The thing about mothers, I want to say, is that once the containment ends and one becomes two, you don’t always fit together so neatly. They don’t get you like you want them to, like you think they should, they could, if only they would pay closer attention. They agonize over all the wrong things, cycling through one inane idea after another: seat belts, flossing , the Golden Rule. The living mother-daughter relationship, you learn over and over again, is a constant choice between adaptation and acceptance.
The only mothers who never embarrass, harass, dismiss, discount, deceive, distort, neglect, baffle, appall, inhibit, incite, insult, or age poorly are dead mothers, perfectly contained in photographs, pressed into two dimensions like a golden autumn leaf.
That’s your consolation prize, Milly Tanner. Your mother will never be caught sunbathing in the driveway in her bra or cheapened by too much drink. She’ll never be overheard bitching to the phone company or seen slamming her bedroom door in fury. Your mother will always be perfect. (p 56)
Kelly Corrigan’s memoir about her experience as a live-in nanny for two children who had recently lost their mother is a five month journey braided beautifully into her complicated relationship with her own mother. She perfectly captures the post-college struggle – the optimism and the crushing defeats, the rude awakening of reality mingled with the unbelievable pleasure that accompanies tiny successes. Her mistakes, her passion for gobbling up life, and her totally off-base expectations for what it meant to “grow up” were all so painfully, beautifully familiar. I couldn’t help but laugh at Corrigan’s younger self because she was laughing too. She was well-aware of how naive she’d been, and yet she loved that past self, and was gentle with her.
That’s not an easy line, and yet Corrigan manages to walk it, not just for herself, but for her mother. She and her mother are not close in the way I am with my mother, or the way my mother was with my grandmother. I come from a line of women who knit very tight, who love fiercely, but who are, ultimately, as challenged by the relationship of mother and daughter as are women who find too much space there, or anger, or confusion, or disappointment.
I’m not an expert on all daughters and mothers; I only know how I love my mother, and how I perceive her love in return. I remember how selflessly she loved me through my own prideful, challenging years, and how it must have hurt to watch me, without interfering, making foolish mistakes with all the gleeful ignorance of youth. I know how protective I am of her, how I effortlessly hate people who say or do anything to undermine her, how I cling to her voice when she’s across the country and am short-tempered when she’s across the breakfast table. Then, of course, there is the desperate desire for infinite years with her because the alternative is unthinkable.
This book is a confrontation of that unthinkable place. It’s the intersection of the death of a mother with two young children and the maturation of a young woman doing her best to navigate the jagged hole left by such a death. It is the recognition of love for mothers who are less than perfect, and daughters who are unbearably judgmental, of women who flex and brush against each other in as they try to work out the knots of their frustrating love.
For more from Kelly Corrigan, go here.