbly jointed hands belong to my mother, the hands with rings are mine, and the third set of hands are my aunt’s).
Such happiness is love and life, imperfect perfection.
And for writers, it’s part of work, rich material which should not be forgotten or regretted, but utilized. It is yours alone (your mother has her own) and far too precious to waste.