the mother-granddaughter (dis)connection

This entry is part 17 of 19 in the series Memoir

Yesterday I had a long telephone conversation with the Girlchild about my experiment in memoir. She doesn’t read this weblog, for the same reasons she doesn’t read my books: too much information. I understand her reasoning completely. My guess is when she’s older, she might change her mind.

In the course of the conversation she said she might read the memoir posts that deal with my childhood, and we would have left it there but I got up the courage to ask her a question. I hadn’t been able to figure out for myself if I could write about my own childhood without writing about hers, and how did she feel about that?

I never expected — I never let myself think about — raising a daughter. The idea scared me. When I was pregnant I was very open about wanting a boy, although I added the obligatory any baby as long as it’s healthy. That’s not what I was feeling, though.  I hoped for a boy, and I bugged the ultrasound technicians to tell me it was a boy., and everytime it was a no go. This   baby is shy, the technician would say. Legs    firmly crossed.

I spent endless hours talking to my therapist about it. What if I did have a girl? What did that mean? Could I be a good mother to a girl, when I had no experience of one myself? The therapist wanted to know why I thought I could mother a boy, if not a daughter. Still today I can’t really articulate the answer to that except the obvious: it’s different. It’s a clean start. A blank slate. Of course it wouldn’t have been, but that’s the way it felt to me.

The Girlchild and I had a rocky start. I went into labor at 27 weeks, which let me tell you, is like a four alarm fire in the maternity ward. She wouldn’t have survived at that stage, and so I was in and out of the hospital until she was born ten days early, by c-section because she was adamantly breech.

So the c-section went forward as planned, and the moment came when the surgeons held the baby up for us to see. I wanted to know immediately, boy or girl? And one of the surgeons said: It’s a boy.***

Then the Mathematician went over to watch as the pediatricians checked out the baby, and I turned to the midwife and said, I really wanted a boy, I’m so glad.

And then Mathematician came back and said  Hey! It’s a GIRL.

I spent the next twenty four hours in the normal post c-section haze, and sometime  the next day I was holding the baby when the shift changed and a new nurse came in. She said, Oh, she looks JUST LIKE YOU.

And I burst into tears.

The Girlchild knows this story. I don’t remember when we first told her the detailed version or when I went into details about what scared me , but I do know that she was eight years old before she ever asked me about my mother. I never raised the subject, but for those eight years I was preparing myself for the question and what I might possibly say, how to explain to this brightest of lights in the world about her grandmother and why I had wanted a boy and how wrong  I had been  about that. My therapist coached me and coached me, and when the time came, I managed to say what needed to be said, and I answered questions. That was also the first time I talked to her about alcoholism and genetics. She was only eight, and so I kept it simple. Over the years I added more detail and information, and we talked about my decision to never drink at all, for fear of a predisposition to addiction.

Yesterday on the phone I said to her, you know it’s hard for me to write about my mother without writing about you. But I haven’t done that, because I respect your privacy. And she said, Mom, of course you have to write about me. Of course you do.

It will take me some time to believe that, and then longer still to actually start to look at this juxtaposition of an alcoholic mother and a much loved daughter who started down that same path. Despite everything we could do to warn her, to make her understand what it meant. To save her life, and ours.

It will take a while, but I will write about it. It seems that I have to.


*** The midwife was a thirty year veteran, and the surgeons  – some young enough to be her grandchildren – were all afraid of her. She was furious that one of them had announced “It’s a boy” when it most definitely was not. The next day she said to me, “There’s no excuse for that. None. I interviewed every person in that delivery room, but nobody would admit to me which surgeon said it.”  And no wonder, say I.

To say nothing of the dog: on proofreading

via buzzfeed

via buzzfeed

I’m almost finished with the first-pass page proofs for The Endless Forest, and I hope to hand it over to FedEx late today or early tomorrow. As I am at the hair-pulling stage, I’m taking a break to tell you about this process and how I handle it. Or don’t.

