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Summer Books

Daughter: Dark snapshot not the whole picture


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


A year or so ago, I came across my teenage diary in an old box of keepsakes. Cracking open the 25-year-old lime green cover, I discovered a long-forgotten full-page diatribe on all the ways my mother was failing me. As the oldest and only daughter, I felt overburdened and under appreciated, my adolescent needs overlooked by a mother whose time and emotional energy were zapped daily by her unruly younger sons.

Yet in spite of how I felt at 15, as an adult I enjoy a close relationship with my mother. We’re alike in some ways, but we more often approach our lives from opposite directions. Where she meanders introspectively, I cut to the chase; where I need certain boundaries, she seems blithely boundary-free. Yet somehow, our paths seem to always merge in the middle.

Perhaps that’s why I find the book Snapshots: 20th Century Mother-Daughter Fiction to be, taken as a whole, an underexposed picture of mothers, daughters and the relationships they share.

The collection of stories was selected and edited by writers Joyce Carol Oates and Janet Berliner, whose work has also been included. Oates in her forward says, “This gathering of mother-daughter, or daughter-mother, stories speaks to all of us, for if women, we have all been daughters.” With the exception of a few laborious selections, most are absorbing literary works individually.

But collectively they feel unbalanced. This gathering is rather dark, almost every story exposing emotional pain. I’m not suggesting the book should have been called Chicken Soup Snapshots. But as it stands, a better title might be It’s My Mother’s Fault I’m in Therapy. There were nuggets of joy and hope, but no real celebration of what is familiar to me and what I hope most women have: a strong, positive bond between mother and daughter.

Some stories, if not exactly joyful, illustrate turning points in relationships that hold the promise of positive growth. Most, though, depict damaged or strained relationships, primarily from the daughter’s point of view. In story after story, daughters contend with mentally ill mothers, abusive mothers, ineffectual mothers.

Those kinds of mother-daughter relationships certainly do exist. And for any adult daughter who feels emotionally detached from her mother, the book would probably ring quite true. Or perhaps for a mother whose daughter is aloof and unforgiving, it may offer some insight.

The book has merit. And I can recommend it for anyone who first takes into account what it is -- a series of mostly interesting stories that are indeed about mothers and daughters. But readers should understand what it is not: a snapshot of the whole picture. Missing I think are more stories about the average daughters and mothers who struggle to find the middle ground.

I know I certainly wasn’t raised by a June Cleaver-clone. I was 9 when my father died, leaving my mother, 29, to raise three kids on her own. I remember months of entertaining my little brothers while my mother grieved behind a locked bedroom door. When I was 12, she started a new full-time career and I learned to cook and do my own laundry.

I was the good girl who rarely made waves so my mother could contend with more pressing problems. I practically raised myself, she sometimes laments. Maybe so. But the relationship she and I now share is warm, loving, honest and most important, forgiving. Mothers and daughters don’t always have to see eye to eye to respect each other’s choices.

She loves weekend spiritual retreats and bicycles across whole states. I don’t have time for a ride across the neighborhood. And when she suggested we take a mother-daughter retreat for my birthday, I said, “How about New York instead?” Still, we can spend hours discussing our lives and dissecting the world’s problems.

The final story in Snapshots, best reflects what’s most important in finding that middle ground. “Everything Old Is New Again,” by Berliner, addresses forgiveness. After years of smoldering, a middle-aged daughter finally learns to forgive. And in doing so, she is freed to seek forgiveness from her own distant daughter.

Our ability to see our mothers as not only human, but fallible, is a sign we’ve finally grown up. You might say, growing up means seeing the best and forgiving the rest.

And for those of us daughters who are also mothers still raising our own children, the hope is that we, too, would someday be just as forgiven.

Sony Hocklander is a features writer for the Springfield News-Leader in Springfield, Mo. While she enjoys being a daughter and a mother, she was not destined to be the mother of a daughter, raising instead two sons.

National Catholic Reporter, May 11, 2001