Here's hope for moms with smirky teenagers

June 5, 2014 • Posted in memoir writing, Uncategorized by

The writers in the three memoir-writing classes I lead are between 55 and 95 years old. As far as I know, none of their mothers are still alive, so I wondered what their reaction would be when I gave my writing topic for Mother’s Day last month: One Thing I Didn’t like about My Mother.

“Only one thing?”” a few of them asked with a laugh. “You’re limiting us to one? Others fell on the other side of the spectrum. “I’m the victim of a happy childhood!” one likes to say. This second group didn’t think they could come up with anything they didn’t like about their mothers. Not one single thing.


All three of my memoir classses are on a short summer hiatus now –one class met at Anne and Bruce Hunt’s house Monday for our final session.

My writers aren’t quitters, though. They thought long and hard about this topic,<!–more–>

and so many of them came back with thoughtful, moving and sometimes funny essays that I had a hard time deciding which ones to highlight in this blog post.

I mean, sure, I got some angry essays, and some sad ones, too, but these memoirists are looking at things from an adult perspective now, and it was touching to hear how forgiving, or at least understanding, they are of their mothers.

Sheila and her siblings grew up with an abusive father, and as a child she always wondered why their mother didn’t stick up for them. “Growing up, I didn’t understand why she was so whiny and passive,” she wrote. “As an adult, I can better appreciate what might have made her that way.” Another writer only lived with her parents full-time until she was five years old. They were missionaries and left the United States to save souls on foreign continents when their daughter started school, leaving her behind at an American boarding school.

I assumed this writer would write that the thing she didn’t like about her mother was that she abandoned her. Instead, she wrote about how her upbringing left her strong and independent, and how a long and bitter divorce taught her that strength and independence isn’t necessarily a good thing. During divorce proceedings, she often wished she was helpless, the type who leans on others. “But that is not in my nature,” she wrote.  “Is this a gift or curse that my mother gave me? I don’t know. I am who I am.”

Some writers did choose not to write on this topic at all. One writer’s mother died when he was two days old. I suppose he could have written that he didn’t like her dying in childbirth, but he chose a more lighthearted topic: his mother-in-law!

Long before When Harry Met Sally came out, Kathy’s mother was using her own version of the movie’s famous line.” I’ll have what you’re having,” her mother would say, whether it be a take-out order, a dessert choice, a cup of tea, — almost anything, really. Her mother seemed incapable of making a choice, or perhaps she was afraid of making the wrong choice.

“Why should that bother me so much?” Kathy asked herself in the essay she wrote. “I loved my Mother.” As if to answer her own question, Kathy’s essay goes on from there, spelling out the cultural mores that shaped her mother. “Inez Tiller (Tillie, as she was called), born in 1906 in Tennessee, was shy, sweet, and obedient. She was subservient to parents and her confident older sister, Verlie. Decisions were made for her.”

All decisions except for one, that is. “She confided in me that Daddy never knew how she voted.” Kathy claims the implication was clear. “Inez Wright was a closet Democrat!”

Bruce’s family lived with his paternal grandmother from the time he was seven until he was 13, and they all sat down for formal dinner together each and every night. “The ritual typically began with my father’s making some outrageous claim,” he wrote. “No matter the claim, my mother would listen, wide-eyed and react with something like: ‘Really?’”

All this set off Bruce’s grandmother, a co-conspirator reinforcing his father’s claim with evidence from her own life. “The conversation would proceed with mother protesting from time to time: ‘How can that be?’ Or, ‘Is that possible?’ And occasional outbursts of ‘Really?’”

It wasn’t until the level of fantasy got totally bizarre that his mother would realize it had all been a fabrication. And then, as Bruce so eloquently phrases it, “The rest of us would smirk in a superior way.”

And so, parents of smirky teenagers, don’t despair – kids have been smirking at their parents for multiple generations! And who knows, maybe in 60 years your child will be like Bruce, writing a memoir about how he looks at his mother’s naïveté in a whole different way now.

“Her curse was that she was gullible, but that was her blessing too,” he wrote. His mother was a teacher, and her students, all kindergartners, were just beginning their educational journey. These children trusted Bruce’s mother, and she believed what others said. “She could not imagine a world where that was not the starting assumption,“ Bruce wrote in the conclusion to his essay. “Mother would not have understood the snarky banter of 21st century comedy and news analysis, but she helped a number of young people, including her son, be open to new truths, even when they might be embarrassing.”

So now, how about you? Anything you didn’t like about your mother? Vent about it here, in the comments. and oh, by the way, yes, you *do* have to limit it to just one thing!

