The short stories in Kate Milliken’s stunning debut collection, If I'd Known You Were Coming, are heartbreaking tales of absence, abandonment, and loss. In particular, many depict daughters forsaken by their mothers. The theme of the absent mother has been prevalent in literature by women for a long time. Dead mothers populate a good deal of nineteenth-century women’s novels—the lack of an idealized mother figure becoming the impetus for an imaginative woman to draw, paint, and write herself into being.
In her epic poem about the education of a Victorian female poet, Aurora Leigh, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s narrator writes of feeling a “mother-want about the world” due to her mother’s death when she was four:
. . . If her kiss
had left a longer weight upon my lips,
It might have steadied the uneasy breath,
And reconciled and fraternised my soul
With the new order. As it was, indeed,
I felt a mother-want about the world[.]
Without the role model of a mother whose “simple, merry, tender knack / Of tying sashes, fitting baby-shoes, / And stringing pretty words that make no sense” might guide and comfort them, these intelligent and artistic heroines (Aurora Leigh herself but also Jane Eyre, Cathy Earnshaw, Ruth Ellet, and Avis Dobell, among others) must find their own way in the world. Such motherlessness means there is no one to shield these daughters from life’s trials or injustices, and as a result, even as they struggle to develop and mature without a mother’s guidance, these heroines have a kind of freedom to choose their own path. This lack of security coupled with a “freedom” from familial strictures is precisely the contraction that many of Milliken’s characters face.
Throughout Milliken’s stories, the most profound sense of maternal loss comes from Caroline—a character who was abandoned by her mother, Lorrie, when Caroline was but seven. Intriguingly, in the opening story, “A Matter of Time,” Milliken introduces Caroline at age five through the eyes of Lorrie herself, a woman defined by want—who, at night, lies “awake in the dark, hungry, wishing for things.” Lorrie is dissatisfied by her choice of a husband, Marty, a handsome would-be actor, aimless but sexy. The story is centrally about Lorrie’s vain hope that a strategic dinner party might change her life—a life she is sure can’t “get any worse,” with their broken front door, their cracked and empty swimming pool, their proximity to a mall, and Lorrie’s second-hand clothes. The fantasy is that, by inviting Nick Regan—an old college friend now turned movie producer—to a carefully crafted dinner, Nick will offer Marty an audition. Yet Lorrie’s scheme fails. Everyone gets drunk, Nick suggests that he might have a part for another woman at the party, and the lasagna burns. Lorrie has a moment of insight, that her own mother was a good deal like Marty, “full of bubbling hope” that had ultimately “gotten her nothing.”
Though Caroline is not a prominent character in this first story, Lorrie’s treatment of her foreshadows what will develop into a cavernous desire on Caroline’s part to know, and to try to become, her mother—a woman she will claim repeatedly that she hates. As Lorrie pulls the burning lasagna from the oven, she hears her daughter’s voice and realizes that she’s forgotten her. “She did this sometimes, losing sight of her at a park, lost in her own daydream. Surely all mothers did this, sometimes.” Heading to her bedroom, she finds Nick, drunk, his fly partially undone, Caroline in her underwear, changing into a dress. Changing clothes is an activity that defines five-year-old Caroline more than any other: “[s]he’d been going through a phase—for years—of needing to wear each piece of clothing out of each drawer at least once a day.” Yet Lorrie is suspicious, particularly as Nick reaches over to tuck a piece of Caroline’s hair behind her ear and says for the second time that her daughter is “lovely”—this after having compared Caroline’s “gorgeousness” to Lorrie’s own upon his arrival. Understanding that Caroline is, and will become, a rival for the sexual attention that Lorrie herself enjoys from numerous men, Lorrie “feel[s] her daughter’s breathing, the small rise in her shoulders with each inhale” and “[takes] her hands from Caroline and back[s] away, toward the door, going.” Rather than protect Caroline from Nick’s erotic interest, Lorrie leaves. And, importantly, Milliken’s narrator ends this sentence with the word “going,” a gerund form of the verb “to go” that is active, always happening, which strongly suggests what is to come: Lorrie going for good, without even a note, in two year’s time.
In Milliken’s subsequent stories involving Caroline, changing clothes becomes a powerful metaphor as Caroline tries on various identities, each time attempting to reconcile the devastating mother-want about her world. Across If I'd Known You Were Coming, Caroline appears in four other stories: “The Whole World,” “Blue,” “Detour,” and “Inheritance.” Each time, she’s older. Through these stories, readers catch glimpses of her on her sixteenth birthday, at approximately nineteen, and finally as a twenty-year-old. Sometimes Caroline overtly compares herself to the vanished Lorrie, such as when she makes a move on her father’s friend Bill—a man not-so-secretly in love with her mother—asking him if he remembers what he said to her one Christmas, that Caroline would be “more beautiful than [her] mother one day.” Sometimes Caroline seeks someone to take the place of her mother, such as when she finds a friend in a strong-willed girl named Josie, herself a young woman with a mostly absent mother focused more on her wayward boyfriends than on her daughter. Josie’s ex-stepfather, Hank, understands immediately that Caroline is seeking a mother or an older sister in Josie. And sometimes Caroline’s obsession over her missing mother makes her forget and deny herself. In the final story, “Inheritance,” Caroline has become an anorexic, literally starving for attention: “she was more sick animal than woman now, down to bones and fur.” What Milliken offers in her five portraits of Caroline—though intriguingly never through Caroline’s own eyes—is a chronicle of this heroine’s trials rather than an ultimate triumph. In the resonant narrative of the motherless daughter, Caroline is stuck in a place of struggle, trying to assert her individuality and selfhood in the wake of feeling rejected and abandoned.
Additional stories in Milliken’s collection grapple with other kinds of familial lack and loss: divorce, one husband’s suicide, another husband’s crippling accident, a father-figure who not only leaves his family but takes his stepdaughter’s dog with him. In each case, Milliken is fearless in revealing her characters’ selfishness and vanity, of considering what it takes and what it means to abandon those we supposedly love or to abandon ourselves in seeking love. Yet it is her stories of daughters and their absent mothers that powerfully haunt, that capture with terrible beauty the complexities of inheritance, simultaneously psychic and somatic, that make daughters and mothers both cherish and reject each other. And although If I'd Known You Were Coming refuses easy epiphanies in which family members find hope or start to heal themselves, Milliken’s stories are all the more compelling for their unflinching honesty and poetic melancholy. Rather than stories of the ideal, these are stories of the real—of the human.