NO MATTER how old we are when our mothers die, or how sick they have been, or what the nature is of our bond with them, their passing nearly always undoes us. It can also inspire arresting prose, including three new nonfiction memoirs: advertising copywriter Bernard Sloan's angry The Best Friend You'll Ever Have, Spanish literature teacher Toby Talbot's elegiac A Book About My Mother, and social worker Jeremy Seabrook's profoundly reflective Mother & Son, which strictly speaking concerns not his mother's death, but the way the still unrealized threat of that death marked and stunted his entire, and quite introspective, childhood. From sharply different viewpoints, and with varying degrees of depth, all three books celebrate humble women who would have gone unsung had their children not become writers, and who all sold perishables for a living -- respectively in a Detroit grocery, at a Manhattan movie theater's candy counter and in a butcher shop in the English Midlands.
Sloan's mother went often to Israel, gave generously to her temple and was, her son says, "an equal opportunity conversationalist with conquests in her address books ranging from a woman who had been a movie star's maid to a New Jersey couple who manufactured eyeglasses for chickens." She died wretchedly, after a nine-month battle with a form of cancer called multiple myeloma. The teaching hospital where she ended her days, near her only child's home in Westchester County, was a nightmare calling to mind the grimmest anti-institutional warnings in Christopher Lasch's books on assults to the family: "With each turn of the x-ray table more bones broke in her body, but they ignored her screams until they completed their mission."
Dora Sloan's ordeal was hellish not only for her but for her son, his travel agent wife and their teen-age boys, none of whom foresaw quite how old the old woman's return to New York from "retirement" in Arizona could disrupt their own lives. Sloan's account of these nine months, in whose cruel course he also got fired from his job, is bitterseweet and funny at times, and full of solid advice. Let the movers do the packing. Be wary of "sympathetic" suburban neighbors, and "creative" New Yorkers who belittle commuters' "lifestyle" and of handy, oversimplified guides to the "stages" of death. Expect very little of Medicare and Medicaid and other forms of bureaucracy: "If my mother had the foresight to be a pauper, any number of governmental departments were poised to rush to her rescue," but instead "I was dismissed as a crackpot for even suggesting that the aim of government might be to serve all the people, not just the indigent. County phones clicked in my ear." And woe to a woman "who had reached seventy without understanding that the way to get love is simply to give it. It is not for sale."
Nobody needed to teach that lesson to Toby Talbot's <(CONTINUED FROM PAGE 5) mother Bella Tolpen, though she too, like Dora Sloan, came to America in girlhood from a turbulent Eastern European shtetl. Talbot's mother, who died after a relatively short bout with heart disease, could also charm strangers, but in her case the charm was no act. "In the face of Bella," as her daughter writes, "you couldn't be cruel. Her lack of artifice, her wiseness, her humanity were apparent." The Chinese laundryman liked her, so did the black numbers salesman and the courtly Cuban drunk in her upper Broadway neighborhood, where Balzac indeed "would have had a field day."
Talbot reaches here poetic stride in evoking ZIP codes 10025 and 11976; she and her husband and their daughters often took her mother to their summer house near Water Mill, Long Island, a house "ample and gentle as a lap . . . with its bleached blue trim on which rain marks and sun streaks are ingrained liked dried tears."" Tears are Talbot's motif; of the three mothers portrayed in these books hers is by far the most appealing, but the account is so sentimental it borders at times on the maudlin. "Grief comes in unexpected surges," as she writes. "I search for her face in the street, but find it nowhere . . . In moments of greatest pain no one can do a thing for anyone else." These words Talbot fears, may be "less a homage, an elegy, or a requiem . . . than a barrage of my own uncontainable rantings." If it were shorter and tighter, this book might provoke as much applause as it now does sympathy, but as it is, her most eloquent passage is probably her transliteration of the kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead.
Jeremy Seabrrook's mother, unlike Sloan's and Talbot's, is neither Jewish nor American nor dead, but he speaks of her in the past tense with valid reason. As far back as he and his twin brother could remember, "she linked our first awareness of death with the threat that we would be the cause of hers," and she "had always been at pains to make [us] understand that the grave gaped beneath her." This memoir, richest and most lyrical of the three, and most deft at shifting from particular to universal, is less a portrait of the author's parent herself than of the fierce hold she had on her sons, both of whom were early and all but irrevocably typecast. "I was always going to damage my health if I did anything boisterous, and if Jack showed any interst in learning, he was urged to desist for fear of holding me back. Not only our actions, but our thoughts and feelings remained under her dominion."
In her dominating, this woman neither got nor seemed to want much help from her boys' father, a weak wastrel who fancied himself "a rover" and "a wanderer"; though his wanderings, often with mistresses, seldom took him far. Still, "there was between them a consumed emotion, cinders that choked the fires of new relationships, a waste that had used up something fundamental in both of them." Whatever extra energies Seabrook's mother had left were therefore "deflected only into controlling the lives of the few individuals she had access to," and this control was as relentless as it was subtle. "There is no art corresponding to the application of silence," Seabrook writes, "but if there were, she would have been its most consummate practitioner."
It Talbot's childhood was sometimes idyllic, and Sloan's was tolerable, then Seabrook's must hav e been pretty unremittiingly awful; yet his is portrayed with a skill that must derive in part from his profession of social work. (He is also the author of the admirable 1978 book What Went Wrong?: Why Hasn't Having More Made People Happier?) His memoir, more than the other two, makes up ponder not only his own upbringing but everybody's. "I thought I dreaded my mother's loss," he concludes his book, "but in truth what I really feared was the loss of my dependency on her," a dependency that persisted until well into his thirties, Seabrook formed " a first, and only adult relationship . . . with [unsurprisingly] another man." He is remiss not to answer the questions his book raises about what has become of his twin and their mother, but at least he knows already what Bernard Sloan found out too late, when he wrote of "feelings that I thought had long atrophied; they were like the roots of a tree that appears dead -- buried but very much alive. Nothing could destroy them."