Unexpectedly, I felt the need to read “Mothers and Strangers: Essays of Motherhood from the New South,” twice.
This book developed after a lunch well-known author Lee Smith had with her friends Samia Serageldin and Margaret Rich. Following the recent loss of her strong-willed Egyptian mother, Serageldin suggested the idea of writing a book about their mothers. Rich, too had recently lost her mother. Now at an age that left these women either motherless, or fatherless, or completely “orphaned,” they wondered about their mothers. “Who was she?”
While some of the writers had “powerhouse” mothers, others – like Smith – had “the sweetest mama” in the world.
In the introduction to the book, Serageldin ponders what do we know about our parents – these most intimate of strangers. What were their key moments of engagement with their historic moment? What were the socio-economic variables with which they contended? How did these and other issues weave into the fabric of family life? Such questions led to the development of a roster of “some of the best writers in the South and beyond” whose work hooked me.
The first reading of this book caused me to pause as I discovered aspects of my own “Southern” mother in many of the stories written by 28 of the South’s well-known writers. Their stories challenged me to see my mother as never before. Don’t be surprised if you experience the same when you read this book. It is likely that you will recall stories told and retold in your family.
This is a book I could hardly put down once I began to read it, except when I had to take a deep breath before moving on to the next essay or the next topic.
After the first reading, I could not help but reflect on my mother’s journey from Louisiana to New York, and her quest to break old ties that bound her to a life she did not want to live to a life she did. It was a life that left me with more questions than answers upon her death, not unlike what many of the contributors to this anthology share in these poignant essays.
This collection of creative non-fiction, curated by Serageldin and Smith, is a reflection of diverse experiences in which the writers celebrate penetrating memories of life with their mothers, while other contributors come to terms with the past, as Frances Mayes writes in “Frankye.”
These experiences and discoveries prompted me to re-read the book, during which I focused on the challenges, surprises, delights, issues and resolutions shared candidly by these writers.
Their mothers’ lives were clearly shaped by the times in which they lived, such as the mores, the economy, the social climate, and the stereotypical obligations and responsibilities of marriage and family life, along with the secrets often part of family history. Their experiences span decades.
Some mothers excelled better than others at motherhood - yet no matter what – they were mothers.
Some mothers were angels, as shared by Omid Safi in “From Tehran to Florida: Pouri Joon’s Fierce Love.”
Safi writes, “God works in mysterious ways, including through my Momma’s tears.”
In “Are You My Mother?” Jill McCorkle shares how dementia can adversely affect a life-long relationship. In this heart-wrenching but timely essay, McCorkle writes, “Sometimes I am a long dead cousin or her grandmother ... I have found that the easiest thing to do is to walk in and adjust to wherever she is.” This is only part of McCorkle’s penetrating story. A lighter side to this section is the extravagant “Child Bride” by Daniel Wallace.
Other sections of the “Mothers and Strangers” feature essays that address “Mores and Manners,” “Career Women,” “Legacies,” “Secrets and Lives” and being “Indomitable.”
In addition to the editors and writers mentioned, other contributors to this collection include Belle Boggs, Marshall Chapman, Hal Crowther, Clyde Edgerton, Marianne Gingher, Jaki Shelton Green, Sally Greene, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Lynden Harris, Randall Kenan, Michael Malone, Melody Moezzi, Elaine Neil Orr, Steven Petrow, Margaret Rich, James Seay, Alan Shapiro, Bland Simpson and Sharon K. Swanson.
About the Curators
Samia Serageldin is the author of several books including “The Cairo House” and “Love is Like Water.” Also, she is an editor of South Writ Large, and resides in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Lee Smith is the best-selling author of dozens of books, including “Dimestore: A Writer’s Life” and “Guests on Earth.” She resides in Hillsborough, North Carolina.
(Ellen Myatt is a retired newspaper publisher and freelance writer who lives in Abingdon, Virginia. She is a member of the A! Magazine Editorial Committee.)