When literary mama begets literary mama, the resulting journey is bound to make an interesting story. My own has been. As an adolescent, being the daughter of a well-known writer felt like being thrust into the public’s eye in nothing but my tatty underwear. Mom was a regional craze, writing several books, a column for the local daily, and dozens of magazine articles about her experience mothering me and my nine siblings. Along with most members of my family, I wasn’t really interested in what she had to say beyond how it affected me. Honestly, I still haven’t read most of what she’s published.
My siblings and I toddled about in our innocent childhoods doing the memorable things all children do — pulling emergency alarms in shopping malls or making practical use of display toilets while she was shopping in Sears — with no idea Mom was taking notes. Not that other moms don’t find their children’s antics memorable, but they confine their tales to play groups and family parties. Mine had to distribute them to the masses.
By the time we wised up and stopped doing anything remotely funny in front of Mom, it was too late. An occasional story of teenage power struggle would sneak into Mom’s writing now and then, but for the most part, she left us alone as we got older. But that didn’t matter; she had a vast supply of material from our early years. Every time she sat down at her computer, I cringed — especially when she laughed out loud while she was typing. I never knew what embarrassing beast she might be dragging out of her memory to loose on my fragile adolescent reputation.
Her columns were the worst. She wrote and raised us in Spanish Fork, Utah — a small town of about 20,000 nosy Mormons. Maybe it was partly because of our close resemblance, but the fans that followed Mom’s weekly column were always coming up to me and laughing at my foibles or mistaking me for my brothers, whose conduct was always significantly worse.
Then Scamper died. Sure, she was just a rabbit, but I loved her more than any girlfriend I’ve ever had. It killed me — seeing her soft white fur streaked in blood, her pink eyes forever closed, and her gray nose no longer twitching. I wanted to find the dog that bit her neck for sport and shoot it with Dad’s twenty-two. Instead I cried for days.
My pain made the perfect subject for Mom’s next column. As usual, I discovered she’d written about me from her readers’ responses. Someone at school found it hilarious. You cried over a stupid rabbit? Ha, ha! I felt betrayed. This was something incredibly private, as personal as my emerging breasts. How could she let everyone in on it without asking my permission?
But that night there was a knock on the door. A man was standing there holding a black rabbit by the fat of its neck. “Arianne?” he asked.
“This is for you,” he said, shoving the rabbit at me.
“What?” I asked. “I don’t understand.”
“My mom read your mom’s column. She said I’d better find a new rabbit
and bring it over pronto, or I’d be in deep.”
“Uh, thanks,” I said. I held the rabbit out skeptically at first. It looked at me with eyes of dark chocolate, asking me to pull it close. As it nuzzled into me, warm as a baby and soft as feathers, I realized I would love again.
“Who was that?” Mom’s voice asked from the top of the stairs.
“A guy who read your column. He brought me a new rabbit.”
“Wow. How nice.”
I didn’t tell her thanks. I might not have even smiled. But I stopped crying over Scamper. I knew Mom had at least given me that with the magic of her words.
I admit, I tore that column about Scamper out of the paper and hid it in my scrapbook. Every once in awhile I still pull it out and read it. In addition to reminding me of one moment I directly benefited from Mom’s writing, her words make me cry. It’s like she reached out and caught a tender moment of my life in a butterfly net, and now I can revisit it as I please, with all the details still fluttering with life. I suppose it would have dried out, lifeless, if caged only in my mind.
Of course, it took years to get to this point, to see any beauty in Mom’s words. One experience in particular started my realization. One summer, out of sheer boredom, I wandered into Mom’s study and peeked in the bottom drawer of her filing cabinet. In it I found several folders filled with entire books she’d pounded out on her old typewriter. Dramatic historical novels, love stories, mysteries — all the things she’d never dared let other people see. I was immediately interested and read a few pages of a novel. Her published material had always seemed robbed of its sacredness — anyone could read it. But these books? They had the satisfaction of half-opened popcorn kernels. Their unedited plots had a delightful, gritty crunch. It was like watching Mom pose in front of a mirror without realizing she was being watched. Fascinating. So I pulled out one book at a time and read every word, quietly slipping into Mom’s study when I’d finished one to exchange it with another.
This was the first time Mom’s writing had actually snagged my curiosity. And I think I was the first to show any interest. My siblings never paid much attention to Mom’s work, but more significantly, neither did Dad.
Dad’s an introvert. He comes home from anything involving large numbers of people — family parties to traffic jams — and climbs into bed to recuperate. He treated Mom’s career like someone terrified of dogs encountering a friendly lab. All the jumping and licking of people’s comments about his wife made Dad uncomfortable and stiff. He was content to regard the action from a safe distance whenever possible. I don’t think he meant it deliberately, but his attitude deeply hurt Mom.
Maybe reading all of her uncensored material aroused interest in my own inner world because I started to explore writing myself. If nothing else prompted it, I knew I had deep feelings about life and needed to express them. Once, hiking in Bryce Canyon National Park, a gust of wind blustered past Mom and me. “Feel that? How would you describe that?” she asked. I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t. I had no idea how to capture wind with words, which frustrated me. I wanted to be able to liberate — with language — the feelings I had in that beautiful place, looking at the countless geologic steeples rising from the red earth and the gentle prod of the wind and water that had carved them over centuries.
