This profound and poignant collection highlights some of the best literary writers of our time in an era when the roles of mothers and daughters are constantly being questioned and redefined. Because I Love Her explores the deepest bonds and truths of motherhood by sharing stories and secrets of becoming a mother and grandmother. Ranging from established and bestselling authors to exciting new voices, these women reveal what their mothers taught them, what they in turn hope to impart to their daughters and, finally, what they've learned as a bridge between the two.
About the Author
she is editing a forthcoming father-daughter anthology (Harlequin, May, 2010). She has worked for Thomson Publishing in London, Red Herring and Edutopia magazines, and McCann- Erickson in San Francisco. Visit her at nickirichesin.com.
Read an Excerpt
Hundreds of dewdrops to greet the dawn,
Hundreds of bees in the purple clover,
Hundreds of butterflies on the lawn,
But only one mother the wide world over.
-From "Only One Mother" by George Cooper
I take good care of myself-working out at least five times a week, flossing like it's a religion, avoiding secondhand smoke and even a second glass of wine. My grandparents lived well into their eighties and nineties. So, why do I treat my life every day as if I were making graduation scrapbooks for my daughters, who are only nine and twelve years old, filling each hour I spend at their sides with visual and emotional impressionsin the hope that half of them will stick?
Just in case.
I know it's crazy. Each of my seven kids has a baby book Proust would have admiredwhen, among my friends, even the most devoted mothers barely got the baptismal certificate and the footprints stuck into the album if they had more than one child. Of course (and the seven kids might be your first hint) I'm over-compensating. I'm being the Ubermom.
I have my reasons.
There's a look. You know that look? It's the look people get when their mothers or mothers-in-law are about to arrive for a visit. That look is always the same. And so is my response. My friends get those rolling cue-ball eyes, and tell me thateven though they love their mothers and mothers-in-law dearlythey just can't bear the thought of that upcoming visit, that the three days that will feel like three months because of all the unsolicited childrearing advice and teensy criticisms about everything from diet to demeanor to decor.
I can't help it.
I get weepy.
I don't have the slightest idea what it's like to be an adult and have a mother or really, a mother-in-law.
I don't know what it's like to be nagged and nurtured, treasured and tortured as though I were still in pigtails. I scarcely even remember my motherwho had many friends, hobbies, a job and an active social lifewho thought, I'm sure, she'd be getting ready for my eldest's college graduation by now and rocking my two-year-old. But it didn't go that way.
When I was nineteen and my brother fifteen, my mother died a swift and vicious death from a brain tumor that robbed her first of her exquisite beauty and then of her considerable wit. Her illness was detected at Thanksgiving and by Valentine's Day, it was all finished.
As a half-grown woman who had to spend the rest of her life without the considerable force that had propelled me to whatever achievements I'd attained, I remember asking myself, now whom will I try to impress for all the life I have left? My mother was exacting. She had requirements: Straight As were expected. I had to be terrifically literate and nice-looking, too, using acne scrub by age eleven and doing sit-ups by thirteen. Always remember, she said, that it was no accident that I had the same name as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. When I was a tiny child, I can remember her saying, "Jackie Kennedy will be famous all her life. She's famously thin." Mama set the same high standards for literacy (and concavity) for herself: A high-school dropout educated by reading our textbooks, from Latin to Russian literature, she could translate any tombstone and called Anna Karenina a book that took "all the fun out of adultery." If she'd had an education, she probably could have run a corporationor a small country.
As a grown-up mother, she might not have been so great, and I freely concede that. She drank too much and she smoked as though it was a vocationwhich was probably why her generation outwitted her parents' heritage of longevity She was bold to a fine pointstill able to do cartwheels at fifty She was funny and charming and gallant and occasionally cruel.
But even before she got sick, I always had the distinct feeling that we never had enough time. In fact, I have only two delicious memories preserved entirely like dioramas under glass. My mother once picked me up from second grade and drove with me deep into the forest preserve behind the zoo, where a developer who ran out of money had once planned a ritzy neighborhood. There were sidewalks back there and streetlights and even park benches. Best of all, from those benches, we could see the hidden part of the zoo, where mother giraffes nursed their babies and elephants got their baths. For hours, we watched the kind of animal care that little kids in the sixties, long before Animal Planet, never glimpsed. And then, one other time, when I was as grown as I would ever get during her lifetime, she came to my first apartment. While I was at work, she put up curtains made from brightly striped bedsheets and made grilled-cheese-and-tomato sandwiches. I take out and hold those memories against my stomach when I ache for the smell of her sweaters (that curious, fetching cocktail of smoke-and-cologne) and the sound of her singing her favorite song: "My Buddy."
