Writers on Writing #75: Molly Howes
Mom at MacDowell
Maybe it was finally having time, at my first writers’ residency, time to fall under the spell of my own rhythm. Maybe it was the other artists assuming I was capable, just because of my presence in the colony. Maybe it was the piano, a giant, black specter with a too-wide, white grin.
I began to find my story in a new way.
I’ve been working on my memoir for years now, constructing many models and frames for the book. I am not searching for the actual events; I know the essential facts of the story and I can render it in a coherent, often interesting way. What I’ve been searching for is the story that brings what happened to life, that gives it urgency and meaning, that takes it into the realm of the universal.
My story is the tale of a “temporary orphan,” a child (me) who spent three years living in an orphanage while her mother went to New York City to play the piano. I would say my mother’s primary relationship was with the piano, although she had five children and, for a while, a husband. His death, when I was three years old, robbed her of stability and led her to a long, mostly unsuccessful search for balance.
I have fiercely resisted the sense that I was writing a book about my mother, even though most readers have – annoyingly – found her fascinating. Indeed, I thought I could safely avoid dealing with her by writing the orphanage story, in which, by definition, she would be absent. But an absent parent looms very large in a child’s mind. My relationship with the mother I carried in my mind and my faith in that made-up mother were the pillars of my survival through those years. They continued to uphold my view of her well into my twenties, when I should have known better, but then they crashed down hard, leaving our relationship in rubble. It’s the painful realizations and bitter boundary-building of my adulthood, not her earlier abandonment, that has kept my heart hardened to her these last decades.
Recently, though, I found myself in a cozy cabin studio (at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire) containing a small desk and a very large piano. Relishing the time to wade into my book, I tried to ignore the looming piano. I closed the top, so the keys weren’t evident, but it still lurked there, next to my right shoulder, barely out of my line of vision. I turned the desk at an angle, away, and painstakingly retrieved the bits of my book I’d scattered throughout my journals and Word files over the past few years, trying to create a clearer narrative. At the end of ten days, I was surprised to discover that most of the orphanage scenes I wanted to include were at least partially written. I felt like I’d reached the end of a particularly arduous, vexing leg of a long race: Spent, but happy.
The next morning, I turned toward the rougher portion of the book, the biographical digression. This is the part where the author steps back from the primary narrative, to provide essential background information. Maybe the piano-ghost was getting to me: I opened a new document and tried to imagine writing about my mother’s story in a different way – at least dispassionately, if not compassionately. I couldn’t quite do it, but I began to write about her challenges as a young woman, long before she had children, who loved music and playing the piano. I found this excavating work exhausting and the result was unimpressive. I was relieved when lunch arrived in its little basket and I closed the crummy document.
I had brought with me a taped-up box of my mother’s music, which had come to me after she died twelve years ago. I hadn’t been able to go through it, but I had recently realized that my niece, a piano teacher herself, would be the proper keeper of her grandmother’s compositions. The box was heavy and I had procrastinated sorting through its contents so I could mail her the relevant, salvageable sheet music. After lunch on that gorgeous autumn day, I propped open the door for the freshened, cool breeze, and sat on the floor by the piano bench. I cut open the box, with no idea what I would find.
On top was a ream of carbon copies of old letters and pieces of music she’d submitted to publishers, amidst lists of various publishers and agents. The skin of my scalp and the back of my neck prickled. The lists, even the handwriting, looked eerily familiar, similar to the list of my own submissions that I keep in the top file on my desk: the various publications where I’ve submitted pieces of my writing. By my standards, her cover letters stank, filled with way too much irrelevant information about her. I felt a pang of sympathy; she hadn’t had the kind of coaching I’ve gotten from writing teachers, mostly at Grub Street (the writers center in Boston). She had been on her own. I felt grateful, as I often do, for the extensive support I’ve had since I began trying to be a writer. Even the leisure I now had to explore her music felt like a gift, a lucky treasure.
Below the letters and lists came several notebooks filled with songs. Most of the books were duplicates of two volumes of original compositions, one labeled “original Christian” and the other “original songs.” Much of the sheet music had been hand lettered and many pages were protected by plastic sleeves. I glanced through the more recent Christian ones, reading some of the lyrics and recognizing familiar lines of the faithful. In the other, original popular songs book, I was surprised to see that the first ones were dated in the 1940s, when she had been a very young woman, barely out of college. The very first one was about New England seasons. In the midst of spectacular New England weather at that very moment, I had to open up the baby grand piano and pick out the tune. I sang the words of a sweet evocation of spring’s brevity.
