By Nathania Seales Oh
What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About goes beyond the catchy title and delivers a visceral account of maternal relationships that span from childhood memory to adult reckoning. Michele Filgate curates a touching anthology with authors who are not only authentic but often unforgiving as they examine the role their mothers play or have played in their lives. They dissect the mother-and-child dynamic as it currently exists or as expired, while searching for the truth. Stories range from hysterical to heartbreaking, all the while transcending social, cultural, and economic boundaries. Each essay is both unique and universal in detailing the writers’ desire to be loved and understood, just as they also yearn to understand their mothers. They resolve to see their moms as real people—flawed and beautiful, hated and loved.
The surprising (or perhaps not so surprising) component of these accounts is the pervasive presence of men. An aggregate of fathers, stepfathers, boyfriends, and husbands (ex and otherwise) shapes and influences the narrative in many ways. They allow a new perspective. Children are seeing their mothers as human, as women, for the first time. In Leslie Jamison’s “I Met Fear on the Hill,” she sees her mother through the eyes of her mother’s first husband by reading his semi-autobiographical novel inspired by the inception and ultimate demise of their marriage. She writes, “When I told Peter this essay would be about his evolving relationship to my mother, it was the truth. But it wasn’t all of the truth. Because the essay is also about my evolving relationship with my mother, how some part of me wanted to humanize her myth, and how I found, in Peter’s portrait of her, another gaze saturated by worship—but also the puncturing of that worship with the admission of her actual, textured self.”
Many of the essays show how men enable and deliver abuse in many forms. Whether they turn a blind eye to the abusive acts of their partner or they themselves inflict harm, it’s their role in the abuse that shapes the relationships we read about in this anthology. “The first time I ran away from home was because your husband, my father, slapped me,” writes Bernice L. McFadden in her essay “Fifteen.” McFadden’s relationship with her mother was shaped by the fractured relationship with her father. It is both where it starts and ends, just as it is seen through the lens of her mother’s inability, or unwillingness, to protect her child.
Throughout other parts of this anthology, the significance of the mother-and-child relationship is what is heralded. Touted as a child’s first love, it is in a mother’s embrace where safety, comfort, and closeness are defined. Melissa Febos aptly describes this beginning in her essay “Thesmophoria.” Of the bond with her own mother she writes, “I remember, though, how it felt to be a daughter of a daughter, the distance between our bodies first none, then some… What a gift it was to be so loved. More so, to trust in my own safety. All children are built for this, but not all parents to meet it. She was.” Later she writes, “A daughter is wedded to her mother first.”
In Michele Filgate’s titular essay, “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About,” we see disappointment and disillusionment also exist. Still, the hunger for a mother’s love remains. Filgate writes, “Silence is what fills the gap between my mother and me. All of the things we haven’t said to each other, because it’s too painful to articulate. What I want to say: I need you to believe me. I need you to listen. I need you. What I say: nothing. Nothing until I say everything.” She continues, “‘I love you past the sun and the moon and the stars,’ she’d always say to me when I was little. But I just want her to love me here. Now. On. Earth.”
What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About gives courage, voice, and platform to writers speaking their truth. For many, these essays represent conversations years in the making. A remarkably engaging read, this anthology is evocative and heart-wrenching, and taps into universal themes. As Filgate writes in the introduction, “For even a brief instant of time, every single human being has a mother. That mother-and-child connection is a complicated one.” The notion that this type of relationship is complex is not surprising. The admission to its resulting fallout is refreshing and makes this anthology wonderfully compelling and relatable.
Originally from the Cayman Islands, Nathania Seales Oh is a television veteran with 20-plus years of production experience, currently living and writing in Orange County, California. She earned her BA from Pepperdine University and will complete her MFA in nonfiction from UC Riverside’s low-residency program this June. Nathania believes humor and authenticity are the key to great storytelling , and she brings these qualities to poetry, screenwriting, and creative nonfiction, where her true passion lies. She was recently published in Coast Magazine of The Orange County Register and is working on her first full-length memoir. Aside from volunteering with the Newport/Mesa ProLiteracy program, where she was recently named Vice President of the Advisory Board, Nathania explores the world through food and travel with her husband and seven-year-old daughter by her side. If she’s not grilling up a batch of her famous jerk chicken, Nathania is feeding her newfound obsession with hot power yoga.