Posted by: Brenda Kula | May 23, 2009

Motherless Daughters (The Book)

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“It is the image in the mind that links us to our lost treasures; but it is the loss that shapes the image, gathers the flowers, weaves the garland.” – Colette, My Mother’s House

No sooner had I opened the book than I began to cry.

After my Mother’s Day post, or rather the one before Mother’s Day, many of you encouraged me to order the book “Motherless Daughters” by author Hope Edelman. This is the second edition, updated and expanded.

It came in the mail from Amazon.com, along with “Don’t Call Me Mother” by Linda Joy Myers. I ordered both books on Mother’s Day. You nudged me toward this moment, and I felt it was finally time.

I don’t know where this sudden gush of grief came from, as most of you know I never really knew my mother. Have only met her two or three times over the course of my life. But the sheer absence of her seems more omnipresent than if I’d really had her in my life.

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This deeply primal sense of sadness and loss just engulfed me suddenly. As though the flood gates had finally been ripped open. It was as though, by merely touching these bound pages, filled with women’s stories about their own lives, I was no longer alone. I knew that I held in my hands a source of many tears from many different women of all ages.

I knew I could not simply delve into these pages. I could not throw caution to the wind and just jump in, as I usually do with a book I’ve longed to read. I would have to stick a toe into the bottomless sea and test my courage to go forward. I opened the back pages and read the notes. Then the appendix. I read notations by the author about other books that were written about the subject of maternal loss.

From the Introduction by author Hope Edelman: “Twelve years ago the first edition of Motherless Daughters was published. It was the final step of a long odyssey for me, the end result of years I’d spent searching for just such a book. I was seventeen when my mother died of breast cancer, no longer a child but not yet quite a woman. I was old enough to drive, however, and one of the first trips I took after the mourners dispersed was to a local library. I was a reader, and in lieu of a support group or teen grief therapy, neither of which existed in my town in 1981, this was my best option for support. I needed information. I wanted to know how you were supposed to feel at seventeen when your mother had just died. I wanted clues for how to think about it. How to talk about it. What to say. I wanted to know if anything, ever, would make me feel happy again.

I didn’t find that book, not that year, nor the next year, nor in any of my subsequent searches in bookstores and university libraries and computer databases in any of the next four states in which I lived. In every book I skimmed about mother-daughter relationships, the assumption was that a mother’s death occurred after a daughter had reached mid-life or beyond. I was seventeen, twenty, then twenty-four years old. These books weren’t speaking to me. The same was true for the academic texts I found, some of which discussed the short-term effects of early parent loss on children, but none of which talked specifically about daughters who’d lost mothers and how the loss affected them over time. I knew I had a specific set of difficulties, and a point of view that departed significantly from most of my friends’, but I couldn’t find anything written about this. The silence that descended upon my family after my mother died seemed echoed on the bookstores shelves. I had no idea that thousands of other girls like my sister and I were out there. In my mind, we’d gone through something so strange, so rare and aberrant, that it didn’t quite merit inclusion on the page.

Then, when I was a senior in college, my boyfriend clipped an Anna Quindlen column from  the Chicago Tribune for me. “My mother died when I was nineteen,” Quindlen wrote. “For a long time, it was all you needed to know about me, a kind of vest-pocket description of my emotional complexion: ‘Meet you in the lobby in ten minutes – I have long brown hair, am on the short side, have on a red coat, and my mother died when I was nineteen.'” I read it four times on the el train on the way to my part-time job that afternoon, and carried it around in my wallet for years. Only later, much later, would I learn how many other motherless women around the country had saved that same syndicated column, and how many, like me, had felt as if someone had discovered a secret portal into their innermost thoughts.

