How can a mother and daughter who love (but don’t always like) each other coexist without driving each other crazy?
“A wry and moving meditation on aging and the different kinds of love between women.”—O: The Oprah Magazine (“2019’s Best LGBTQ Books”)
After surviving a traumatic childhood in nineteen-seventies New York and young adulthood living in the shadow of her flamboyant mother, Rita, a makeup-addicted former television singer, Elissa Altman has managed to build a very different life, settling in Connecticut with her wife of nearly twenty years. After much time, therapy, and wine, Elissa is at last in a healthy place, still orbiting around her mother but keeping far enough away to preserve the stable, independent world she has built as a writer and editor. Then Elissa is confronted with the unthinkable: Rita, whose days are spent as a flâneur, traversing Manhattan from the Clinique counters at Bergdorf to Bloomingdale’s and back again, suffers an incapacitating fall, leaving her completely dependent upon her daughter.
Now Elissa is forced to finally confront their profound differences, Rita’s yearning for beauty and glamour, her view of the world through her days in the spotlight, and the money that has mysteriously disappeared in the name of preserving youth. To sustain their fragile mother-daughter bond, Elissa must navigate the turbulent waters of their shared lives, the practical challenges of caregiving for someone who refuses to accept it, the tentacles of narcissism, and the mutual, frenetic obsession that has defined their relationship.
Motherland is a story that touches every home and every life, mapping the ferocity of maternal love, moral obligation, the choices women make about motherhood, and the possibility of healing. Filled with tenderness, wry irreverence, and unforgettable characters, it is an exploration of what it means to escape from the shackles of the past only to have to face them all over again.
Advance praise for Motherland
“Rarely has a mother-daughter relationship been excavated with such honesty. Elissa Altman is a beautiful, big-hearted writer who mines her most central subject: her gorgeous, tempestuous, difficult mother, and the terrain of their shared life. The result is a testament to the power of love and family.”—Dani Shapiro, author of Inheritance
“Elissa Altman’s Motherland traces the history of a particularly complicated relationship. Wise, evocative, and rich in insight, this compassionate and beautiful memoir is ultimately an act of love.”—Claire Messud, author of The Burning Girl
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.78(w) x 8.53(h) x 0.96(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
My Connecticut Kitchen in the Early Morning.
My wife and I live where it is quiet, not quite rural, not quite suburban, where a car driving down the street in the middle of the day is cause for wonder and, because I am still a New Yorker at heart, for the locking of the front door. Recently, we bought a heavy-duty deadbolt—we’d never had one—because the previous owner, who built our little house on an acre in 1971, had installed a simple push-button bedroom lock on the hollow-core front door. It wasn’t that he was cheap; there was just no reason to have anything more secure. He didn’t want to court karmic trouble by kitting out his home like Fort Knox. He was safe here, he told us, with his wife and two growing daughters.
When Susan and I came to look at the house on a snowy February afternoon in 2004, the owner, in his late eighties and wearing a black-and-red wool hunting coat and a green camouflage knit cap, leaned his wooden cane against one of the front pillars, pulled a massive, gas-powered snow blower out of the garage and carved a wide path for us to safely walk side by side around the property. He apologized for the state of his beloved rhododendrons and azaleas, which had recently been devoured by deer but were nonetheless neatly wrapped up like cigars from top to bottom in garden burlap as if to protect the possibility that they might flower again when the season changed; gardening is a contract with hope.
The man’s wife, a laconic blue-eyed woman just beginning to forget, gave us a swatch of the original yellow-and-silver-striped wallpaper, in case we ever needed to match it. They had led a good life here, the man said, and were downsizing to a nearby retirement community; one daughter was moving to England and the other to a small village in the Berkshire foothills. They were proud of their home, but soft-spoken and humble in the way Yankees tend to be.
Except for removing the wallpaper, we touched nothing else for years, including the girls’ bedrooms, whose walls still bore the vinyl-flowered adhesive evidence of their childhood. We eventually turned one room into my office and the other into a book-lined guestroom that I envisioned someday containing a simple Shaker-style crib, a rocking chair, a changing table. We even took chances with the lock until I began to work from home. Susan and I had thrown caution to the wind because security and safety can be such a myth; trouble can come from anywhere.
In the years that Susan and I have been in this house, I have learned the seasonal trajectory of light, which in the morning streams through the dining room window onto our ancient barnwood table in one harsh bolt. By sundown, it glares through the living room in an explosion so bright that it’s often hard to see the house across the street. Our life here is slow and quiet, and, for two women together nineteen years, conventional. My work is solitary; when I’m writing, I can sit at my desk and not get up for hours, until the sun has made its circle around the house. A clock isn’t necessary. I know what time it is by the cast of light on the walls.
On this day, the sun isn’t all the way up, and the interior of the house is a murky gray. I have just come in from a run. I was never a runner, but I began recently because it creates a kind of porosity; it allows air and light to filter through me and loosens the knot that snares me every morning before eight when I answer the phone, in the slim moment between the ring and the sound of my mother’s voice. A rest; a beat. A break in the symbiosis that has defined us and the universe in which we’ve lived. I stand in my kitchen and stare at the phone. I inhale. It rings. The dog barks. I exhale. I choose my response—the seconds between stimulus and reaction, Viktor Frankl called it—in which lies my freedom.
Like the Centralia Mine fire, my mother and I have been burning for half a century.
