Thursday, November 20, 2014

Interpretations of my mother

I’ve written three memoirs and usually I can predict people’s reaction to what I’ve written. I  don’t mean whether they will like the book or not , I mean their reaction to the characters in the memoir. However, there is one character that always proves to be a wild card and that is my mother.  I have given hundreds of talks and am continually surprised by how much attention my mother garners both positive and negative.  In her life she was quiet and unassuming; yet, she propels people into orbit at my mere description of her. I wrote about her as the fantastic mother I thought she was—if I could be half the mother she was to me I’d be thrilled.  That is why I am stymied when people find her cold, distant and neglectful.  Is that the mother I portrayed? Was there an unconscious leakage of rage in my description of my lovely, pretty, mom? 
            As described in  Too Close to the falls, My mother never cooked a meal.; therefore, we ate in restaurants. She only used the oven for drying mittens. When I, an only child,  was four, I was so rambunctious that the paediatrician said I had to work full time. Since no one would ever hire a four year old, I went to work in my father’s drug store delivering drugs with the black delivery car driver named Roy.  I went out to breakfast with my Dad, the pharmacist, and the Rotary Club and then sold the morning papers at 6:00 a:m. The rest of the day was spent  delivering and dining with Roy and  then I rolled into home  around 10:00 p:m.   It was a charmed  life of innocence and fun  with most of my time spent on the road. I developed self confidence, because let’s face it, when you deliver drugs, people are happy to see you. 
             When I went to catholic school, I acted up, on a regular basis, speaking out of turn, questioning religious doctrine, and trying  to be amusing which was interpreted, probably correctly,  as disruption. When the principal, Sister Agnese,  called my home to complain, my mother just listened and after hanging up  said  to me that the nun had no sense of humour and suggested I save my routines for her when I  got home.  When people said I was too loud or too brash, she told me I was blessed with a big personality that may have been too big for the town. She suggested I ignore my critics which I found a satisfactory solution.  My mother and I had a lot of fun together. We confided all of our secrets to one another and she killed herself laughing at all of my imitations of people in the town.  She encouraged me in all of my endeavours no mater how bizarre.
            In, After the Falls, the sequel to, Too close to the Falls , the plot thickened and became a bit darker.  When I was in high school , my mother and I were left to cope with a father who’d lost his mind from a brain tumour and his money through bad planning while having a brain tumour.  We both used black humour to get us through our darkest times.  For example  when I was in University and investigated by the  FBI at my home,  my father, whose mind was failing, thought the agents were Hoover salesmen and got out our vacuum for a home demonstration. Somehow in his ravaged brain he had still retained the association of FBI and J. Edgar Hoover. My mother and I were perpetually amused by that tale.  I think it is an Irish Catholic trait to laugh in the face of tragedy.  Why not—crying doesn’t help?  When she was dying of leukaemia a few years after that she said the up side was no one would expect her to get up early or make a meal.
            It is true that she thought my life was my own and if I was going to act up or not do my school work it was my decision. When school called  to complain and asked if she was the mother of Cathy McClure, she always said no.  As she said, “Well I didn’t act up – you did."  When the police came to our house after I painted all the Black lawn Jockey’s in Buffalo white in the night, she said she had to have two Excedrin and go to bed.  She never once, in my entire life, criticized me.  I am not saying that was a good or bad thing – it is just a fact.  
            In all the book clubs I talked to most people admired by mother but there are always some who found her aloof, distant, and non-maternal and ultimately neglectful.  Some were appalled we didn’t have food in our house.  They equated food with love.  It seems to me that restaurants are great and why does it matter where you get your sustenance?  If food is love then why not love Colonial Sanders?  It is true she left me  to sort out my own issues.  But that seems to me the best way to grow up. Rousseau says  benign neglect is the best form of parenting and I’m with him on that one.
       People have some unrealistic view of what mothers are supposed to be. ( Especially true in the 50’s when women didn’t work) How long is it going to take to put these shibboleths of motherhood to rest? It seems like whenever you cut one myth to pieces, it rises up and double like the  hydra. My mother  had a graduate degree in math. She was a prisoner of her time living in an era before women worked. Once she confided to me that she really didn’t like motherhood. She found it a confusing and difficult job with no rules.  She said she loved me, but not the job of motherhood.  She said it was like teaching. ( She only taught for one day—saying she didn’t know she’d have to teach children.)  She loved math but not the job of  teaching it. She loved me but not the job of motherhood.  I imagine if we were all honest, there would be lots of mothers who would say the same thing.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Pig Headed