Losing my mother wasn’t just a fact about me. It was the core of my identity, my very state of being. Before writing the first edition of this book, I had no sense of how many other women felt the same way. The answer, as I soon learned, was a lot. Within two months of its initial publication, Motherless Daughters landed on the New York Times bestseller list. I hadn’t unlisted my phone number, and I’d come home at the end of the day to find long, heartfelt stories of mother loss left on my answering machine. I was living in New York City at the time, and about once a week the clerk at my local post office would hand me gray mailbags filled with envelopes – letters that readers had sent to the publisher, who had forwarded them on to me. “What business are you running, woman?” she once asked me. “I want a piece of that…”

The letters were filled with women’s stories of loss and abandonment, and of the coping strategies they’d adopted to emotionally survive. Often, the women included words of gratitude, thankful that someone had validated the magnitude of their losses, relieved that they’d finally been given a framework within which to fit their experiences and a platform from which to discuss them. Hundreds of motherless women would show up at readings and seminars, eager to sit in a room with others who understood, “It’s like we share a secret handshake,” one woman said. Another put it even more succinctly. “I feel like the alien who just found the mother ship,” she told the group.

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I closed the book and went outside, into the darkness of the night. The air smelled of freshly fallen rain. Promise hung there, expectantly. I felt layers of my willpower, which I’d clung to for years like a talisman, began to fall apart right before my eyes. A grief I didn’t even know existed within me began to pour out.

I may have never known her. Not as a daughter knows a mother. But the loss of her is entangled, I now realize, in every fiber of my being. It has had inclusion in every major decision I’ve ever made. It was there when my daughters were born. The day they married, where a shadow of her clung to the occasion of their happy nuptials. They never knew her. But they knew “of her” through my life-long struggle with depression. They felt the presence of her through my inability to be a vital part of family occasions. Something made me hang back, somehow unable to be an integral part of the family portrait. They grappled with a mother who could not fully hold onto them without immediately, instinctively, letting go. I knew they needed me, but I wanted them to be prepared for emotional survival upon my eventual loss.

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At this late hour, for those of you who wrote to me, encouraged me to find and read this book, I don’t know whether to curse you or applaud you. I have a feeling, after the pain of reading it has lessened, I will be thanking you.

I will be starting the first chapter of this book today. It won’t be easy to find closure for the loss of a mother that could be dead or alive. She may be out there. Somewhere. But I have to find a way to let it go.

For those of you who have lost a mother, and need the closure I seek, I encourage you to get a copy of this book and join me in this journey of learning and letting go. Let the healing of motherless daughters, throughout this thing we call a blogosphere, begin. Perhaps we can hold hands across the miles and states and countries, and find peace within the strength of our global friendship.

I truly hope so.

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Responses

  1. We are all sisters in life Brenda,those who never had a mother, those who have a mother , those who’s mother’s passed away,we are all sisters in this great big world.Your not alone nor will you ever be,one of us is always out there just reach out a little.I promise one of your sisters will always be there for you.

  2. I am at a loss as to what to say, Brenda, to such heart-felt honesty. I have struggled my whole life with the loss of a father at age 24, but who was never there for me even when he was still living. I think missing that relationship that we instinctively, desperately need, is like a black hole in our lives. There is nothing that can replace it, we just learn to live around it. It sounds as though you are peeling away all the protective layers you have used to insulate all those feelings that were too hard to experience. My prayer is that as you peel away those layers, you will heal and become whole for the first time in your life.

    I am giving you a big cyber-hug filled with love,
    jenny

  3. Brenda, hang in there, darlin’. I never got to write you back another email, but I feel this way about my father, who is not part of my life. I know it’s not the same as losing one’s mother, but it changed my life. I think, perhaps, that is what life is about. That, every experience we have shapes us for something else. Love, Dee