We draw life from the heart of battle, a dopamine helix that propels us forward, breathing air into our days like a bellows. Some Buddhists say that anger is good when it is generative; if so, the warring to which we are addicted has enlivened us and built up our muscle memory, like the hands of a boxer. We bob and weave; we love and we loathe; we shout and whisper, and the next morning we do it all over again. Like tying our shoes or brushing our teeth or shaving one leg before the other, this is our ritual, our habit. We know no other way.
“What is your intoxicant of choice?” I was once asked at an AA meeting. I sat on a rusting beige metal folding chair in the basement of a white clapboard Congregational church in rural Connecticut, drinking cold coffee out of a Styrofoam cup. “Wine? Scotch? Beer before breakfast? Shopping? Porn?”
“My mother,” I whispered.
People shifted; they held their chins.
Lead a simple life, a neurologist advises Joan Didion in The White Album, when she begins in middle age to suffer from a nervous disorder with symptoms she describes as being usually associated with telethons. Not that it makes any difference we know about, the doctor adds. Leading a simple life may be nothing more than placebo, a psychogenic bandage under which one is able to catch one’s breath and find one’s footing. I’d moved to the country because I’d fallen in love with someone who lived there, but also to find the peace that I had so longed for; I fled my hometown of ten million for a village of three thousand. I was settled, but also easily startled, like a battle veteran returning to the suburbs from the front. Instead of spending my days traversing Manhattan in stony silence, my mother’s delicate arm hooked in mine as we gazed into the shop windows along Madison Avenue, I worked in my windowed basement office that looked out onto Susan’s shed, blanketed with the white Pierre de Ronsard climbing roses we’d planted the summer before I left the city. We spent days together, side by side in our overgrown garden; I pulled weeds in dazed shock. My sleep began to grow fitful and my hands trembled when I drank my morning coffee. Where my mother had regularly called me four or five times every day and often waited for me to get home from work in my apartment building lobby, we now spoke only morning and night and saw each other every other week. Bitter recriminations flew. How could I have left? When was I coming back? How dare I go. While Susan slept soundly next to me in our bed two hours away from everything I’d once known, I was jolted awake at 3:23 every morning, sweaty and disoriented, my heart pounding hard as though I’d been grabbed by the shoulders and shaken from a night terror. I would scuttle down the stairs to the kitchen and pour myself a small juice glass of red wine, which I’d drink while sitting on the couch in the dark next to the dog.
Wine had become a third party, a witness, a fly on my wall. The fiercer the battles with my mother, the deeper my thirst; the more wine I had, the more firmly I held my ground. My father, divorced from my mother after sixteen years of marriage, had introduced me to French Burgundies during our custodial weekends alone together. At fifteen, I furtively sipped his glasses of Gevrey-Chambertin between bites of cassoulet at fancy Manhattan restaurants, and the world was serene. With my mother, I drank either to sleep or to get drunk, to dull the blade, and the world got angry. Awakened in the middle of every night, I became an insomniac; I needed a fix. I poured myself a small glass, sat on the couch, and called her to make sure that we were okay.
It was not the alcohol to which I was addicted; it was she, and together we fed on our affection and rage like buttered popcorn. I suckled on my mother’s beautiful fury; it fed me and nourished me. We clung to the silent compact that neither of us would ever abandon the other, no matter what.
Until I did.
I had the audacity to leave New York City for good, to find love and happiness elsewhere. To make a home and family at which she was not at the center. To leave her for another woman.
It had been a choice: my mother’s life, or my own.
Reading Group Guide
The questions and discussion topics that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Motherland, Elissa Altman’s wry and moving memoir about her complicated relationship with her mother.
1. The book opens with a definition of the word “mother.” What is the significance of this definition and why do you think the author decided to start her book with it? How would your personal definition differ?
2. On page 19, Altman writes “‘This is not how mothers and daughters behave,’ my father says.” What does her father mean? How do you think mothers and daughters traditionally behave?
3. In chapter 20, the author writes that her mother is physically disconnected from her own body to the degree that she didn’t know that she was pregnant with her for six months. Altman struggles to unearth the truth surrounding this information: is it apocryphal—a family myth— or is it accurate? How did the possibility of her mother not knowing she was pregnant with the author for six months impact their relationship?
4. What was the catalyst behind the author’s own decision not to become a mother? Discuss the roots of her being childless by choice, and the weight of that decision on her relationship with her mother. Do you think she feels regret, or not?
5. Was there one scene in the book that stood out to you the most? Even if you don’t have a difficult relationship with your mother, how did you relate to this story? How did this book make you reflect on your own mother-daughter relationships?
6. The theme of addiction runs throughout Motherland, but it is not addiction as it traditionally appears in literature. Discuss how it is possible for people to be addicted to each other, and for this interpersonal addiction to impact their lives through the years.
7. “If I can understand her, I can love her better, while there is still time,” Altman writes on page 229. Do you think that you have to understand someone in order to better love them?
8. There is a lot of conversation about female bodies, femininity, and beauty in the book. Discuss how Altman and her mother approach these topics, and how their different opinions cause tension in their relationship.
9. Do you think mothers are bound to repeat the mistakes of their own mothers or overcorrect in the opposite direction? Or do you think there is a way mothers can be free of that parental influence?
10. Are we morally obligated to care of a difficult elderly parent? What are the rules of caregiving when it comes to parents and children who don’t always love each other? At what point can we draw a line?