Showing posts with label mother. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mother. Show all posts

Thursday, July 11


Julia Lambert relishes what seems like a perfect life at the start of Cost, the novel by Roxana Robinson. A college professor, landscape painter and mother, she strives to observe and appreciate details in everyday routine: “The extraordinary loveliness of the world, how it was infinite and generous in its reach, how it could be soft and glistening, tangled and dense, velvety and bright.” That beautiful life spirals out of control and the novel's pointed insights and exquisite writing offer a model for any writer hoping to analyze family dynamics.

The book takes on the character of a holiday get-together, a family of grown adults who have not seen one another in a while and must overcome the distances that have developed. There are competing interests among two sets of spouses and two brothers with multiple and abrupt points of view, lending a sense of urgency as the family endures a roller coaster of emotions and questions revolving around guilt, shame, longing and lost trust. Robinson has a knack for suddenly, casually dropping eye-opening details from the past with a sentence or two.

Another son brings his brother's addiction to Julia's attention while she entertaining her parents at her cabin in Maine. Before hearing about Jack's addiction, her chief worry is the cognitive deficiencies of her neurosurgeon father and once-competent mother and how “they were starting to seem like strangers.” Both parents have a glimmer of awareness and Katherine, the mother, reflects on her losses:  “The small hard, bright facts, like nails that should connect it to the rest of her life, were missing. The place where her memory had been was gone, blurrily erased, like a window grayed by mist. … This was happening gradually, as though pieces of her mind were breaking off and floating away, like ice in a river.”  Still, Katherine is intent on keeping her condition to herself while mourning the loss of self, thinking about “how few new things she would do, how many things she would never do again…. Her world had narrowed.”

Despite her dementia, Kathrine senses the family's divides - between her daughter and ex-husband, between her two daughters and two grandsons. She mourns the loss of a close connection with Julia and wonders why her two daughters do not get along. She had once hoped that her daughters' disdain for each other were a phase and might end, but the attitudes were entrenched. “Hostility in the family seemed like such a waste. But she’d learned years ago that she could do nothing to fix this.” She appreciates time with Julia despite the inevitable flaws. “One thing you learned as a parent was humility.” 

Julia’s beautiful life falls apart that summer, exposing cracks. Initially in denial about the severity of Jack's problems, she insists that the entire family must confront her son at the Maine cabin, hoping that a family intervention might bring Jack to his senses. She also reaches out to Wendell, her ex-husband who has since remarried – both had affairs before their divorce – and a sister whom she rarely sees. She relies on the older brother, Steven, to deliver Jack to the cabin while shoving aside any interest or discussion about that son's work as an environmental activist and plans to apply to law school. Julia keeps talking about “we,” noting “Once we start, I guess we can’t stop it” and Steven realizes he has lost all agency for the endeavor: “he understood they had become partners.” He cares about his mother, gently confiding his concerns about Jack and divulging his own history with drugs, a problem quietly conquered without the support or knowledge of the family. 

Julia strives to be loving and supporting but sees her life was separate. “When your children were small, you tried to conceal your doubts and fears, your pettiness and failures. You tried to be what they needed – strong and certain, pure and loving. Of course they learned quite soon who you were – weak, uncertain, impatient, ungenerous. There was nothing of your character they did not know. Though there were parts of your life you kept to yourself…. There were secrets that should die with people.” 

Two family members, both the elderly mother and the addicted son, have a tenuous grasp on reality. Katherine, while pleasant, is confused and refuses to admit her challenges. “It felt precarious but exciting to carry on like this, to engage, ask questions. She felt as though she were flying, out in the wind, tied to something below by a thread. There was a continuous risk that she’d be found out, the air currents might suddenly tip her to the earth.”  She feels sly, moving through what is a slippery sense of time and space: “The thing was not to pause. It was like walking a tightrope: never think about falling, never stop moving.” 

She panics about losing memory. “Who were you if you had no past? If you existed nowhere but in this room, right now?” 

Katherine’s husband, Edward, as a retired neurologist recognizes that the outcome for those diagnosed with either heroin addiction or dementia is bleak. He grieves his wife’s decline as she repeatedly expresses newfound shock after being reminded about Jack’s addiction.  “He felt as though a blazing mirror had been held up to him. It was as though his entire life was being reassessed by someone else. He was powerless to control it, forced to observe it.” 

He also finds himself grieving that he never took the time to understood his wife, her needs and dreams. “The ideas was a kind of shock, that there might be another, alternate view of their life together. He’d always seen himself as the center of things, moving across the landscape of their life like a roiling storm center on a weather map.” Belatedly, he finds himself wondering if Katherine “might have been at the center of another system, possibly just as strong, just as roiling, but invisible on his map.” He concludes, “Getting older, it was impossible to see things the way you’d always seen them before.” Once renowned in his field, Edward feels rudderless, “Which is what age did to you, it stripped you of what you’d had, of your presence in the world.” 

The family is not close and all members distrust attempts for closeness. Growing up, Julia and her sister, Harriet, were discouraged from showing feelings, and the latter questions why society values close family ties. “What if your family happened to be made up of people with whom you had little in common, whose company you didn’t enjoy? Why wasn’t your family equally to blame, for not being close to you?” Both sisters tend to blame their father, Edward, and Julia assesses him. “He let nothing go by. He had to correct the world.” 