  4. I didn’t know you were trying to let go of her. Here I was encouraging you to find her…Well letting go is one way of dealing with it thats for sure. I have let go many times only to be right back in the middle of pain and grief.
    I think over the years I have done much better at dealing with my mother but I will never be able to completely let her go.
    She is like a thorn in my side. It may come out but the wound will always be there. Good way to think of my Mother huh? LOL Well its been a hard life and I am the one who always longed to have a real Mother who was there for me too. I wished she was like other peoples Moms that wanted to go places and do things with me but she never did. We never had any fun together. It was always a fight. I was never good enough. I was always the cause of every thing that went wrong according to her. Oh well!
    Life goes on and I get through it each day and each day I try to be there for my daughter. But as it would be she doesn’t really want me there like I want to be. No one ever said having kids was going to be easy right?
    We just do the best we can.
    My husband lost his Mother when he just turned 20. She was dead in her bed. Heart Attack in her sleep. He found her.
    His father had passed away when he was 9. Heart attack also. So he has had no Mother most of his life either. Except for the fact that his Mother was a very loving Mother while she was alive. SO he misses that a lot. Then he marries me and he gets stuck with the Mother in Law from Hell…(-:

  5. I hope these books help you find peace, Brenda. I know what you are going through must be hard, but for your sake and your children’s sakes, this is something you evidently need to do. You are in my thoughts.

    Jan
    Always Growing

  6. Thank you so much for sharing your journey. Your writing is as much a salve as Edelman’s, certainly (she just has a wider audience at the moment.) Thank you for your honesty and willingness to be vulnerable here.

  7. I’m sad for you right now.

    I know how you feel…my Mother never knew her Mother. My Mother is 80, she longs for her every day. I sit and listen to her talk about it. She died when my Mother was 2

  8. What a powerful post Brenda. I hope these books help you to heal and brings closure and peace.

  9. Brenda, Your posts about your mother always moves me to tears because I share your pain. Though my mother didn’t die until I was in my twenties, she was emotionally vacant and absent most of my life. Through therapy years ago, I realized that I was angrier with her than I was with my dad who was abusive. At least he was present, in a negative sense, anyway. The abandonment issues color everything we do in life. And at the same time, I know I chose this path, and those parents, and those issues to learn from. Remember, everything is an “AFGE” (Another …. Growth Experience!). much love.

  10. Brenda, you’ve encouraged me to go ahead and order those books. I hesitated at first also. I never knew my father. He died 2 months after their marriage. I was born exactly 9 months to the day of their wedding. Mother remarried. From that day forward she emotionally abandoned me and mothered my stepfather instead. And he was emotionally abusive for all of my life. So in essence, I suffered not only father loss, but mother loss. And…sibling loss as well…because as you probably know, in families like this, there is generally the “ostrich syndrome” and the “outsider” is assigned the role of “family scapegoat” so no one cares to listen.
    I have been SO blessed with a wonderful husband and two beautiful, loving daughters. God does balance things and I’ve tried to acknowledge this with gratitude for what I have instead of lamenting what I don’t. But still…it has shaped my life and it is always present in my subconscious.
    Thank you SO much for your courage and honesty. Now…to Amazon to order the books!
    Sisters,
    Diane

  11. Dear Brenda, your scratching open of the scar tissue covered wound to let the poison out is so brave. You are not alone and may you find strength and comfort as you ease you toe into the waters of these books. The parts of the book you shared revealed writing from a hurting heart. Your own words of holding part of yourself back, trying to prepare your daughters for their loss of you rings a bell with me too. Although I was thirty, it came too fast and it took over ten years to put it behind me. Never forgetting though, but able to not let it define you is a worthy goal. Our thoughts will be with you.
    Frances

  12. I feel overwelmed by your blog. And I really cannot relate but I feel a tremendous sadnes for you. I agree with Diane that God does balance things out. We have to learn to look for the mother or sister or father in our lives. They are not always obvious. May be you haven’t found yours yet. I read about a man you had lost his dad when he was very young and always wished he had a dad to play horsey with. When he became a christian he had a dream about God being his dad and letting him ride on his back, playing horsey. It helped him tremendously to think about God as his father. I don’t have any sisters but my husband has 3 and one of the sisters takes the mother role when one of them is sick, their mother passed away 3 years ago. Maybe you have a friend or sister and you could be the mother for each other.

  13. I think you’re mistaken

  14. I have been wondering about this book and if I should order it, thanks for your blog.


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