Photograph by Lou Patenaude
Originally appearing in Women Writers, Women’s Books, March, 2019
Visiting my mother at her home in Richmond, Virginia involves equal parts big hugs and, frequently, big worries. When, a year ago, I stepped out of the airport taxi, my first thought – usually, I hope she’s doing well – was of the draft manuscript of my memoir in my bag. Rather than set it down, I crooked my elbow to hold the carry-on from my Florida flight. The taller of the two of us, I wrapped my arms around my mother and breathed her soapy scent. She was even tinier, more vulnerable than before, but spunky enough to point out that, finally, my hair looked okay.
This long-awaited approval of my appearance felt irrelevant, replaced by my more pressing need for privacy; that she not read the manuscript. My mother knew I’d been writing and taking courses in memoir, but nothing more. During this period while the book incubated, I protected my sensibilities from being interwoven with hers. I wanted my voice to tell the story of coming full circle; my adoption from a German orphanage six decades earlier, and the out of the blue appearance of my biological family in our lives .
In the upstairs guestroom, I swore as I cut open the sealed plastic casings around two Victorinox combination locks I’d bought at the airport. Surreptitious dealings in my mother’s home carried me back to childhood, when my mother read my locked diary. As an adolescent, I was clearly not the only person who had a key. Her telltale page creases induced panic in me: I reread every passage, my palms clammy, wondering what she knew. Until one day when I decided that storing impressions in memory was more secure and I created fictitious dramas for my diary. Awaiting a confrontation with my mother, she only huffed off to the kitchen, unwilling to grant me acknowledgement that she’d either fallen for my ruse or seen through it.
Now, as a 62-year-old woman, I calculated the possibility that my 89-year-old mother would climb the stairs to rifle through my things. Tied with rubber bands, my book was in printer paper form, an entire ream of it, loaded with corrections to proof, but also stories about her. I snapped the locks shut, feeling sheepish, and hoped I’d remember the combinations.
Downstairs, after pleasantries and a cup of tea, my mother leaned back in her mint green ultra-suede recliner and asked, “Under what name are you writing?”
“My own,” I countered, smiling, relieved that my last name was that of my ex. The answer seemed to appease her, and we returned to conversation about family news. But as my mother flipped through television channels after dinner, my mind swirled on the content of my memoir and how it would sound to her. If we were to fast-forward another ten months, I would find that my worries were completely misdirected. To the contrary, I was to learn a lot.