I was three when my biological mother left me. I don’t remember her leaving. I don’t recall a feeling of loss. I remember a book from my childhood, Are you My Mother? A baby bird hopped between animals asking, “Are you my mother?’ The baby bird finally ended up before a giant, mechanical crane. Gazing up at it the baby bird asked, “Are you my mother?” The impossibility of it. Naivete and wonder. She could have been anyone, my mother.
First there was my grandmother. After my biological mother left, and my father needed time and space to finish graduate school, I lived with my grandparents. I called my grandmother “Mama Bear.” She used to read me Goldilocks & the Three Bears. I referred to myself as the Baby Bear rather than Goldilocks who was an intruder.
Second was my beautiful stepmother, now a pilot and painter and always a kind and patient woman who endured my thirteen-to-twenty-five-year-old bullshit all those years, who’s still here. It took me too long to feel grateful to her because I was a selfish child who felt she hadn’t gained a mother but lost her father instead.
You know how we all take off on these ape-shit-go-wild journeys of self-exploration? My stepmother’s steadfast presence was the difference between me fucking up completely and me merely learning the hard way.
I was twenty-one when I landed my first modeling contract. My agent, Joni, was mother-like because she was protective; she insisted on poise. Hold your chin up.
My agent after that wasn’t exactly mother-like, but she guided my career as far as we could take it. She also set an example for me to follow later as a solo mother.
In strip clubs, various women came in and set up house in the locker room; we tipped them for their shoulder-to-cry-on, their food, their sewing skills and perfume.
In college, Renee Ruderman was like a mother to me. Before Anne Lamont, she taught me every first attempt was a shitty first draft, that it was necessary. Writing was messy. She tried to warn me, but I earned my MFA anyway and believed I’d make a living in academia. Still, her dedication to poetry, the process, tireless, instilled in me.
When teaching didn’t provide a livable salary and health insurance, my former boss Christi did. She wasn’t old enough to be my mother, but she provided an alternate path to follow professionally, and she used to give me her old clothes. I still wear her suede jacket.
My best friend, Judy, isn’t old enough to be my mother, more like an older sister to me. Know what I’ve learned from her? Laughter. Resilience. You should see her smile.
Roxane Gay isn’t old enough to be my mother either, but I refer to her as my “fairy godmother.” She’s making my wish come true.
When I was twenty-one, I went looking for my biological mother. What I found wasn’t what I wanted. You’re not my mother. Last year, she killed herself with meth. I hadn’t spoke to her in nine years. I learned from a stranger on Facebook she was dead. What was I supposed to do? She put drugs before everything. I was three when she left. To this day I can’t recall a feeling of loss. My mother’s gone. Still, I walked around with a metaphorical gunshot wound. It’s a hole a collective of women fill.
Jennifer, Ethel, Shanna, Brenda, Nikki, Pam, Antonia, Milcah, Emily, Heather, LaBecca.Â Thank you.
Yesterday on Facebook, I linked the Literary Arts page in which The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch is listed as a finalist for the Oregon Book Award for Creative Non-Fiction. In the comment bar I wrote, “Lidia Yuknavitch must win . . . or I’ll chew my arm off.”
I wasn’t thinking about it but remembered. My son and I watched a movie, Soul Surfer, about a young woman who lost her arm. A shark bit her arm off. She was a surfer who had to learn to surf again minus an arm. My son said, “If I had to lose a limb, and could chose, I’d want to lose a leg, not an arm.” My son’s reason was he couldn’t draw as well with one arm. How would he be an architect, a graphic illustrator, an artist with one arm? That was his reasoning. So I imagined myself here typing missing an arm.
Lidia Yuknavitch is a metaphorical arm.
Women writers give other women permission to write. They tell us, write. Urge us, write. Show us how to do it.Â The Chronology of Water empowered me the same way it empowered thousands of women writers. Lidia Yuknavitch loves women.Â We know that. We’ve responded. We’ve joined the conversation. Carry on.
Last week, I wrote a letter to Marie Calloway.Â A week later, Antonia Crane wrote her own letter to Marie. Then another woman contacted me and said she was writing a letter too. It’s as big as women can take it. The conversation, I mean, the writing. Echoes. Ripples. Butterfly effect.
Marie is a catalyst. I think that’s something. Here’s something too. Marie Calloway isn’t her real name. She could be anyone, right? Universal?
Last week, a young woman responded to my letter to Marie Calloway. She addressed it to me with a “Dear . . . ” and incorporated my first line. “I’m no angel either.”Â Essentially, she threw it at me, the whole letter. Told me to stuff it. My sense is she wasn’t just speaking for herself. We never are. That same young woman referred to me as the “Mama Hen of the Indi-Lit Blogosphere.” Or maybe it was plural. I’m one in a hen house full of mama hens cluck-cluck-clucking.
Not a compliment, but I’ll keep it. Her letter, I mean.