Get chatting with another woman who aspires to ‘write’ and chances are, when the barriers are down, when you’ve both ’fessed up to your lofty ambitions - think Alice Munro, Amanda Lohrey, Chloe Hooper - and you ask politely ‘So, Cassandra, (or whoever,) what’s your story about?’ Cassandra will reply, ‘Well I’m trying to write the story of my mother. She was such an interesting person.’ And Cassandra won’t be the only one. In every writers’ group of ten people there’ll be three or four women planning to write about mother.
Once I would have been all ears because, by some amazing co-incidence, I too was thinking of writing about my mother! What are the odds? But a decade or so later it’s hard not to let my eyes glaze over and hope for someone to say, instead, ‘I’m thinking of writing the story of that drainage contractor I wanted to run off with when he was working on our septic system.’
Drusilla Modjeska started it all with Poppy. She has a lot to answer for. The blurb on the back cover of my old edition says:
In this book, Drusilla Modjeska sets out to collect the evidence of her mother’s life. But when the facts refuse to give up their secrets, she follows the threads of history and memory into imagination.
That is, when she could neither remember, nor find evidence for, the facts about her mother’s life which would give meaning and continuity to her story, Drusilla made it up. With stunning results.
When my mother died more than a decade ago and my sister and I were struggling to make sense of some of the things we subsequently learned about her, this approach seemed just the shot. Very liberating indeed. Oh, we loved her dearly, our Mum, but she could be contrary and she had more secrets than the KGB. So, inspired by Drusilla, liberated from the confines of truth and accuracy by her brave mix of facts and fiction and sure that this would lay all my demons to rest, I too set about writing about Mother.
Here was my chance to celebrate the trials she had borne with strength and a wry good humour, the poverty and narrowness of her world which she had overcome, her capacity to recite poetry and make up stories that made us, as children, flee squealing in excitement from the ghosts and goblins that had hunkered down since her terrifying childhood to re-emerge and haunt ours. Here too was my chance to honour her bravery in sitting for months with a dying friend saying yes, I will help you die if it becomes too terrible, while also memorialising her respect for every living thing from black snake to butterfly.
But wait. Here also was my chance to explore those times when she had ridiculed us for experimenting with make-up, laughed at us with her friends because we couldn’t swim (no-one had taught us and we weren’t allowed near the creek), rejected the gifts we had made for her as feeble efforts to buy her love.
So, back then, I wrote. Reams of it, mother love, mother revenge, mother-the-mystery. Ninety thousand words of purging - some facts, great slabs of imagination, whatever gave continuity to her story. In haste I printed it and sent it off to a major publisher. Oh, how I now cringe at the thought! But they were kind and you know what they said? Something along the lines of – we were very interested in your story etc etc blah blah, but – and these weren’t quite the words though the meaning was clear – we have enough material about mothers already.
But hey, I was satisfied. Amazingly, someone had read it all, there were little ticks and a few long lines down the side of various passages which could have meant anything – ‘Must show this around for a laugh!’ or ‘Step aside, Alice Munro.’ I was not to know. And there my effort ended.
In the meantime I continued to hear, without any instigation on my part, other women talking with bewilderment, rage, love or passion about their mothers. There were mean mothers, adored mothers, saintly mothers, unfathomable mothers, flaky mothers, martyred mothers and many of them the intended subjects of about-to-be written memoirs or new works of creative fiction.
Many years later I find myself writing again. I have more time now and I’ve shed all of the angst that drove that first embarrassing manuscript.
The current manuscript is fiction. No, really. My mother’s not in it. She tries to be from time to time, muscling in to different characters with her sage green eyes, her habit of singing to herself every morning, her inborn resolve to ‘just get on with it’. But that’s about it. I’ve exorcised her and come to terms with her, loving her and understanding her a whole lot better than before I spent all those tortured years on that first manuscript. I’m okay with Mother now.
So when a dear friend rang me from afar a while ago and said ‘I’m thinking of writing a story,’ I said ‘Great! Just find a punchy opening and go from there’. And she said ‘I have already. Listen to this… I can remember exactly where I was when I decided to kill my mother.’
My heart skipped only a beat or two and then I said ‘Go Girl! You’ll find out heaps about yourself and loads about your mother. And it’s way cheaper than five years of psychotherapy.’