I believe I can pinpoint the very moment when my proofreading phobia started.  Writing a dissertation is never easy and everybody who has ever written one will have horror stories to tell.  I think those of us who defended more than twenty years ago, when word processing was in its very quirky infancy, probably have more horror stories than more recent doctoral students. Usually, though, the horror stories don’t happen after the fact.

It was the day after I defended my doctoral dissertation. A beautiful late spring day, and I was free. FREE.  I was so full of energy, I was almost floating. Three years of hard work in which I often doubted that I could ever finish — much less defend  — my dissertation, but I had done both. I can still recall that feeling. It ranks up there with the first sight of the Girlchild’s little new-babies-look-like-monkies face, and seeing the Mathematician down there at the end of the aisle smiling at me, and getting the first copy of the first published novel delivered. It’s that good.

Then the phone rang, and I made a mistake. I answered it.

On the other end was a very earnest librarian from Princeton’s library, who was holding a copy of my newly minted dissertation in his hands.

Librarian: Dr Lippi, I have a number of questions regarding your dissertation.

Me: Huh?

Librarian: Before I can add it to the library’s collection there are number of … infelicities that need to be addressed.

I remember my gut rising into my throat, which explains why my voice came out like Minnie Mouse on steroids.

Me: I defended it yesterday. I’m done.

Librarian: I’m afraid not. Do you have a copy so you can follow along as I ask my questions?


Librarian: Dr. Lippi?

What I wanted to say: But you don’t understand, I swore last night that I would never, ever, open my dissertation again. In fact, my plans for today include embalming my copy in a barrel of wet concrete. In short: no, I don’t have a copy to follow along, and no force on earth is going to compel me to go get one.

Me: Just go ahead.

Librarian: On page 223, chart 27a is not titled.  And on 275, chart 55 is titled ‘Distribution of Marked Phonemes by Generation’ but in the index, the title is given as ‘Distribution of Marked Phoneme by Generation.’

I think I went into shock at that point. I simply stood there listening as he droned on with his list of missing commas, reversed index numbers, and other details I did not care about. Not one bit. A long time later  I realized he was waiting for some kind of reply.

Me: I’m sorry, I didn’t get that last bit.

Librarian: These problems will have to be corrected before your dissertation can be officially logged.


Librarian: Dr. Lippi?


Librarian: If I might make a suggestion, I could make these corrections for you —

Me: You could? Really? Oh, bless you. Bless you. Please go ahead and change things as you see fit. No need to run things past me, no sirree.

And I hung up.

Ever since that day, I cringe when a proofreader makes him or herself heard. Which happens a lot while you’re doing the first-pass reading of a manuscript. Don’t get me wrong, the proofreader is crucial at this point because I don’t see half the small things she catches, and those things do need to be caught. For the most part there will be a couple of marks on a page — a comma added or a semi-colon changed to a period, for example. More serious and important are the small errors in continuity, so the proofreader will write “Do you mean Nathaniel here instead of Daniel?” And 99% of the time she’s right.

But every once in a while I flip over a page and see a long paragraph in the margin in dark blue ink, and my heart leaps into my throat. The proofreader has found a major problem in logic or a large inconsistency in backstory, and attached to those observations is a list of pages on which the fact in question has come up and has to be compared to the current page, so that corrections can be made all around.

Today I’ve run into more than the usual number of those marginal blocks, which explains why my heartbeat is galloping along and my lip is bleeding where I’ve been chewing on it. I think it was especially bad today because of the dog.

There is a dog in this story, as you probably would have guessed if you’ve read any of my stuff.

Here’s the problem: the dog is mentioned and described as a puppy, belonging to a young couple. From its first appearance, the proofreader is obsessed — obsesssed, I tell you — with this dog. Wherever the couple shows up, there must the dog be also or the proofreader is unhappy. I stopped counting the ‘where’s the dog?’ queries after ten or so. By that time I was ready to slash right to the heart of the problem and instruct her to take out every reference to a dog, anywhere. Everywhere. In everything I’ve ever written. Please, just don’t ask me about the dog anymore. And you know how much I love dogs, so things have to be pretty dire around here just now.

