The ProsenPeople

Jewish Mother vs Bad Mother

Thursday, January 09, 2014 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Lara Vapnyar wrote about how she finds location inspiration for her fictional characters. Her new novel, The Scent of Pine (Simon & Schuster), is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

There were two models for motherhood in my sprawling family: my great-great-aunt Riva and my great-grandmother Clara.

My great-great-aunt Riva was praised for being a true Jewish mother. There were many stories about her, but here is the most famous one. Once, at a dinner party, she brought in her infant son Abrasha to show him off to the guests. Little Abrasha promptly peed in her soup. She ate the soup.

“Riva ate that soup! That’s how much she loved her son!” my grandmother commented.

Needless to say, Abrasha grew up a mama’s boy. Never married. Never moved out from home.

My great-grandmother Clara on the other hand had many flaws. The biggest flaw was her selfishness. She would sneak out of the house, go to a farmer’s market, buy a quarter pound of cottage cheese and a few strawberries (an expensive delicacy in Russia) and indulge in them alone while sitting on a park bench.

“She ate them alone!” my grandmother lamented.

Ever since I was a small child I wondered which kind of mother I would become. I aspired to be a self-sacrificing Riva, but I worried that I’d end up like Clara. (I just loved good food too much.)

I think I became a mix of two. I’m very involved with my children (sometimes to the point of smothering), but I also have a life of my own, and I do indulge in sneaky pleasures. I still haven’t figured out the right amount of Rivaness or Claraness that would make an exceptionally good mother, but I tend to experiment with that in my fiction.

I create characters who follow either Riva’s or Clara’s model, push them to the brink of bad motherhood and see what happens. Let them figure it out. Nobody will suffer, except for their fictional children.

How much pleasure was allowed? Wasn’t too much sacrifice suffocating to the child? I certainly wasn’t a true Jewish mother by my family standards. And even though I denounced them in my head, I still felt a lot of guilt in my heart. I was uncomfortable and confused.

Then I came up with a solution. In my novel The Scent of Pine, the main character is an unhappily married mother of two. She loves her children, but she is longing to find love.

Let her figure it out.

Lara Vapnyar moved from Moscow to Brooklyn in 1994. Knowing very little English, she quickly picked up the language and soon began writing in it. She is the author of two story collections, There are Jews in My House and Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love, and two novels, Memoirs of a Muse and The Scent of Pine. She lives in New York City with her family.

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