No More Dead Mothers: Reading, Writing, and Grieving
After Three Novels, Hannah Gersen Gets Through the Loss of Her Mother
At present, my goal as a writer is to make up stories without any dead mothers. I am 37 years old, my mother has been dead almost 15 years and still I cannot seem to write a novel without killing off a mother, grieving her, and punishing one or more characters for not grieving enough.
I sold a novel last year, the first novel I’ve ever sold but not the first I have written. I attempted my first novel a few months after my mother’s death. I was 23. The novel was about an 11-year-old boy whose mother abandons him. The mother doesn’t die; she moves to New York City, which was where my mother received her first terminal diagnosis. Before the mother leaves, she takes her son to Maine, which is where my mother took me, the summer after I graduated from college. We lived in Deer Isle, but separately, my mother staying in various cabins while I worked full-time at a nearby inn and lived with girls my own age. In retrospect it seems a strange arrangement, but I think my mother wanted to give me the freedom and privacy that had been denied to her as a young woman.
I found a boyfriend that summer, a fling that I think could have been serious, maybe deeply serious. But that summer I couldn’t bear to love someone that much, not when the person I loved most was leaving the world.
Now I’m thinking of spring because I live in Brooklyn, where the weather has suddenly, incredibly, changed. The sun is shining and the streets are bright with puddles, reflecting the strong light. Everyone is smiling and chatty, wearing loosened scarves and new spring clothes bought superstitiously, or maybe just hopefully, in the slushy depths of March.
I hate spring. Spring is the season of my mother’s death and my own birth, the two anniversaries separated by only four days. For years I didn’t want to celebrate my birthday, a request my friends obliviously ignored, insisting on parties, which I drank through unhappily. One year I finally got my way and stayed home and listened to sad music and cried until I couldn’t anymore. Then I sat on my fire escape and smoked cigarettes, trying to control my own death as I couldn’t control hers. But my strongest memory of that day was reading “The Country Husband” by John Cheever. The story enveloped me as it never has before. It’s a story that begins with a plane crash and ends with a man’s realization that life on earth is a mysterious gift. That sounds sentimental but Cheever’s stories are always shadowed by war, regret, shame, glimpses of lives not lived and longed for; secrets.
* * * *
I love a writer with secrets in her work. Not secrets in the sense of twisty plotting—a secret revealed that unlocks meaning—but secrets that are subterranean and disturbing to the prose, causing aberrations and digressions that create texture and ultimately give the story its meaning, or what Orhan Pamuk calls “the center” of a novel. In his book of lectures, The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist, Pamuk describes the novel’s center as “a profound opinion or insight about life, a deeply embedded point of mystery, whether real or imagined.” Novelists search for this center as they write their books; readers search for it as they read. In Pamuk’s view, the best novels have centers that are hard to articulate, but not elusive: “The challenge of defining the center of a literary novel should remind us that the literary novel is an entity whose meaning is difficult to articulate or to reduce to anything else—just like the meaning of life.”
The most important thing about the center of a novel is that it may be at odds with the author’s abstract intent. That is, a writer may sit down to write a book about a free-spirited woman abandoning her marriage for a new life in New York City, only to discover that she’s most concerned with the grief of the woman’s abandoned child. What alerts the writer to her interest is not the pull of the plot, but the pull of the sentences.
Proust is one of the great novelists because his sentences are all in the service of his novel’s center. In Search of Lost Time ripples with digression and observation; it’s so full of life that I find myself thinking of it as a living thing, almost a person I can talk to. And yet reading Proust—or any novelist—is not like talking to a person. The difference between talking and writing is the kind of subtle distinction that Proust is most interested in examining, and the subject comes up after Marcel, the narrator of In Search of Lost Time, meets his literary idol:
There was more modulation, more stress, in his books than in his talk: stress independent of beauty of style, which the author himself has possibly not perceived, since it was not separable from his most intimate personality… This stress is not marked on the printed page, there is nothing there to indicate it, and yet it imposes itself of its own accord on the writer’s sentences, one cannot pronounce them in any other way, it is what was most ephemeral and at the same time most profound in the writer, and it is what will bear witness to his true nature, what will ultimately say whether, despite all the asperities he expressed, he was gentle, or despite his sensualities, sentimental.
