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Motherland: A Memoir

Motherland: A Memoir

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by Pamela Marin

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Pamela Marin was fourteen when her mother died of breast cancer. After keeping her illness a secret from her daughter, Mildred Marin left her home in Evanston, Illinois, to spend her last months alone and without treatment in California. When she died in 1973, her husband buried the family's memories with her -- clearing the house of her belongings, avoiding any


Pamela Marin was fourteen when her mother died of breast cancer. After keeping her illness a secret from her daughter, Mildred Marin left her home in Evanston, Illinois, to spend her last months alone and without treatment in California. When she died in 1973, her husband buried the family's memories with her -- clearing the house of her belongings, avoiding any mention of her, and never once taking his young daughter to her mother's grave. Before Marin was out of her teens, her father went bankrupt and moved in with his thirty-years-younger girlfriend. Now in this luminous memoir, written with rare grace and unflinching honesty, Marin chronicles how she came to reject her father's dismissal of the past and ultimately to embark on a cross- country search for traces of the mother she never really knew.
With family and home gone, Marin got to work supporting herself, first as a waitress in Chicago's northside bars, then as a secretary, and finally as a journalist, landing a job as a staff writer at a newspaper in Southern California when she was twenty-seven. Two years later, happily ensconced in a beach house with the man who would become her husband and the father of her children, Marin began to dream about the mother who'd been gone for more than half her life. Those haunting dreams led to the quest at the heart of Motherland.
Fifteen years after Mildred Marin's death, the author dropped out of her own life to research her mother's. Using her reporter's skills, Marin traveled to Tennessee, where her mother was born and reared; to Chicago, where her mother worked as a commercial artist and met the man she would marry; and back to California, where Mildred Marin went to die. Along the way, Marin collected treasured artifacts as well as others' memories of her mother. She confronted her father about the silence that enshrouded his wife's illness and death, causing a rift in their relationship that would last until he died a decade later.
Motherland is a journey shot through with love and pain. It is a story of loss, discovery, and, ultimately, forgiveness. By coming to terms with her mother's life, Pamela Marin opened the way for the emotional intimacy she had craved as a child -- and finally found in her own motherhood.

Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A journalist goes in search of her dead mother. Unfortunately, she takes us with her. The early pages of Marin's memoir are fascinating: the author grew up outside of Chicago-her mother was a Methodist, her father a Christian Scientist. Life was idyllic. Father drove a Cadillac. Holidays were celebrated with culinary gusto. Grandmother (maternal) lived with the clan and passed her days "quietly crocheting in a rocker upstairs." Then Marin's mother developed breast cancer. By the time the girl was 14, her mother was gravely ill. Though a Methodist, she decided to "go . . . the Christian Science route," disdain medicine, and check into a Christian Science "rest home" in California, 2,000 miles from her family. Marin was told that her mother was going on a vacation. Two months later, the patient died-and everything fell apart. Marin's father sent his mother-in-law back to Tennessee. He went bankrupt and moved in with a woman 30 years his junior. Marin, who's been featured on Oprah, never knew much about the circumstances of her mother's death, but in her late 20s she set out on a reporting assignment to learn as much as she could about this woman who had become an abstract, hazy memory. All this back-story is covered in the introduction. Sounds interesting, right? But it doesn't pan out. Marin doesn't get down to her research until after some 74 pages of meandering, episodic, and confusing scenes from Marin's life-an abortion, dreams, breakfasts with Dad. Finally, she turns her attention to The Search For Mother-but her account of it consists primarily of transcribed conversations with relatives and family friends. There's too much detail about the airports Marin flew in and out of on hersearch, too little interpretation of the past she's looking for. And the bland prose is only workmanlike. A story not yet transformed into literature, let alone art.

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Sometimes I pretend my mother is watching me. I use her, the thought of her, if I think I might say something or do something in a situation that doesn't require me to say or do, like a parent-teacher conference at preschool. Before I go into the classroom, to sit on a midget chair at a knee-high table and listen to a childless twenty-seven-year-old tell me about one of my kids, I might bring a picture of my mom to mind, and for a meditative moment feel that by placing her between myself and the world I will acquire the dignity and grace I ascribe to her.

But I can't hold the thought. I can never hold the thought. I see my mother sitting peacefully, with her faraway stillness, her useful hands folded in her lap, then the image fades and I say something that signals my impatience.

My mother is an idea to me, like God. And like a god she has been an ideal repository for my anger and accusations, my love and longing, for my shape-shifting images of myself. Her name was Mildred Elizabeth Lady until she was twenty-eight years old, when she married my father and became Mrs. Allan Marin. More than half her life was over by the time she shed her given names, the better half, it seems to me now, as I near the age she was when she died.

