Mary Gordon’s master class in the soul

Guest post by Olga Khotiashova

Photo by Olga Khotiashova of Boston's deCordova Sculpture Park

Why do people write memoirs: to share their most exciting experiences with readers or to get rid of haunting ghosts? The truth probably lies somewhere in between these two poles. The magic of a memoir is that any experience, when articulated, loses its privacy, becomes distinct from the author, so the moments of sheer joy, although not so dazzling as before, rest peacefully in a safe place together with unspeakably painful experiences which, on the contrary, get soothed. A memoir is the preservation of memories we both don’t want and can’t let go.

I came to the above definition while reading two memoirs by Mary Gordon: Seeing Through Places (2000) and Circling My Mother (2007). The two books often refer to the same events and people but from different perspectives. “Seeing through,” “circling”—thoroughly chosen titles give the exact view of what the author intended to do and brilliantly did using her only tool—words.

The first book consists of eight chapters—one for each memorable place. For me, it was a delightful reading: one chapter at a time followed by hours of thinking, rereading, finding the words and images which ignited that particular place, made it so personal.

At the very beginning of the chapter about the vacation house in Cape Cod, “The Room in the World,” the word blessing came to my mind. And oh, magic: four pages later it materialized in the book:

One of the happiest hours of my year was the one just after I arrived, when I unpacked the carton of books I’d brought (always too many: no one could have read what I brought, everything I dreamed of reading, plus all the books and writers I wanted near me for good luck). I would separate the books, excited by my own discriminations, like a child playing library. The purity of my categorization made me feel blessed. Full in belief of myself, I would sit down for the first time each summer, open my notebook, and set to work.

There is one more thing that distinguishes “The Room in the World” from the other chapters: it is closely connected with the outdoors while the other places are mostly urban.

 And above all, I was grateful to the window for providing me the view over the tops of trees, the old locusts with their mobile leaves that were responsive to the wind even when words were obdurate, that always gave me something to look at: a perfect view for writing, lovely, but not great, suggesting continuity rather than grandeur. I would never want a view of a mountain whose intractability would only replicate the shape of my own mind; a view of water would be either too beguiling or would convince me of the futility of my task: for nothing I could make of words could ever be so satisfying or so various as the movement of sun on water.

The subtitle of this memoir is Reflections on Geography and Identity, and the memorable places Mary Gordon reflects on are like a heirloom collection of paintings: you may not notice them every moment but you value them, you know they are present and will be present forever, they are inseparable part of your being, you bear the imprint of them.

I devoured the second memoir, Circling My Mother, in three days; just could not stop reading those shocking confessions, gradually coming to the conclusion they were not only justified but absolutely necessary.

It is always hard to find right tone talking about parents. We can’t be impartial, and Mary Gordon makes it perfectly clear:

I know this is entirely unfair. I can’t help it; when it comes to my parents, I pride myself not on being fair but on being on their side.

But she is also far from romanticizing the relationships with her mother who was crippled by polio, experienced alcoholism and suffered of dementia at the end of her life. I was repulsed by Gordon’s bitter revelations first, but eventually got the point:

I do not want the wretched mother back again in this life. But there is another one, desired, and desirable. A body I once yearned to be near. … This is the mother I want to meet again: the mother I yearned for. I want to go back where I can meet that mother. Back past affliction, age, disease. This is the trick I want to pull: the trick of bringing the desirable mother back to life. The trick of Resurrection.

No matter how complicated the relationships had been, when the parents pass away, they leave us with the mixed feelings of love, and guilt, and loneliness.

If I had been able to speak like this to my mother, words rooted in the body but beyond the degraded and degrading flesh, would it have changed anything? Prevented anything? Rage, humiliation, stupor, degradation, or despair? It doesn’t matter; I was never able to speak to her like that. With that kind of love. As it was, the love I had to her, love mixed with hate, the words I could speak to her, words of love and hate, were attached to the body that degraded rather than evaporated, like the scent of her perfume. And so nothing was prevented by my love. My impure love. I couldn’t prevent her fate, or ours, any more than I could have prevented the perfume from eating the varnish of her dresser. Something was eaten, eaten away. There was nothing I could do about it. My love prevented nothing. Not one thing.

I wept when I read it.  The passage reminded me of one day, when while cleaning the bookcase in my apartment, I came across the envelope with old family pictures and ended up sitting on the floor surrounded by the stacks of books and sorting out the pictures. It was getting dark. Overwhelmed by memories, I rushed outside, bought a bunch of yellow daffodils and put it in a vase in front of my mother’s portrait saying silently, “Thank you. I love you. I know you forgave me.”

Paying tribute to her mother, Mary Gordon uses her most valuable possession—words. They summon scents and images. She is first and foremost a writer, and she manages to observe and explore such a fragile substance as a human soul rigorously but gently, giving an exquisite master class to her readers.

Olga Khotiashova is a technical writer and math tutor from Russia who has previously contributed posts on Vladimir Nabokov and James Michener.

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3 Comments

Filed under emotion, honesty, memoir, REVIEW

3 responses to “Mary Gordon’s master class in the soul

  1. Beautiful post. You bring Mary Gordon very close. And you remind me to call my mother!

    I just wrote a short post about Doris Lessing’s attempt to get at many of the same issues. You might enjoy reading Alfred and Emily after Circling My Mother.

  2. In this triumphant return to nonfiction after two critically acclaimed works of fiction Mary Gordon gives us a rich bittersweet memoir about her mother their relationship and her role as daughter. Anna Gagliano Gordon who died in 2002 at the age of 94 lived a life colored by large forces immigration world war the Great Depression and physical affliction–she contr In this triumphant return to nonfiction after two critically acclaimed works of fiction Mary Gordon gives us a rich bittersweet memoir about her mother their relationship and her role as daughter.