The lessons we learn from our mothers shape who we are, even the lessons we don’t particularly appreciate. Those lessons keep coming year after year, and their most valuable messages stay with us forever.
NPR journalist Scott Simon’s mother was a character in every way, a funny, gorgeous, gracious woman whose last days inspired her son to write Unforgettable: A Son, a Mother, and the Lessons of a Lifetime. Simon’s memoir expands upon tweets he sent to his 1.25 million Twitter followers as his mother lay dying of lung cancer in a Chicago hospital in the summer of 2013.
Her devoted son found his mother so funny and interesting that he decided to share her final moments with the world. As he explains, “She was an old showgirl who gave a great last performance.” And tweets such as this one helped him process what his family was going through: “I just realized: she once had to let me go into the big wide world. Now I have to let her go the same way.”
Patricia Lyons Simon Newman married three times, and over the years, her many jobs included being a model, secretary, typist and an ad agency receptionist. She had worked in nightclubs and dated mobsters, and Simon’s father was an alcoholic comedian.
Simon interweaves memories of their colorful life together with descriptions of their time in the ICU. He recalls frustrating moments when needed medicine was delayed and moments of supreme grace as his mom rallies for a final visit with Simon’s wife. No doubt Patricia Newman would be proud of her son and his extraordinarily compelling, heartfelt tribute.
THERE IN SPIRIT
Alice Eve Cohen certainly has a complicated relationship with motherhood, and it smacked her in the face during a daunting period she chronicles vividly in The Year My Mother Came Back. Strangely, the ghost of her mother suddenly appeared, 31 years after her death, just when Cohen faced seemingly overwhelming personal challenges.
In a previous book, What I Thought I Knew, the divorced mother of an adopted daughter wrote about finding out at age 44 that she was six months pregnant, after years of infertility and months of strange symptoms.
In her latest book, her beloved surprise daughter, Eliana, is an active fourth-grader in need of painful surgery. At the same time, Cohen (now happily married) is diagnosed with breast cancer, just as her mother was years ago. Meanwhile, as Cohen’s older daughter, Julia, is about to leave for college, she gets in touch with her birth mother.
This collision of events results in a maelstrom of emotional upheaval for Cohen, who finds much-needed comfort in the presence of her mother’s spirit: “We revisit events from our past together. Sometimes we just talk. Always, my mother is there and she is not there.”
This thoughtful memoir shows how our past and present remain constantly intertwined, and how being a mother is a complex journey that’s often full of stunning surprises.
THE FAMILY TABLE
Cookbook author Pam Anderson and daughters Maggy Keet and Sharon Damelio, the trio behind the food blog Three Many Cooks, have always centered their lives on food, family and faith. When they began to collaborate on a cookbook, they realized they had much more to share than recipes. The result is a delectable biography of their family’s food history, Three Many Cooks.
They chronicle their “incredible, messy, hilarious, powerful, screwed-up, delicious, and life-changing love affair with food, with one another, and with the people we have come to cherish.” The book is told in alternating chapters by each of the three, with every reflection accompanied by a relevant recipe.
Anderson begins with memories of learning to cook comfort food like chicken and dumplings in the Southern kitchens of her mother, aunt and grandmother. In subsequent chapters she tells how as a young mother and wife of an Episcopal minister, she mastered the styles of Child, Beard and Claiborne.
These well-written, captivating accounts describe such things as Keet’s most memorable meal (at the home of a colleague in Malawi, Africa); the three women’s weight struggles; and an unforgettable dinner to celebrate Anderson’s mother’s 89th birthday.
This book will make readers hungry, not only for the wonderful meals, but for the camaraderie that accompanies each feast. As Pam says of a lunch shared with a dying friend: “I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the moment I started caring less about perfection and more about connection.”
MANY TYPES OF MOMS
Want to broaden your Mother’s Day experience beyond the greeting-card-and-box-of-candy routine? Dip into the wildly varied essays in Listen to Your Mother: What She Said Then, What We’re Saying Now.
In 2010, blogger Ann Imig (Ann Rants) organized a live reading called “Listen to Your Mother” to celebrate the holiday. It was such a success that more readings have been staged. This collection of the readings is refreshingly diverse, touching and funny. It’s a book that’s easy to dip into and likely to bring immediate rewards.
In “More Than an Aunt, Less Than a Mom,” Jerry Mahoney writes about his husband’s sister’s decision to become an egg donor for their unborn child. This was tricky business for everyone involved, he acknowledges, adding: “But that didn’t mean we shouldn’t proceed. It just meant we’d have to educate people, to show them what a functional family we had and demonstrate that our family, like any other, was built on love.”
No matter what the makeup of a family might be, isn’t that what Mother’s Day is all about?
This article was originally published in the May 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.