Judy Batalion is the author of White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess In Between. She is blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.
Let’s just say, I wasn’t eager to share my book with my mother. My mom was born in 1945 during my Bubbie’s return voyage from Siberian work camps to Poland, in Kirgizia, in a makeshift hospital staffed solely by a distracted janitor. Mom was a refugee before knowing what home was. She spent her formative years in Wroclaw and then Israel before settling in Canada. She was a depressed hoarder, filling our house with walls of tuna cans and thousands of videocassettes. My memoir explores my attempts to reconcile our complicated relationship and her pathologically messy home when I found out I was about to have a daughter myself.
I couldn’t shake a story I’d heard about a memoirist who showed her mother her manuscript; her mother was appalled, told her she could never publish it, then dropped dead the next day. My own mom’s mental state was increasingly fragile, her depression deepening, her suicidal threats frequent. She hadn’t left her house in years. I toyed with the idea of keeping my book a secret. But she used Google, and one day, outright asked to read it. I couldn’t deny her request. Last summer, when I was in Montreal — nearby in case of an emergency — I decided it was time.
I printed the pages, put them in a grocery bag, and left them in my car for 3 days. Then I handed them over. “This book is dedicated to you,” I said, leaning into her shrinking physique, the small, soft mass that overshadowed my entire life. “I tried to be honest. You should tell me if I wasn’t.”
Until three days later, when I was chasing kids in a berry orchard, and her number showed up. “I read your book.” Her voice was hushed, thin like candy paper. I felt the car keys in my pocket, knew I could get to her in 20 minutes. “The tone in Chapter 17 is really off.”
“Mom, I — ” Wait. What?
“I like how you braid together humor and pathos, but the comedy is jarring in that scene. You lose emotional impact.”
I was shocked, relieved, delighted and confused. I wrote a whole book about her emotional states and that was her response? But I reminded myself that we’d always connected through literature. As a kid, most of our conversations ended in tears and slams, but I cherished memories of us laughing together as she unpacked Amelia Bedilia puns. When I left home, we developed a nurturing long-distance rapport analyzing my romances on an Aiden/Mr. Big scale (it was the ‘90s). A few years earlier, she’d read a short piece of mine about her hoarding. “How could I not have known how much this affected you?” she’d said. “Now I understand.”
“Thanks, Mom,” I now said, realizing she was right about Chapter 17.
When I left Montreal, Mom handed me back my pages — with notes. (And I’d thought it was stressful opening mark-ups from an editor!) After another few days in the plastic bag, I glimpsed them to find just a few comments. One was an explanation about her behavior on a particular day, about how her absence had been in attempt to help me, not a withdrawal. Sitting there, clutching the sheets that her fingers had also grazed, I thought about how despite all her hoarding, she’d given me space to make sense of the world as I needed. Room to grow.
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Judy Batalion is the New York Times bestselling author of the highly-acclaimed The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos, published by William Morrow in April 2021. The Light of Days has been published in a young readers’ edition, will be translated into nineteen languages, and has been optioned by Steven Spielberg for a major motion picture for which Judy is co-writing the screenplay. Judy is also the author of White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood and the Mess in Between, optioned by Warner Brothers, and her essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Forward, Vogue, and many other publications. Judy has a BA in the History of Science from Harvard, and a PhD in the History of Art from the Courtauld Institute, University of London, and has worked as a museum curator and university lecturer. Born in Montreal, where she grew up speaking English, French, Hebrew, and Yiddish, she lives in New York with her husband and three children.