Even as a young girl, when I had to reach up to the keyboard, I had liked to sit on her piano bench and pretend to translate musical notations into particular piano keys. I would read the lyrics and sing the songs if I knew the tune. When I learned to read music, as a grade-school flute player and could actually find the right keys, I leafed through her fake books, the extensive compilations of popular songs, and learned both songs I’d heard her play and songs I’d never heard before. I only sat there when she wasn’t home, though. She couldn’t even tolerate my practicing the flute at home, because it troubled her ears so painfully to hear a wrong note.
At MacDowell, after I found that first song about the spring, I scanned each sheet for its date, hoping to find songs written while we were in the Home, in case they could teach me more about her life during our long separation. I didn’t find any. I recognized some of her songs, ones I’d heard or even sung myself. But many were completely unfamiliar to me. Among the ones I’d never seen before, I was surprised to discover a song she’d written to me.
When I was a mother of two young children, we’d had a contentious visit, after which she’d written “One More Try,” but she’d never sent it to me. In it, she asked me to try again to “break the chain,” by which I knew she meant the long line of bad relationships between mothers and daughters that had haunted our family. At that big, black piano, I played and sang that song, too, through the verses (which were not as positive, nor as simply inviting as the main message, because she was ever a complicated person).
Touching the keys, hearing her song in my voice, I could imagine her returning home, feeling a little lonely after visiting me; I could picture her at the piano in the sunny front room of our last house; I could hear her start and stop, as I was doing, repeating a musical phrase, and then jotting it down in front of her. I had to sing her words slowly, so my fingers could catch up with notes and chords. I had to repeat her wish, in the first person, for me to make things better between us. I had to soften my memories of that time, as I took in parts of hers. I played several more of her songs that long afternoon, till the room got chilly, the shadows lengthened and my untrained throat was sore. I sorted one set of the music to send to my niece, setting aside a copy of all the songs to keep.
A brief, biographical digression in this essay: My mother came from a long line of women who didn’t feel accepted by their mothers. The generations zigzag, with apparent opposites rejecting each other, only to have the next daughters continue the cycle. I had thought that the best way to break the chain was to be a good mother. My own grown daughter and I have a largely positive relationship.
My mother’s song message, coming to me now, just as I had just begun trying to write about her in what could be called a kinder way, seemed to signal that I was on the right track. The next day, I began again to try to find her in the words I wrote: I imagined her as a young wife, how she felt about her husband, and particularly how intensely she fell in love with her first baby. I wrote about her as the woman she might have been, on the inside, not the mother who abandoned and mistreated me. It was a morning when “my pen was on the scent” (Virginia Woolf), when I knew I was following a promising vein of ore, when I was afraid to leave the studio and break the spell.
Looking up from the keyboard, I noticed the two deer who often hung around, munching the still verdant underbrush in front of the studio’s big window. This artists’ colony had spread before me one moment of abundant natural beauty after another, in addition to the glorious expanse of time and inspiring fellow colonists. What if my mother had had an opportunity like this? What if she’d had enough time and freedom to be an artist? What if she’d had enough money and a room of her own? At that moment, I felt more generous toward her than I had in a very long time, wishing she’d been able to have what her heart most desired.
The grip I’d held tightly for twenty-five years was beginning to loosen. Being a good mother has changed part of the intergenerational pattern, but it isn’t enough. Being a good daughter, now, to my mother, may be necessary, too. I don’t mean that in the conventional sense; I was a good daughter in most ways when she was alive. I mean that she engaged in bitter, mental arguments with her own mother, for as long as she herself lived; her resentment never released her. I wonder if I can find that release for us, at least on the page. I wonder if I can try to love her now, in a more balanced way than I could when she was alive. I wonder if, dare I say it, I can forgive her.
Molly Howes lives in the Boston area and has recently completed a first draft of her memoir, The Temporary Orphan: A Tale of Invisible Wounds and Invisible Grace. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the New York Times "Modern Love" column, the Boston Globe Magazine, WBUR Cognoscenti (also read on "Morning Edition"), the Bellingham Review, and the Tampa Review. She was MacDowell Fellow in 2013.