The women who are most paramount in our lives are often also the least knowable, which makes them rich subject matter for a book.
In the new anthology, “Mothers and Strangers: Essays on Motherhood from the New South,” (University of North Carolina Press), 28 writers contemplate the women who raised them.
Maybe all mothers are Mona Lisas with children who try to decipher their smiles. As matriarchs, they control the information. But, eventually, inherited boxes of postmarked correspondence and tidbits gleaned from friends and relatives provide pieces to the puzzle of mom. And there are our own observations, which we reconsider as we age.
Essays in “Mothers and Strangers” explore relationships that are irreverent, affectionate, questioning and filled with longing. They detail mothers who were vain, critical, generous, blunt, colorful, professional, stubborn, long-suffering and wise.
Frances Mayes, perhaps the best known of the contributing writers, tells in unsentimental fashion of the mother she called Frankye. Widowed young, Frankye drank, suffered from depression and left her daughter to her own devices.
“After school, I’d find her at the kitchen table with a gin and tonic, not even looking at a magazine,” Mayes wrote. “What was she to do? She always wanted to go somewhere, anywhere.”
Although the writers aren’t searching for themselves in their essays, like a sort of ancestry DNA catharsis, their search for the essence of their mothers reveals truths about themselves. Mayes, for example, came to appreciate the written word, in part, because she was often left alone.
Marshall Chapman, a singer-songwriter, author and actress, tells of a mother who wasn’t nurturing, but had a great sense of adventure. As evidence, she offers an elementary-school memory.
“I heard Mama’s high heels clicking purposefully down the echoey hallway outside my classroom,” Chapman writes. She marched into the class and whispered something into the teacher’s ear.
“Then she walked over to my desk and grabbed me by the arm. Once we were out in the hallway, I began to protest. ‘Mama?’ I’m not sick. ‘Shut up!’ Mama said. ‘We’re going to the Masters.’”
Golfer Jack Nicklaus was making his Masters debut and Chapman’s mother wanted to go because she followed Ben Hogan.
She was a woman who was outspoken and opinionated, Chapman writes. She quotes her sister saying, “Our mother was a terrible mother, but she was a great person.”
Readers who live with fears of their own maternal failings, may appreciate the words of children who see their mothers’ traits in context. And because the story of mother is a tale nearly all of us can tell, readers will recall their own childhood experiences with all their attendant, tangled emotions.
One is also left wondering what current generations will do without written correspondence to reread. Letters figure prominently in several of the essays.
Novelist E.C. Hanes shares a note his mother wrote to her children. It was penned on Lufthansa airlines stationary as she was flying to Europe.
A fearful flyer, assuming she might not return, she put some motherly advice in writing.
“I need to say I love you more than all the world and please don’t fight when I’m gone!!! Make your beds, pick up your clothes, write your thank you’s, be loving to shut ins, remember people’s birthdays, don’t say shit at parties, divide the pictures evenly … Meet us if we come home.”
Of course the book includes its share of sweet sentiment. But it never indulges in greeting-card goo.
The writers share their experience of the fate few of us escape (if things follow the natural order): the death of a parent.
Historian Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, who refers in her essay to “the hidden continent of motherhood,” describes her mother’s deathbed.
Surrounded by her children, Hall’s mother said, “I’m fine. You all just keep on talking. … I know what you’re thinking. You think I’m afraid. But I’m not.”
Looking back, Hall asks: “How did she do it? How did she manage those last words … assuaging our guilt, drying our tears ... reminding us gently, that she was beyond it. We did not know what she was thinking. We could not know her mind.”
There are no photographs or illustrations in “Mothers and Strangers.” We see the women through their sons and daughters, the men and women writers who were selected by editors Lee Smith and Samia Serageldin as voices of the New South.
Together, on the 247 pages, the writers give shape to the voices they first heard as babies and absorbed later as the background music of childhood. Author Randall Kenan recalls how he colored with Crayolas in front of the TV against the sound of family women gossiping in the kitchen.
Clyde Edgerton’s affectionate essay is told through conversational letters his mother wrote to her own sister. The engaging everyday-ness of the notes is pleasing. There’s talk of selling the old Buick, making coconut pies and summer passing quickly.
After sharing the letters, Edgerton writes, “I think of her almost every day. I know I find solace in natural things, simple things — like trees and flowers, and birds — because of her inspired example of embracing and finding pleasure in the simple free gifts the earth provides.
“She was in my arms at her last breath,” he wrote, “and I honor that final intimacy.”