Notes On Proper Usage is a memoir about my relationship with my mother, the discovery of her secret collection of documents and personal journals, the abusive man who marked both our lives, and our journey toward forgiveness and reconciliation in the face of terminal illness, life, and death.
*When my mother died, I lost my words. It was Labor Day and, as a thirty-seven year old college writing professor, I had to inform my department chair that I was going to miss the first day of class – a teacher’s worst nightmare. As I tried to compose the simple email, along with my mother’s eulogy, I could not put together the most basic of sentences.
My mother was a writer, a passionate role we shared. In her mid-to-late thirties, at the age I am now, she completed a master’s degree in creative writing and won awards for her poetry. In her early forties, she penned and published in The New York Times op-ed essays about her ailing mother and their difficult relationship. Through her fifties, she worked as a book copy editor for Barron’s Educational Series.
She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer – “the silent killer” – at the age of 65, when I was 36, and kept the truth to herself, only allowing a few close friends and relatives in on the secret. With each new hospital visit and body scan, my mother told my older brother and me the barest facts, and became angry when I asked questions. She did not want to discuss further details.
“You always have to know the whole story,” she snapped when I asked for more information. “I need to handle things piecemeal, otherwise I won’t be able to function.”
I tried as best as I could to obey her wishes without compromising the integrity of the line separating truth from denial. Acknowledging only part of the truth, or ignoring it altogether as if it did not exist, was not only my mother’s operating system but the foundation upon which she raised me.
Six years earlier, I sat alone with my long-divorced mother in her empty condo living room, the framed photos of my brother and me as children watching from the mantel, like witnesses, as I first spoke about the sexual abuse of my childhood, took the lid off the silence of our family. Initially, my mother responded by saying, “I think you were too sensitive, some other little girl would’ve liked it.” She then progressed to a weeping confession – “I know it happened,” she cried, “there were signs!” Finally, she asked me to put it back into the box in which it had been kept for decades.
As I began to write and publish stories about the effects of the abuse on my adult life and about healing from PTSD, my mother expressed discomfort over my work as it went public. She had turned away from her own writing practice twenty years prior when her marriage to my father fell apart, when explosive arguments overflowed from the privacy of our home and into the public realm, when hard reality became too much for her to face.
However, just before and during her battle with cancer, my mother expressed her desire to begin writing again, to pick up where she left off. She contemplated enrolling in a memoir workshop. Although she mentioned it several times, she never did it. Writing took energy, she said. She wasn’t ready.
Through my own writing, I had learned that the memoir writing process requires the writer’s willingness to conduct a deeply honest, uninhibited examination of life experience. As I pursued the completion of a book, I realized I was going down the path my mother was too afraid to travel. I was leaving behind her fear, which for many years had been my own.
One Saturday afternoon, when I was visiting my mother after her first round of chemotherapy, she asked to see a story I had published in The Southampton Review, an account of my childhood the editor had invited me to read at a publication reception in New York. I reluctantly handed the pages to my mother, then watched as her head bowed and her wide eyes moved back and forth across my words.
When she came to the end, she began to cry softly. “I’m so sorry,” she said, her voice coming from a deep part of herself, “that I was not there for you.”
Out of habit, I brushed her words aside. “It’s okay,” I said, trying to console her.
“No, it’s not okay,” she said, her blue eyes suddenly bright and looking directly into me. “You captured it accurately on the page,” she spoke with conviction. “None of it was your fault.”
She changed the subject then, but I lingered at that window she had unlocked, stopped time to sit with that fleeting peace, to open it down deep.
Four days after my mother’s funeral, I sat in my neighborhood café, trying to get back to my daily writing routine. Grief, shock, and fear stymied my concentration. A heavy numbness enveloped me. With each attempt to touch down on words – phrase after phrase – my thoughts came apart somewhere between my heart and my head. I thought about abandoning my efforts, but then I realized I had a choice: to write or not to write. Choosing to write, I believed, meant choosing to live. The other option was to remain silent, which, to me, was my mother’s choice: to die.
Three months after my mother’s death, I began the process of cleaning out her condo to prepare it for sale. I started with her closet, then went under her desk, where I found her portfolio from her days as a copy editor and her old writing notebooks from the 1980s, the drafts of words she crafted in her thirties about her troubled marriage and her own childhood. To my surprise, I also came upon a folder full of collected articles on abuse – on court cases, recovery, and reconciliation – along with pages full of my mother’s handwriting outlining facts from renowned books about incest, denial and repression, the mother’s role, the perpetrator’s personality, the adult child coping with PTSD, and the path to heal from life-altering trauma.
I discovered my mother had, in secret, gone to great lengths to grapple with the truth, to examine the whole picture, to investigate, to articulate – pursuing the multifaceted job not only of a writer and editor, but of a mother.
This she left for me to bring to light.
*A modified version of the above originally appeared as an essay titled “Writing: To Carry On,” in Beyond the Margins.
The author wishes to thank the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund for its support of Notes on Proper Usage.