Carla On June 5, 2014 at 11:13 am

One thing? Really!? I could write a book! But for now, I’ll sum it up with. “I’ll have what you’re having,”

mary kaye On June 5, 2014 at 11:16 am

Hi Beth — you asked — here it is — the one thing…
My mother was intent on my marrying. She sent me to Northwestern to nab a husband. I didn’t. My year-younger cousin announced her engagement and I had nothing to announce. Such a disappointment was I. Then I married (Oh happy day!) and now I am divorced ( Oh sad development). She was alive for the former and dead for the latter so I guess ultimately she was at peace as she lived out her life. My daughters married who and when they determined — the legacy my mother left in me.
Here’s to mothers no matter what they demand of their children.

bethfinke On June 5, 2014 at 12:39 pm

Thanks for this, Mary — Sounds like all this could make for a great 500-word essay — that’s the word limit I give writers in my classes!


mrayis On June 5, 2014 at 11:17 am

I just have one comment, Beth. I want to join your memoir writing class in the fall! Let me know the details, and I’m there.

bethfinke On June 5, 2014 at 12:43 pm

Are you serious? Two of my classes have openings for their summer sessions, too. Comment back to let me know if you want details on those, or else let me know if you need to wait until Fall. If you really are serious, that is. Gee, I sound like Bruce’s mother. Are you smirking in a superior way right now?!??


mrayis On June 5, 2014 at 2:14 pm

I would love to attend one of your summer sessions, Beth. Send me the details! I am totally serious – no smirking!

mrayis On June 5, 2014 at 11:18 am

BTW, I am working on a memoir with the main focus being my mothers (I’ve had two), so I doubt I could choose one thing.

bethfinke On June 5, 2014 at 12:46 pm

Oh, if you are already hard at work on a memoir I don’t know if my classes would work for you. I’m leading an afternoon workshop called “Getting Your Memoir Off the Ground” at Northwestern’s Summer Writer’s Conference in early August, maybe that’d suit you better? Let me know.


mrayis On June 5, 2014 at 2:16 pm

Maybe we should talk. Then I could tell you where I am with my memoir and you could decide what might benefit me the most. My home phone number is 630-455-4203. Or I could call you if you would prefer.

bethfinke On June 5, 2014 at 10:03 pm

Good idea! I’ll respond to your blog to try to set up a good time to talk.


Bruce Hunt On June 6, 2014 at 9:44 am

I love the way you caught the spirit of what I was trying to say. I also love the way I keep discovering patterns of my mother in my own life, both curses and blessings,, often the same habits. I think my mom would be pleased to be included, once she realized it was about her. Thanks, Bruce

bethfinke On June 6, 2014 at 11:03 am

Phew! Always a relief to hear I presented a talented writer the way I’d intended. Thanks for the comment, Bruce. And the essay!


glivingston On June 6, 2014 at 10:16 am

My mom was also a kindergarten teacher, though I do not think she was that gullible (maybe a little). I cannot think of much of anything I didn’t like about her, except maybe she didn’t live long enough to see her grandkids graduate from high school. She was great at her job of being a mom: kind, supportive, and a great cook, craftsperson and gardener, all things I aspire to now.

bethfinke On June 6, 2014 at 10:23 am

Well, you’re doing a pretty dang good job of living up to those aspirations Gretchen — you’re a kind and supportive mom, and while I can’t vouch for your cooking, I know from your knitting prowess that you are a talented craftsperson. Keep up the good work, my friend.


Annelore Chapin On June 6, 2014 at 4:41 pm

I am sorry to have missed that one, but maybe, just maybe I’ll get to take that chance and write about my mother. I lost her at age 11, even though she passed on when I was 14 … I was also a ‘victim of a wonderful childhood.’

bethfinke On June 6, 2014 at 11:51 pm

We miss you in class, Annelore –hope you return soon, I love hearing you read your stories.


Barbara Gaither On June 11, 2014 at 3:44 pm

I love this blog! The only thing I really didn’t like about my mother was the same thing that took her from me at too early of an age…she was a smoker and died of lung cancer when I was 34 (she was 66). She was nearly perfect in every other way and I miss her still. Though no mom is perfect, I hope someday my three children will remember me with even a glimmer of the same feelings I have/had for my own mother. My brother and I often say we won the parent lottery!!!

bethfinke On June 11, 2014 at 3:54 pm

Oh, Barbara, what a sweet note, and what a lovely sentiment you share with your brother. I don’t swear often, but…damn those cigarettes. Mike’s fireplug mother Esther smoked and died of emphysema. She’s still with us in the stories he tells about her, though…


Leave a Response