Why do I get so nervous for each publication of one my memoirs? Honestly, nothing else frightens me, well… maybe cooking, but I’ve learned how to avoid that.
On the day of my latest launch for my third and final memoir, Coming Ashore, I went to the gym in the morning to work off some of my excess energy and did what I always do, stepped on my treadmill and placed my hands on the heart rate monitor handlebars to see my resting heart rate. The machine does some fancy calculation involving my weight and age, (both appalling) and comes up with a magic number called my ‘training zone’ that my heart is supposed to take to heart.
Today for the first time as I stood there I read a message on the monitor I’d never seen before. In big green letters it said, SLOW DOWN! “I’m not even moving”, I said aloud to my machine. After a few minutes of standing still I started to walk stealthily like Peter following the wolf.
Then the screen went red and it said, PRESS EMERGENCY RED STOP BUTTON AND DISMOUNT!
I can only assume my heart was racing. My first thought was this was a great way to lose weight. You can surpass your training rate just by standing still and having a book launch.
 I write memoir. I have written ‘truths’ about myself that I would never have told anyone. Sometimes I’m embarrassed when I see that I’ve said in print.  I write alone for years on end in the confines of my third floor office perched in the treetops and confess to the squirrels and to my computer. My latest and, praise the Lord, last memoir in my trilogy covers my life from the age of twenty-one to twenty-six.  I wanted to be honest about what I was like at twenty-one.  (Who wasn’t somewhat of whack job at twenty-one?) At my launch I had to read a section about my ridiculous and somewhat embarrassing antics involving Jimi Hendrix in London.
 In my life, or anyone’s life, we all use defenses—denial, humour, intellectualization, delusions of grandeur and anger, the latter being my defense of choice. However, I’ve used all of them in various moments of need, and they have helped me to glide through life quite happily, relatively unscathed.
The problem with creative writing is that highly defended writing doesn’t work. It’s hackneyed and ultimately boring.  To be a decent writer, you have to dig down a layer and skulk around in your filthy unconscious, which is littered with hidden trauma and humiliation where your unbridled instincts lurk. Jung says, we as humans have a collective unconscious. It is in the unconscious where we all have things in common. To write you have to mine the creative unconscious.
In reality no one cares about my life or anyone’s life but their own. When people read fiction or memoir they are trying to find verification for their own unconscious thoughts. People say they read to learn about others and other cultures, but I don’t buy it. I believe they read to verify their interior world. It is a normalizing process.
I have received many letters referring to my first childhood memoir Too Close To The Falls, saying they also thought the Indian on the test pattern on TV in the 50’s was talking to them, just as I wrote that at the age of four, he was talking to me. They were relieved they weren’t alone in their fantasy or misunderstanding of new technology (TV was new in the 50’s). I think that people are really afraid of their own thoughts and are relieved when someone else has them. Memoirists come from behind sweeping with a normalizing brush. Ask yourself why would anyone care about Cathy McClure Gildiner at the age of four in Lewiston, New York in 1948.  I am not Madonna or Princess Diana. They read to find themselves in the book.
On the day of my latest launch, I opened the paper and read my first review, which said the book was witty and well written. As I expelling a sigh of relief, my roving eye alighted on a phrase near the bottom of the page saying I was pig headed.
So here you are out there on a tightrope telling the truth without a net and you get slammed. In memoir there is nowhere to hide. You are not hiding behind a fictional character.  I can’t assume the identity of Elizabeth Bennet or Mr. Darcy.  The character is me. When you write a memoir you have to grapple with the truth, frozen in time, of who you once were in your early twenties while still hoping to keep the reader on your side. It’s a tough balancing act.
The angry side of me wanted to scream out “Of course I was pig headed you thirty-five year old charmed reviewer.” If you are born in the forties, you have to be pig-headed not to get married at twenty-one and be a housewife and marry the catholic next door. (Not-that-there-is-anything-wrong-with that-- but it sure wasn’t what I wanted.) It was before feminism laid out the red carpet and I had to swim upstream.  There were no laws on my side in the work place or anywhere else. I got to Oxford, got a phd. on Darwin’s influence on Freud, live in three countries, started my own business as a psychologist, then decided to be a writer at the age of fifty. When everyone said it was too late to become a writer, I forged on ignoring rejection.  Then I published three memoirs with all my faults flashing in full Technicolor.  Why?-- Because I’m pig-headed and proud of it.