So now I  have to go back to proofreading. Light a candle, would you? I need all the help I can get.


Creative Commons License photo credit: Valentin.Ottone

islands in the storm

This entry is part 16 of 19 in the series Memoir

I ran across a copy of Hearts in Atlantis the other day, and I started thinking about the way an adult sometimes comes into the life of a child for a short period — weeks or months or a few years — and in that relatively short time, causes great changes in the child’s understanding of the world and herself. If you’ve never read King’s Hearts in Atlantis (or seen the film, which is quite good), it takes on this subject with  insight and sensitivity. Lonely kids, kids from dysfunctional families, smart kids who are without an outlet, these are the ones who are most open to a friendship with an adult, and often, most in need of such friendships.

When I was twelve, I got to know a couple who lived in an apartment building around the corner. She was a nurse, and he managed a store. They must have been quite young, married for just a couple years, and they had a baby named David.

I don’t know what Judy saw when she looked at me. An awkward kid who asked a million questions, that much is clear.  I never talked to her about my mother or the situation at home, but she must have intuited something because she was endlessly patient, and I could visit almost anytime. I remember asking her about nursing school, about her work, whether she believed in God, why she never took her wedding ring off, about David’s birth and how she met her husband, about her family in Indiana. And I have not one single memory of her being impatient. I was hypersensitive to adult reactions, and I would have slunk away and never come back if she had showed any irritation or boredom.   I was a smart kid who isolated herself from her classmates for fear of having the truth about an alcoholic mother come to light. She offered conversation and a baby to coddle — a heady mix for my twelve year old self. I believe I would have remembered her even if I had never seen her after she moved away, but I did see her.

It was a great loss to me when they went back to Indiana.  I wrote to her every week, and she wrote back almost as often.When my mother died,  I actually remember sitting over the piece of paper with a pen in my hand trying to find the words to tell her about it. What I don’t remember is whether or not I put down any details. It would be interesting — and frightening — to see that letter again. The extraordinary thing is that she wrote back immediately and asked if my younger sister and I wanted to come spend part of the summer with them in Indiana. It was an act of kindness beyond imagination. My father, who was dealing with his own aftermath, agreed without much discussion and so when school ended, we got on a Greyhound bus and headed to Kokomo.

As an adult I can hardly imagine such a huge gesture. She took on a twelve and fourteen year old who were still reeling from the violent changes to their circumstances when she had a toddler (Kim had been born in the meantime) and a three year old to handle. We spent a month or six weeks — I can’t remember exactly — as a part of that household, and that was my first personal experience of a stable home life. The things I remember are detailed beyond any other memories from that time in my life, illuminated  flashes of emotion that I struggled to keep within bounds. Judy  provided quiet support, answers to endless questions, trips to the pool and into the country to visit her parents, and room for me to tell the story I had kept tucked away for so long.

We stayed in touch. She wrote when Wally died at 48 of a sudden heart attack, and I wrote too. By the time I was in my late twenties, our correspondance had died out, though I still thought about her a lot and wondered where she was and whether she was well. She had given me so much, and without fanfare or expectation of return. When the Girlchild was born, I wanted her to know. I tried to get in touch but I couldn’t find her.  I called directory assistance for every town in Indiana I remembered in connection with her, but without luck. It felt to me like a great loss, that I couldn’t tell her about my own daughter. In the last twenty years I  continued looking, but I never found any trace of her.

And then in mid May, I got a letter from Judy. She had remarried, which was why I couldn’t track her down, but I recognized her handwriting on the envelope immediately, and my pulse began to race. I think if I answered the doorbell and my father was standing there, I couldn’t have felt anymore breathless and lightheaded.

There wasn’t anything earth shattering in Judy’s letter, just news about herself and her kids (grown up with families of their own), how well her life had turned out and how content she was. And she wrote that she had often wondered about me, and one day not so long ago, tried to find me on the internet. She wrote that she was so proud of me, and the things I’ve done. All that generosity of spirit I remembered was still there, on the page in my hands.