I was fourteen when my mother died of breast cancer. She was fifty. She had been sick for years but never told me so, and I didn't see her during the last months of her life, which she spent alone in California, two thousand miles from our home in Evanston, Illinois, two thousand miles from her husband, her children, and her own mother, who lived with us.

She died in 1973, before breast cancer walkathons and pink breast cancer lapel ribbons and breast-cancer-surviving celebrities splashed into the news. It was the year Nixon's criminals testified in Congress, and the last U.S. troops left Vietnam. I have come to understand the times as I will never be able to understand my mother. Most of what I know about her I learned when I researched her life as I would a stranger's. I was twenty-nine. I'd been working at a newspaper in California -- following leads, conducting interviews, tapping out a thousand-word story per week, give or take. I liked being a reporter better than working as a waitress or a secretary, the jobs that were my undergrad and doctoral prep for journalism. "What's your angle?" I was often asked by those I interviewed, usually the ones with angles of their own. The question grated. I saw myself as a fact finder, an observer. Yes, everyone has a point of view, but reporters generally aim for fairness, and libel law generally enforces it.

I slipped through the looking glass when I dug into my mother's story.

Professional decorum? I wept in every interview. Sometimes my emotions carried me so far from the job at hand that my interview subjects wrapped their arms around me and soothed me as if I were a colicky baby. Objectivity? I leapt at scraps of hearsay. This one says my grandfather hid a bottle in his desk at the factory? In an instant I reconfigured my mother's biography, attributing her fall into my teetotaling father's arms to her dad's drunkenness. Fifty people told me of her kindness before one described her as cold and selfish and confessed a wicked prank her schoolmates played on her. Get me rewrite: First I was eerily thrilled by the tidbit, as if it let me off the hook for not knowing much about my mom. Her life was a blank canvas to me because she was cold. Her fault. Then I felt sad for her -- the outcast schoolgirl cruelly tricked -- and sadder for my own schoolgirl self, who hadn't the warmth to warm her own mother. Finally I was angry at the old woman who poured that poison in my ear.

By the time I was making my first memories, my mother was in the last decade of her life. It was the sixties, and we were a suburban family of five: mother and father, sister and brother, and widowed grandmother quietly crocheting in a rocker upstairs. We opened presents under a fir tree on Christmas mornings. We shared our big brown Thanksgiving turkeys and clove-speckled Easter hams with our cousins from Chicago's southside. Sunday mornings, we piled into our Cadillac and my father drove us half a mile to the only block in Evanston that housed two stone churches -- the First Baptist Church, and the First Church of Christ, Scientist. Hers and his. I went with my mother and grandmother to the Baptists, while my father took my brother to hear the gospel according to Mary Baker Eddy.

When my mom died, our family traditions disappeared with her.

My father shipped my grandmother -- his mother-in-law -- back to Tennessee. He got rid of my mother's clothes and emptied her shelves in the bathroom. He worked long hours at his office in the Loop and traveled for business, leaving his teenage children alone with their teen troubles. He started dating.

Five years after he was widowed, my father went bankrupt and moved in with his girlfriend. He was sixty-six. She was thirty-six. I was nineteen. He put my mother's wedding ring on her finger, though they never married, and gave her my mother's jewelry. The bits of furniture and art he'd saved from creditors went with him to his girlfriend's high-rise apartment near the stretch of Michigan Avenue that civic boosters call the Magnificent Mile.

Christmases and Thanksgivings and Easters I was invited to her apartment to sit at the table from our house in Evanston and eat food she prepared in my mother's hammered copper pots, served on my mother's china, using my mother's silver -- laid on a lace tablecloth crocheted by my grandmother, who had moved North to live with us when I was born, and died in a nursing home in Tennessee.

After I began poking around my mother's life, I wasn't invited over anymore.

"Why are you doing this to me?" my father yelled at me one sunny day in 1988, when I was a twenty-nine-year-old reporter following leads, conducting interviews -- researching my mother's life.

"To you?" I said, wondering what he'd buried that he didn't want exhumed. That was one of the last times we spoke.

He stayed with his thirty-years-younger girlfriend until he died at the age of eighty-six, in 1999, more than a decade after I went looking for my mom. When we lived in Evanston he was a church usher, dressed in gray-striped usher's pants every Sunday, a fresh carnation on his lapel, and that was one tradition he held on to after family life went belly-up. My father the lifelong Christian Scientist continued his weekly religious duties at a church near his girlfriend's apartment. Yet he battled his own cancer with the help of doctors at one of Chicago's best hospitals. And he died at home, in his girlfriend's bed, with her at his side tending him with morphine from an eyedropper.

