How to tell the story of a decades-long search for my mother? It has been the great puzzle of my life—how to find her, to understand her, to forgive her, to have whatever relationship might be available to us after everything that happened.
I’m grateful to Bryan Monte, editor of the journal Amsterdam Quarterly, for publishing my epistolary essay, “The Good Poetic Mother,” in November.
This piece didn’t have to be a series of letters, but it did need some kind of borrowed form. The hermit crab essay, as Randon Billings Noble says, is especially helpful when the writer needs a hard shell to contain especially tender material.
The hermit crab essay can take the form of letters (like mine, or Brenda Miller’s heartbreaking “We Regret to Inform You”), or a set of instructions (“Bodywash: Instructions on Surviving Homelessness” by Dorothy Bendel), or a course syllabus (Jill Talbot’s “The Professor of Longing”), or a medical information pamphlet (Kristine Jepson’s “Jaw Wiring: What You Need to Know”) or a list, or a recipe—you get the idea.
Writing about my mother naturally brought letters to mind, because so much of our relationship, such as it was, existed in correspondence.
I imagine writing to her from my father’s apartment in Washington, D.C. where my three sisters and I have been since the marriage, and then the custody arrangement, fell apart. My older sister is 16, I am 14, the little girls are seven and five. I am not sure where Mama is, have yet to hear of someone named Charles Bukowski, and for a while will continue to hope she might return.
I am fifteen when I receive a copy of Bukowski’s break-out book, It Catches My Heart in Its Hands, along with a note from the publisher, Jon Webb. I don’t know what to make of it—the volume is gorgeous, the poems anything but, and the personal inscription is incomprehensible. I imagine what I might have written to Mr. Webb.
More imagined letters in my essay show how after many years, much water under various bridges, and children of my own, I gradually reconnect with my mother.
I come to appreciate her poetry, go back and read from poetry journals she has sent me over the years. After Bukowski’s death she publishes two collections—Snaggletooth in Ocean Park and Amber Spider.
I look forward to her memoir, Grandma Stories. At last, my mother will fill in some of the missing pieces in my own life, and I will finally understand who she was, and thus who I am myself.
That long-awaited memoir turns out to be another setback.
The prose poems describe the most important events in her life. She is “Baby Grandma” in Maine, “Second Grade Grandma” in Brooklyn when her father falls ill, “Third Grade Grandma” in Lexington when he dies, “Soldier Grandma” as a WAC in World War II, and “Poet Grandma” when she arrives in Los Angeles, meets Charles Bukowski, and finds her own poetic voice.
But between the two final poems—”Rank, 1944″ and “New Life, 1963″—there is a gap of almost two decades.
She has written nothing of her marriage to my father, of the five states they lived in over the course of a dozen moves, and nothing of her first four daughters.
I am not in her book.
Shock, hurt, confusion—not for the first time. But having come this far, I can’t afford to waste time sulking. I will have to get her to talk to me—she’s getting old, her health is not good, and time, I know, is running out.
She does tell me the stories, and I will always be grateful, even though there are some that are painful to know.
She was a poet her entire life, and a prolific one. “My God, she wrote a lot!” said John Harris, a cofounder of a long-running Wednesday night poetry workshop L.A.’s Beyond Baroque literary center.
My mother’s final collection, Call, came out in the last year of her life.
She died June 2, 2009, at 87.
My mother’s memoir was about the life I never knew—the infant, the child, the young soldier, the Los Angeles poet who lived with Bukowski.
Mine is about everything she left out.