Fifth Anniversary Update: Laura Levitt

December 11th, 2013

My news is bittersweet. I am so very happy that my mother got to celebrate the publication of this book and read the essay I wrote for her five years ago. She was diagnosed with a form of frontal temporal dementia not long after the book came out. And she died at the end of 2011.

Attached is a piece I wrote and presented for the Yizkor, memorial service at my synagogue as I approached the anniversary of my mother’s death. …it expresses some of what I have felt around my mother’s death.

Reading Alison Bechdel’s amazing graphic and comic drama novel/memoir Are You My Mother? was an estranging experience. Of course I related to and felt distant from both this material and the very notion of searching for my mother. The title of this book is the same title as the book in the Dr. Seuss series about the baby bird who fell out of her nest and goes in search of her mother. I had always felt that that book was the model for my first book. Like the baby bird, I too was on a long journey home and could not find my place. Any and all and none of the places I visited were exactly what I was looking for. Of course, I am now more keenly aware of how “mother” and “home” seemed to have been interchangeable at that moment in my life in ways that feel almost impossible now.

Bechdel’s book is about a woman not unlike my mother and Bechdel is a daughter not unlike me. We are the same age and our mothers were both teachers although our mother’s lives were quite different. And yet there was something about beginning this book on Mother’s day, this spring, the first Mother’s day after my mother’s death and finding tracing of a relationship between a mother and a daughter that were deeply familiar but profoundly distant from me. It was as if I were looking at and reading about a younger self and her mother, me and my mother in those days when I was sure she was completely invulnerable, indestructible, a force of nature that would never be anything but her self. And that is part of what made this reading so difficult. My mother changed. She became a number of different people over the last years of her life. She calmed down, she listened, she was quiet and thoughtful, and then, having lost her thoughts, she was, at her best, serene.

A moment returns. I am in the kitchen sitting with my mother at the table. I have brought her a copy of a review of my book about my family, especially my parents. I want to share it with her and with my father. I show her the review. She tells me that she wants to read it to me. I sit and listen as my mother who can now hardly comprehend what she reads, slowly, deliberately read to me this review out loud. I think it may be the last thing she ever really read to me. It is not a short review, four pages in the small print of an academic journal. She reads and I hear her voice sharing these words. I no longer remember what they sound like only the feeling of her love, the pride and joy that animate her effort. She is proud of herself in being able to read these words and she is proud of me for having written the book that elicited this review. She is genuinely delighted and determined even if she can no longer fully take in the words on these pages. She is reading them to and for me. I wish I had a recording of that reading that I could play again and again just to hear her voice. I have a semblance of its cadence but mostly I have simply the glow and warmth of this gesture, a gift.

I am not exactly sure how to characterize what it is but reading about Bechdel and her feisty and difficult and complicated mother, I have a sense of the distance between who my mother was and who she became when she read me that review and then later who and what became of her in those final months. I cannot imagine Alison Bechdel’s mother disintegrating but that is what this book has shown me. It marks a distance I have not been able to fully appreciate until now. And coming to this realization, I think I better understand why it was so hard for me to read this book on Mother’s day.

As I was writing about this book, the phone rang. It was my father. I tried to tell him about this and my voice was breaking but he did not quite know how to acknowledge this although I think he heard it. I tried to tell him about reading Bechdel and as much as I wanted to share with him the specificity of my reading, the connections I was making to this book, he wanted to make it about something more abstract, more distant and general. He could not, I suspect, allow himself to more fully engage with what I was telling him. It remains just too heart breaking. Phyllis is gone. The person she was, the person who resembles the woman in this book is no longer here but the text helped me touch that part of my loss. For this I am extremely grateful to Bechdel. And I want to tell her and all of you to hold tight, to take in as much as you can because as strong and solid as your mothers and loved ones are, none of us live forever and sometimes even the most formidable women and men can disappear. I don’t know that I could have ever heard this about my mother when she was just herself as she had been, but now knowing what I know, I am keenly aware of how even walls move. She is gone.

CUT

Writing this made me cry. That seemed right. I look up from my screen onto my desk where I see next to each other, an image of my mother and me last year all dressed up for an event at the synagogue where I grew up, a tribute to my parents, and many pictures of my darling Philine, my Swiss girl, the daughter of my beloved advisee Tania, my perhaps fairy goddaughter, and I am struck by the way the images seem to belong together in the constructed world of intimacies that are my life and my family, a family without children. They are part of this alternate legacy, and poking out behind the picture of Philine barely visible before the clearly visible faces of my mother Phyllis and me, is a photograph of my friend Susan Shapiro. I see her arm and a sliver of her pale chest. She is wearing a dark blue cloak. I know the photograph and I am happy to see her here with Philine and Phyllis and me.

2 Responses to “Fifth Anniversary Update: Laura Levitt”

  1. Judith Cohen Says:

    Reading this brings to mind not only your mother, Phyllis, but also my own mother and my daughter, Amy, for whom Elyssa searches as reflected in the theme and execution of her senior thesis from Brandeis. This thesis won her department honors, but it also helped pave a pathway forward through its reflections on loss. Phyllis was a unique woman, one whom we miss, as I am sure all of her friends and family do. She will be remembered by those whose loves she touched and celebrated by you and your family.

  2. Laura Levitt Says:

    Dear Judith,
    Thank you. I am reminded of you as well… extraordinary teacher, mother, and grandmother. I held Amy and Phyllis in my thoughts yesterday, on their birthdays. I can only hope that they were somehow celebrating together, looking down and smiling. It was an honor to be able to read Elyssa’s thesis about mother loss. She is amazing. What a good job you all have done! Lots of love, Laura