How Our Mothers Live Within Us
In her deconstructed memoir, The Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch has a chapter entitled “How to Love Your Mother After She’s Dead.” Having endured a very difficult relationship with her alcoholic mother, and an even more difficult and abusive relationship with her father for which her mother was little buffer at times, Yuknavitch includes this chapter as a kind of redemption, but not by shining the light of praise. She shines a much warmer and broader light.
Which simply means she considers the whole of her mother in the most beautiful and raw and unexpected way. The chapter begins, “I first met my mother when she was born with one leg more than six inches shorter than the other. A scar running kid-eye high up the length of her outer leg.” Every paragraph thereafter begins with “I first met my mother”...and what follows is a breathtaking vignette collection of brutal pain and exquisite beauty and hard fact moments of her mother’s life including words spoken to her and spoken by her, before and after she was a mother, back also to when she was herself a child, neither saint nor sinner, just human down to the asymmetrical skeleton of her bones, affected and affecting from the cumulative skin of her existence.
The chapter is neither a condemnation nor a glorification, it imposes no judgment and makes no case, even for love despite the title, nor is it an invalidation of the daughter’s pain. What it does is leave your heart torn open by the messy composite fragility of human life. What it does is render you speechless with compassion for the pain that creates pain and for the light that shines through it anyway, too. And how we can never know. We can never fully know.
I was so struck by this chapter and it’s ability to invoke a more nuanced story that rips the heart open, to encourage a consideration of character outside of the bounds of any role-based narrative, that I sometimes read these pages aloud to my circles and invite the women to the prompt of repeating the line “I first met my mother/father when”.... inviting us to go all over with it, everywhere, to a time before you, to a time with you, to all the kinds of time, to your mother as a girl, too. We do this now. I give a long time to do it. And when we go there, no previously expressed reality is invalidated, no one dimensional story is left inked and not a dry eye leaves the room.
Yes this exercise is about the mother relationship and for many women, it brings up so many simple and subtle experiences of love that became lost along the way, and allows some vocalization of quietened thorns of pain that were swallowed within. Witness to wounds that have long wished to be heard and held in love. In whole, the exercise is, without fail, inducive to opening a compassion, for mother and/or daughter, that can sit beside and hold hands with whatever else is as welcome and also present inside. In other words, it creates space.
I do not ask women to write this for their mothers though. I trust in some cases it softly touches something, if only within and exactly where it’s wanted. I ask us to write it because every time we ground in the visceral experience of compassion, we soften to ourselves. We soften to our lives. We are more able to stay with ourselves, present, kind and holding hands to welcome all that is with us, inside and here and now in the ongoing lived mystery of self that every birth that ever happened somehow gives rise to. Yours and mine and our mothers' before us. Too.