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A Daughter Digs Into the Past

By Rachel Hartigan Shea,
a senior editor at Book World
Tuesday, August 14, 2007

CIRCLING MY MOTHER

By Mary Gordon

Pantheon. 254 pp. $24

What do you know of the people closest to you? Only what you see as you face them, a spoke on the wheel of their many relationships. Occasionally, the wheel will shift slightly and you'll catch a jarring flash of their lives beyond you -- your father as office shark, your querulous grandmother as bold traveler. It shocks when that happens, for we tend to assume -- we seem to need to believe -- that what we see in our loved ones is all there is to see.

Mary Gordon must be preternaturally cleareyed, for she recognized that she "couldn't see my mother properly by standing in one place, by standing still." To write about her, "I had to walk around her life, to view it from many points -- only one of which was her career as my mother." And so her memoir "Circling My Mother" describes not a chronological life, but a full one, one defined by her mother's relationships with the people in it.

But to begin (and end) chronologically: Anna Gagliano Gordon was born in 1908 to a strict Catholic family that eventually came to include nine children. At the age of 3, she contracted polio, which left one leg six inches shorter than the other. She married Gordon's father in her late 30s and miraculously, considering her ravaged body, gave birth to Gordon at 41. She was widowed not too many years later. She died in 2002, at the age of 94.

Those are the bare outlines. In chapters with titles such as "My Mother and Her Bosses," "My Mother and Her Sisters" and "My Mother and Priests," Gordon gives us the kaleidoscope, conveying the paradoxes and contradictions of Anna's life without feeling compelled to reconcile them. Thus, we read of her business competence and her ruinous alcoholism, her strength in supporting her large family and her abject surrender to their cruelty, her passion for her husband and her disdain for him, "such a mixture" she was "of the coarse and the refined, the banal and the entirely original."

In writing from many angles, Gordon conjures, as she has in her novels, a world of working-class Catholicism that seems long gone, mythical even. When she was growing up, "a certain kind of Catholic understood that there were white linen towels kept especially for a priest's visit, so that no cloth but white linen would touch his sacred hands." And "there was a kind of unmarried woman who worshipped priests." Anna was both. She attended spiritual retreats, eventually devoting her annual week-long vacation to Father Dermot, a downwardly mobile priest living without a parish in Elmira, N.Y., who talked at great length for the edification of Anna and her friends. She lived on "an idea of eternal salvation."

So did her husband, who had converted from Judaism and never proved to be the provider Anna had hoped for. They had met at a retreat led by Father Dermot, but "what the church provided them with could not stand up to the abrasions of the real world, which turned out to be more made up of dailiness than their faith had led them to believe." Few assessments of marriage are more bleakly accurate, yet Gordon puzzles over reports ("on good authority from friends who were children at the time") that her parents had "necked publicly." How to reconcile that with her memory that there wasn't a day they didn't fight? She doesn't. "I am glad for them," she writes simply.

Gordon reveals her mother as a wife, an employee, a sister, a friend and a Catholic, but her own relationship with Anna, "unhealthy in its too-womblike closeness," naturally overshadows all else. For Gordon knew her mother as no one else could, or would wish to. She'd witnessed Anna's drunken howls of rage over her sisters' betrayal (they'd kicked her out of the family house that she alone had paid the mortgage on). She'd removed the elderly Anna's high-laced boots after they'd been on for months, rotting her feet. She knew what Anna's crippled body and wounded soul were like and what they became in old age. And yet: "I want to go back where I can meet that mother. Back past affliction, age, disease. This is the trick I want to pull: the trick of bringing the desirable mother back to life. The trick of Resurrection."

Resurrection is what she nearly achieves in "Circling My Mother." But perhaps a better word is re-creation, apt enough for a biographical approach so complete that one wonders why every biography and memoir isn't structured in the same circular fashion.

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