Discover more from Poor Man's Feast
the caregiver's lament.
On Motherland, memoir, and sustenance
The phone rang this morning at 12:45 am, again at 12:47 am, at 5:17, and 5:19, just as the sun was coming up. I didn’t hear the last three calls because I’d shut my phone off. The first call catapulted me out of bed, because when you have an 87-year-old mother and the phone rings at 12:45 in the morning, it’s never good.
On the other end during the 12:45 am call was shrieking. Something about my wanting her to die in the street like a dog, something about my not getting her a goddamned new f**king cell phone because hers is broke and what will she do without a cell phone. Something about my being a piece of s**t.
I put the phone down and shut off the volume. When she called back, the messages, when I checked them this morning, were identical. I saved them, as I always do.
Just in case.
One of the questions I got all the time during my Motherland book tour was: when did you know you’d write about your mother. And the answer was always the same: first, Motherland isn’t about my mother —- it’s about the two of us. A hyper-heterosexual, body dysmorphic former television singer mother who for six months didn’t know she was pregnant with the daughter she never planned to have, and that daughter: a sturdily built, food writing, nonfiction-teaching long-married lesbian caught up in her mother’s narcissistic personality disordered maelstrom, and how these two women exist together on the same plane, in the same universe. Second, and to answer more specifically: I’ve been writing about her since I was in single digits. Since I could hold a pencil and make letters. Since I understood without anyone telling me that writing about us would save me.
So I’ve known for a very long time that Motherland was going to happen. And when it finally did, just before Covid hit in 2020, it begged another question: how could you do it? How did you have the temerity? How could you not wait until she was gone to tell the world exactly what happened, beyond the makeup and the cooing and the smiles, the closets full of Armani and the sense of humor and the desire to feed, and the yearning yearning yearning. And the answer to that question was also always the same: because I wanted to write about us while she was not committed just to memory. I wanted to write about us while we were both still here, still existing on this same plane, in this same universe.
One of the primary things I teach in my memoir workshops centers around Vivian Gornick’s wise quote from her book The Situation and the Story:
For the drama to deepen, we need to see the cunning of the innocent and the loneliness of the monster.
Put another way, I sat in a Tin House Workshop some years back, when Dorothy Allison said If you’re going to write about how f**ked up your family is, you have to write about just how f**ked up you are, too. (Or something to that effect.)
Memoir requires this. It demands distance and context and perspective for it to be more than one-sided kvetching, or sophomoric revenge writing. It requires that the author turn themselves into a narratorial character, fully formed and fleshed out and flawed, and somehow distanced from the author herself. I tell my students, when they are writing memoir, to let go of the side of the pool. To loosen their grip on the reins. Authenticity is born of this release, this distance, this DMZ between narrator and author that results in the author being able to stand back and look at the story and truly comprehend it and their role in it, and who they have become because of it.
And this happened when I wrote Motherland; I finally came to a place of understanding not only about who she is, but who I am in relation to her. It finally allowed me to step back from the chronic Stockholm Syndrome I’ve lived with for so long and truly see exactly how abusive this person has been, how the abuse has been normalized, how it has shaped my life and motivations, my powerful need for numbing and my desire for sustenance, wherever I can find it and whatever it might be. It also allowed me to see what I didn’t want to acknowledge: her ephemeral humanity, that comes and goes with the tides.
Still, having turned our life together into literary memoir — I’ve made art from chaos, one of my novelist friends likes to say —- our life together isn’t performative nor is it memoir; it’s an actual life. Which means that although my mother remains the character I wrote about —- the makeup addiction, the charm, the men, the jealousy, the television performances, the raging verbal and emotional abuse, and now, the early dementia —- she is still the person who, piece by piece, chips away at my foundation like a game of Jenga.
But here is the caregiver’s lament: she’s 87.
What happens when an elderly parent has no one else, when they don’t have the means to go into assisted living, when they live on shekels? What happens when the longtime violent emotional abuse they use against their daughter becomes a wink-wink/nod-nod joke, something out of Mama’s Family, something to not be taken seriously lest you look at it just a little too hard for a little too long and so you turn both it and yourself into punchlines? What do you do?
You do the best you can. You remind yourself of the friend — the Rhodes Scholar with all the fellowships —- who refused to leave her abusive husband because he is a good man.
You thank God, or whomever, for the sense of humor you inherited from your father. You thank God for your wife, and for your work, and for your friends who rally around you even as they plead with you to run for your life. They remind you of the stroke you had right after your mother moved out after living with you for three months during the earliest days of Covid. They remind you that that little mild ischemic thingy your cardiologist just found the other day is evidence of a silent heart attack. They remind you that 59 years of daily abuse eventually backs up like a clogged sewage pipe, filled with toxic waste that could kill you, even though you just roll your eyes at it because you’re used to it. It’s your normal.
They remind you to not answer the phone after midnight, even if it is an emergency. They remind you to maybe not love wine quite so much, and that there’s a 7:30 am meeting every morning in a neighboring town. They remind you to feed yourself well, to care for your marriage, to care for your heart and the ground you stand on, for however much longer you have.
Slow-Cooked Zucchini Coins with Chopped Herbs and Crumbled Feta
adapted from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
My appetite has been a little MEH these days, and when we returned home from Provincetown and found that our zucchini had finally exploded, it was all I wanted. Recipes for slow-cooked zucchini abound; I think my dear friend Deborah Madison’s is the best, and I make it whenever I need healthier, fresh comfort food. (Note: vegans, omit the feta, or replace with plant-based feta.)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1-1/2 pounds zucchini, thinly sliced in rounds
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
Salt and fresh pepper, to taste
1/4 cup chopped dill (or a combination of dill, parsley, and cilantro)
1/2 cup crumbled feta
Optional: a handful of toasted slivered almonds
Heat the oil in a wide skillet, then add the zucchini and garlic. Sprinkle lightly with salt and cook over low heat for 20-30 minutes, stirring every so often. The finish squash should have a light golden glaze over the surface and be caramelized in places. Taste for salt and season with pepper. Toss with the herbs and feta, and almonds, if using. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Fold leftovers into an omelet or a frittata, or toss with warm orzo.
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