In a rural farmhouse in Olympia, Washington, Melissa Cistaro sits next to her half-awake mother. From the second-story window, she distractedly observes crates of apples being loaded onto a truck outside. The land seems distant, cold. Inside, the room feels similar. Her mother is dying, and Cistaro has flown from her home in California to be present for her final days. But she is a visitor here in more ways than one.
At age four, Cistaro watched her mother back out of the driveway in her baby-blue Dodge Dart and not come back. In the subsequent years, her mother built lives elsewhere, briefly returned when they crumbled, then left again. This cycle of return then rejection made Cistaro feel easily replaceable and unwanted. In Pieces of My Mother, she explores the two threads of this story: struggling through a childhood without a mother’s guidance, and a present in which she tries to reconcile how to forgive someone who was supposed to love her, but left instead.
Upon receiving the news of her mother’s rapidly deteriorating condition, Cistaro knew she had to see her, both to offer comfort and to seek some sense of closure. Why did her mother leave? How could she stay away so long? Mostly, did she even regret missing out on her family members’ lives? Thinking about her own children anxiously waiting for her return to California for New Year’s, answers to these questions feel pressing for Cistaro, underscored by incredulity. “I went to Washington looking for that ‘Aha’ moment,” she admits. But the emotional chasm between mother and daughter had been decades in the making. The words she wants to hear are not forthcoming. “Mom, I’m scared,” she says to her mother as she sits on the edge of the bed, hoping to evoke something—an apology, an inkling of regret—to make forgiveness easier. Her mother does not nod, does not weep, does not say a word. She lies silently, the room still cold and quiet. “Spending that time with her in the end, and seeing that there was nothing left to do or resolve—she pauses, thinking carefully about those final moments with her mother. “I realized then that she just wasn’t capable of that,” Cistaro says. “If someone isn’t capable, they can’t cross that line. I went thinking I would find something different than I did.”
What she did find in Olympia, however, is that the words her mother could not vocalize had already been said in an unexpected way. In the farmhouse, Cistaro comes across a large cache of her mother’s journals and unsent letters compiled over her lifetime. The revelation is startling, if not initially unsettling. “When I found the letters, I was very afraid of them,” she says. “I didn’t know what I was going to find. They felt like sacred text. Were they for me? Did I have the right to take them? Were they going to be hurtful? At first, I didn’t take them all. I was so nervous about it that I left a bunch of the letters in the file in case someone came looking for them.”
As her mother drifts away in the next room, Cistaro combs through the letters, putting together the pieces of her mother previously unknown. What ultimately comes into focus is a complex, layered, and deeply thoughtful portrait of a woman who loved her children but didn’t know how to love them. The letters do provide an unrealized connection, as well; a shared passion of writing originally passed down from Cistaro’s grandmother, who also left behind boxes of intimate, eloquent journals. “The driving force for this book was that I came from this long line of complex women, and they all had stories to tell. This was a way for me to honor them,” she says. “I was not okay with letting these letters never sent and journals just sit in a file. I wanted to shift the history of my family, and not many people have the opportunity to do that.”
Back in the farmhouse, her mother drifts in and out of sleep. Death does not seem imminent, and Cistaro cannot stay forever. She will not break the promise to her children that she’d be back by New Year’s. Her children are the most important pieces of her, and she of them, just like she was a piece of her mother, “even if she couldn’t recognize that.” Before she leaves, however, she runs upstairs and grabs all of the letters. Even in those final days, she didn’t find the closure she was looking for, but what she left with may have been more important. “It’s still messy and complicated,” Cistaro admits. “But, I’ll say that now, the letters are the greatest gift from my mother, because I have access to her voice. A lot of us won’t have that.”
Alex Layman is a writer living in Austin, Texas.