Because I Love Her: 34 Women Writers Reflect on the Mother-Daughter Bond by Maria Rowan

Ever read one of those book or film reviews and think “That review is as much about the reviewer as anything else.” This is one of those reviews, but then as the mother of a daughter and the daughter of a mother, it would be dishonest to say I could approach Andrea N. Richesin’s Because I Love Her: 34 Women Writers Reflect on the Mother-Daughter Bond any other way.
Back in January, I promised to review Because I Love Her before Mother’s Day. By the time my advanced reading copy arrived in April, I was in the throes of selling my house, moving into a town home, grieving a long marriage and becoming a single mother. I stared at the book on my nightstand, the title in gentle pink over the black and white photograph of a smiling mother holding her wee daughter. I imagined all the stories of happy unadulterated bonding and sulked. One night insomnia and a sense of responsibility struck simultaneously and I opened the book randomly to the unexpected.
The first essay I read, “The Possibility of You”, Amanda Coyne wrote as a letter to her yet unborn daughter contrasting her partner’s orderly family and her own chaotic childhood on the road with a mother who ended up in prison and now lived right down the road, forgiven and included. I thumbed backwards to “What Must Have Seemed Like Grace” in which Ann Fisher-Wirth adored her happily married satisfied stay at home mother, who had survived World War II in Germany, and gave her children a life of order, that Fisher-Wirth struggled to obtain for herself and then had to let go to live. From there I moved backwards once more to Sara Wooster’s story of her culturally conservative mother who shocked her daughter by introducing her to the wonderful world of books that get banned. I was hooked.
In randomness, I seemed to discover what I needed on any given day. As it turned out disappointment and anger and regret were not my own lonely kingdom. Sheila Kohler taught her hearing impaired daughter to speak only to hear her say how angry she was. Rachel Sarah’s mother, distressed by her portrayal, threw Sarah’s first book at her head and refused to talk to her for over a year, so Sarah wrote a metaessay on whether to write an essay about that pain when doing so might provoke the same pain again. For inspiration, I loved the concise and evocatively composed “A Day at the Beach”, Carolyn Ferrell’s tribute to her mother; an émigré’ from Germany, young by today’s standards, married to an African American soldier from poverty-stricken rural North Carolina and raising a biracial child in 1960’s Brooklyn. Ferrell emulates her mother’s wisdom, which lay not in her advice or opinions which are never mentioned, but in the gift of childhood days at the oceans. That says more about what creates love and esteem than all the essays about what creates love and esteem. There’s a few essay that delve into that seemingly unavoidable and rather claustrophobic territory of my mother/myself: how I dress my child and how my mother dressed me, seeking approval and thumbing our noses at it, my daughter is like and not like me, but the gold in the collection is well worth the dross.
To finish this review I’m stealing time as my daughter eats across the street. It just so happens Andrea Richesin’s sister, Wendy is my new neighbor and while I used to be the mother with a house full of other people’s kids, my daughter is now “the other people’s kids” and finding the familiarity of a full dinner table elsewhere. When I walk her over in the morning to carpool, Wendy is smiling and welcoming and about to provide a second and likely better breakfast. Each of these mornings I walk away thinking of my golden mean, Katrina Onstad’s “Other People’s Mothers”, an anecdote to the suffocation that can mar the mother/daughter relationships. In vignettes that read like short fiction, Onstad describes the other mothers she knew, The Mean Mother and The Foreign Mother, and what she learned from them, exploring what was absent and what was a gift in her connection with her mother. Being merely mortal, like The Dead Mother, we can not be all things at all times and besides the impossibility, there isn’t even a need. Our daughters do not belong solely to us, but to their selves and the world.
I know in the midst of change, which is by nature chaotic, Wendy’s table provides my daughter familiarity and stability that I can not and for which I am grateful. In the movie, Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis’ rebellious grad student says “We read to know we are not alone.” I am equally grateful, her elder sister Andrea Richesin, provided me with Because I Love Her, the neighborhood of essays that served as my companion volume through my transition from one sort of mother to another.
Maria Rowan lives and works in Carrboro, North Carolina. She is the mother of a seven year old daughter.