Mary Gordon

The Sunday Salon: Mother's Day Between the Covers

...of books, I mean. Although it's so cold and windy here, I'm sorely tempted to crawl back under my coziest blanket and stay there for the day. Oh spring, whither for art thou? mother_reading_to_daughter_outdoorsAlthough I didn't plan it, I'm in the midst of a book about mothers and daughters. The book is One True Thing, Anna Quindlen's 1994 novel that describes the multi-faceted relationship between 24 year old Ellen Gulden and her mother, Kate. When Kate is diagnosed with advanced cancer, Ellen's father insists that she quit her job and come home to care for her mother, the quintessential homemaker and family touchstone -their "one true thing." But Ellen has always placed herself akin with her father in the family dynamic - the intellectual, high achiever. Initially, she is resentful and afraid  - she has no idea how to play the role of caregiver, the one her mother has always embraced so masterfully. Yet as the days and weeks pass Ellen changes, and reassesses her preconceptions about her mother, her parent's marriage, and the choices she has made for her own life.

Because I'm a huge fan of Quindlen's work - both her fiction, her memoir, and her journalism - I know there are autobiographical elements to this novel. I know that her own mother died from ovarian cancer, know that Quindlen's father called her home from college to care for her mother during her final illness. But  knowing Quindlen has woven bits and pieces of her own experience into the fabric of this story just makes the novel all the more interesting and touching. The mother-daughter relationship in One True Thing is so poignant, and I love watching the subtle ways that Kate uses this final opportunity to teach Ellen some things about valuing herself as a woman.

I started thinking about some of my of favorite contemporary novels that deal with the mother-daughter relationship. Mary Gordon's Men and Angels came to mind immediately.  I first read it back in the early 80's, but I re-read it about every five years because it's so powerful and affecting to me. It explores that age-old question - how does a mother satisfy her own need to be creative and productive, to have her own life,  while still providing the best care for her children?

Another favorite is Amy Tan's novel The Joy Luck Club, which looks at the way a mother's cultural history affects her expectations for her daughters. I've always loved this novel  (and the movie adaptation), and when it was first published most of us in the western hemisphere knew very little about Chinese culture. It was intriguing to look at the mother-daughter dynamic through the eyes of eastern history and culture.

How about you? Do you have a favorite novel or memoir about motherhood?

Do share.

If you're interested in reading further -  a bibliography of Mother-Daughter Relationships in Contemporary Fiction from the University of Delaware.

Write On Wednesday: Writing By Hand

Writing by hand is laborious, and that is why typewriters were invented. But I believe that the labor has virtue, because of its very physicality. For one thing it involves flesh, blood and the thingness of pen and paper, those anchors that remind us that, however thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world.

stock-footage-close-up-hand-writing-in-diaryNovelist Mary Gordon wrote these words (presumably by hand) in her essay Putting Pen to Paper, But Not Just Any Pen or Just Any PaperShe writes of how she primes the well of her own imagination by copying out (by hand) the words of writers she admires. She tells of an elaborate system of notebooks she has kept over the years, "small soft-covered one, confectionary coloreds ones, square red-covered and long canary yellow ones," into which are delegated  the different morsels of thought.

And she writes of her pen, that most important of tools for the hand-writing writer.  It is a Waterman's, she says, "black enamel with a trim of gold. When I write with it, I feel as if I’m wearing a perfectly tailored suit, and my hair is flawlessly pulled back into a chignon."

Dare I say there is not a writer alive who doesn't thrill at these words, this intimate discussion of pens and paper? What was once the bare stock of our trade, their romance is now enhanced even further by the sad fact that they have all too often been forsaken for the glare of a computer screen and the clickety-clack of a wireless keyboard.

Like most writers, I have notebooks and pens galore. There are flimsy, cheap spiral notebooks such as I used in junior high school, the kind that cost ten cents each at the Back-to-School sales in August. There  are pretty soft-covered journals embossed with arty pictures and life-affirming slogans. There are leather bound books which contain only the most profound of words, those first penned by my favorite authors, and that I've copied out laboriously in my own handwriting, hoping against hope that a smidgen of their genius will impart itself upon me.

Pens? Yes, I have those too, although I'm not as finicky about pens as Ms. Gordon purports to be. I do have a Waterman's pen, a gift from a favorite uncle who always seemed to divine the things I most coveted but would never buy for myself. Waterman pens. Coach purses and gloves. Waterford crystal paperweights and letter openers.

How I miss that man.

But I'm happy enough to write with a medium black Bic Ultra, or a fine tipped Pentel R.S.V.P. I confess to a newly developed a fondness for the Pilot G-2 (07) after accidentally walking off with one from a restaurant.

It is the physical act of writing itself that is so important, Gordon says, and I believe this to be true. The taking up of pen and putting it to paper seems akin to priming the pump, to blowing air through the billows of the pipe organ, to the singers diaphragmatic breath. What is most interesting to me is what Gordon writes to start her day  -  "copying out paragraphs whose heft and cadence she can learn from."  Somewhat wistfully she says that "it is remarkably pleasant, before the failure starts, to use one’s hand and wrist, to hold and savor pleasant objects, for the purpose of copying in one’s own delightful penmanship the marks of those who have gone before."

It may sound silly, but it comforts me to know that while I'm sitting here in my small corner of the writer's world, scratching away in one notebook or another, Mary Gordon is doing the very same thing.

Just a couple of writers, writing by hand.