Motherland

A Memoir of Love, Loathing, and Longing

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“I’m reading this book right now and loving it!”—Cheryl Strayed, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Wild

How can a mother and daughter who love (but don’t always like) each other coexist without driving each other crazy? 

“A wry and moving meditation on aging and the different kinds of love between women.”—O: The Oprah Magazine (“2019’s Best LGBTQ Books”)

After surviving a traumatic childhood in nineteen-seventies New York and young adulthood living in the shadow of her flamboyant mother, Rita, a makeup-addicted former television singer, Elissa Altman has managed to build a very different life, settling in Connecticut with her wife of nearly twenty years. After much time, therapy, and wine, Elissa is at last in a healthy place, still orbiting around her mother but keeping far enough away to preserve the stable, independent world she has built as a writer and editor. Then Elissa is confronted with the unthinkable: Rita, whose days are spent as a flâneur, traversing Manhattan from the Clinique counters at Bergdorf to Bloomingdale’s and back again, suffers an incapacitating fall, leaving her completely dependent upon her daughter.

Now Elissa is forced to finally confront their profound differences, Rita’s yearning for beauty and glamour, her view of the world through her days in the spotlight, and the money that has mysteriously disappeared in the name of preserving youth. To sustain their fragile mother-daughter bond, Elissa must navigate the turbulent waters of their shared lives, the practical challenges of caregiving for someone who refuses to accept it, the tentacles of narcissism, and the mutual, frenetic obsession that has defined their relationship.

Motherland is a story that touches every home and every life, mapping the ferocity of maternal love, moral obligation, the choices women make about motherhood, and the possibility of healing. Filled with tenderness, wry irreverence, and unforgettable characters, it is an exploration of what it means to escape from the shackles of the past only to have to face them all over again.

Praise for Motherland

“Rarely has a mother-daughter relationship been excavated with such honesty. Elissa Altman is a beautiful, big-hearted writer who mines her most central subject: her gorgeous, tempestuous, difficult mother, and the terrain of their shared life. The result is a testament to the power of love and family.”—Dani Shapiro, author of Inheritance

“Vibrating with emotion, this deeply honest account strikes a chord.”People

Under the Cover

An excerpt from Motherland

1

My Connecticut Kitchen in the Early Morning.

My wife and I live where it is quiet, not quite rural, not quite suburban, where a car driving down the street in the middle of the day is cause for wonder and, because I am still a New Yorker at heart, for the locking of the front door. Recently, we bought a heavy-duty deadbolt—we’d never had one—because the previous owner, who built our little house on an acre in 1971, had installed a simple push-button bedroom lock on the hollow-core front door. It wasn’t that he was cheap; there was just no reason to have anything more secure. He didn’t want to court karmic trouble by kitting out his home like Fort Knox. He was safe here, he told us, with his wife and two growing daughters.

When Susan and I came to look at the house on a snowy February afternoon in 2004, the owner, in his late eighties and wearing a black-and-red wool hunting coat and a green camouflage knit cap, leaned his wooden cane against one of the front pillars, pulled a massive, gas-powered snow blower out of the garage and carved a wide path for us to safely walk side by side around the property. He apologized for the state of his beloved rhododendrons and azaleas, which had recently been devoured by deer but were nonetheless neatly wrapped up like cigars from top to bottom in garden burlap as if to protect the possibility that they might flower again when the season changed; gardening is a contract with hope.

The man’s wife, a laconic blue-eyed woman just beginning to forget, gave us a swatch of the original yellow-and-silver-striped wallpaper, in case we ever needed to match it. They had led a good life here, the man said, and were downsizing to a nearby retirement community; one daughter was moving to England and the other to a small village in the Berkshire foothills. They were proud of their home, but soft-spoken and humble in the way Yankees tend to be.

Except for removing the wallpaper, we touched nothing else for years, including the girls’ bedrooms, whose walls still bore the vinyl-flowered adhesive evidence of their childhood. We eventually turned one room into my office and the other into a book-lined guestroom that I envisioned someday containing a simple Shaker-style crib, a rocking chair, a changing table. We even took chances with the lock until I began to work from home. Susan and I had thrown caution to the wind because security and safety can be such a myth; trouble can come from anywhere.

In the years that Susan and I have been in this house, I have learned the seasonal trajectory of light, which in the morning streams through the dining room window onto our ancient barnwood table in one harsh bolt. By sundown, it glares through the living room in an explosion so bright that it’s often hard to see the house across the street. Our life here is slow and quiet, and, for two women together nineteen years, conventional. My work is solitary; when I’m writing, I can sit at my desk and not get up for hours, until the sun has made its circle around the house. A clock isn’t necessary. I know what time it is by the cast of light on the walls.