Here’s the most incredible thing of all: She was looking for me, too. In all the years, that  idea never occurred to me. Now it  feels as though a bridge that was washed out long ago has been rebuilt, against all odds and expectations.


This entry is part 10 of 19 in the series Memoir

have a first cousin on my mother’s side, a few months older than I am.  Katie (that’s what I’ll call her for now) was a nervous, energetic kid always up for an adventure. She had a tremendous imagination and a dramatic streak a block wide. Katie loved to tell jokes and stories, especially family stories that often left me puzzled. Did I know that we were direct female descendents of Pocohantas?  Did I realize that calico cats were always girls, but her calico cat was a boy, and how valuable he was for that reason? Her cat, the coin she found in the grass, a comic book — some one thing was always right there, promising wealth and good fortune. Wasn’t I aware the the State of Virginia was named after one of our great grandmothers? How about the fact that the grandmother we had in common had invented apple butter? We were an important family in the history of the country; we were intelligent, exacting, uncompromising visionaries. We spoke proper English. We had a flair for color. We made good lawyers and judges.

When I expressed doubt — even at that age was a bit of a cynic — some of the other cousins would jump in to testify on Katie’s behalf. Of COURSE we were direct descendants of Pocohantas, and how sad that nobody had bothered to tell me before.  I learned to listen to the stories and keep my doubts to myself.

Of all the cousins,  Katie adored my mother most.

In the days after  my mother committed suicide, the cousins were around the house a lot, as family will be when there has been a death.   Katie was there when my older sister brought home new clothes for my mother to be laid out in. I don’t think I had even heard the wordcremation at age fourteen; it was just a given that there would be a wake and at the wake you would have a chance to see the dead person’s remains, carefully made up.  There would be gladiolus and mums and maybe lilies or roses. There would be organ music, and everybody we knew would troop in and out of the funeral home to file past the coffin in a single line, whisper among themselves, and sign the guestbook.  All the kids from my class, all the nuns who had taught me, all the neighbors.

After so many years of trying to keep the secret of my mother’s alcoholism quiet, I hated the idea. But there was no escape. Having the cousins around was comforting, but I avoided Katie because I had no idea what to say to her.

We were fourteen, a difficult age in the best of circumstances, and we had a long history of competition which didn’t stop with my mother’s death. In fact, it seemed to ratchet up a notch. Katie loved her Aunt Mary and wanted everybody to know she was in mourning. I agonized over the need to appear in public because I had nothing to show except relief.   I hated the very idea of having to see my mother laid out. Her hair would be carefully styled and she would be wearing new clothes, but I had done my time and I was shut of her, no need for long goodbyes. I just wanted to move on.

Katie spread out the clothes on the dining room table with great reverence. They were nice things, as I remember. Apricot in color, the underwear silky to the touch.  Katie folded and refolded them. She said, “If only somebody had bought her such nice things when she was alive, maybe she wouldn’t have killed herself.”

My anger at this was so large it seemed to come up from my heels to fill every cavity. I remember still how my body first flushed and then went cold. I don’t remember what I said to Katie, but to this day I can call up the anger of that moment when she wiped my mother’s history clean on the basis of insufficiently pretty underwear.   Because she knew. Katie knew. She lived in an alcoholic household, and she knew what it meant. And somehow, in spite of her knowledge, she was taking the other side.

It was at that moment that I came to understand some things about Katie. She had constructed a world view in which my mother was a victim, and it was a world she was trying on for herself.  I couldn’t have put it in those words, but I knew, deep down, that Katie had chosen that path for herself. I did not and I still do not entirely understand how she came to that place.

For the next ten years I didn’t see much of Katie, but I thought a lot about her.  Then in my mid twenties I began reading about the psychology of alcoholism and alcoholic families, and how grandiosity becomes a bulwark in the face of shame and insecurity. Gradiose plans fail, and the cycle perpetuates itself.

Katie has been in and out of rehab and treatment facilities for many years. I haven’t spoken to her since the early 80s, when she called to talk and spent a good amount of the time screaming insults at her husband. She sounded, just then, so much like my mother. I had no choice but to let her go.