After I wrote her first draft death in late August, I drove weeping to a friend’s to swim, got pulled over by a policeman for crossing a yellow line: What’s wrong? he asked. I looked at his child-like face and thought, I’ll never explain the 45-year gap. “My mother just died,” I said. Compassion crossed his face. He gave me a warning.
I will finish for good, I pledged, by the anniversary of her death, October 3, but I did not. On October 4, I wept again. On October 5, I was close. On October 6, my friends gave up on me.
On October 7, my stovetop Italian coffee pot melted—I’d forgotten the water—then the glass beaker of the French press flew off the counter and shattered on the floor, and then, as I was finally finishing, a gunshot pop from the kitchen: I got there in time to watch a second egg explode from the boiled-out saucepan. And the wind rose up and blew smoke down the chimney, smoke so dense I couldn’t see the keyboard, a revolting stench remaining in my clothes until I wash them.
We didn’t burn her—she was embalmed, buried in a pine coffin. She wanted the glamor of simplicity in death and had planned every detail of her funeral.
The Bishop’s Daughter came in one fell swoop in the three years following my father’s death; it was as if the book had nested within me only to be summoned forth. Getting her was like pulling an endless thread from some long ago sewing basket. Each section required a swoop of its own as I struggled forward from her birth in 1923, looking anew at her relationship with her mother, “the white blackbird” of my first family book, tracking, tracking, tracking, wrestling her from my father’s side into a solo position. Each stage of her life had new lighting, new scenery, new costumes, new ideas.
For instance: After 50 years of Second Wave feminism, still no nuanced narrative for the mothers of baby boomers, those depicted in Mary McCarthy’s (overrated) The Group, Rona Jaffe’s (underrated) The Best of Everything—girls in skirts in a row walking toward us like a Law and Order cast at the beginning of an episode. Not law or order but poignant, thwarted ambition. We’re used to that scenario but actually, freed by The Feminine Mystique and Second Wave feminism, many of them changed their lives. If you bring in a woman’s own ambitions, ideas and dreams, the photo is altered.
In 1968, when her youngest child was six and she was forty-five, she published her first book.
Pay attention! Don’t get sentimental there at the end. My life was NOT a tragedy. Fearing I wouldn’t get it, she melted my coffee pot, shattered my french press, tornadoed smoke down that chimney. The fights we had in life were warlike, hair-trigger that mother of nine, white upper class woman escaping Brahmin Boston for a “normal life” only to discover that normal meant doing everything for others, despite that Barnard phi beta kappa key. “Overeducated,” Mary McCarthy, ten years older, dubbed them.
Much is lost in visits from the dead—as if asteroids and blackhole-air tilt sentences and blur the edges of words. When I did finish, five days after the anniversary, she put me immediately to bed, forced me to stay in. Understanding I’d already reread Black Beauty to get back her reading to me when I was sick at six, she found me Law and Order UK.
When I had measles in 1952, she brought gingerale and grape juice and called me sweetie. I remember she was wearing black velvet, bent to kiss me in a cloud of Je Reviens by Worth. I order in from Mezzogiorno that night, pasta thank you very much, and she allows it. Two weeks later she closes the restaurant for good.
The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.