Proust’s “stress” is similar to Pamuk’s “center.” I like the idea of stress, an invisible pressure that “imposes” itself on a writer’s prose; for me there’s always been something physical about writing that’s hard to pinpoint. Charles D’Ambrosio describes it this way, in the preface to Loitering, his collected essays: “One of my earliest ideas about writing was that the rhythms of prose came from the body, and although I still believe that, I don’t know what I mean.”
I’m getting lost in literature, as I always do when I try to get hold of the grief that sneaks up from time to time and sometimes still overwhelms me. Allow me one more quotation from Proust, who I read during one particularly lonely winter in my twenties, a stagnant period when I was stuck in another novel, a second novel, this one about two young men and their intertwining ambitions. Of course a dead mother snuck in, the secret center of the book, the center I didn’t want to acknowledge. I denied the book its secrets and it turned into a melodrama. Of course no agent or editor was interested. Agents and editors can tell when something is missing, even if they can’t always say what it is. Readers, too.
In her memoir, True North, Jill Ker Conway described reading Proust during nights of insomnia after the death of her difficult mother. She said she admired Proust’s exquisite objectivity. I know what she means; reading Proust, I was able to get some distance on my grief. I learned to see how fears of death and loneliness intermingle with fantasies of love and happiness. In Within a Budding Grove, I underlined a passage about the feeling of expectancy the bereaved feel, the sense that the beloved will return: “We are all of us obliged, if we are to make reality endurable, to nurse a few follies in ourselves.” I came across a similar insight in Born Standing Up, Steve Martin’s memoir about learning to write comedy: “Through the years, I have learned there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration.”
Expectancy, folly, delusion: these words sum up my twenties. I had no idea how much I was going to need my mother in those years, no idea that everyone would have cell phones and text-messaging, that being in touch with one’s parents would become so quotidian. I remember riding the bus home from work one day, it was a good day, I felt happy and free, and then I glanced at the passenger next to me—I wanted her to know I was getting off—and I saw a to-do list peeking out of her paperback novel, a list that began with, “Call mom.” A hot arrow went through my heart. Why? This was the question I asked myself as I disembarked and walked the rest of the way home. Why, where does the pain come from? The heat? I didn’t feel the presence of my mother’s ghost that day, I hadn’t been longing for her. It took a few blocks before I understood that it was the girl that I longed for, the girl who needed to remind herself to call the person who loved her most in the world; she was the girl I could have been if my mother hadn’t died.
It took me years to forget the girl I could have been. Sometimes I think she was my great infatuation, my manic pixie dream girl. I don’t know how I got over her. Maybe I grew up, like men do in the movies. Maybe I got sick of her silence, the way she had nothing to do with my fiction, and nothing to say. When the fantasy of the girl I could have been finally died, I began to hear my mother’s voice very strongly. I wrote down everything she said. Her words turned into stories. The stories turned into publications. With her words, I won a fellowship that brought me to the shores of Cape Cod, where I sat on the beach and read To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf’s great mother-haunted novel. Woolf’s mother died when she was thirteen, a loss whose grip on Woolf weakened after she brought her mother to life in the character of Mrs. Ramsay. Woolf’s older sister, Vanessa Bell, wrote to Woolf that her portrait of their mother in To the Lighthouse was so realistic that “it was almost painful to have her so raised from the dead.”
Woolf’s nerve strengthened me; for the first time I read the journals my mother left me to read—and to write from. The journal with the green cover was the last one, the one that scared me. The cancer-addled sentences might scar me. But my mother was an artist, not a writer, and the most powerful entry was a sketch of her body and the locations of her tumors. I thought of what it must have taken to draw that sketch: curiosity, humility, bravery, a steady hand. I thought of the other artwork she’d created in her lifetime. For several years, she worked on a series of hand-dyed quilts that portrayed the seasons. My favorite depicts yellow leaves falling through an autumnal blue sky. Her yellow leaves are angular, sharp and jagged as real leaves are. The colors are perfect: the yellow is summer’s yellow, the blue is winter’s blue, and the tension between the two colors reminds me of the invigorating tensions of fall, a season of both abundance and decay. I like the honest sadness of autumn, the chill in the air, the smell of burning.
Of course, it’s possible that I’m projecting, because I know the scene my mother’s yellow-leaf quilt depicts: it’s the view from her studio window in the stone farmhouse where I grew up. My mother always liked for me to play in the backyard because she could see me out that window while she worked. I have a clear memory of looking up from the garden, as a child, and seeing her standing at the window, watching me. My mother’s protectiveness usually annoyed me but in that moment I felt nothing but love—for me, but also for the garden, the sky, the locust tree with its yellow leaves that swirled as they fell.