On this day, the sun isn’t all the way up, and the interior of the house is a murky gray. I have just come in from a run. I was never a runner, but I began recently because it creates a kind of porosity; it allows air and light to filter through me and loosens the knot that snares me every morning before eight when I answer the phone, in the slim moment between the ring and the sound of my mother’s voice. A rest; a beat. A break in the symbiosis that has defined us and the universe in which we’ve lived. I stand in my kitchen and stare at the phone. I inhale. It rings. The dog barks. I exhale. I choose my response—the seconds between stimulus and reaction, Viktor Frankl called it—in which lies my freedom.

Like the Centralia Mine fire, my mother and I have been burning for half a century.

We draw life from the heart of battle, a dopamine helix that propels us forward, breathing air into our days like a bellows. Some Buddhists say that anger is good when it is generative; if so, the warring to which we are addicted has enlivened us and built up our muscle memory, like the hands of a boxer. We bob and weave; we love and we loathe; we shout and whisper, and the next morning we do it all over again. Like tying our shoes or brushing our teeth or shaving one leg before the other, this is our ritual, our habit. We know no other way.

“What is your intoxicant of choice?” I was once asked at an AA meeting. I sat on a rusting beige metal folding chair in the basement of a white clapboard Congregational church in rural Connecticut, drinking cold coffee out of a Styrofoam cup. “Wine? Scotch? Beer before breakfast? Shopping? Porn?”

“My mother,” I whispered.

People shifted; they held their chins.

My mother.

Lead a simple life, a neurologist advises Joan Didion in The White Album, when she begins in middle age to suffer from a nervous disorder with symptoms she describes as being usually associated with telethons. Not that it makes any difference we know about, the doctor adds. Leading a simple life may be nothing more than placebo, a psychogenic bandage under which one is able to catch one’s breath and find one’s footing. I’d moved to the country because I’d fallen in love with someone who lived there, but also to find the peace that I had so longed for; I fled my hometown of ten million for a village of three thousand. I was settled, but also easily startled, like a battle veteran returning to the suburbs from the front. Instead of spending my days traversing Manhattan in stony silence, my mother’s delicate arm hooked in mine as we gazed into the shop windows along Madison Avenue, I worked in my windowed basement office that looked out onto Susan’s shed, blanketed with the white Pierre de Ronsard climbing roses we’d planted the summer before I left the city. We spent days together, side by side in our overgrown garden; I pulled weeds in dazed shock. My sleep began to grow fitful and my hands trembled when I drank my morning coffee. Where my mother had regularly called me four or five times every day and often waited for me to get home from work in my apartment building lobby, we now spoke only morning and night and saw each other every other week. Bitter recriminations flew. How could I have left? When was I coming back? How dare I go. While Susan slept soundly next to me in our bed two hours away from everything I’d once known, I was jolted awake at 3:23 every morning, sweaty and disoriented, my heart pounding hard as though I’d been grabbed by the shoulders and shaken from a night terror. I would scuttle down the stairs to the kitchen and pour myself a small juice glass of red wine, which I’d drink while sitting on the couch in the dark next to the dog.

Wine had become a third party, a witness, a fly on my wall. The fiercer the battles with my mother, the deeper my thirst; the more wine I had, the more firmly I held my ground. My father, divorced from my mother after sixteen years of marriage, had introduced me to French Burgundies during our custodial weekends alone together. At fifteen, I furtively sipped his glasses of Gevrey-Chambertin between bites of cassoulet at fancy Manhattan restaurants, and the world was serene. With my mother, I drank either to sleep or to get drunk, to dull the blade, and the world got angry. Awakened in the middle of every night, I became an insomniac; I needed a fix. I poured myself a small glass, sat on the couch, and called her to make sure that we were okay.

It was not the alcohol to which I was addicted; it was she, and together we fed on our affection and rage like buttered popcorn. I suckled on my mother’s beautiful fury; it fed me and nourished me. We clung to the silent compact that neither of us would ever abandon the other, no matter what.

Until I did.

I had the audacity to leave New York City for good, to find love and happiness elsewhere. To make a home and family at which she was not at the center. To leave her for another woman.

It had been a choice: my mother’s life, or my own.

- About the author -

Elissa Altman is the author of the critically-acclaimed memoir Poor Man's Feast, and the James Beard Award-winning blog of the same name. She writes the Washington Post column, Feeding My Mother, and her work has appeared everywhere from O, The Oprah Magazine and Tin House to the New York Times, and has been anthologized for five consecutive years in Best Food Writing. She lives in Connecticut with her family.

More from Elissa Altman

Motherland

A Memoir of Love, Loathing, and Longing

Buy

Motherland

— Published by Ballantine Books —