My Mother/My Writing: Turning Childhood Memories Into Fiction
We all know that fiction writers draw from real life and their own experiences. But we’re never quite sure what’s true and what’s fabricated. In this piece, written for Mother U, Janice Eidus, author of The Last Jewish Virgin and other novels and short stories, connects the dots from her turbulent childhood to her “most autobiographical novel,” The War of the Rosens, which explores the complexities of the mother/daughter bond.
Clinically depressed for years, my mother refused the help of therapists and doctors. My siblings and I lived, day by day, with her ever-present sorrow and bleak world view that inspired a serious suicide attempt. I came to see her as a Cassandra-like figure who foresaw a dark future and whose prophecies no one believed–except me.
Another legacy for me of her depression was that for many years I didn’t want to be a mother. I didn’t want to recreate a sad, angry nuclear family– the only kind I could envision. I married a man who felt the same way; he’d always felt like an outsider and interloper in his family.
To my surprise, however, once I was married, my depressed mother, like most Jewish mothers, fervently wanted grandchildren. This meant that I was disappointing her again and contributing to her sorrows. But, approximately ten years into my marriage, after lots of therapy and self-examination, I finally believed I could be a “good-enough” mother–and that I didn’t have turn into my mother. My husband came on board, and we became the adoptive parents of a beautiful one-year-old girl from Guatemala.
As a grandmother, my mother was no Cassandra. She was playful, generous, even downright bubbly, dancing and singing with my daughter. She finally had some real happiness in her life. Sadly, she died when my daughter was three, but we have lots of memories preserved in film and photos, and in her music box collection, which my daughter inherited.
Now my daughter is almost nine, and despite the endless distractions of motherhood, I’ve managed to keep writing. In many of my novels and short stories, the mother-daughter relationship is a complicated one, central to character, plot, and theme. My obsession with mothers and daughters surely comes from the fact that my relationship with my own mother was a difficult one, fraught with anger, tears, and misunderstandings on both sides. Using that material has helped lead me to a place of greater wisdom and understanding–about the joys and sorrows, strengths and weaknesses, of my mother’s and my relationship. Fiction is the truth and beauty of our unconscious minds brought to life on the page–food for thought, for life, for family.
The War of the Rosens, for example, is my most autobiographical novel. It takes place in the 60s, in a Bronx housing project, much like the one in which I grew up. In the following scene, Annette, the depressed, socialist-minded mother, modeled on my own mother, is upset with her oldest daughter. Thirteen-year-old May is a version of my older sister, who was often angry, and who, from early adolescence on, yearned to be a femme fatale.
“Show me the dress that you’re going to wear to Bonita’s Halloween party,” Annette says grimly to May, looking up from the sinkful of dirty dishes she’s washing. She wants to get a look at this so-called “Kim Novak outfit” that May keeps talking about, and that she’ll be wearing later this afternoon at Bonita’s party.
Now, taking a final slurp of the bittersweet soda, May rises and stretches. “Okay,” she says to her mother, although she knows it’s probably not a great idea, “I’ll try on the dress for you.” Her mother, the world’s biggest fuddy-duddy and party-pooper, the least sensual woman on the planet, will undoubtedly disapprove of the black, slightly low-cut sheath dress.
Nevertheless, May allows herself to stand proudly in costume before her mother, who’s still busy washing dishes. May’s spine is straight and her feet are perfectly balanced in the pair of glowing, ebony, high heeled, pointy-toe shoes she purchased with her own allowance money. She pirouettes, feeling just like a beauty pageant contestant parading before the judges.
But Annette, whose hands are encased in a pair of ripped yellow rubber gloves and immersed in a sinkful of heavily-scented soap bubbles, feels nothing like a beauty pageant judge. She feels exhausted and beleagured and sick of washing dishes three times a day for her ungrateful family. She stops in the midst of scouring an egg-encrusted pan with a soap pad. She stares at her daughter. Had this girl truly emerged from her loins?
Annette knows that, no matter what she says, May will do exactly what she wants, even though no teenager in her right mind dresses up on Halloween as Kim Novak, a flash-in-the-pan Hollywood nobody, a vacuous bimbo with dyed blonde hair and a pushup bra. May will suffer at the party, dressed like this. The other kids won’t get it, they’ll mock her, if not to her face, then behind her back.
“You’re too young to dress like this,” Annette says, turning back to the sink and picking up the bristly soap pad. “Besides, Kim Novak is a …” she pauses, then decides to say the word aloud “… slut.” Annette scrubs the crusty pan even harder than before, so hard she feels tension forming at the base of her skull.
May has stopped pirouetting. Her skin feels hot as she watches her mother attacking the frying pan with such vengeance. The nerve of her frumpy, rubber-gloved mother criticizing gorgeous Kim.
May will not stand for this. Like the God of Exodus, she will not be denied her revenge. And so, right there in the kitchen, poised on her high heels, she opens her mouth and begins to scream. The sound is wonderful and satisfying, as loud and bloodcurdling as a scream in a horror movie, the pure, unadulterated sound of rage and terror, and she hopes that all of their neighbors hear her, so they’ll know exactly how much her mother has provoked her.
Excerpted from The War of the Rosens, ©2007, Janice Eidus. All rights reserved.