When my mother was piecing and designing her yellow leaf quilt, I was no longer a child; I was an 18-year-old girl, about to leave home for the first time. Unbeknownst to me, my parents were preparing to sell the house and move to another state. I believe my mother was sad when she sewed that quilt, I believe she wanted to slow the passage of time, to make the seasons stop changing; I believe she wanted to preserve those yellow leaves in amber.
* * * *
The short stories about my mother turned into a book, which led to an agent, but they didn’t find a publisher. Everyone wanted a novel. I began a third novel, this time about a football coach whose wife dies suddenly when his children are young. He has to take over his wife’s role, which means changing his life, mid-life. He gives up football to coach running, finding something joyful in the sport that he’d never seen before. I focused on running because the sport has always given me solace. Somehow it helped me to see the book as a novel, a vessel for everything I had been thinking about: death, family, change, forgiveness. I started the book, beginning with the wife’s death. I honestly thought I was writing in a new vein. A few months into the first draft I realized what I’d done. God damn. Another dead mother book. Oh well, I thought, if I’m going to be doomed to repeat a theme, at least I picked a universal one. My favorite joke is the one about the sergeant who doesn’t know how to tell one of his soldiers that his mother has died. The soldier’s name, let’s say, is Gersen. After some consideration, the sergeant comes up with a plan. He calls for his morning formation. “Ok men,” he says, “Fall in line and listen up. Everyone with a mother, take two steps forward—not so fast Gersen!”
Even typing that joke, I can’t help smiling. I love using my surname. On some level I feel like that bewildered soldier, or maybe I feel like the sergeant, completely unequipped to acknowledge death’s power. A good joke is like a powerful dream: it resonates because you’re playing all the parts. I can’t remember if I knew this joke before my mother died, but to be honest, I didn’t have such a great sense of humor before my mother’s death. I remember reading Chekhov in an English seminar and trying to understand why everyone thought his dialogue was so funny. When I read Austen, I thought she was mean. Even Shakespeare’s ribald puns were lost on me. I didn’t get why he’d bother with silliness when he had the ability to write a perfect sonnet.
Now I read these authors and see how their wit defines their moral sensibility. They lived in a world where death was not only inevitable, but omnipresent. Death had to be addressed, engaged, teased, and accepted. Death was not to be dwelled upon, but integrated.
* * * *
I am happy to say that the novel I’m working on now, my fourth novel—and I hope, my second publishable one—does not include any dead mothers. I wish I could say that this is because I have learned to integrate death into my writing. That after years of reading and contemplation, I’ve became aware of my fears and fantasies, and that through this awareness has come greater narrative control and artfulness. Or barring that, I wish, like Woolf, that I’d exorcised my mother by writing down her voice in those uncollected short stories. But what actually happened is that I had a baby, and that changed everything.
Before my son arrived, I worried a lot about how having a baby might change my writing. I began the novel I described above while I was pregnant. I hoped to finish a draft before my son was born but as the birth approached, I only had the energy to write in my journal. I felt a strange, existential sadness. Beautiful things made me cry. I sobbed watching Gene Kelly dance in An American In Paris. His grace overwhelmed me; I was suddenly aware of the hours, weeks, years, of practice and pain that preceded such sublime movement. My tears were hormonal and overwrought, and I remember crying in the shower, looking down at my huge, distended belly, wondering how on earth this situation could possibly end well. And then the hour of my son’s birth finally came, and he was pulled from my body and placed on my breast and I felt, suddenly, as if a veil had been lifted and the world was brighter and clearer than it had been since—since when? I looked down at my son’s soft skull, covered in black hair, and thought: since my mother died.
* * * *
In the weeks that followed my son’s birth, I felt so unbelievably happy I thought I was drugged. Turns out, I was—a little. The afterbirth hormones, which for some women bring on a toxic mix of anxiety, depression, and exhaustion, were, for me, a glorious cocktail of mellow, joyful vibes. I reveled in the love I felt for my baby, the excitement and happiness I felt just by looking at him. Every love song was for us, about us, every word one that he would one day speak, every melody one that he would one day sing, perhaps without even realizing it, just because he was so happy to be alive. Everyone warned me how tired I would be, but in those early months, even my fatigue was pleasant, as if I’d spend my day on the beach, drinking beers. The miracle was that I woke up the next day without even a trace of a hangover. I thought: this can’t last. And it didn’t, of course. For one thing, Hurricane Sandy flooded our apartment building. For another, I got really sick. And finally: I had to go back to work. But the strange thing was that the veil that was lifted on the evening of my son’s birth remained suspended; the world kept its brightness, its clarity. Some feeling of sadness—that haunted, dead mother feeling—was gone. It was as if loneliness, not grief, had dimmed my vision all those years.
