The Problem With Mothers and Daughters

In new books, the writers Elizabeth McCracken and Lynne Tillman look back at the fraught ends of their mothers’ lives.

Woman holding older women's hand
Paul Fusco / Magnum

The evening before my mother slipped into the fugue state she was in until she died, I said goodnight with my usual “I love you, Mom.” “But do you?” she murmured. “Of course I do,” I said, automatically. And that was that, her one invitation to have that conversation, declined.

But what should I have said? “I admire you”? It was true. “It’s complicated”? Also true. A lot of things were true. There was love, anger, guilt, regret. How much truth does a dying woman need to hear? The mother-daughter relationship is complicated, and deathbed scenes don’t lend themselves to nuanced expression. Parent memoirs have become so common that we may fail to appreciate the challenge that the novelists Elizabeth McCracken (the author of witty novels and stories and a heartbreaking memoir about a stillborn son) and Lynne Tillman (an edgy, cerebral novelist and critic) took on in their recent books. In both McCracken’s The Hero of This Book and Tillman’s Mothercare: On Obligation, Love, Death, and Ambivalence, daughters try to transcribe the discordant emotions provoked by a mother’s decline and death.

The two works differ in genre and tone. McCracken has written a novel of sorts, Tillman a straightforward memoir. McCracken’s narrator radiates love for her mother, a feisty enthusiast with untamable curls who is indeed the hero of her book. Tillman professes a cold rage; her mother was high-handed and withholding. But both authors are at war with themselves in revealing and instructive ways.

“About my mother’s feet, I could write volumes,” says the narrator of McCracken’s novel—and she does. The narrator may or may not be McCracken’s stand-in; the author likes to bat at the line between fiction and fact like a cat attacking string. But like McCracken, she’s a warm and charming raconteur, a writer and teacher of writing with many means at her disposal for conveying affection. “Don’t forget your characters’ physical selves,” she tells her students. If you know a character’s feet, she says, “you may know her soul.” Her mother’s were “small and weird and dear,” and indeed, those are good words for the woman herself.

Tillman is harder-pressed to find the right words. She tells her story drily, almost grudgingly, like a resistant therapy patient.  “Mother had been the opposite of a loving, caring mother,” she says. “Anything I gave her was more than she deserved.” She catches herself and adds: “That sounds awful.” It does. Or rather, it sounds very painful. Tillman and her two sisters spent 11 “maddening” years, as she characterizes them, caring for their more and more confused parent in her Manhattan apartment, managing a team of  “doctors, companions, aides, physical therapists, and other professionals.” Tillman offers up her recollections as a “cautionary tale.” She wants to make adult children aware of the moral and psychological ambiguities of elder care, which can be “a grueling obligation.”

Happily for the readers, Tillman is too layered to be an Everywoman. Her attempt to package her experience as an advice book has the feel of what Freud called secondary revision, the effort to master chaotic psychic material by shoehorning it into a reasonable-sounding narrative. But Tillman’s own unprocessed intensity leaks through. None of the sins that she attributes to her mother seem quite commensurate with the fury she expresses about her. We hear of praise withheld, criticism volunteered. The mother once told Tillman’s husband, a musician, “Your instrument doesn’t play the melody.” She competed with her daughter, in her own mind, at least. She greets the news that Tillman has won a Guggenheim fellowship by saying, “If I had wanted to be, I would have been a better writer than you.” Tillman considers the remark typically Mother—“mean-spirited, revealing, pathetic.” But Mother utters it six weeks before she dies, after years of cognitive decline; it seems equally possible that it was the dementia talking. Or maybe disinhibition released a preexisting meanness. Who knows?

Not Tillman. She’s so all over the place that when she insists she feels nothing for her mother, we suspect the opposite, that she can’t tolerate a longing she perceives as unrequited. Why did she waste all those years taking care of her mother, Tillman wonders repeatedly, apparently not realizing that she’s already answered the question. She did it to show her: “I wanted to behave as I wished she had toward me.” Playing the role of caregiver also let her soothe herself with make-believe, as perhaps she had as a child: “Sometimes I imagined I loved her, she loved me. Illusions helped me cope.”

