photo on right Jes Lee
Rae Meadows and Kathryn Kysar: two mothers and daughters on mothers and daughters, with books about mothers and daughters, together to talk about mothers and daughters.
And just in time for the holidays!
Kysar’s collection of essays, Riding Shotgun: Women Write About Their Mothers, is an emotional and healing journey through Midwestern mothers across generations and landscapes, as seen through daughters’ eyes. Meadows’ novel, Mercy Train, spans a century of Midwestern mothers too, and their triumphs, struggles, and secrets.
Meadows and Kysar will join me for the Mother of All Book Clubs at Barnes & Noble, Galleria tomorrow, December 17 (5:30 p.m.), for a casual conversation in the Starbucks on the lower level of the bookstore, and then in a public talk (7:00 p.m.) on Midwestern Mothers and Daughters.
Here they answers five questions with grace and insight, two things we all could probably use a little more of this holiday season.
Stephanie Wilbur Ash: Though it’s impossible to make sweeping generalizations about our Midwestern moms, did you notice anything about them (us) in particular in writing and editing your books?
Kathryn Kysar: One commonality of the mothers in Riding Shotgun: Women Write about Their Mothers is that they were all hardworking. Though the book included women from multiple generations, from rural Minnesota to urban Chicago, these mostly working-class mothers had strength, determination, and grit. Their stories were not of teas and cotillions. These no-nonsense moms got the job done. Much like Rae’s characters, they did not dwell on the past and focused on the present.
Rae Meadows: I certainly drew on some of my own experience having Midwestern parents and grandparents to inform the characters in my book. Reticence, quiet determination, capability, D.I.Y. spirit—at 80, my mom climbed the neighbor’s tree to “borrow” pecans—these are some cultural markers that felt familiar to me.
SWA: In both of your works the relationships between mothers and daughters are at once emotionally taut and filled with unknowns. Is this something we all struggle with—intimacy with our mothers, and also secrets and unknowns?
KK: All mother/daughter duos don’t struggle with unknowns, but as the mother of a13-year-old-girl (thank you for your condolences), I can say that the focus of a healthy mother/daughter relationship should be on the child. The mother’s identity as an individual is often unknown to the daughter until she is older. Often mothers shelter their children from their pasts. It is healthy for some things to be unspoken, at least until the daughter is an adult. As for the intimacy, similarities and differences can be irritating. Daughters must struggle to define themselves as individuals, to escape their mothers, only to ironically find out they are like their moms.
RM: I think that when we become mothers we put our children first, and the world never looks the same, which leads to a potentially fraught dynamic. A mother might feel moments of resentment or struggle, and from the child’s perspective, it’s hard to reconcile a mother as a human being outside that primary role. Not to mention the fight between dependence and independence. It’s only in adulthood that I think mothers and daughters can reach detente and see each other as individuals—with all the nuances and darker parts—which I think can allow greater intimacy. Having children helps. I certainly understood/appreciated/admired my mother more richly when I became a mother.
SWA: Often our mothers’ stories are absent from us. Why is that? Why do we not hear our mothers’ stories—especially ones of hardship and pain? Why are our mothers often the ones taking the photos, or handling the details, instead of the subject?
KK: Mothers shield their children from hardships. One hopes that these stories are shared once the daughter is grown, but it’s part of Midwestern culture to not dwell on the past, on one’s sorrows and losses. Often these stories never get told.
RM: It’s difficult to finally see one’s mother’s fallibility and frailty. I remember feeling really scared as a child in the rare instances I saw my mom cry. And then there just doesn’t seem to be the right forum for those less upbeat stories, particularly I think for Midwestern moms who often don’t want to call too much attention to themselves and are busy taking care of everyone else. Writing this book actually helped me ask my mom questions about her life before I was in it and that has been a blessing, even if it took me way too long to do it.
SWA: The generational changes in women’s lives during the time in which we live has been remarkable. What has remained the same, do you think, between women and their girl children?
KK: In Riding Shotgun, many of the mothers want their daughters to have a better life. As the societal restrictions on women’s jobs and educations lifted, many mothers pushed their daughters forward into opportunities that were denied to them. This impulse to improve the lives of the next generation remains, as does potential generational conflict over child-rearing and domestic practices. Mothers and daughters continue to need each other as the most essential relationship in their lives.
RM: My mom has told me that one of the great joys of her life is to see her daughters as mothers, for her to know that we experienced the world-rocking event of birth, the fierce emotions of what it means to have a child. (Or maybe that we finally know how hard it really is!) As a younger feminist, I used to think I would reject my stay-at-home mom’s life because my choices were not limited like hers were. But I ended up swinging around to being in awe of what kind of mother my mom was/is and how she fit art into her life. I think that no matter what our options are, we have no idea how we will be affected by having children until we have them.
SWA: The concept of a “mother-wound” (inherited maternal pain passed through generations) is a popular self-help topic. In your work, do you feel there is something to this notion of a “mother-wound?”
KK: Yes, mothers pass down their sorrows, hopes, and fears to their daughters, and in patriarchal, racist, and classist societies, this pain can be great. The process of writing essays for Riding Shotgun was restorative for the authors, as their mother-wounds are exposed, examined, diminished, and resolved. This resolution is healing for readers as well.
RM: Absolutely. In Mercy Train, Violet is given away by her mother, and although she probably has a better life than she would have had, she never gets over the loss of her mother. This fundamental void is passed on in different ways to her daughter, and even her daughter’s daughter. I think the concept of genetic memory is very intriguing. There have been multiple studies that support the theory of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, that the environment, including traumatic experience, can affect an individual's genetics, which can in turn be passed on. There might be a historic reason you can’t stand Brussels sprouts.
SWA: What can we adult children do to better our relationships with our mothers? And what can we, as mothers ourselves, do to better our relationships with our daughters?
KK: Call your mother. J Seriously, communicate with your mother. Accept your mother as the deeply flawed person that she is today. Forgive her errors and mistakes. Find small ways to express your love and support for her. With your daughter, try to guide her not out of fear and resentment. Your mother-job is to accept her, to open the doors of the world to her, and to offer respite when life is a struggle. Mothers should provide a place of affirmation and love whenever possible.
RM: Ask questions. When you’re helping snap the beans or having tea, ask your mom about when she was a younger woman. I was just visiting my parents to help them move out of their house and they have to go through a lifetime of letters, keepsakes, quilts, antiques, etc. It’s painful and slow going, but the upside has been the sharing of memories. I’m hoping I will be more open with my own daughters as they grow up. Already I have found that if I can relate an instance of when I struggled as a child to my first-grader, it makes an impact, even if she can’t quite fathom I was ever seven.