Saturday, May 8, 2010

Mother's Day 2010

Mother's Day is tomorrow. What to do? What to give? What to hope for? What to wear? How to celebrate?

And if you're a guy, how not to screw it up?

The day will be over before we know it and my kids and husband might, or might not, remember to be super-duper nice to me all day long. I hope they'll bring me pink peonies and purple hydrangeas on a tray with strong coffee in bed. I know we're taking my Mom out for lunch and then I'm scheduled to do a mandatory two-hour shift at the snack bar in the park where my younger son plays Little League.

In the spirit of, "You have to plant your own garden, instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers..." I suggest that for this Mother's Day, we all buy the mothers in our lives at least one great book. The beautiful thing about books is that you can both share them and disappear into them. Here is a list of books by and about women, most of whom are mothers:

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison by Piper Kerman. Piper Kerman was a bisexual, blonde, pretty Smith grad who graduated from college without much of a plan and ended up involved with (though not necessarily in love with) a lesbian drug dealer who was selling heroin in the US for a West African kingpin. Kerman ended up in jail for a year, and her memoir is jarring and well-written. She spent most of her time in jail taking notes, smoking and working as a low-level electrician. Friends and family sent her cartons of books: "The literary avalanche was proof that I was different, a freak. 'She's the one with books.'" She read Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf and lent out Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Kerman's visits from her mother and boyfriend (now husband) are often gut-wrenching: "My mother fell silent as she watched a little girl playing with her parents at another card table," Kerman writes. "The strain on her face wiped away any complaint or self-pity I might have had. She was putting on a brave front, but I knew she would cry all the way to the car." Kerman's observations about the prison guards and the other women she bunks with are tart, appreciative, astute and funny. This book is a page-turner.

My Mother's Clothes: An Album of Memories, by Jeannette Montgomery Barron. I bought this two weeks ago, while I was up in Connecticut on a "girls" weekend with my two best friends from college. I really shouldn't be calling us girls, because we went to a women's college and on the first day of school, we went to an assembly, where we were told that we were first year students, not freshmen, and that we should be calling ourselves women, not girls. But as I get older, I gravitate closer to my "girls" probably because I live in a house full of boys (While I was away, my husband found the one friend of his who owns a gun and took my sons skeet-shooting.) My friends and I were wandering around a little bookstore in Kent when I came upon this book. It almost made me cry and I never would have found it if I were just surfing Amazon. I bought the book for my Mom and gave it to her as soon as I got back, mainly so she would read it and give it back to me to reread. In this book, Barron photographs pictures of all the objects that her Southern, party-loving mother wore and loved. Barron's mother married the heir to the Coca-Cola bottling fortune and was BFF with Bill Blass, but her husband left her for a Playboy bunny and eventually, she developed Alzheimer's. To jog her mother's memory, Barron would bring her items from her past---dresses, blazers, a bottle of Norell. This book is short, beautiful and almost too much to bear.

A Ticket to the Circus by Norris Church Mailer. I don't know how she pulled it off but Norris Church managed to work as a model, sleep with Bill Clinton, befriend Andy Warhohl, marry Norman Mailer, raise his kids from other marriages, put up with his various affairs, write a couple of novels of her own, and still come out a hero to Mailer's stepchildren. Now she's written a memoir about it all, at exactly the same time that one of Mailer's mistresses wrote her own book, Loving Mailer. "I used to say I had no skeletons in my closet," Church Mailer writes. "They were all in the pages of the New York Post." Now they're here.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout: The best story in this fantastic collection of interrelated stories is "The Piano Player." I gave it out last night to a creative writing class I'm teaching, and truthfully, not all the students liked it. One woman said, "You can tell a woman wrote this story." Yes, you can but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Anyway, "The Piano Player"is subtle and pounds a shocking ending. It's one of the best short stories I've ever read about the consequences of bad mothering.

The Gastronomical Me by MFK Fisher: This is an oldie, but a goodie. I first read this book in college, when a review copy arrived at the offices of our college newspaper. I never reviewed it but I ate it up. Fisher writes so poignantly about the meals she made and ate, and the men she loved and left. Fisher and her husband lived for almost three years In Dijon, and her descriptions of the food there are luscious: "We ate terrains of pate ten years old under their tight crusts of mildewed butter. We tied napkins under our chins and splashed in great odorous bowls of Ecrivves a la nage. We addled our palates with snipes hung so long they fell from their hooks, to be roasted then on cushions of toast softened with the paste of their rotted innards and fine brandy." One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from her essay, "Sea Change:" "I was willing then, as now, to admit that not all wives were like me, but I have never profited from being away from men I have truly loved, for more than a few days. I think that when two people are able to weave that kind of invisible thread of understanding and sympathy between each other, that delicate web, they should not risk tearing it. It is too rare, and it lasts too short a time at best." Of course, Fisher wrote this after she left her first husband, but that's what makes her great. She also sums up why cooking for (and talking to) to the people she loves is ultimately so satisfying: "I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world." Amen.

As for me, I gave myself the perfect Mother's Day present yesterday afternoon. As I was waiting for the school day to end, and for my children to return home, I lay down on our unmade bed and, with the sun streaming in through the window, watched the most recent episode of "30 Rock." It was about the various childish adult children---Jack, Tracy, Jenna, Liz, Frank---and how they dealt with their mothers on Mother's Day. The episode ended with Elaine Stritch and Patti Lupone smiling and singing. Let's hope we're all doing that tomorrow.

Happy Mother's Day.

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