The first book I ever published was Love and Mayhem at the Francie June Memorial Trailer Park. But I actually wrote The Iris Files before I wrote the trailer park book. And those who’ve read them know that Minah Bourne is a character in both books.
If you read Iris first, then your first introduction to Minah was my first introduction to her. She came into my mind as Iris’s mother-in-law, and she was introduced via those envelopes full of clippings that arrived in Iris’s mailbox every so often.
Then, there are the Minah clippings. Minah is my mother in law, and she sends clippings at least once a week. Each thick envelope seemed to be organized along a theme. Sometimes, it’s medical. “The Seven Warning Signs of Cancer.” “Better Living Through Bran.” “Medical Miracles that could Change Your Life!” These are accompanied by a note in her slanting hand. “No one lives forever, Iris. Minah.”
She also sends articles on “Keeping Your Man by Keeping Him Happy,” and “Five Fast Relationship Quick Fixes!” Again, the note, “Iris, take a lesson, here.” She sends articles about raising kids, about watching too much TV and how to get your kids to clean their rooms. “Worth a try, don’t you think? Minah.” Clearly, Minah believes I can use all the help I can get.
Iris didn’t find these clippings helpful. She didn’t know her mother-in-law very well, and she didn’t know why she kept getting these fat envelopes full of clippings every month, and she really didn’t look forward to Minah’s arrival. She found the very idea of Minah to be, shall we say, a challenge.
We all know how that went, don’t we.
If you’ve read the Trailer Park book, you know where the clippings came from, and why they often had tack holes in the corner. There were reasons. Good ones. And Minah is a quiet hero, clippings and all.
I try to skirt the issue of what might be autobiographical in my novels, but I freely admit that I based the clippings on events from my own life. For whatever reason, my mother saved and sent a lot of clippings. I mean, a lot. I’d open a letter, and find a wad of clippings with little pencil notations in my mother’s almost indecipherable handwriting, telling me who the clipping was for. It could be me, or it was just as likely to be for one of my (now ex) husbands, and later for my sister (who didn’t write letters much with my mother so I was supposed to save and deliver these to her for Mom) or much later, for my oldest daughter.
I think most of the clippings had to do with schemes. Please understand that my mother would have disliked how I call her ideas “schemes.” To her, they were perfectly reasonable “ideas.” Mostly they were ideas for how other people (who were not Mom) should live their lives.
Say, for instance, she read an article about Christmas tree farms in Oregon. She would think, “Karen and (ex) should do that.” So she would send that with her spidery pencil notations in the margin, “Think about this!” and then she’d eventually call me and ask if I’d read it, and had I been looking into opening a Christmas tree farm, and she’d found some listings for them, and she was sending them down so I could check them out with this realtor friend of hers.
I stood firm. “Mom, I don’t want a Christmas tree farm.”
Which would only strengthen her resolve that this was indeed the business venture that we should follow. She’d get very testy and defensive. She didn’t like being dismissed out of hand like that.
But I would hold my ground by stating the obvious. “Well, if you like the idea of owning a Christmas tree farm so much, why don’t you and Dad do it?”
This was a dangerous rejoinder. My parents spent years charging off in one direction or another, chasing their schemes, until finally settling down on Bainbridge Island. My parents loved it there, and shaking up their lives was then geographically limited, so it mostly involved local real estate as opposed to career changes.
This left my mother with a lot of pent up scheming energy, so she began working on getting other people to shake up their lives. My mother was so persuasive that she convinced a couple of friends to leave their jobs, sell everything they owned, and move into an RV and travel. And this couple DID IT. They lasted about a year before they sold the RV, bought a house, and went back to work. But that was my mom, an early #vanlife prophet who loathed RVs, but liked the idea, so she just urged the lifestyle onto someone else.
To be fair, my parents did charge off on a few financially ruinous schemes of their own during their Bainbridge years, including opening a pizza restaurant after they’d entered the years when they should have been consolidating their resources and planning for retirement.
Like I said, schemes.
