As many of you know, I am writing a book about my mother and my aunt, Ellen Matteson Knox and Sally Matteson Mitchell, provisionally titled The Matteson Sisters. I have a draft of 130ish pages, which is a little shorter than book length. I also know that it needs more of a frame, more of a throughline, and I’ve gotten feedback several times that it needs more of me, more of my perspective. I am grappling with finding the approach/voice/metanarrative (I sort of know what that means) to give the story a clear arc. Or something. These are all writing terms that are hard to apply to this project, since it isn’t fiction, but needs a shape and a throughline nonetheless.
I am at a writing retreat for the next several days with nothing to do but write. So, I plug away. I read new material from files I photographed at Bryn Mawr College, where my mother, aunt and grandmother attended, and where I finally visited in June. I look through what I have written. I pick, I pare. I push at it from different angles, hoping, trusting, that an approach will come to me.
Spending time in these women’s lives, through their own words and through the words of others, is quite an experience. My mother was happiest in the world of ideas, and she wrote voluminously, letters, newsletters, notes to herself, and of course many published works of scientific and technical writing on which her name often did not appear. She was deep into the process of paring down her files when she became ill, and I am grateful that she saved so much and left it in some kind of order, but I also wonder what she threw away. More personal writings? And I can’t find one copy in her papers of The Waste Paper, the newsletter she produced out of our home in the late sixties and early seventies. I remember how satisfying it was for her to make, and how she labored over the masthead, changing it slightly between issues, changing the curlicue on the W to be more or less elaborate, depending on her mood, or how her pen slipped, perhaps. I was thrilled to find one complete copy in her Bryn Mawr files, and I got a little sense of what she was doing, what she wrote so avidly while I went about my business of being a self-absorbed elementary school child with a preoccupied mother.
Do I need to do more of THAT, write about what it was like to be her child? Sigh. My siblings had very different experiences from me, I’m quite sure. I hesitate to spend too much time in my angry child self. I wasn’t the happiest child, and I wasn’t very nice to my mother. She was reliably sunny and loving to me, though often in her own world. I suppose I resented that. The bigger problem, of course, was our father, angrier than me, alcoholic, fearsome. Another place I don’t want to spend much time. I am more interested in how my mother coped with all she had to cope with: four young children, a difficult husband, all while trying to use her great intellectual gifts in a meaningful way AND earn some money while doing it.
She clearly succeeded. She became an indispensable force in Great Lakes policy management, widely respected and sought after for her ideas and organizing abilities. She testified before state and U.S. congress several times, and prepared briefs for others’ testimony as well. She never went to graduate school, since she graduated from Bryn Mawr just as World War II began, and it seems a waste, until you look at what she DID accomplish in Cleveland. And in 1985, when she was 66, my father wrenched her away. This is the true waste, and it still makes me angry. Did they even discuss her career and how it would be disrupted by his capricious plan to attend graduate school in art history at Brown, a program he didn’t even get through one year of?
But she did. She always put his needs before her own. She rallied, found uses for her talents, in several subsequent moves, ending up finally in Amherst, Massachusetts, where they lived for 16 years and once again she made herself indispensable on the town Conservation Committee and in other local environmental organizations. But she missed the Great Lakes region, and all she had learned, and all she had set in motion to protect this watershed.
I just remembered that my parents took several camping trips on their motor scooter around the Great Lakes. First they drove around Lake Erie, then they drove around wider expanses in the Great Lakes region. My mother put up large maps in our breakfast nook with red pen denoting their itineraries. So even on vacation she was exploring her new passion, the Great Lakes watershed. And then my father removed her to the east coast.
Well, this is what women of her generation did, right? That sounds hollow. Alas, though, it is true, for all but the most iconoclastic and independent women of her time. One of her greatest gifts, along with her encyclopedic brain (my brother and I joke that before the internet, we had Mom), was her adaptability, as well as her unending optimism. Oh, she had her dark moments, probably many more than I’ll ever know. But she took pleasure, I believe, in creating that optimistic face for the world. Partly still being a good girl under her rather tyrannical mother’s edict to always put a happy face on things (repress, repress). But I believe her optimism was sincere, as well. She was endlessly curious about ideas and about people. She was absolutely beloved by so many of the people she met. I get it, though as her daughter I was less appreciative. It wasn’t until she died that I really knew how her enormous love for me was a cushion I had always taken for granted. If only she had shown that love in less annoying ways (making me talk about IDEAS, raving over details in my life that seemed like the wrong details, etc. etc., oh the ingratitude of the sullen daughter). Oh Mom. How to write about you, how to understand the enigma of your brilliant, repressed, adorable brain and heart.
I’ll get to my Aunt Sally in another post.