The First of Three Mothers

I am losing three mothers this year.

My own mother died in November.  One of my best “book mothers”, Nina Ignatowicz, the editor I’d worked with for forty years, died in January. And my other “book mother,” Margery Cuyler,  a friend from college days and my other primary editor (The Castle in the Attic, The Battle for the Castle and many more) has announced she will be retiring at the end of 2013.

First, my biological mother. I decided to write the book I’ve just finished (first draft, on revision) about my mother’s childhood in Gibraltar and her life in London during the war because I didn’t want my mother to leave us with her stories untold. Her increasing dementia was taking her away from us inch by inch.  I wanted to hold on to her somehow. A writer can do that with words.

            Was my mother ever a child? She must have been, but it wasn’t until I was well into my fifties and my father had been dead for over twenty years, that I began to ask about her life. The stories that came spilling out of her, rich with specific detail and strong emotions, felt as if they had been dammed up for years in a deep pool of her memory…

            In the last few years, she’s been telling people that I’m writing her autobiography. I don’t bother to correct her. It isn’t an autobiography, because of course, she’s not writing it. It’s not even a biography, because I’m in it too. The stories change because they’re coming through me. Another listener might have fastened on a different detail, seen some incident from a different angle. This book contains her memories, but I’m the one who’s choosing which story to hold up to the light first, and which one comes after that, and so on until they’ve all been told.

By telling her story, I’ve come to understand her better and isn’t that what every child wants?  Why were you the way you were?  Why didn’t you do it differently? It’s been an interesting and a painful exploration because some of the knowledge of her early tough years came too late for me to say I’m sorry, now I get it. Conversely, what I now know cannot necessarily explain or excuse some of the choices she made.  While my memoir constitutes some sort of apology for the gaps between us, it also acknowledges that distance between parents and children is not only natural, but in fact inevitable and necessary.

My “book mothers”?  Those stories in another post.






Leave a Message for Elizabeth

  1. Kate Bacon Perkins :

    Hi Fuff,
    I just wrote you a long, heart-felt note about understanding our biological mothers, sometimes better—- after they’ve left us. (The note disappeared into thin cyberspace air!). My Mom, Kitty Bacon, whom Bill Patten loved so much, died this past March at home in VT. I was identifying all over the place with what you said about Tish…… We (Mom & I) had a complicated relationship which we resolved years before she died. I even was blessed to have the ultimate “by her bedside” closure at the very end. For this I thank God. Anyway, I’d love to follow up on your writings about Tish. I am trying to put some pieces back together, and reading what you wrote so far is very helpful!
    Much love, Kate


  1. […] many of my readers know, I’ve been researching my mother’s childhood in Gibraltar and England for a number of years. While she was still alive I traveled to Gib, as she […]