Blog post #2 about my book

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.

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Blog post #1 about the book I am writing

Years into writing a memoir of my mother and my aunt, I visited their alma mater, Bryn Mawr College.  The archivist and I had emailed and spoken by phone, and she had helpfully set up Ellen and Sally’s files, as well as files for their mother, Helen, and their good friend Juliana, also Bryn Mawr alums.  I had no clear agenda in looking at their files, other than a vague hope that I might find out something more about Ellen’s “n.b.” (her abbreviation for nervous breakdown) that made her grades plummet in her final semester.  She managed to graduate on time, and cum laude to boot, but I still don’t know exactly how the “n.b.” manifested.  All I found, though, was a note in her own hand on an alumnae survey, that she dropped her honors status “due to illness” in that last semester.

What I did find, though, was certainly interesting.  Not exactly anything new, but more evidence of what I’d already gleaned, and more delightful words in the familiar voices of these women whose words I’ve been living with as I write this memoir.  They are writers, I realize, again, real writers who care about how they use words, though they didn’t aspire to anything beyond using their words for whatever task lay before them to express their ideas just so.

They wrote such beautiful sentences.  There is no question now why I am a writer, and why my siblings also write so beautifully and naturally, publishing, or not, in their various fields.  It’s not that it’s genetic; it’s that we grew up in a whorl of beautiful sentences.  Our home life was many things, not all of them benign, but one thing it was was extraordinarily articulate.  It was not possible to have an unformed thought; all came out in carefully though unconsciously constructed language.

And often, of course, that very language obscured deeper layers of meaning.  Not everything was expressed.  Language served to conceal as well as reveal experience.  Being articulate didn’t translate into great insight, particularly about the inner life, more particularly about anything unpleasant.

More to come.

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Ziggy Stardust

was the album I played

every day

of the year I smoked pot

mornings before school

except when I had a French quiz

then I waited til lunch

I wore blue mascara and cover up

for the bags under my eyes

minidresses some days

other days I still clung

to the hippie look

always hiding behind my hair

I admired David Bowie’s

unnatural hair colors

face make up


but he was far too cool for me

to emulate

Lady Stardust sang his songs

of darkness and disgrace

By the end of the year

the people I hung out with

were going to court

and losing

going to reform school

getting kicked out of regular school

I was getting A’s

and doing synchronized swimming

David Bowie says he doesn’t remember 1974

The next year I switched groups

joined the theatre people

and he was alright

We had other ways of being in disguise.

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A poem by Kaylin Haught, one of my favorites

God Says Yes To Me

Kaylin Haught

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don’t paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

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She wears an X behind her ear

like a stamp from Auschwitz

purple tattoo denoting rebellion

tattoos are so mainstream now

it only looks sad

like she’s put an X on thinking

put an X on being part of things

resisting by marking

with an old blue marker

a child drawing on her skin

out of boredom


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Pouffed hair

borrowed tux with tails

not really their style


A lone classical guitarist

providing atmosphere

they didn’t choose


The clouds parted and dried

the wet grass

a half hour before the ceremony


A wedding in a rose garden

with an attendant chipmunk


She borrowed her sister’s vows

added something from a book

The sister is divorced now


But their cobbled-together

ceremony has stuck

for twenty years

two daughters

an unwieldy mortgage

the death of her parents

back taxes

and the requisite arguments


They splurged only on the wedding cake.

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If I want to write something angry, I can always write about V.  That usually works.  I can focus on her unfairness to me, or I can look at how she was violated, resist my urge to think she courted it, see her as a damaged girl hungry for attention and getting rape, calling it seduction. She lost her virginity at lunchtime to an unemployed man whose yard she cut through on the way to school.  I had gotten high at lunch alone, and in choir that day she laughed a secret laugh to herself.  I resented her and saw she was drunk and wondered how she had the nerve.  That was the day he seduced her and she was finally on the other side, a virgin no more.  I envied her advancement but not her method, stopping in on a man with nothing better to do than bed a teenage girl with no self-worth who happened to be in his yard.

Yeah, it’s cynical of me to hold a grudge, never mind how she hurt me, so hurt herself, struggling to come up to the air of a loving relationship, which she did find, she did find one, but that involved drama too because he was married and had to leave his wife of 20 years to marry her.  Soulmates, she said, it was meant to be and I, crass, said something about choice.

I never understood her.

I loved her, though.  We went through the crucible of teen years together, drinking a lot and getting high, seeking boys (her) or loving them from afar (me).  And I never told her about my pain because I knew it would be a competition.  Who was most damaged.  Who was most hurt.  She always won.

The fun part was watching her do Janis Joplin or Madame de Forniet or the librarian and laughing and laughing.  This was our escape, she entertaining, me laughing, in a place where pain was tamped down and barely calling to us to attend, attend to the hurt and heal it, girl.

We weren’t ready for that.  Gin and dope worked more quickly, and cars and boys and men.

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