My point is, I knew firsthand how annoying it was to receive a bunch of clippings. And the clippings weren’t limited to my own mother! When my second ex husband began his own lengthy and painful exit, his mother sent me the very clippings Iris receives about how to comport yourself around your children when your husband begins to pull a disappearing act.
Minah express-mailed me an emergency packet of clippings about divorced women who had been beaten, cheated on, financially devastated and abandoned by their husbands, but these women had NEVER said ONE word against their husbands to their children. They suffered in saintly silence, so their kids could have a high opinion of their fathers.
Scribbled in the margin, “Iris, take a lesson.”
Iris received that advice with more grace than I did.
Another clipping received came after my first child was born with a physical condition that came as a true surprise to everyone. Several well-meaning people sent me the Dear Abby Holland/Italy column. It starts with:
Welcome to Holland
I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability-to try to help people who have not shared that unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It’s like this . . .
‘When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip to Italy. You buy a bunch of guidebooks and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. The Michelangelo David. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.
After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, `Welcome to Holland.’
‘HOLLAND?!?’ you say. ‘What do you mean, Holland? I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy.’
But there`s been a change in the flight plan. They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay.
If you’d like to read the rest of this thing, it’s here: That Holland/Italy Dear Abby column people send to new parents who are grappling with the reality of having a child who is going to face a lot of heartbreaking challenges in her life and maybe this will help, I guess.
There’s another advice column from one of the Ann/Abby sisters about God choosing atheists to raise disabled kids. Apparently we are divinely chosen for this special task because we’re going to be so good at it. I don’t have the heart to track that one down. Nothing about that column brings an atheist any closer to the idea of God.
And if you’re reading this, and a friend has a child with a challenge, spare them these columns. You might have the very best of intentions, but a lot of people do brutal things with the very best of intentions. Don’t do it.
At some point, my mother got angry about the clippings. She let me know that it was taking up a large portion of each day to read things, clip them out, sort them into piles (because my brothers and some of her friends were getting them, too) and get them sent off with proper postage. I remember the hurt in her voice when she said, “I don’t even think you’re reading most of them.”
I replied, “Mom, did I ever ask you to be my clipping service? Did anyone ask you to do that?”
Mom kind of huffed up and gathered her dignity, then. Like most of us, she hated to find out she’d been doing something unnecessary, even annoying, as opposed to helpful. No one likes to feel ridiculous, especially not my mom. But I like to imagine that after her hurt feelings subsided, she started to read her papers and magazines for herself, rather than reading them for other people. I imagine it was a relief.
Here’s the rub. I do this, or a version of it. I send links to poems and essays to my friends. Just a select few friends, and I try to keep it under control. But I get daily poems from Rattle magazine and Poem-a-Day, so I send poems off now and then. I even sent this one to my husband, because we watch so many of these (and please read it slowly, and all the way to the end, because it’s magnificent in how it builds):
And I loved this trailer park poem so much, I posted it on my Facebook page (it’s heartbreaking and full of courage):
I recently sent this amazing NYer essay by Ann Padgett to four of my dearest friends.
And really, isn’t this what a Facebook feed is? A curation of links and memes and photos we think our friends will enjoy? An endless online clipping service?
So, am I just my own mother, now, as we are all our own mothers? I wonder. I also wonder if I would have loved getting envelopes from Mom if they had been full of poems and essays and stories, instead of schemes for changing my life. But Mom read mostly nonfiction, and she actively disliked poetry. She said she never “got it,” and felt stupid and angry when she tried to read it. She would never have sent me poems.
I recently read The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich. It’s fantastic, but there’s one passage that stood out to me. Here it is:
It is difficult for a woman to admit that she gets along with her own mother–sometimes it seems a form of betrayal, at least, it used to be among women in my generation. To join in the company of women, to be adults, we go through a period of proudly boasting of having survived our own mother’s indifference, anger, overpowering love, the burden of her pain, her tendency to drink or teetotal, her warmth or coldness, praise or criticism, sexual confusions or clarity. It isn’t enough that she sweat, labored, bore her daughters howling or under total anesthesia or both. No. She must be responsible for our psychic weakness for the rest of her life. It is all right to feel kinship with your father, to forgive. We all know that. But your mother is held to a standard so exacting that is has no principles. She simply must be to blame.
