My mother’s novel was an odd reading experience for me, and not just because it contained sex scenes. It was astonishingly well written, with a wonderful voice full of the verbal energy she brings to even the most ordinary conversation. But the main character was clearly an idealized version of herself, and whereas her previous pieces had been about recapturing the past with my father, this one seemed to experiment with an alternative life as a bohemian, and decidedly single, artist — a life that didn’t include a husband or children.
She looks to the goal of making us children independent, successful, and competent in the world and while she challenges me to push my limits and work through struggles, she also hardly ever criticize me. She is there supporting me whether I win or lose, pass or fail. She is my leadership role model because I want to instill a drive in my followers but also have them know that they are important to me no matter what they accomplish. My mother would agree one must focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses.
I looked at her across the little table, as she sat very straight and still, awaiting her writing teacher’s verdict. Suddenly, I could see the emotional logic driving her novel: If she hadn’t married my father, she wouldn’t have had to suffer the pain of losing him. And I could understand how imagining that pain away might look like an attractive option right now.
It’s always been a matter of faith for me that good writing begins with the ability to say what you want without worrying about how others might react. Nothing worthwhile happens in writing without that basic expressive freedom. I’d worked many years to achieve that imaginative openness for myself, however tentative and fragile it still often felt. Did I want to refuse it to my mother?
She genuinely cares for the people she loves and always puts our needs before those of her own. My mother is humble and selfless and works to connect and understand each of her children in order to help us grow emotionally and raise our capacities to laugh at ourselves and never take life too seriously. She is a firm believer in treating everyone equally, but not uniformly. Each challenge that has arisen with each of us children is met with a new process fit to that child’s personality and needs. She adapts so well to in order for the different child to acquire the most insight from her advice.
She asked, “Dad why do they laugh when everything the preacher stated is true?” At that moment I comprehended the significant consequences of the encounters my daughter endured from church people who had shown aggression towards her father and mother as pastors....
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“Nonsense,” says my mother, turning in her seat to face the others, barely suppressing a smile. “What good would that do me? I’m a writing student — just one who happened to give birth to the teacher.”
My mother began writing after my father died: little fragments of things, a dream in which he spoke to her, an anecdote from their 40-year marriage. She wanted to recapture what was gone, to make him present again — or perhaps to acknowledge the strange fact that he was still present, even though he was nowhere to be seen. She would read these pieces to me when she came to visit in North Carolina, and I would listen with the bittersweet ache of recognition, hearing my father’s voice, recognizing his quirks and mannerisms. My mother turned out to be good with words, an inspired sort of gossip, the kind who leans forward to lower her voice. “Well,” she would begin, love, sorrow, amusement, and revenge mixing together.
We started the two-day drive back to North Carolina early the next morning. The car was crowded, and the kids were watching a movie on the DVD player, but my mother crouched over her notebook in her lap, writing with great determination. “Looks like you’re on a streak,” I said to her.