I’ve been reading Vivian Gornick’s book on essay and memoir writing. The Situation and the Story is a smart and lovely little book, full of wisdom and insight into what makes for great writing in both essays and memoirs. The book’s subtitle is “The Art of Personal Narrative”.
I have just read a section in which she discusses the life and work of Loren Eiseley and, especially, the memoir he completed shortly before his death in 1977. Eiseley’s book is called All The Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life. Gornick makes the book sound unmissable and it is already on my shortlist for this month’s books to buy.
It is something Gornick picks out in the book that I want to talk about in this post. After my post yesterday about my father it is almost suspicious that it is Eiseley’s relationship with his mother that caught my eye this morning when reading.
Eiseley’s description of his mother as “paranoid, neurotic, and unstable” found me nodding my head in agreement. As I have grown older I have come increasingly to realise the depth of my mother’s mental health issues, how those affected her life, and, of course, affected me as a child.
There is a sort of stigma about criticising your parents too publicly. But whereas when I was younger I would happily criticise my mother and rail at her actions and beliefs, with age has come a certain compassion and it is hard, obviously, to blame her for the things she did because she was unwell. What puzzled me as a child — and later as an adult — was that my father seemed to see no warning signs in my mother’s behaviour. In contrast, past girlfriends — and my wife, most definitely — can attest to behaviour that was not normal by any stretch of the imagination.
In the five years since my mother’s death, my father continues to talk about her as if she was a paragon of common sense, kindness, and fun. She was none of those things, except rarely. My father talks of the strength of their mutual bond and their long years of marriage. I haven’t — and of course I won’t ever — tell him of the hours my mother would spend telling me of my father’s faults. Every day for more years than I want to remember, my mother would greet me as I came in from school and start with stories that showed my father in a poor light. This did nothing, as you can imagine, for my opinion of my father and is one of the root causes for a relationship with my father that has never been more than polite.
Of the three terms for his mother used by Eiseley, it was the “neurotic” and “unstable” that immediately conjured up memories of my own mother. She may also have been paranoid but I suspect that aspect of her was easily hidden beneath her neuroses and instability. And those were the character traits that most defined her, I think. And those were the traits that made her life so small and, in the end, such a bitter thing to live through each day. The strength of her bitterness sucked my father into that same life.
It is hard to escape the lessons of a lonely childhood lived in the shadow of such a woman. Even now, with a family around me that I love and in I which I feel loved, there are times when I must resist the call of a different response to comfort and happiness. It is like a seed of misery that has to be squashed before it sprouts. There have been times in the not-too distant past when I have allowed the seed grow – through a mixture of depression and wilfulness — and it has taken me hard lessons to recover.