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Summer Books

Mother: The cross of being seen as gods


Edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Janet Berliner
David R. Godine, 240 pages, $16.95


God looked a lot like my mother. That was the first line in an essay I wrote several years ago. And in the stories collected by Joyce Carol Oates and Janet Berliner in Snapshots: 20th Century Mother-Daughter Fiction, the reader is thrust, again and again, into an awareness of this inevitable comparison. How easily are mothers perceived as gods by their daughters -- sometimes malevolent gods, occasionally compassionate, but always, somehow, larger than life.

I recall my daughter’s face at 16 when she flung these words at me: “I am not like you, Mom! Don’t expect me to be!” I responded, and meant every word, “I don’t want you to be like me. Be yourself.” But at 16, could she believe me? Why should she, when so many mothers place expectation on their daughters to become, if not like themselves, then like them -- only better?

I saw such expectations in my own mother, and saw her attempts to control what she saw slipping away -- the part of me who was like her. The more I grew into myself with my own values and goals, the more repudiated she felt.

In the 17 stories in Snapshots, women writers give voice to the influence mothers and daughters have on each other. Eleven-year-old Elena, in Isabel Allende’s “Wicked Girl,” encounters her own emerging sexuality reflected in her mother’s desire. In contrast, it is the mother, Consuelo, in Julia Alvarez’s “Consuelo’s Letter,” who catches a glimmer, as if in a dream, of a freedom of choice embraced by her daughter that she, the mother, has never dared claim. In Margaret Atwood’s “Significant Moments in the Life of My Mother,” I saw poignant reminders of my own mother when I read, “It is part of my mother’s mythology that I am as cheerful and productive as she is.”

Yet as I read these stories, I wondered, also, are there any happy mother-daughter relationships? Mary Gordon and Joyce Carol Oates both write of mentally ill mothers who inflict long-lasting pain on their daughters. Martha Soukup, in her haunting, “Up Above a Diamond City,” lets a little girl describe in innocent words the terror of living with an abusive mother -- a woman referred to only as “she.” Even in the oddly quirky story, “How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes)” by Lorrie Moore, there is heartbreak.

As Oates says in the book’s introduction, “religions like Hinduism honor the paradox of the amoral mother (Nature) who both nurtures and destroys … the malevolent figure of the mother who tells us the worst things about ourselves and urges us to defeat, not triumph; I [wanted to write], not a parable of defeat, but one of difficult victory.”

It is that difficult victory that women -- indeed, all human beings -- are called to achieve: the spiritual and psychological victory of becoming our selves, whole and unique. At their core, as various as they are, these stories illustrate that struggle.

With joy, I look at my daughter, 20 years younger than I. She was 9 when her father died in a fiery plane crash during the Vietnam War. Like the widowed mother in Bette Greene’s “An Ordinary Woman,” I seemed, on the surface, to take hold of my changed circumstances, yet, like the character in Greene’s story, my secret was: “I’m not strong, and I honestly don’t know what to do.”

Yet in becoming aware of our own weaknesses lie the seeds of change and growth. When I wrote the essay about my mother, I concluded, “I no longer saw God in the face of my mother. I saw, simply, my mother. A human being, who was not so large as I had imagined nor so strong nor so powerful nor so wise. In a flash of insight, I understood what it is that all parents must bear: the cross of their children perceiving them as gods.”

In Snapshots, writers address, through fiction, this very issue. When, at 16, my daughter proclaimed her freedom from being like me, I rejoiced. I wanted her to transcend the expectations I felt my mother had placed on me. I’m not God, but I thank God that my daughter and I are able to see each other as separate human beings.

Barbara Bartocci, a magazine journalist and the author of four books, stayed with her mother during her mother’s terminal illness. Out of that experience came her latest book, Nobody’s Child Any More (Sorin Books)

National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2001