The protagonist of McCracken’s novel juggles contradictions, too, but with a surer hand, plus her mother is easier to mourn. In 2019, the narrator (we never learn her name) travels to London, where her rambles through the city awaken memories of a London vacation with her mother three years earlier. Her mother never had full use of her legs—she walked with canes, and by the end was riding a scooter. As a result, on that previous trip, the narrator hadn’t taken her mother on the London Eye, an enormous ferris wheel that is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, even though she adored amusement parks and rides. Now the daughter boards one of the Eye’s giant cars and realizes that she made a mistake. Her mother could have driven right in on her scooter. So this is grief, she thinks, the apprehension of what could have been: “I could feel my mother’s joy on the London Eye, her love of heights and good views.”

Not all her memories of her mother are sweet. The narrator had paid for the whole trip herself because her mother believed (incorrectly) that her husband’s death left her strapped for money—and the narrator had wanted her mother to brag to strangers about “how her daughter had spoiled her.” But that was just vanity, she chides herself, and besides, her mother “was not a natural kveller.” Energetic, interested in everything, she was often preoccupied: “There was always something that needed her attention.” That’s fine, the daughter adds. The benign neglect meant that the mother left the daughter’s mind alone, never trying “to tidy things up, to hide the bad thoughts and plump up the good.”

Sometimes the daughter lays on the forgiveness so thick that we have the urge to scrape it off to see if we can get at the more problematic feelings that are surely underneath. But the author is ahead of us. She’s found an elegant way to show us those more fraught emotions: a housecleaning scene that evokes— intentionally, I think—the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. In that book,  Knausgaard clears out his father’s house after the man effectively kills himself with drink, hauling away an unimaginably putrid mess. McCracken’s narrator’s task is much less Augean. Her father and mother—the mother is still alive, and looks on—were pack rats, not late-stage alcoholics. Still, the linoleum tiles in the kitchen have long since disappeared under layers of filth. “Mother couldn’t clean,” writes McCracken, and “my father wouldn’t.” Mounds of junk come down from the top of a cabinet, Le Creuset pans from the late 1970s, enamelware received as a wedding present in 1959, all coated in “the dense gray matter that accumulates in an old house with cats in it, opaque and oddly damp.” She throws out moldy cheese and corroded batteries, contemplates rooms filled waist-high with crap. Her mother is uncooperative. The daughter finds three waffle irons on the kitchen counter. “You don’t need three waffle irons,” she says; her parents never even ate breakfast at home. “I make waffles all the time,” her mother says. “Put them back.”

It is disturbing to handle stuff that parents can’t or won’t, to root around in the waste products of parental dysfunction. Willfully ignored, the house had become “monstrous”: “It had eaten my parents and was digesting them.” And yet doing battle with monsters is an inescapable part of elder care. Ministering to mothers, to bodies that were once all-powerful and the source of everything good but are now reduced to helplessness, is particularly scary, or at least very eerie. When Tillman wipes her mother’s bottom and washes her genitals and breasts, she feels that it betrays “an unspoken order,” she writes. It’s a “transgression.”

The Bible speaks of uncovering parents’ nakedness, that is, dishonoring them, usually through a disgraceful sexual act; it can be a capital offense. But publishing parental secrets is also a transgression. Tillman ignores the issue. McCracken addresses it by coyly fudging the truth-value of her book. The narrator insists she’s writing a novel. “I am not a memoirist,” she says. “I don’t write autofiction,” she adds. Two chapters later, though, she backpedals with what sounds like a confession: “If you want to write a memoir without writing a memoir, go ahead and call it something else.” The only proposition the narrator is ultimately willing to commit to is that her story is simultaneously fictional and true to life, and even then she qualifies the assertion with the classic liar’s paradox: “The fictional me is unmarried, an only child, childless. The actual me is not. (The fictional me is the narrator of this book. The actual me is the author. All Cretans are liars; I myself am a Cretan.)”

