On obligation, love, death and ambivalence
By Lynne Tillman
Illustrated. 161 pages. Smooth skull. $23.
Care work—caring for the sick, the very young, or the very old—has long been denied the kind of recognition (and pay) it deserves. so essential work deserves. Activists have argued that society should treat it as a social goodgiving people the time and resources to care for their loved ones as needed.
But there is still the stubborn fact that for some people and some relationships, caregiving will always feel like a burden, no matter how assiduously one tries to manage it. In “Mothercare,” novelist and critic Lynne Tillman offers a startling account in her direct, even brutal, rejection of sentimentality. “Handling Mom’s body violated her and me,” Ella Tillman writes, recalling how she would help her mother use her toilet next to her bed. “Carrying it full from her bedroom to the bathroom and throwing it out of her disgusted me. He was gagging, and that never stopped.”
“Mothercare” takes place 11 years after the end of 1994, when Tillman’s mother began to show signs of dementia. Tillman and his siblings hired a series of full-time caregivers, the last one living with his mother for a decade. The book is mostly made up of personal recollections, but Tillman occasionally offers some explicit words of guidance for anyone who might be in a similar situation. On finding a doctor: “Do what you must to get what you need: careful attention, a listener (you should also listen well), genuine consideration, openness, and truthfulness.” On handling a doctor’s assumptions: “They can determine your charge’s ability to improve, get the right treatment,” because “a doctor’s expectations can help or hurt your charge.”
“Your charge”: It’s a useful term for Tillman, one she uses repeatedly, connoting duty but not affection. She says that she did not love her mother, although she sometimes tried to imagine that she did, clinging to an illusion to cope. She cites an email to a doctor in which she refers to “mom”, but in this book her mother is invariably “mother”; the formality suits the woman of Tillman’s memories: practical, competent, orderly. “She had respect for her intelligence or her cunning and practicality,” writes Tillman, in an attempt to give her mother her due. “From the age of 6, I didn’t like my mother, but I didn’t want her to die.”
He didn’t wish her ill either, but illness was not something Tillman, though “conscious of death and dying from the age of 5”, would have given much thought. Her mother had always been an athletic person, whose physical stamina was so tough that she persisted beyond her will to live. When she began to say she wanted to die, Tillman didn’t try to cheer her up, knowing her mother would have scoffed at anything but the stark truth: “You will when the time is right, your body isn’t ready yet and I’ll do it.” I feel.”
Tillman is the youngest of three sisters, but “Mothercare” suggests there’s not necessarily safety in numbers: “When multiple adults are in charge, a hell of resentment and conflict can overwhelm the operation.” Tillman refers to “the sister from New York” and “the sister from Carolina”: her identities as characters are determined by her proximity to the events. Tillman and her mother also lived in New York; when she wasn’t teaching, Tillman worked at home, so she was tasked with picking things up and dropping them off at her mother’s house, fulfilling a real need in the most literal sense, even if she couldn’t help but feel as if her own life , his real life, was situated elsewhere. “As I walked away from Mom’s apartment, I breathed in air that wasn’t hers,” she writes. “That felt free.”
Any freedom was made possible by Frances, an undocumented woman from the Caribbean who worked as a live-in caregiver for Mom and was never paid more than $640 a week. “She loved my mother,” Tillman writes. “Mom loved Frances.” Frances had her own share of problems, but Tillman depended too much on her to see them. Frances in turn depended on Tillman. “She becomes part of the family, inevitably, though she never really is, because she can get fired,” Tillman writes. Where another writer might look in the most flattering light, Tillman is candid about the power she knew she had: “I was aware of it, but I didn’t give up my privilege.”
What she feels now, after having written this book, is exposed. Although one of her novels (“American Genius: A Comedy”) is about a woman whose mother is brain-damaged, Tillman says that looking out from behind the fictional fabric “is strange to me, very uncomfortable, even disturbing.” For his fiction, he can use the experience, but not her “feelings”. She confesses that she is mourning the death of her father but not that of her mother. Her mother spoke reverently about her own mother, but Tillman didn’t buy it: “Someone whose mother loved her, I felt, whose mother was perfect, whatever she was, she wouldn’t treat her own children like mom did. That’s what I thought and think.”
There’s something surprisingly retrograde about Tillman’s intergenerational maternal guilt, but I suppose there’s also something revealing. About six weeks before she died, Tillman’s mother told her, “If she wanted to be, she would have been a better writer than you.” It’s a hurtful comment, which is what Tillman interprets as (“mean,” “pathetic”). But the rest of this book suggests that Tillman is too aware of ambiguity and ambivalence to reduce her mother to that caricature, rounding her out with a fuller portrait, almost in spite of herself.
Elsewhere in “Mothercare,” we see glimpses of a woman taking painting lessons, scribbling her diary in shorthand pads, writing short stories about her cat. It was only after Tillman was a teenager and her older sisters were out of the house that her mother had time to herself. Could the “relentless rivalry” that Tillman attributes to a “selfish” and “competitive” mother be read differently as the dire consequences of her mother’s repressed creativity, her frustrated ambition?
“I didn’t know her,” Tillman writes at the end, coming close to admitting that his mother may have been more than the simple narcissist the wounded Tillman needs to think she was. “After writing this, I can only speculate.”