So I started experimenting. I submitted some of my efforts to my high school’s literary magazine. They were published. I entered some fiction contests, admittedly with Mom’s encouragement, and won. The possibility of a career as a writer began to grow inside me with one caveat — that I would be seeing the world through my own words — not Mom’s.
One night I truly realized what I was getting into when I came home late from closing the sandwich shop where I worked. It was mid-winter and well below freezing, so it wasn’t unusual to feel the heat of a dying fire greet me as I walked downstairs to my bedroom. But at the bottom of the stairs, I turned to the family room and saw a silhouette in front of the open stove. Mom. I wondered why she was up and why she was sitting so close to the open flames. I took a step closer, about to speak, when I heard her sniff. Then her chest heaved a desperate breath, and she coughed. She was sobbing. Frozen in the dark, I watched Mom’s long white arms reach out toward the flames and feed the single white sheets, one by one. The flames licked each page hungrily, curled their corners with black, and then swallowed them whole. Judging by her hoarse voice, the size of the fire, and the few sheets left on Mom’s lap, I figured she had been at this for a good half hour.
Finally I cleared my throat and took a few steps toward Mom. She didn’t turn. “What are you doing?” I asked. She sniffed.
“He didn’t like it,” she whispered. “He said it hurt him.” She didn’t have to elaborate. I knew the stack of pages feeding the flames was Mom’s latest book and that somehow she’d convinced Dad to read it.
“Mom,” I said, stupidly, “I hope you saved that on the computer.” She looked up at me blankly for a moment, her eyes bright red from the reflecting fire. And I knew her new book was really gone.
I backed out of the room, stunned, and went to my bedroom. But I couldn’t sleep for a few hours. Is this what I have to look forward to as a writer, I thought. And if it was, would it be worth it? I certainly didn’t want to end up crying, with no escape from my own words but to feed them to a fire.
Suddenly Mom’s career became clearer to me. I sensed somewhere inside her she must feel that need to express herself as I did. She had been struggling to find a way to exercise this need while balancing its affects on the people she loved. Now, when it seemed she was being forced to choose between the two, she was choosing us — me, my siblings, Dad. I felt undeserving of such an act and fell asleep frightened, knowing that it was her words — literally — that were warming my bedroom as I fell asleep.
As I reflected for years on this encounter, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a writer anymore. It didn’t seem worth it. I tried music, I tried painting, but nothing seemed to set my feelings to flight like writing. Finally I had to make a decision. If I’m going to do this, I told myself, I’m going to have to do it differently. I decided I would never write to receive validation from anyone else, especially my husband and children. And I would never write explicitly about them, knowing what the consequences might be.
So I embarked on a writing career separate and distinct from Mom’s. After college I worked by writing for teens. Then I delved into journalism — writing articles about drug busts, murders, government corruption, and my favorite: scathing editorials. My fiction, written on the side, was honest, edgy, deep, nothing that would fit into the comfortable fluffiness of the Mormon publishing realm that worshiped Mom’s talent. I like relating to life in the same way I’ve experienced it — complex, raw, deep, dangling. I found I didn’t feel honest when I wrote about things that could be tied up with a bright pink bow at the end like some of Mom’s material. This has forced me beyond the world in which I grew up. Mormon readers typically won’t accept anything other than rose-colored. Mom was willing to work within those restraints. I guess I’m not.
Getting married and giving birth to my children, Samuel and Sophia, changed my relationship with Mom. I see her early writing differently now — how many of the things I did as a child actually were pretty cute. At least I’m no longer embarrassed by them. I also know, first-hand, how writing must have kept my mother sane. Ten kids! I can barely handle two.
Although I have yet to read much of Mom’s published work, we critique what we’re currently working on. It’s been both rewarding and exciting to abandon our old wardrobe as mother and daughter and step into a fashionable world as friends and colleagues. She still struggles with the fear that her writing will hurt others, but she hasn’t let it stop her. Her career is at a high point with several books in the works. I even encouraged her to publish one of her filing-cabinet novels. At first, this new relationship felt like Mom and I were finally stepping on the same boat, with tickets to the some place beautiful. But I’ve found that’s only partly true.
Recently, I sent her the rough draft of a book I’m writing. I knew it needed further work, but when I asked her for suggestions, she honestly didn’t have any. The experience caused us both to stop — a chance encounter between two passengers who have been longing to see one another up close. We realized that while we are both finally on the same boat, it is only for a moment as she is stepping off, and I am boarding.
I look forward to our growing relationship as contemporaries, but this realization has caused me to pause in working on my book, trying to savor the closeness I have to Mom right now. I realize that to continue my journey as a writer, I have to sail away from her. But how can I? I’ve only just discovered my mother, finally listening to what she’s spent her whole life trying to say. Wouldn’t letting my talent venture further than hers be a slap in the face of all that?
But as I write this, I realize this is her gift to me — allowing me to embark from the point of her destination. I was always riding, a selfish stowaway on the vessel of her art. Her creative courage and sacrifice have opened my eyes to everything she spent years learning and will give me the opportunity to sail into the dark, deep, waters beyond.
It’s ironic, I’ve spent my life up to this point not really knowing or truly respecting my mother, yet trying to distinguish myself from her. I suspect I’ll spend the rest of it trying to live up to her legacy. And one day, years from now, I hope to catch the eye of a beautiful girl named Sophia as she boards a boat to her own destination.