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 Montréal — 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 Montréal, 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 was born in Montréal, studied at Harvard, and worked as a curator and comedian in London before settling in New York City. She was a columnist for The New York Times’s “Motherlode” and her essays about parenting, relationships, religion and health have appeared in Vogue, The Washington Post, The Jerusalem Post, Salon, The Forward, Tablet, Cosmo, and others. Her first book, White Walls: A Memoir about Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between (NAL/Penguin 2016) was long listed for the Leacock Award for Literary Humor, Shortlisted for the Vine Award for Canadian Jewish Literature, and optioned by Warner Brothers, for whom Judy is currently developing the TV series Cluttered. Judy’s second book, about Jewish women who fought the Nazis from inside the ghettos, will be published by William Morrow/Harper Collins in 2020. Daughters of the Resistance (tentative title) has been optioned by Steven Spielberg/Amblin productions, and will be published all across Europe and in Israel.