After Page One: Books of Influence
A guest post to motivate, encourage, and inspire
Mothers and Daughters
When one of my nonfiction students asked if his topic had been written about too often, I told him not to worry. Many themes were well worked, I said. “Most literature is about romantic love or father/son relationships.” I was joking, but then I realized that it was, in many ways, true. I started looking for examples of mothers and daughters in books, asking friends, posting a query on Facebook, scanning my bookshelves.
The search reminded me, not just how under explored this pairing is as the primary emotional knot to be worked apart, but how vital. Books on this theme were among those most important to me: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Anywhere but Here by Mona Simpson, High Tide in Tucson by Barbara Kingsolver, and a 1978 anthology, Tangled Vines, Poems to Celebrate and Explore the Relationship Between Mothers and Daughters, edited by Lyn Lifshin. Though they vary dramatically in terms of style and genre, the honesty of the portrayals-from the way Lily has to go around Mrs. Ramsay to find her artistic sensibility, to Kingsolver’s eventual embrace of her daughter’s breakfast stubbornness as “civil disobedience”-forged my sense of what was possible as a writer and a person.
My own mother, Gail Todd, has a poem in Tangled Vines, called “To My Four-Year-Old Daughter,” She wrote poetry for a while, publishing a collection, Family Way, with Shameless Hussy Press in 1975, and currently writes articles for the San Francisco Chronicle. This particular poem is about a long day of battles of will, then the mother searching for a moment of connection at the end, only to have the daughter fall asleep in the mother’s lap. It ends:
Remember when your ear hurt and we rocked all night.
How many hours, awake, I stared into your face
Seeing prongs that reach
Deep in your childhood, deep in mine.
The daughter is me, and scanning the poem, I hear my mother reading it out loud at Cody’s books in Berkeley, particularly the part where she echoes my voice: “You said I yelled so much it made you sleepy/ Popped in your thumb and drifted away.” The poem must have been fresh because her black hair still hung down to her waist and I was young enough to escape my seat; in memory, the words float over me as I’m running through the stacks, dragging a finger across the spines.
Along with reading Woolf, and Morrison, and Kingsolver, having a mother who wrote gave me a glimpse of her interiority, of her life as a separate, conflicted person, a sense that many don’t get until they are older. For years now, I’ve read her work and she’s read mine. Our writing is part of a halting conversation, the one my mother wanted to have all those years ago with the girl who fell asleep, each of us narrating the world as we see it. The fact of her writing and performing gave me permission to stand up and say what I thought and felt, to tell and keep telling these stories, to keep unraveling that knot and tugging at the identity bound up in it.
Those works, her work, showed me: It’s what mothers and daughters do.
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