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Circling My Mother By Mary Gordon


“In the last years of her life,” Mary Gordon writes about her mother, “she was, in her wretchedness, my tormentor. Her body tortured me: the sight of it, its smell. Living, she was a torturer, and now, among the dead, she is entirely innocent.”
We’re not going to hear polite and uplifting words from Mary Gordon, we’re going to hear some bitter truths: how her mother’s dementia wore both of them out for a decade and more, how the author visited her in her nursing home once a week, when she was able, and how in the end even that was sometimes impossible for her.

My response to Mary Gordon is almost always, I would feel that way too.
Circling My Mother is a memoir of Anna Gagliano Gordon’s life. The middle passage is incisive and beautifully delivered—but because of my own experience, it was the start and the end of the book that threw me to the floor, with their direct and sometimes brutal descriptions of how far the author’s mother had come apart. There are times when I’ve heard enough about the nobility and subtle rewards of caregiving, when I want to read about those emotions I sometimes felt around my own father: the rejection, the disgust, the fear, the dark horror of watching someone’s mind disappear.
What always wins me in a book, whether cheerful or desperate, is good writing. I love Mary Gordon’s prose. Here she is on her grandparents: “I think there is a conviction, hoarded like a shameful and yet valuable secret in the breasts of Irishwomen, that men are something of a luxury item. This is the way my grandfather was regarded. My grandmother was reason; he was emotion—expressive, affectionate, impulsive, fastidious, with a famously bad temper that was here and gone like a summer storm. He was five foot six; she was five foot eleven. I think a great deal must have followed from that.”
Gordon can be sprightly and delightful. But when her mother declines, when the scene is degrading, when Gordon stumbles, we can trust her candor.
She writes: “I wasn’t with my mother when she died, because I didn’t live with her. I didn’t live with her because I could not. Because she was, to me, unbearable. My mother died alone.”
Yet this is a book of devotion. The author wants to tell her mother: “Do you see that what I am doing is a kind of prayer? Adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, supplication. I am writing about you to witness to the mystery of an impossible love. I am sorry for the exposure this entails.”
If we are all to learn something, we must have the exposure. Gordon worries about it, but I’m uplifted by it, in every shining and sometimes sordid detail.
Circling My Mother at an independent bookstore near you

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