You might wonder, at this point, where my father fits in all this.
He doesn't. Although my brother and I certainly tried, my father once told my brother and me that he simply was not "a family man." Although he died when I was forty, he was living with a woman with whom I'd gone to high school. And he died of Bright's disease, the kidney ailment that "ginnies" among the poor in Victorian England gotwhich could also be achieved in twenty-first century America by dint of a fifth of gin a day. After I was widowed in my thirties, a grief counselor told me that the relationship with my father that I described sounded like what people said about men who married their moms when they were already adults.
Not surprisingly, I envy my friends their mothers, even the difficult ones.
I'd give my molars for someone who smelled of Chanel No. 5 or My Sin to come to my house and point out that I would never have been allowed to back talk my parents that way, to knit me funny-looking sweaters I'd actually have to wear, to rearrange my drawers, to make me grilled-cheese-and-tomato sandwiches with Velveeta and buy my kids foolishly expensive boiled-wool coats.
For years, I wanted a mommy so bad that I searched for mothers wherever I could find them.
My first husband was another orphan, whose parents both died by the time he was twenty-one. We learned to change diapers from Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care. But four years after he died, also of cancer (I know this all sounds terribly bleak; but we had a good run, fifteen years and three wonderful little boys) I married a man who had a mother who was just absolutely ducky. She was smart, beautiful, fashionable, bookish and adoring. The only problem was, my husband is more than ten years younger than I and his mom was a teenage bride. In the sweetest possible way, she made it clear that she wasn't interested in being a mother to someone who could have been her younger sister. Becoming a grandmother at fifty was a shock to her system. When it came to a contretemps between my husband and me, and inevitably over time, it did, my mother-in-law made it clear that she couldn't side against her son in any situation that didn't involve a penitentiary. Though I longed to form the word mom with my lips, I made her happier calling her by her first name.
And then, what was my choice?
For my daughters, I became the memorable mom I couldn't ever have.
Now, don't get the impression that defines a "smother mother." I'm the one who cheers them on to try rock climbing and scuba diving and to come parasailing with me. I encourage them to take emotional and physical risksalthough not, obviously, the "fall in love with the local rehab kid" kind.
I encourage their independence.
But also, I tuck their ordinary days full of Mommy-stuff mushy notes in their field-trip lunches, movie festivals in the big bed when Dad's out of town, sharing the books I loved as a girl and reading the ones they love now, going out for "coffee" with twelve-year-old Francie and shopping for "makeup" (lip balm) with nine-year-old Mia. We three go on girl dates to musicals, and when I can justify an out-of-town business trip as educational, I take one of them along. Until they all but threatened to strangle me with them, I bought them matching sundresses. I still sing them the songs that my mother sang to me, as well as the ones I love best: They can identify everything from Freddie Mercury to "Un Bel Di Vedremo." I tell them extravagantly that I had to adopt them because there were so many brothers and I couldn't live without a daughter of my own and when one daughter came, I loved her so much I couldn't wait to have another.
Next to my bed, I keep a special diary made from handmade paper in which I have written down the things they said as little children and the things I feel about the two of them. I know they will find it one day and the diary will make them cry. (It already makes me cry.) But it's not some vine that will cling to them from the beyond. The only piece of my mother's handwriting I have is a grocery list. They will have all this: When two-year-old Francie learned we were going to have another sister (from what she called the "so-so" worker who came to our house) she cried, "My darling-drop Mama, you're getting me another me!" And I wrote that down. I wrote down how much Mia loved the game that she called "hide-and-secret" and how, when she was four, she asked me,"When will my feet get high so I can wear high heels?" I paste in photos that the girls tookall with one thing in common. They all depict views that are clearly framed by someone three feet tall. The interesting bits are always near the ground, even if it means any human beings in the photo are visible only as torsos.
None of this effort is meant, even subtly, as a guilt trip.
My girls frankly expect me to live forever. They cheerfully offer me rooms in their attics when they marry (I wonder how cheerful they'll be if I ever take them up on that). They don't get misty when they ask me which of my belongings each of them can have when I'm dead. But more precious than the ruby ring or the ruby slippers will be the mother loadthe scads of stories and words and images that say, "Get a load of me" because you never know when you'll need it and when you need it, you can't imagine how glad you'll be that you have it. Francie and Mia won't have a few faded photos and a wedding picture. (They ask, often, about the woman in the gilded frame they call "the princess.") If I shouldn't get a chance to meet their daughters, at least I won't be a myth. There'll be the stories that were published, the recordings of our voices (somehow, much more intimate than any home video), an album of ribbons and traditions and even recipes. Even though I'm no great shakes as a cook, I get up at least once a week before dawn to make muffins from scratch as a breakfast surprise, so that the scent will curl up the stairs and waken them before I do. Mia once told her best friend, "Promise not to tell your mom about how my mom makes French toast. It's award-winning." I make big rituals out of baking the Christmas cookies, letting everyone use the cookie press and assemble the four hundred or so ingredients it takes for the traditional Italian cookies called TuTu. They'll have a tactile imprint of the times I plumped one of them on either side of me and, although they're quite able to read on their own, read them chapters from Where the Red Fern Grows and Anne of Green Gables and poems about the landlord's black-eyed daughter twining a dark red love knot into her long black hair.
If I weren't to return from the business trip on which I'm writing this, both Mia and Francie would have not only a very good or at least very real map for being mothers (including potholes and cul-de-sacs), but more importantly, they'd have the best legacy I could leave them: a solid and indelible sense of having been mothered, an umbrella that will always be a shelter between them and the clouds. Perhaps it would be an invisible umbrella, only a relic of recollection. But as a writer friend of mine said not long ago, the consolations of the imagination are not imaginary. They may be the realest things we keep.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted out of a love poem that you used to know by heart. -From "Forgetfulness" by Billy Collins
At our house, for our kids, who are two and five, everything is better with a big side order of Naked. Jumping on the bed is good, but Naked Jumping is better. Hiding in the closet is good, but Naked Hiding is better. Every good thing is better as a Naked Thing: Naked Hide-and-Seek, Naked Running in Circles, Naked Tooth Brushing, Naked Breakfast, Naked Zoo Animals.
The only thing, in fact, that's not better naked is bathing, which is far better done with socks on.
Still, bath time excepted, as often as they can remember to, my kids strip down and enjoy the particular tickle of delight you can only get from being just plain nude. I don't know where they get it from.
But I do know I should be recording it on video. Just like I should be recording birthday parties and trips to amusements parks and all our official moments of happinessand even, on occasion, our moments of sadness. Just to keep things real. Though I will confess that when my daughter Anna was a baby, just as she was learning to roll over, I videotaped her rolling across our living room, over and over, until, as she got close to me with the camera and lifted her head way up to smile, she lost her balance and clonked over, smacking her head on the hardwood floor. The camera hit the sofa, and, then, there was only the floral pattern out of focus, my muffled voice shouting, "Holy shit! Oh, holy shit! Shit, shit, shit!" and the baby crying an endless, unsootheable river.
What People are Saying About This
"This collection about one of the most complex relationships we have is so rich and varied that you'll want to read the whole thing from start to finish and then dip into it again and again. The essays are, by turns, wry, funny, angry, forgiving, sad, joyous, and a great many of them are all of these things at once. The book is suffused with hope and punctuated by a fierce, fierce love."--(Marisa de los Santos, New York Times bestselling author of Love Walked In and Belong To Me)
"In Because I Love Her, Nicki Richesin brings together thirty-four women who venture unflinchingly into the mysterious, emotionally complex terrain of the mother-daughter relationship. Here there is humor, heartbreak, loss, and, above all, love. Intelligent, provocative, and deeply personal, this book will inspire you to call your mother, hug your daughter, and perhaps even reach a deeper understanding of the most important relationships in your life."--(Michelle Richmond, New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Fog and No One You Know)
"Because I Love Her is a rich collection that loosens the ties that bind. We all had mothers, and some of us have daughters - and no relationships are knottier. Or more joyful. These wonderful writers plunge fearlessly into those intimate ties, and emerge with insights, forgiveness and love renewed."--(Jane Ganahl, author of Naked on the Page: the Misadventures of My Unmarried Midlife)
"I was so impressed by Because I Love Her. Much of the honesty in these pages required real bravery from the writers. Some of these essays are hilarious, and some are tragic. They are all thoughtful and compulsively readable; I easily turned page after page, finding solace, understanding, and inspiration."--(Laura Moriarty, author of The Center of Everything and The Rest of Her Life)
"Reading Because I Love Her is like joining the best mother's support group in the world--only better, because you can do it on your own time and don't have to leave home. These wonderfully diverse essays are funny, sad and achingly familiar. Anyone who's ever been a parent or a child will recognize themselves in these revelations about the essential bond between mothers and daughters."--(Elizabeth Stuckey-French, author of Mermaids on the Moon and The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa)
"In our daughters' faces, we see different versions of ourselves: early hopes and dreams, years of self-discovery and hard work to chase after our goals, and the rich reality of the compromises, challenges and joys of being a woman and mother. This candid exploration of 'our daughters, ourselves' captures the unique frustrations and delights facing mothers and daughters today."--(Leslie Morgan Steiner, Mommy Wars editor and author of Crazy Love)