How do you approach Mother’s Day? With reverence and joy, or sorrow and trepidation? Are you fulfilled, exhausted or both from being a dutiful child or caretaking parent? No matter what your emotions, these engrossing books about mothers, children and parenting are bound to speak to you.
Particularly wonderful is a collection gathered by Elizabeth Benedict, What My Mother Gave Me. Benedict, who had a trying, distant relationship with her mother, found herself surprised by the intense feelings she had about a long woolen scarf her mother gave her in the last years of her life. She began to wonder: “If this one gift meant so much to me, if it unlocked the door to so much history and such complicated feelings, might other women have such a gift themselves?”
Indeed they do, and their answers come to life in stories from such writers as Ann Hood, Mary Gordon, Elinor Lipman and Mameve Medwed. Lisa See’s mother taught her to pen “a thousand words a day and one charming note,” a work ethic that involves writing steadily and aiming high. Joyce Carol Oates describes the first days of her widowhood, when she wrapped herself in a rainbow-colored quilt made by her late mother. The quilt became “a sign of how love endures in the most elemental and comforting ways.” And Emma Straub ponders gifts less tangible, such as tickets for a rainy, rather miserable but memorable cruise around a Wisconsin lake. Straub writes: “My own happiness during every terrible minute of the Betty Lou Cruise came from knowing that when it ended, I would get to tell [my mother] about it.”
BIG FAT GREEK LOVE
For some, the road to motherhood can be fraught with formidable roadblocks, as was the case for actress Nia Vardalos, the famed actress and writer of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. She tells her story in Instant Mom, which is as compelling, witty and wonderful as her now-classic movie about Greek family life. While Vardalos filmed the movie, went on press tours and was eventually nominated for an Oscar, she was desperately enduring a series of fertility treatments and heartbreaking miscarriages. Her dream of becoming a mother was finally fulfilled in 2008 when she and her husband became the unimaginably proud parents of a 3-year-old daughter that they adopted via the foster-care system. “After years of praying to be parents,” Vardalos says, “this little miracle simply appeared.”
The first few months involved exhausting efforts by all to acclimate and build trust, and Vardalos never sugarcoats the details, though she always buffers them with her and her husband’s complete joy and adoration of their headstrong, vivacious little girl. Vardalos brings readers along for a delightful ride as she navigates the toddler and preschool years, ending the story with a helpful question-and-answer section about the adoptive process. Her goal is to educate her readers about adoption, and she achieves it in an endlessly entertaining fashion.
Comedian Carol Burnett also has a powerful mothering story to share. Like many, I grew up watching “The Carol Burnett Show” and still grin at the thought of her Tarzan yell and the unflappable Mrs. Wiggins. Now Burnett bares her soul in her touching memoir, Carrie and Me.
Carrie Hamilton was the oldest of Burnett’s three daughters, a young woman who shared both her mother’s looks and her wide-ranging talent as an actress and singer. Burnett highlights the great triumphs and tragedies of her beloved daughter’s life, filling in details with stories, diary entries and letters. The pair went public in 1979 about Carrie’s adolescent struggle with drugs and alcohol—a multi-year battle from which she ultimately emerged victorious. Mother and daughter later collaborated on a play about Carol’s early life, and the adult Carrie lived in a Colorado cabin while writing a story called “Sunrise in Memphis,” which is included in the book.
Sadly, Carrie’s bold spirit and artistic talent were cut short by lung cancer in 2002. Carol and Carrie were lucky to have each other, and their ironclad bond shines through in this short but sweet memoir.
A LIFE RENEWED
Like Nia Vardalos, Glennon Doyle Melton became something of an instant mom, but in a very different way. On Mother’s Day 2002, this unwed 26-year-old was shocked to discover she was pregnant. What’s more, she was battling bulimia, alcohol and drug addiction. Happily, her life of struggle has become one of triumph, which she describes in Carry On, Warrior.
Becoming a wife and mother was a turning point for Melton, who is now the mother of three and the successful creator of the blog Momastery.com, some essays from which are collected here. She calls herself a “reckless truth teller,” and like Anne Lamott (one of her favorite writers), Melton has dedicated her life not only to her family but to religious faith and humor. She explains that once her husband and first child entered her life, she realized, “If two such good, kind, full people needed and wanted and loved me, could I really be so worthless? Suddenly, it seemed that there might be parts of life that were beautiful and good and meant for ME.”
All four of these books will make readers laugh and cry in recognition, and think more deeply about their own roots and relationships.