In this memoir, an author recounts her efforts to deal with the death of her mother.
When Greene (The Woman Who Knew Too Much, 2017, etc.) was a child, her father abandoned her mother, Agnes, for a younger woman. The author was largely raised by her mother and her maternal aunt, Paddy. Agnes was left in the lurch in the 1950s, a tough time for a mother of two to be single and unemployed. As a result, she was often emotionally volatile—Greene describes her paroxysms of fury as “operatic.” The author sought solace in literature: “Novels are where I’m at home because they’re a way of not being at home, not being in my own skin, a way of disappearing in the words and worlds of others, taking on the shapes of other lives.” She wanted to flee from Agnes—Greene was stricken with “matrophobia,” or the fear of becoming like her—and escaped to New York City to earn a doctorate in English literature from Columbia University, where her studies focused on Shakespeare. While she was working as a college professor in California, both Agnes and Paddy became seriously ill, compelling the author to step in and lend a hand. When Paddy suddenly died, Greene was left as the sole caretaker of Agnes—years before, the author’s brother, Billy, took his own life. Greene assumed power of attorney for Agnes, arranged for nursing and hospice care in her home, and then managed the aftermath of her inevitable death. The basket of practical tasks—arranging for the cremation, hosting a memorial, selling the house, for example—catalyzed the author to deeply examine her mother’s life and the powerful emotional legacy that she bequeathed.
Greene’s memoir is much more a meditative reflection than an exhaustive autobiographical history—she largely focuses on the period directly before and after her mother’s death. But the author’s struggle to come to terms with Agnes’ passing becomes a portal to a much broader spectrum of philosophically astute soul-searching, including her brother’s suicide and her own romantic travails. For example, she discusses her long-distance relationship with Bob, her boyfriend, with impressive candor. Greene’s writing is precisely what you’d expect from a professor of literature: elegant, poetical, and dotted with references to Joan Didion, Robert Frost, and many other luminaries. And the author not only discusses the emotional blow of Agnes’ and Paddy’s deaths—her twin mothers—but also the way in which your identity, for better or worse, is moored in the existence of your mother: “The story of a life makes a kind of sense when your mother’s there to know it. But when she dies, the narrative threads unravel,” the self itself is “undone, for there can be no self without a story, no story of a life that makes a life make sense.” Greene’s reminisces are thoughtful, emotionally affecting, beautifully expressed, and, despite the gravity of the subject, punctuated with lighthearted humor as well.
A moving, complex homage to a set of mothers.