My mother spent her last months at a Christian Science retreat in San Francisco called Arden Wood. A hotel, basically, with the gospel of Mary Baker Eddy piped into the rooms. Fifteen years after I was told my mom was going to California "on vacation," I found out about Arden Wood, and rented a room there. I walked its eucalyptus-shaded grounds and the hilly streets in the Bay-view neighborhood. I went to the dining room at dusk and sat among aged, infirm guests. That night, in the bathtub, I tried to imagine what it would be like to look down through the water at a body carved by a radical mastectomy, mottled with scars, wasting away. Trying to imagine my mother passing her last painful days without medicine, without family or friends, without hope. My mother was a lifelong Baptist of the deep-rooted Southern variety, born and reared and married and buried by Baptists. She was a church-on-Sunday, church-in-a-church-hat Baptist. Dying in the loveless embrace of Christian Science.

There's an angle.

I'm forty-six now. I've lived with my husband for twenty-three years. Like my mother I had a son first, then a daughter. On my birthday I count my mother's years along with my own. Four more birthdays and I'll be as old as she ever was.

It's common to hear new moms and dads say things like "Now that I'm a parent, I see what my folks had to deal with!" Through ecstatic, sleep-deprived weeks with a newborn, and on into the real work of raising children, fledgling parents often feel the bonds between generations strengthen, renew. Or so I've heard. Motherhood delivered a different perspective to me. Once I was a mom I understood the magnitude of my father's betrayal, the depths of my mother's solitude. I understood that they were not able or willing to put their children's needs before their own -- an act I've come to think of as the essence of parenthood.

"Have you forgiven your father?" Before he died I was asked that question now and then. I had different responses through the years but they all add up to the same answer: Not my job. I spent a lot of time trying to figure him out and a lot of energy trying to tell him about me. Then my kids came along, giving me a loving family of my own, and I didn't have much more to say to him. I had tried. Now I could let go.

"Where is your mom?"

When my daughter Lily was three years old she climbed onto my lap one day as I sat at my desk. Lily's middle name is Lady, my mother's maiden name, the signature of my mother's blood. Hanging above my computer were two self-portraits my mother painted in the forties. I had found them in a storage locker in Chicago many years after she'd died.

Lily studied the paintings. Sometimes she knew that the woman with dark hair and dramatic eyebrows was my mom. Sometimes she thought it was me.

"Where is your mom?" she asked. Her brother Cal, who's four years older, had passed through a stage when that question bubbled up daily. The first time he asked it tears sprang to my eyes, and I couldn't answer right away. Eventually, the question lost its sting.

With Lily in my lap I could almost see the gears working behind her satin brow: You are my mom. Everyone has a mom. Where's yours?

I told my daughter, "She's in my heart."

"Can I kiss your heart?" Lily said. "I want to kiss your mom."

Me too, baby.

Copyright © 2005 by Pamela Marin

In the first dream my mother sits with me in front of our house, which looms behind us on its fluted columns like a Halloween ghost. We're on the curb where my father parked his cars, our arms cradling our knees, bare feet on black pavement. It's dusk in the dream, a vaporous pause after summer rain. Around us the streets and sidewalks are empty, the large houses and lush yards still.

Since I began to remember my dreams again I've returned many times to the big white house in Evanston. I pass through its rooms like a breeze through a box kite. Asleep I see each piece of furniture, each lost object, in vivid detail. Some nights the house is vacant, as it often was in the last years we lived there. Other nights my sleeping brain animates figures from my childhood, a cast of evanescent best friends and cryptic grownups whose lives are as uncoupled from mine now as the scent of the backyard honeysuckle tree is from its image in a photograph.

This is the first time I've dreamed of my mother.

I can't get a clear reading of her face, just an impression of her pallor, and her sadness. Her bushy black hair is carelessly short, as it was when I knew her. She stares across Forest Avenue and I stare at her. And as I stare at her I begin to notice, or to remember, some of the mysteries of her body.

I notice or remember that her scalp was white and dry and shed flakes my father brushed from her shoulders. The fourth finger of her left hand bent toward her palm, as if warped by the weight of the five thin bands of her wedding ring. One of her toenails was caramel colored, rough as bark.

She sits, squat as a tree stump, pale as marble, and I sit in the same shape, watching her. I want to say Tell me what happened. I want to say Look at me, I'm older now. I can understand. I will try.

I want to tell her how happy I am to see her but my voice is smoke trapped in my lungs. The damp air muzzles me. In the dream I don't yet know is a dream I reach out to put my arms around my mother.

Copyright © 2005 by Pamela Marin

Meet the Author

Pamela Marin has written for Playboy, Redbook, Parents, Parenting, Ladies' Home Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. A former staff writer for The Orange County Register, she has been featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show. She lives in New York with her husband and children. She can be reached at

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