IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Mother Wrote a Book About Our Family and It Made Me Question Our Relationship

The chapters of my childhood were dismissed as the terrible things that happened before she "found herself."
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The chapters of my childhood were dismissed as the terrible things that happened before she "found herself."

Mom and I were very close and had a unique understanding of each other. My half-sister moved out when I was four, and my other sister left for boarding school when I was 11; from that point until I went to college, it was me and Mom left with my verbally (and sometimes physically) abusive father. 

We stuck together to get through the rough times. We talked for hours as she cried and tried to figure out how she could afford to leave my father and be on her own. When she was too drunk to make it to her bed, I held her up. I looked for houses she could rent and encouraged her to get a divorce. She confided in me about her fears of being alone, fears of having to be financially independent.

Mom and me, age 3.

Mom and me, age 3.

In 1999, as she wavered on the cusp of leaving my father, I headed to Boston for college. About six months later, as I was enjoying my new life at art school, she called and said she was leaving my father and had filed for divorce. She wanted to get far away from him and move to Savannah, but she couldn't drive herself due to a knee injury. 

I had the flu and felt like I was dying, but she said she couldn't wait. I took a bus back home to upstate New York to drive her, our bulldog, Max, and the VW Cabriolet full of her possessions on a two-day trip to Savannah. We had been through thick and thin together. We had both gotten out of that house, and were starting new chapters in our lives.

After a rough start being on her own for the first time in her life, mom got a job at a local cigar shop, joined the Methodist church (she said the Catholic church wouldn't take her back after two divorces), and found new happiness in Savannah. She felt that she had evolved spiritually, found herself, found God. She married the cigar shop owner and started writing a memoir. 

She worked on the book for seven years. After speaking with publishers, she changed the names of our family members, used a pen name, and called it fiction so she wouldn't be liable. None of the publishers were interested in publishing the book, so she decided to self-publish it.

She wouldn't show me her drafts of the book, but it didn't seem evasive at the time. She assured me I would see it when it was ready. I trusted her, and I thought I was comfortable with total honesty. I had lived through many of the things she would write about, so there shouldn't be many surprises. I actually looked forward to people knowing the truth of what happened behind closed doors, beyond the perfect family Christmas cards. 

I supported her writing and how it helped her process all that had happened through abuse, two failed marriages, and raising three daughters. She asked me to design the book jacket for her, and I felt honored to do that. She sent me the summary paragraph, and I worked with her on the design until we were both happy with it. 

And just like that, in January of 2008, her book and cover were professionally printed, and her story was available to anyone that wanted to read it.

The book was for sale on Amazon and stacks were put out at the cigar shop. Word about the book spread quickly through the town we were from, and eager gossip mongers snatched up a few copies to pass around. Mom sent copies of the book to my sisters and me.

I read the 280-page book in one night. I felt pain for the secrets I never knew about her life as a young adult, her first marriage, abuse before my father. I also felt very vulnerable and exposed — our names were changed, so who cares if strangers read it? But I knew the majority of the people purchasing this unknown, self-published book knew our family and wanted a look behind the facade for their own entertainment. Reading it felt very voyeuristic, like you shouldn't be watching; it was too private, but you couldn't look away either. 

I felt betrayed because of the way I was minimized in the book. Maybe that's ego or immaturity, but it felt like we had been on that journey together, and I was a very small part of her story. It wasn't what she said about me or my sisters, it was how little we were even mentioned in the story. She didn't write about being a mother — at all. Were we that insignificant a part of her life? She wrote more about the dog than her daughters or her experience being a mother. 

And finally, I felt anger. 

The book begins and ends with a lot of advice about how God is the key to everything. This was coming from someone who raised me without a bible in the house, without a prayer ever witnessed or any sign of faith other than attending an occasional Sunday mass at whatever church she chose that week. Who the hell was she to give advice to anyone about how to find fulfillment and happiness? Her happy ending entailed her moving to another state, changing her name, marrying the first man she went on a date with, and distancing herself from her daughters. 

I felt tricked, abandoned, and disillusioned with everything I thought I knew about my relationship with her. I immediately regretted designing the book jacket. It felt like an endorsement of the book, and that wasn't fair because she hadn't let me read it before it was published. The chapters of my childhood were dismissed as the terrible things that happened before she "found herself." How could she dismiss the years of raising her children as a bump in the road on her way to God? How could she dismiss my whole life?

What she wrote in the book wasn't lies; it was her version of her life. But I felt that she was still lying to herself. I called her and tried to talk through my feelings with her, but she didn't have much to say. She just absorbed it like a sponge. At that point, I felt like it was a one-way conversation, and I just pulled away from her. 

If I was such a small part of her life journey and now she had God instead, then I didn't need to be in contact with her much anymore. I had "What's new?" chats with her about once a month, but that was the extent of our relationship from then on.

A few months later, Mom had a stroke. Her health began to quickly decline, but her doctors didn't know why. In the spring of 2009, she was diagnosed with a blood disorder, myelodysplastic syndrome. When she got a second opinion a couple of weeks later, she was diagnosed with leukemia. Days later, she was hospitalized, and I flew to Savannah to see her with one of my sisters. When we got there, she could no longer speak and was barely conscious. 

She died on April 29, 2009, just 10 days after her leukemia diagnosis.

I mourned the loss of what might have been. I mourned the loss of what we had. I mourned the loss of her being a grandmother to my future children. Nothing had been resolved, and now she was gone. My heart was broken.

I haven't read the book since that first time in 2008. But since I've become a mother, I've only questioned her more. Her priorities. Her strengths. Her faults. I wouldn't want my children to read the book one day and think that was who she was. That's not the mother I knew. That's not the woman I rode in the convertible with, the wind blowing our hair, blasting Frank Sinatra. Or talking for hours over dinner as she went over flashcards with me to help me with my school work. The woman with a smile that could light up a room. An amazing cook, a passionate photographer, a flamboyant dresser, a terrible singer. Whenever I'm cooking one of her recipes I know by heart, I think of her and smile.

It may seem, to an outsider, that my mother gave my sisters and me a gift. She wrote a book that we will have forever — some insight into her mind and soul that many would love to have from a parent they've lost. But I don't feel that way. I feel like she left me questioning everything I thought I knew about our relationship as mother and daughter. She grew distant after she moved to Savannah. I distanced myself from her after reading the book. And we didn't get to work through it. I am still mourning the loss of the mother I knew.

After she died, someone asked me if I was close to my mother. I didn't know how to answer that. All I could say was, "Well, she was my mother." Maybe I need to accept both versions of her. I start to sweat and my heart races just thinking about it, but maybe it's time to read the book again.

[Written under the name of my character in my mother's book.]