A good quarter of this book is given over to such metanarrative reflections. Are they necessary? Apparently yes, because they seem to calm her conscience. “My mother would hate me saying any of this,” she writes. Her parents thought that “if what you had to say about your life impinged on the privacy of others, then you shouldn’t say it.” Moreover, the real McCracken seems to have promised her real mother not to put her in a book. We know this, or think we know this, because, in another metafictional tease, the author has used as her frontispiece the photograph of an inscription written in a copy of her first book. It reads: “For Mom—whose life history I will continue to mine, but who will never—no matter what she or anybody else thinks—appear as a character in my work,” signed, “Love, Elizabeth, Mother’s Day, 1993.” If the mother in The Hero of This Book is more or less made up, Elizabeth has kept her word, sort of. If the mother is her mother, Elizabeth has broken it. Putting the status of the work in question somehow makes her less culpable.

Real or imagined, McCracken’s mother is a great character. Tillman’s might have been too, if her daughter hadn’t felt the need to keep her distance. Tillman’s mother, Sophie Merrill, grew up Jewish on the Lower East Side and made herself all-American; her grammar was perfect, she dressed fashionably, she loved horseback riding, tennis, “roughhousing on the beach.” An especially endearing fact about her is that one of the great loves of her life was a cat named Griselda. She had to give Griselda away after the cat killed Tillman’s parakeet. Sophie never stopped grieving. “I awoke at 2:30 am with but one thing on my mind—Griselda,” she wrote in a diary that Tillman found after her mother died. “So many years had passed and I still think of her.”

The mother in The Hero of this Book—unnamed until the end; withholding names is another way McCracken blurs the boundary between life and art—was born in a “whistle-stop” town in Iowa to Eastern European Jews who ran a clothing store. They were Reform Jews “of the melting pot variety”; she went to Hebrew school, which the narrator did not. She was disabled (“she disliked the word,” notes her daughter) and indefatigable. She fell constantly but walked everywhere, refusing to let her lack of mobility limit her. She worked at Boston University (she had a doctorate), and she was once invited to a meeting on campus accessibility. She showed up late and apologized politely: “She’d had to crawl up the front stairs on her hands and knees, because while there were elevators inside the building, there was no accessible entrance from the street.”

Both mothers had unfulfilled artistic ambitions, which may be why both had literary daughters. Tillman’s mother longed to write or paint but married and moved to the suburbs instead. The mother in McCracken’s book made it to New York to try her hand at directing plays for a while.

But no matter how vivid the depictions, a dead mother looms too large in a daughter’s psyche to be contained by them. “My mother. My flesh-and-blood mother, who cannot be represented” in any genre, autobiography or fiction, “not even this sentence I’m currently typing,” McCracken writes. There are too many questions the mother can no longer answer, too many actions and reactions that were not and now will never be recorded. Just about every day I think about the stories I heard for the first time at my mother’s funeral, the affection and respect shown by colleagues and friends that would have made it easier for me to appreciate her when she was alive, and tell her so. McCracken articulates this kind of regret very well: “The afterworld was made of the things I could not buy my mother,” she writes, “a charged net of things she could never possess.” Moreover, unresolved issues stay unresolved forever. Anyone who thinks otherwise is naive. Tillman describes a brief moment of rapprochement in the hospital—her mother strokes her cheek and sighs—a moment she writes about, she says, “with some reservations.” Uncompromising to the last, she continues, “Her tender gesture can be interpreted variously.” But she never reveals what those interpretations might be.

“The dead have no privacy left, is what I’ve decided,” McCracken writes. “Somebody else might decide otherwise, that the only thing the dead have left is privacy.” I think I’m a somebody else. The dead have too much privacy for my taste. When my mother departed this world, she took with her too many undivulged memories and unrealized possibilities. I don’t know whether I’ll ever forgive myself for letting her get away with them. But McCracken and Tillman have done their best with what their mothers left behind, and, as psychologists sometimes say of mothering they approve of, that’s good enough.