About a month ago, I read what was perhaps one of the most brave, honest and poignant books of the year called What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About edited by Michele Filgate. The title is long, but attractive to me nonetheless. And true to its form, it’s a collection of stories from a variety of writers about things that they’ve never discussed with their mothers. Things like sexual assault, alcohol abuse, overbearing fathers, drug use and so forth. Ranging from full-on devotion to estrangement, there’s a variety of mother-child relationships represented in this book. It’s not just a book about all the lovely things about mothers, but rather, it explores the deep (and sometimes dark) side of motherhood through its stories. In short, I loved how the book explores the different relationships we all have with our mothers.
I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t always had the best relationship with my mother. To this day, I don’t think that it is the best, but it is somewhat better than it was in the past. We are both complicated creatures–my mother and I. I’m pretty certain that I got my stubbornness from her, my unwillingness to give up on things, as well as my ability to dwell (which, over the years, I’ve learned to just let things be).
Which is why when I read this book, it resonated with me so much. I felt deeply connected to some of the words that were spoken on the page. Take, for example:
“There is a gaping hole perhaps for all of us, where our mother does not match up with ‘mother’ as we believe it’s meant to mean and all it’s meant to give us.” – Lynn Steger Strong.
Or this quote that truly captures the meaningfulness of storytelling, in particular telling about hard topics:
“Our stories are our greatest currency. What one person is willing to share with another is a test of intimacy, a gift that’s given.” – Julianna Baggott
It’s true, I do (and have always felt) a gaping hole between my mom and I, and it’s not just because of our age difference. (My mom was 37 when I was born, and while it’s common nowadays to have babies in your late 30s/early 40s, it wasn’t so common back then). It’s because I am the antithesis of her in every way imaginable, starting with my looks. Whereas I am petite and small, with an opinionated mind, my mom is taller and bigger than most women her age, and her opinions typically borders on highly critical.
Perhaps my favorite story from the book is the one by Leslie Jamison called “I Met Fear on the Hill”–a story about discovering that the mother she adored and idolized actually had a completely different youth in which she was married to another man in the 1960s. Their marriage was rocky but full of excitement–drugs, orgies, and smoking were common activities during the “peace and love” era. She discovered that the man her mother was married to before her dad had an unpublished novel based on their relationship, with the names changed, of course. So she embarks on a journey to find the man (who lives in Oregon) to get his side of the story, only to discover that the man still loves her mother and thinks highly of her even though she was the one who ended the relationship.
It was interesting to read from the perspective of an author telling the story of her mother’s youthful days doing wild and crazy things before settling down that it makes me wish I can tell the same kind of story about my mother.
Unfortunately, most of what I know of my mother’s youth did not involve peace or love. In fact, it was only war. I can’t help but think about how her youth was cut short because my grandparents had arranged for her to marry my dad at 17. This was also in the 1960s. As we all know from brief stints in high school social studies class, the Vietnam war happened and it wasn’t pretty, especially for the people living in it. My mother came of age during the war, and suffice to say, the 1960s was a rough time to be young in Vietnam.
If I can sit down with her and are able to immediately find words to say, to ask, I would ask my mom to tell me stories about her youth. Was it all depressing, with the war going on? Or were there some happy moments too? Did she ever wanted to be somebody else, doing something else? Did she wanted to continue her education beyond elementary school or did she feel like she had no choice? If she had the opportunity, what kind of career would she have chosen? Most importantly, if she had a choice, would she still marry dad? Did she ever have a lot of crushes? Did she ever have a longing for other men?
And if she wanted to listen, then I’d tell her stories about my youth too. How shy I was with boys. How socially awkward I felt as an adolescent going through puberty. How I wanted to have more open and honest conversations about our bodies. How I wanted to be accepted by her but felt that she was always disappointed in me, no matter what I did (or didn’t do). How I didn’t really understand her for the longest time, and I still don’t sometimes.
These are important things to talk about. However, due to our lack of communication skills (with her lack of English and my inability to articulate my questions in Vietnamese), I’ll just leave our status as, “It’s complicated” for now. But these are the things that my mother and I don’t talk about, and how I wish we could.