The intervention leads to a stint in rehab and eventual failure. Wendell's fury grows with futile attempts to convince Jack to listen and acknowledge the seriousness of his problem. “The way he acts, not looking at us, not talking to us, not admitting what he’s done, as though he’s too cool to deal – he acts contemptuous of us. … He devalues himself, the whole enterprise of having him and raising him – he acts as though it was all worthless. He doesn’t care about any of it…. He’s contemptuous of everything we’ve ever done as parents.” 

The struggle overwhelms the family and Julia slowly realizes that her life will never be simple or content again. “The unbearable pathos of objects. It was so strange that they all looked just as they had yesterday, though everything around them had been caught up in violent change. It was like a neutron bomb: a huge detonation, shattering all the humans but leaving the objects intact.”

Jack’s trouble rapidly spins out of control during the novel, at great cost for Julia. By the end, Julia wonders if she shares her father’s domineering presence. The sisters regularly accuse him of not being generous but in the end, he alone extends generosity that can only partially cover the economic costs that Jack's addiction delivers to Julia.  

Stripped of denial, Julia accepts the circumstances of Jack’s life and her own role with resignation.  “She believed in nothing so simplistic or logical as a natural moral system, no abstract code meeting out judgment. She didn’t think this was a punishment for adultery, nor for poor mothering, nor for her many sins, accruing over the years to a sum that required, by some terrible accounting, the unthinkable payment.”  Beauty no longer distracts her or gives her solace and instead, “Humility lay over everything like a gray mist.” 

She tries not to blame herself, but then, “of course her fault. She was his mother.” 

Friday, December 2



The Koran  prioritizes care for orphans: “And give to the orphans their property, and do not substitute worthless (things) for (their) good (ones), and do not devour their property (as an addition) to your own property; this is surely a great crime.”   

But children are helpless against greed, explains Fatimah Asghar in When We Were Sisters. After three girls lose their parents – the mother to illness, the father murdered – a maternal uncle takes control, not because of love or duty but rather he covets the government social security checks issued to each month.

He prohibits the girls from meeting his wife and two sons and instead sets them up in a small, filthy room in an apartment building that he owns, assigning equally vulnerable neighbors to provide day-to-day care. That daughters are less valued than sons is apparent from the start, and the girls sometimes maintain they are brothers or mother-sisters.

The uncle issues strict rules and, not wanting to be bothered by incidentals, teaches them how to forge his name for school paperwork. They attend school and can pursue activities as long as they are free. A neighbor reads the Koran with them, and when money runs low, the girls literally take to the street near the neighborhood mosque, begging for grocery money as orphans. The uncle is furious, yet also realizes that members of the mosque will gladly donate money to support the orphans. He uses those donations and the hundreds in Social Security payments to provide home renovations and comforts for his own family.   

The story is told from the point of view of the youngest, Kausar, who idolizes her two sisters, literally referring to them as gods. In turn, they regard her as useless and annoying. The young protagonist relays life disappointments, her serial abandonment and grief in a matter-of-fact way.

Early on, a Pakistani couple, undocumented and poor, selflessly love and care for the girls. The uncle's discovery that the girls sleep with the couple at night when frightened triggers a fight. The uncle scolds, “They’re not your kids,” and their beloved Meemoo retorts, “So whose kids are they?” Wary that the man's defiance might disrupt his schemes, the uncle accuses the couple of inappropriate behavior and kicks them out of their home. He then interrogates the girls about sex and relies on unstable young women to watch over the sisters.    

Once the oldest girl reaches puberty, the uncle stops arranging for caregivers, mostly leaves the sisters alone. The girls lie to classmates about home life, and teachers and neighbors fail to notice three girls struggling on their own, often hungry and unkempt. The oldest manages to hold the truncated family together, and the youngest admits, “I need an adult. And I don’t know how to get one.”    

On a lifelong search for a mother figure, Kausar contents herself with make believe: “We’re mothered by everything because we know how to look for the mothering, because we know a mother might leave us and we’ll need another mother to step in an take its place.”  With poignant and exquisite detail, the child describes relishing the warmth of the sun, shade from the tree, the smell of cookies, the street signs that guide when it’s safe to walk, a cloud of dust, or grass not yet trampled - all as mother's love.  Her constant anticipation distances her from others: “What no one will ever understand is that the world belongs to orphans, everything becomes our mother” and “All the mothers in the world reach out to the motherless.” A simple touch from siblings is overwhelming, and she thinks, “you’re held, you’re held, you’re held.”  

At one point, the youngest asks whether a sister still a sister when a mother dies? Kausar increasingly struggles to communicate fears, dreams and identity issues with sisters who are not much older than her. Each daughter dreams of escape, a better life, but the youngest has far less experience with love, motivation, trust – with basic routines and normality. She readily accepts chaos and cruelty from her interactions. At one point, she notes that Allah asks us to make language: “We assumed we meant the same thing when we spoke, because we said the same words. But. We were wrong. We were so wrong.”

Oddly enough, the youngest daughter gets along better with the uncle than her sisters do, and at one point, he urges Kausar to reconcile with a friend after an argument. “Don’t let the small things become the big things,” and she remembers that advice years later at his funeral. 

But a child who grows up without a mother can’t be depended on to understand what is small or big, right or wrong.