When I returned to writing fiction, it was to the third novel I mentioned earlier—the one about the man with the dead wife and three motherless children. I reread what I had written and thought: I am not in the mood to write this story. But I also saw that what I had written had potential. There was a world there. And it was a world that I only I knew. It was my past. It was probably the first time I could say, honestly, that it was my past—something behind me, not leading me around by the nose.
In an essay called “Changing Our Stories” the novelist and critic Tim Parks asks two questions: “Can people change their lives? Can novelists change the kinds of stories they write?” Parks’ tentative answer is yes and yes, although ironically, Parks’ questions were inspired by a reviewer who was disappointed that Parks’ recent work had moved away from a “remorseless” sense that people can’t change. Parks is sympathetic to the reviewer’s disappointment; he knows that a story that is underpinned by the belief that people can evolve, gradually, is less dramatic than a story about people whose unchangeable essences are in conflict with one another. But events in Parks’ personal life forced him to rethink the determinism that characterized his earlier novels. (I know this, by the way, because I read Parks’ memoir Teach Us To Sit Still, which described how Parks, after many years of chronic pain, finally learned to treat it through meditation and other relaxation techniques. “Changing Our Stories” could even be seen as a coda to Teach Us To Sit Still.)
Parks describes the change in his work this way:
When a writer like myself, who has preached the inevitability of destiny and the impossibility of change for so long, begins to write rather different stories and look for new versions of events, you can feel free to assume that the old “narrative strategy” hasn’t delivered the desired results, or no longer delivers them. He’s no longer able to hold things together as they were by telling himself and the world there’s no other solution.
It’s safe to assume that, I, too, had to change narrative strategies in order to get myself in the mood to write my third novel, the dead mother book that my pregnant self bequeathed to me. It took a while to find the right plot, and the right narrators. I brought in a girl, Stephanie, who was a little like the girl I was, right after my mother died. (Finally, I had some distance from that confused, grief-stricken creature.) And I got closer to the father-narrator, a man who learns to find joy in a world riven apart by sadness.
In the meantime, my son grew up and learned to speak. He’s three now, and has begun to ask me about my mother. There’s a photo of her in his room, a picture of her and me. He’s confused by this photo, because in the photo, my mother is my age and looks like me. It took him a while to understand that the little girl in the photo is me and that the mother is my mother. When he finally got it, he pointed to my mother and said, “Can we go to her house?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head, “we can’t.”
This was a big question, which led to a discussion of death, and also, of what it means to be alive. It was a sad conversation but it didn’t weigh me down, as I thought it would—or as it might have, during the veiled years. Instead I felt gratitude, first to my mother, who must have had these conversations with me, as a child—conversations I can no longer remember—and then to my son, who is allowing me to have them again.
Later that night, after tucking my son into bed, I thought of how wonderfully concrete his original question was: Can we go to her house? It was a question that invited me to remember my mother’s house: the way she arranged her books and her kitchen, the highlighted to-do list on her desk, the museum postcards tacked to her bulletin board, her colored pencils, her stacks of fabrics, her ironing board, her dye buckets and dye formulas, written on index cards and taped to the wall. I remembered listening to her CDs—romantic Russian composers and opera singers with luscious voices—and I remembered borrowing the novels she purchased when she was in art school—faded Penguin paperbacks with her handwriting in the margins. I remembered the clothes my mother wore, the way she rolled up the cuffs of her pants to show off her brightly-colored socks, her thick, hand knit sweaters, and the orange-handled fabric scissors she wore around her neck on a strip of calico, alongside the pearl necklace my father had bought for her one year for Christmas, to her surprised delight. She liked it when the gold clasp slipped down, because it was as beautifully made as the pearls.
I felt such a deep happiness, remembering these things. I felt as if my mother were alive.
Feature image: Julia Stephen with Virginia [Woolf] on her lap, 1884, by Henry H. H. Cameron.