Do women expect more from our mothers than we do from other human beings? Why is the bond between mother and daughter so elemental to a woman's identity? In "Riding Shotgun: Women Write About Their Mothers," 21 writers (almost all with Minnesota ties) explore in essays sometimes idyllic, sometimes bleak, the curses and blessings of this complex relationship.
No Hallmark card stuff here, the book and its varied epiphanies suggest that the emotional bond between mother and daughter is anything but simple. Hashing it out through metaphor, the writers sort and order memories that are unwieldy and fraught with emotion. (Try summing up your own mother in a single essay!)
In "Storm Warnings" Jonis Agee likens her mother's coldness to a blizzard that would freeze the garden gate. Life with her mother, she recalls, was a mercurial mix of neglect and care, tirades and joy -- an unpredictable ride that she still deals with today. "I spent a lifetime learning to seek still waters with Mother," she writes, "places that were shallow and quiet, where we could find no disagreement to send her into a spiraling rage."
But where some essays are filled with pain and yearning, others are lyrical tributes to creative, nurturing women.
In "Shall I Jump Now?" Alison McGhee remembers her mother, Gabrielle, as a young math teacher, a Scrabble wiz, a gardener, a cook, a dancer, a seamstress. She recalls her mother comforting her heartbreaks, supporting her writing, waving goodbye as Alison ventures off -- as all children must do. She recalls all this within the context of trying to sort out a dream in which she has seen her mother, bathrobed and slippered, on the deck of a ship, her arms outstretched for balance. While the wind and the waves roil around her, she blithely asks her terrified daughter, "Shall I jump now?" By the end of the essay, McGhee has interpreted the dream to mean that the time will come when she will have to say goodbye to her mother, a time when "the enormous work of staying behind and waving, waving until she is out of sight, will be mine."
Each essay is rich with imagery, weighty with nuance. It is not easy to get the right words around love, gratitude, fear, longing, but these writers do an honest, often heart-wrenching job of it. The rapid-fire images and terse sentences of Diane Glancy's "(M)other," for example, fling such sadnesses at the reader that you'll want to take the young Glancy into your arms and comfort her. "I was the moth that kept [my mother] in the house," she writes. I was the cement block that tried to drown her. She swept with a broom that was her tongue. ... I was the object to which she objected."
You have to take a step back after reading each essay before going on to the next. To read too many consecutively is to blur the edges of the portraits. But though each relationship has its unique poignancy, most of the writers -- because they've grown, suffered or have become mothers themselves -- arrive at awe for or acceptance of their mothers, flaws and all.
Taiyon Coleman in "Grown Folks' Business" realizes at 26 (and suffering in her own troubled marriage), that her mother was brave and selfless and strong. Denise Low, by the end of "My Mother Is a Garden," understands that her mother was "a strong woman born in a time when she did not have tools to sculpt her life." Sheila O'Connor, in "Your Mother," appreciates her mother most when she watches her with her own children.
And Shannon Olson, with perhaps the most vivid and recognizable mother, realizes that the articles and newspaper clippings her mother sends, as if some kind of daughter-improvement campaign, are really love letters of sorts, her way of saying, "Here ... I care about you, about the world. There are diseases and broken hearts and boots on sale at Dayton's. I love you."
Christine Brunkhorst is an English instructor at St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights.