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Bequest & Betrayal
Memoirs of a Parent's Death
By Nancy K. Miller
Indiana University PressCopyright © 1996 Oxford University Press, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Mourning is immensely reassuring because it convinces us of something we might otherwise easily doubt: our attachment to others.
Adam Phillips, Terrors and Experts
When my mother died, I thought my real life would begin. The war between us showed no signs of abating, even though we were both weary of it. "Put your affairs in order," the doctor said, after reading the slides of her biopsy. The chemotherapy seemed to be having no effect on the progress of the disease, and after two treatments the oncologist lost interest. She was sixty-eight and dying of lung cancer. When she realized there was little hope for recovery, my mother longed for death. But she was too weak and too confused to do anything about it. Once she seized on the electric toothbrush; brandishing it theatrically, she insisted that she "wanted to put an end to things." My father removed the toothbrush from the bathroom, even though the suicide gesture was no more than a charade.
My mother felt betrayed by the way age marked her face; no longer being noticed when she walked into a room pained her. She had lived, she maintained, the life she had wanted to live. Dying, she wanted to die. She refused to see any of her friends. "I want to die in the bosom of my family," she said, unembarrassed by the lie lurking beneath the cliché. After her death I was relieved, almost glad that she was gone. I had always thought that my mother would live into her nineties and that we would go on fighting until I, too, was old — her age. When I scanned her dead body, her face, looking for signs, I found myself staring into silent hazel eyes. Our last fight, days before she slipped into a coma, had to do with whether she should undergo another session of chemotherapy. I couldn't tell if she actually wanted to, or whether in my protest she heard a last chance to do battle. She had taken off her wedding ring with her mother's diamond — the diamond that had spent its first life being pawned every time my grandfather needed cash. She asked my father to put the ring in the vault for safekeeping, like the rest of her "good" jewelry, her specific bequest — for me. But she died wearing earrings — fake pearl studs that had rotted, forgotten for weeks in her pierced ears. The holes were ringed with black. Whenever I fall asleep with my earrings still in my ears, I wake in a small panic, pierced forever with this reminder of her neglect.
Every autobiography requires a coming to terms with the past and a revision of family history. Are these memoirs of a parent's death autobiography? Producing an account of another's life normally belongs to the domain of biography, or the new word in academic circles, allography — the biography of another. But when the biographical subject is a member of one's own family, the line between the genres blurs. The term life-writing has emerged as a formulation that elides the difference. Life-writing is also the expression Virginia Woolf uses in Moments of Being when she evokes the power of her dead mother's voice in her own life, and the role played by the consciousness of others "impinging upon ourselves." I prefer the term memoir for literary reasons but for etymological ones as well. By its roots, memoir encompasses both acts of memory and acts of recording — personal reminiscences and documentation. The word record, which crops up in almost every dictionary definition of memoir, contains a double meaning too. To record means literally to call to mind, to call up from the heart. At the same time, record means to set down in writing, to make official. What resides in the province of the heart is also what is exhibited in the public space of the world. In this way, memoir is fashionably postmodern, since it hesitates to define the boundaries between private and public, subject and object. "Un-biography," Susan Cheever calls it, "off-center biographies that are as much about me as my subject." These works, critic John Eakin suggests, "offer not only the autobiography of the self but the biography and autobiography of the other." Auto/biographical memoirs are necessarily a hybrid form. "A cross," as Annie Ernaux describes the project of revisiting her mother's life in A Woman's Story, "between family history and sociology, reality and fiction." Whatever the label, the problem remains: whose story is it? Do we even know our own stories? This book reflects the preoccupations of a literary critic who rereads and rewrites herself in the writing of others. In so doing I practice a mode of what Susan Suleiman has recently named "mediated autobiography." I can only, it sometimes seems, read autobiographically.
Philip Roth's Patrimony recounts a father's terminal illness and reconstructs his life. Susan Cheever in Home Before Dark uncovers fleshy details of John Cheever's intimate sexual life. Simone de Beauvoir's A Very Easy Death bears witness to her mother's bodily struggle with cancer. In Mans, Art Spiegelman draws the words of his father's Holocaust past. In each case, however differently, a self-portrait of a son or daughter emerges in complex counterpoint to the portrayal of the parent. In these narratives, the parent's death seems to authorize — or at least provide a cover story — for a writer's autobiography. If not explicitly, the memoirs devoted to a dead parent are almost always meditations on a writer's authority, her right to tell this story, the path she followed to telling it. The dead parents' history, especially their family's relation to language and writing, is made to seem inextricable from the story of the living child's vocation.
Colette tells a textbook version of this story in "The Captain," a portrait of her father. Published many years after her parents' deaths in a book of reminiscences entitled Sido (her mother's name), this famous vignette evokes the legacy left to the writer by her father, Jules-Joseph Colette. After their father's death, Colette's brother starts sorting the books in the room that served as the paternal library. He calls his sister to show her what he's found on the top shelves. The elaborately handbound volumes called My Campaigns,The Lessons of 70, From Village to Parliament, and so on, but bearing no author's name, turn out to be filled with blank pages, except for the dedication to his beloved wife, Sido: "beautiful, cream-laid paper, or thick 'foolscap,' carefully trimmed, hundreds and hundreds of blank pages. Imaginary works, the mirage of a writer's career." Colette catalogues the family's attempt to use up these pages that never seemed to end, as they tried in vain to cancel out this "proof of incapacity." Describing her own first efforts as a writer, she ponders the effects of this "spiritual legacy" of paternal frustration. "Was that," she wonders, "where I got my extravagant taste for writing on smooth sheets of fine paper, without the least regard for economy?" Covering these pages with her own handwriting, Colette dares to write over "the invisible cursive script" that filled them.
In the early fifties, my father had his Warhol fifteen minutes of fame. He won a suit on behalf of minority stockholders against Howard Hughes and RKO Pictures and made a big splash (he had the check for the lawyers' fees photocopied for posterity). He returned triumphant from California on the first regularly scheduled commercial airline flight nonstop coast-to-coast; a framed certificate that attests to this occasion was signed by the TWA captain; my father's picture and that of his grinning colleagues blown up above it (in the photo they are reading the flight map displayed below), was prominently displayed in the dinette. He had a little brush with B-list celebrity (dinner with sulky-faced Gloria Grahame), met famous men, went to fancy places, and finally made enough money (my mother's dream) for my parents to go to Europe for the first time — deluxe (the Crillon, the Danieli, the Cumberland). The Hughes case was my father's short-lived claim to notoriety. He had the proceedings bound in two leather; gild-trimmed volumes with his name — LOUIS KIPNIS — embossed in gold letters on the spine. The only other spot of glamour in my father's career had come earlier, in the mid-forties when he was retained as Lucille Armstrong's lawyer. How did this happen? The mystery remains but the evidence is there: papers, clippings, photographs signed by Louis Armstrong, whose photographs were mounted on the faux wood-paneled walls in the dinette. My mother (my sister likes to say), a good fifties liberal, would explain, "Oh, we could have had them over, but I wouldn't have felt comfortable." After the Hughes case, my father receded into his normal lawyerly habits, which earned him a living, but nothing more. At the end of his life, he rented space in the glorious Woolworth building, an address his practice never quite lived up to. By then losing ground from Parkinson's, he was mainly handling small estates, writing wills. Sometimes he went to the office just to ride the subway and pick up the mail.
* * *
Colette identifies with her father through their shared passion for a writer's tools. But what use does she make of them? I think we can understand the staggering volume of her life's work — once she began she could never stop — as an inverted complicity, writing for her life against the secret of his impotence: "My father, a born writer, left few pages behind him." His energy was absorbed by making a fetish of a writer's tools. In this sense, the daughter's writing takes the form of reparation, fulfilling the father's dream in her own life's work. At age fifty, she makes her father's name, the patronymic which is also a woman's name, her signature. Despite the signature, however, the legacy is more parental than simply paternal. Colette's mother, Sido, also wrote. "Sitting at any old table, pushing aside an invading cat, a basket of plums, a pile of linen, or else just putting a dictionary on her lap by way of a desk — Sido really did write. A hundred enchanting letters prove that she did." Colette even flirts with losing in the competition: "Between us two, which is the better writer, she or I? Does it not resound to high heaven that it is she?" But the daughter corrects her mother's letters when she publishes them.
What takes place in the space between a mother and a daughter, a father and a daughter, a daughter who becomes a writer? Between a father and a son who wins a Pulitzer prize for his transfiguration of his father's Holocaust experience? A daughter and a mother, whose writing career was her letters? What's written in a father's invisible cursive script? Invisible, or as in the case of John Cheever, excessively visible typed notebooks? A parent's history is a life narrative against which the memorialist ceaselessly shapes and reshapes the past and tries to live in the present. French philosopher Sarah Koffnan takes over possession of her father's fountain pen (her father, a rabbi, dead in Auschwitz), for all her school work. Her many books, she speculates, were "oblique but obligatory crossings to arrive at telling 'that.'" The stakes of telling that story can be high. Koffnan killed herself after finally writing that book. Life-writing is sometimes fatal.
There seem to be two poles between which memoir writers come to grips with the loss of parents and the pull of their history. These two emotional styles are, broadly speaking, two ways of responding to the death of a loved one that Freud famously called mourning and melancholia. In more popular terms we could think of this process as a movement between acts of forgiveness and resentment. To blame one's parents for one's own misery, as Americans tend to do in this century of therapy culture, is to remain obsessed by one's parents' deficiencies or their failure to love their children, us. The writing of resentment is a mode I admit feeling close to. Resentment is powerful and paralyzing. "Being resentful," as Susan Cheever wittily puts in A Woman's Life, "is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die." This is not a very efficient strategy for dealing with anger and disappointment, especially when the other person is already dead.
Forgiveness. We've all been encouraged to grow up and graduate to forgiveness, to accept the limits of our parents' emotional theater. Acceptance, however, can tend toward idealization (just as resentment verges on repudiation), especially when interwoven with compassion in the face of parental vulnerability, as is the case with Philip Roth's hymn to Herman Roth, and Susan Cheever's elegy for John Cheever. Between these poles of resentment and forgiveness (of course, inevitably the two coexist in the same book) are acts of interpretation that I wish to call realization. Realization typically begins by unmasking a parent's self-serving construction, taking the edge off one's parent's highly elaborated persona (Vladek Spiegelman's self-righteousness, Françoise de Beauvoir's self-delusion). Realization entails understanding our parents' own unfinished business with their mothers and fathers: seeing it as theirs, finding the language in which to name it, and moving on. These acts of revision mean trying to reimagine your parent as a person with whom you can deal. This is the adult version of what in Bonds of Love psychoanalyst and feminist theorist Jessica Benjamin calls "mutual recognition," the acknowledgment between child and parent that their related identities are forged in a process of complex negotiation. Forgiveness requires the consciousness of choice: what you choose to identify with, reinventing for yourself — a father's storytelling, a mother's vitality. It means playing your hand and playing to win. This is part of what Freud described — in very different language — as the liberatory work of mourning, as opposed to the unending travail of melancholy in which the mourner fails to separate from the object of loss. Writing a parent's death in literary form displays both the steps toward separation and the tortuous paths of reconnection, after the fact. Grieving and release.
Memoirs that write a parent's death share many generic and thematic features of the elegy. Traditionally, the performance that elegy entails for poets is the act of taking up and revising the precursor's task in their own voices. This is part of the mourning process and requires a break with the past, a separation, and a replacement. Literary critic Jahan Ramazani sees modern elegy as representing what tends to be "unresolved, violent, and ambivalent." Contemporary elegy displays the self-contradictory symptoms of "melancholic" mourning. In these acts of testimony in prose to a past of wounds and pleasures, resentment and forgiveness remain forever entangled.
At the funeral parlor my sister and I were the only ones not obviously saddened by my mother's death. The woman who used to do her hair every week wept openly. Her tennis partners were in shock; she was still winning trophies at the club, playing singles. I went through the service dry-eyed. But at the cemetery, things were different. When it was my turn, according to Jewish custom, to throw a shovelful of dirt onto the coffin, I looked down into the grave and went blank. What was I doing? In that pause the ritual became literalized. My mother was in that box; I was supposed to throw dirt on her. In some archaic zone of my mind in which she remained alive, a revolt took place. I couldn't lift the shovel. I was overtaken by sobs, as though I were betrayed by someone beside herself with grief who lived like a homeless person in the knots of my gut. As I started to collapse onto the ground, one of my cousins led me away from the open grave through the snowy labyrinth of tombstones, over to the car. When we drove back to the city, my father was stony faced. He was angry at me, I thought, for making a spectacle of myself. But as usual he said nothing.
We had our last discussion about my mother when the time came to decide what should be written on her gravestone. My sister and I drew the line at having the adjective "BELOVED" inscribed next to the word "MOTHER": she might have been his beloved wife; she wasn't our beloved mother He said he couldn't understand that. Hadn't she been a good mother, hadn't she done everything for us? Made our clothes, baked cookies, taken us to Girl Scouts? All right, we said, choosing from the limited repertoire of acceptable cemetery language — "DEVOTED." After the unveiling, I took a picture of the tombstone for my father. We all ate lunch in a greasy spoon in Flushing. My father lived another seven years, but his life was over.
Excerpted from Bequest & Betrayal by Nancy K. Miller. Copyright © 1996 Oxford University Press, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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