Personal experiences of mothers and motherhood make up a new collection of writing. We’re delighted to be publishing a duo of extracts at Standard Issue.
That’s that, by Susan M Schultz
My mother was a storyteller. After a dinner with friends, she would have us adjourn to the formal living room, the one we barely ever sat in unless I was at the piano. The furniture was suburban, straight off the floor of a department store, covered in muted upholstery (tan, salmon); the wallpaper was dated when new, a blue pattern on white that matched the rest of the room’s odd demeanour.
I disliked the space, but I loved her stories.
Most of them centred on two periods of her life: her years at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania in the 1930s, when she worked for a rich woman, Mrs Kidder; and the war years, which she spent in North Africa with the Red Cross, and Europe, as an administrator of clubs for troops.
If I were watching a grainy documentary about battles in Italy, she declared that she was there. If I looked in her closet, I saw a pair of small army boots. She’d gotten them, she said, from ‘one of the Neecy boys,’ apparently not knowing that the word was Nisei. That Japanese American soldier was the only man she knew with feet small enough for boots to fit her.
There was no alcohol at these storytelling events; my mother’s father had been an alcoholic, her family dysfunctional. She’d been told she was unwanted; an older sister, who died very young, had named her. But the stories flowed. Over and again, we heard about the soldier who asked her to marry him, until she brought along a chaplain who said he’d marry them on the spot; or we heard about her one encounter with Marlene Dietrich, to whom she offered a tent as overnight lodging, which was refused with a sweep of the hand, and the declaration, “I vill go on to Rome!”
She would tell us about the bombing runs in which pilot friends were caught on the ground, or during which she herself had ducked into a ditch. She was proud of having driven a truck, told us how awful it was to have thought she had run over a child. She remembered seeing a military cemetery in France and weeping.
Her linguistic talents were considerable in English, but her French was horrid. So the story about being asked directions in a French town and labouring through her response was rendered funnier when it turned out the question had been asked of her in English.
“One elbow would rest on the chair’s arm, or fall off of it; she was beyond language, so she sat quietly, her eyes those of someone who cannot remember what it is to gather her life together in sentences.”
There were stories she almost told, about friends having abortions, or about men she’d loved and abandoned (she had clearly been a leaver, not a left). Sometimes she’d tell me these stories in the car as we drove to some of my activities, and I’d feel happy to have such an interesting mother, even if her life with me and my father seemed deliberately dull. The furniture, the wallpaper, the dreary art on the wall. Only the bookcase, which sheltered books on Hitler and the Soviet Union, testified to her public history.
So when she lost these stories, I became their repository. I am a poet, not a storyteller, so I remember only snippets. I recall punchlines, details, the way she talked, the sounds she made underneath the words (‘mother noises’ one friend called them). I want to tell these stories, but I know I can’t get them right, so I write lists of her stories. The longest list became my elegy for her in my second book on her Alzheimer’s.
There’s one grainy video of her, shot by a neighbour in 1992, just a few months before my father died, sitting on a couch talking. I’d given the neighbour a list of stories for her to tell. My father was quiet, coughed a bit. My mother talked and talked until she declared that she was finished. “That’s that,” she would often say, and you knew not to argue, though I often did.
During her last years she sat in a chair like one of those in the living room, but this chair was in an Alzheimer’s home decorated to imitate her taste. One elbow would rest on the chair’s arm, or fall off of it; she was beyond language, so she sat quietly, her eyes those of someone who cannot remember what it is to gather her life together in sentences.
The television blasted out war movies. She no longer remembered that war, or any other. In a way, it was a blessing.
I was broken by motherhood early. My daughter was about three months old when I watched Life is Beautiful. And my heart broke.
It’s 1939, in Italy, and Guido (the world’s best father) is herded into the back of a truck to be sent to a concentration camp. With him is his young son, Joshua.
The whole film is both stunning and devastating in the depths of the human courage it portrays. But what finished me off was a simple two-second shot of Joshua reaching out to find his dad’s hand in the back of the truck. No words. No emotive soundtrack. Just a simple, childish gesture.
It’s a beautiful and perfectly observed moment of everyday life.
Blink and you’ll miss it. Give birth to your first child three months earlier and you’ll feel the weight of more responsibility, expectation, panic, potential and inevitable failure than you could possibly imagine. And love, of course. An incredible, strange love. An impossibly complicated one.
The only thing that mattered to Joshua, surrounded by fear and hate and Nazi guards was to know his dad was there. Life outside that didn’t count. It couldn’t touch him. And I now had a pair of those little hands – needing me to be there – sleeping innocently in my bedroom. It was such a simple truth it took my breath away. I had never felt so frightened, so unprepared. And so claustrophobic.
I’ve now had 14 years of motherhood, but I’ve never found anything that sums it up better than that moment. Of course, my children often need much more than a hand to hold now. And every day I let them down in some small way.
But, also, every day I pick them up. I teach them something. I make them laugh. I share a book, a meal, a cuddle, a question, an understanding. Our lives are so completely entwined that I have stopped noticing the overwhelming sense of responsibility that comes with their existence. And the claustrophobia.
What we live with, day to day, is just the love. The complicated but unwavering love. And, with it, the truth that the pain of missing a hand when it reaches out would be something unimaginable.
Short Stories About Mothers, which you can buy here, is the first in a planned series of new writing collections on a unifying theme. Short Stories about Madness is next in the pipeline.3515 Views