“She simply must be to blame.” I sighed in recognition when I read this, because I am a mother and I am a daughter, just as my own mother was. We only really forgive our mothers when we become mothers ourselves.
I loved my mother so much. She sent what she sent. She sent it with love. And of course, even though I love the life I’ve crafted, and I guard it from intrusion and meddling with everything I have, I’d give anything to open my mailbox and find one of those fat envelopes from my mom full of clippings on how to best change my life, annotated with her penciled notes in the margins.
When I was a newly single mother of three, for some reason I decided to take my kids to Disneyland. By myself. Because I’m nuts. But I did it, and boy was I relieved when it was over.
Now, the relief didn’t settle in until the last day we were there, when we got up in the morning and took the shuttle to the Happiest Place on Earth in order to shop. I was breaking out the charge card and making my kids’ dreams come true. I’d told them that they could each have one thing, whatever they wanted, I didn’t care what it was or what it cost, but we’d have to get it on the last day. They would each have to remember where the thing was.
Though I’m a little fuzzy on the wheres, I actually remember what each of them got! My oldest got a Milne-style big Pooh, and my middle girl got some kind of anniversary Mickey in a satin jacket, and my youngest got the imperious pug from Pocahontas–the one with the ruff. He was larger than life-size.
We boarded the shuttle back to the hotel, and I felt myself relaxing. I hadn’t given much thought to how vigilant I’d had to be, but I had wrangled the kids through Disneyland for 3+ days. No one had been snatched or lost or damaged in any way. They were all decently fed, moderately rested, not sunburned, and not asthmatic. Best of all, they each had an enormous animal to clutch on the way home, in order to impress to our fellow flyers with the fact that we had just been to Disneyland.
I had done it.
I felt moderately triumphant as we rode the shuttle to the hotel. Tension I’d been unaware of carrying started to unlock itself from my shoulders and neck. Once we’d retrieved our bags and boarded the shuttle to the airport, I could actually feel the stress rolling out of my body. I’d been a hyper-aware mother hawk for days on end. It was almost over. We reached John Wayne International, and then our gate. By then, I felt intoxicated by my relief. Once we buckled up for the flight home, I was a jelly-like blob of relaxed motherhood. I didn’t need a cocktail. I was drunk on relief.
I’ve thought about that over the last month or so.
Since November of 2016, I’ve been at a high level of vigilance and a near constant state of outrage. It’s hard to function like that. The last year-plus has been so politically chaotic. It’s easy to forget the earliest days, when Bannon was running the show and each appointment was more catastrophic than the last. Like a scab, he eventually dried up and fell off, leaving us with less orchestrated trolling and more sheer chaos. Chaos that has become entertaining. At some point, I actually started laughing about how hideous this all is, because I laugh about everything.
I told my T about a month ago that something had changed. I wasn’t sure if I’d simply exhausted my capacity for outrage, and gone numb, or if there had been some shift in the atmosphere. I think it started, now that I consider it, with Roy Moore’s defeat. I wondered if I’d just normalized. This is how it’s going to be, I’d tell myself. There are rats in the basement and termites in the foundation, but we might be able to call in an exterminator at some point, if everything wasn’t ruined in the meantime.
I posted this on Facebook this morning:
A friend asked me, this morning, how I would write what’s going on in the head-spinning world of American politics. In my story, the appearance of Giuliani signals an exit strategy; that his wife has had enough, and is going to leave him unless he steps down and takes her back to Manhattan. So he brought in a trusted lawyer friend, and a more skilled lawyer to guard him legally, to help him navigate his way back to private life. But that’s what I would write if this were fiction. We are living in times so much stranger than fiction.
I realize now that I’m not numb. I’m calm. I feel a shift and a flicker of hope. I don’t exactly know what will happen next, to be honest. But something has changed, and the relief I feel is palpable. I’m not quite a blob–I’m still worried as hell–but there is some shift, something afoot.We’ll wait and see if I’m right.