"Suddenly, There's My Mother"

Alice Eve Cohen

Julie Metz, author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, Perfection, interviewed Alice Eve Cohen about her upcoming book, The Year My Mother Came Back. It was the sort of conversation only two friends can have about mothers and daughters and what it means to be both. It’s the sort of conversation you’ll have with friends after reading The Year My Mother Came Back. 

J: The title of your new memoir immediately poses a mystery to readers. Tell us why you chose the title and what it means to you.

A: The Year My Mother Came Back is about revisiting my relationship with my mother three decades after her death, when a year of crisis in my life brings her back in a flood of memories. I was embarking on a really tough year as a mother.  Both my daughters were facing challenges, when I received a scary diagnosis. And suddenly, there’s my mother, sitting at my kitchen table . . . but she’s been dead for thirty years. I discovered that I had to become a daughter again and resolve my relationship with my mother in order to help my daughters.

J: Lots of women will relate to this story, because we all have complicated relationships with our mothers. We love them, we hate them, we want to be close, we want to push them away.

Julie Metz

A: During that year, my mother was a vivid presence in my life, for the first time since her death. I re-imagined our relationship, what it was, what it might have been, where we went wrong, what we did right. I began to understand her in a way I wasn’t able to when I was young.

J: Despite the intense conflicts that you write about so movingly, the writing is filled with your wonderful sense of humor.

A: I’m not religious, but I have a religious faith in humor. I subscribe to the belief that even in the most difficult circumstances, there’s salvation in story value. I love to make people laugh, and if I can’t laugh at myself I’m doomed.

J: That certainly describes your relationship with the Evil Eye. Both your memoirs fit into a long tradition of dark Jewish humor.

A: In Jewish folklore, if you’re too happy, it’s an invitation to the Evil Eye. Once you let the Evil Eye in, you’re in terrible danger. In the book, I reference the Evil Eye in a self-mocking way. When things are going too well, I’m terrified.

J: One of the beautiful things about the book is the way time flows forward and backward. You’re in the present with your family, and then you’re back with your mother when she was young and vibrant and you and she were canvassing the neighborhood for civil rights.

A: There are two concentric stories, like two planets orbiting the sun: the present-day narrative about my family, which lasts twelve months, and the story of my youth, which lasts twenty years. Both unfold simultaneously, the year of crisis eliciting events from my childhood. It’s as if the past and the present coexist.

J: Your daughters are vivid characters in this story, but your mother really comes shining through. Her voice is so clear that, as a reader, I feel that she’s sitting right beside me. Tell us a bit about your beautiful, intelligent, unusual mother.

mother (2)A: She was a left-wing intellectual, a sociologist and college professor, a civil rights advocate. When I was a child, she was a devoted mom who absolutely adored me and my two sisters — dedicated, warm, nurturing, protective to a fault. At the same time, she was trying to build her career. I have an indelible memory of my mother typing and typing at her old manual typewriter, trying to finish her PhD.

J: She was a woman of her times and ahead of her time.

A: Yes, and she was caught in that classic, prewomen’s movement dilemma. She had the skills and ambition to have a big career, but was held back by the conflicting demands — internally and externally imposed — of being a wife and mother. Of course, women are still trying to balance motherhood and career. My mother’s struggles feel very relevant today.

J: The way you tell it, your mother’s return thirty years after her death is the most natural thing imaginable. As a writer, how did you negotiate what I will call the supernatural aspects of your story?

A: It was a choice to give my mother a voice and make her a character. I still wrestle with this question of whether or not there’s a supernatural element in the story. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in the imagination. During this crazy, overwhelming year, my fantasies and internal dialogues had a life of their own. I don’t believe my mother was ever actually in the room with me. But my need to revisit and understand my relationship with her was so great that she had a lifelike presence, whether I was sitting alone late at night at my kitchen table; or lying absolutely still on the radiation table during my cancer treatment. That enforced stillness during radiation — ten minutes a day, five days a week for six weeks — at first felt like a punishment, but it became an opportunity. I let my thoughts go wherever they needed to, and they often went to my mother. It was strangely transporting.

J: Your story is such a powerful exploration of relationships between mothers and daughters, a multigenerational tale.

A: I look at motherhood from many different angles. I have a biological daughter and an adopted daughter. In the book, my older daughter searches for her birth mother and my younger daughter undergoes a difficult medical procedure. Both scenarios test my maternal mettle. In my quest to understand myself as a daughter, I go back several generations to learn about my mother’s mother and her grandparents. My aunt and great aunt provide comic relief and wisdom in their roles as surrogate mother and family historian. And always, my mother — remembered and imagined — is at the center of the tale. The book isn’t about finding answers; it’s about asking questions. What is a good mother? What does it mean to be a daughter? What does it mean to live your life with other people in a family? It’s about what holds us together, the connections between generations.

J: Did anything surprise you in the writing process itself?

A: The book is so different from the book I thought I was going to write. I started out writing about this eventful year and had no idea it was going to be a book about my mother. I showed a very early draft to a trusted reader. At the time, the book was called My Left Eye. My friend said, “I’m sure you know this, but the book isn’t about your left eye, it’s about your mother.” I was flabbergasted, and then I realized she was right. I started to write the book again, and found that my mother was showing up on almost every page. I’ve already said that I don’t believe in ghosts—but I did feel she was there, whether in my memories, my heart, or my DNA. I heard her voice and felt her hand guiding me. It was sometimes frightening, but ultimately deeply satisfying to allow the writing to take me to such unexpected places.

J: So what do you imagine your mother would say about this story?

A: Last spring, I had an April deadline to turn in a draft. I was close to completing it, but asked my editor for a one-week extension. She said, “As long as you turn it in sometime next week, that’s fine.” So I’m working away, and by Monday I was close. Tuesday passed, I was closer. Wednesday I almost sent it, but I needed one more day. Thursday, I thought, “This is it, the draft is finished.” I wrote “Draft 2” and was about to hit “send,” and then I remembered, “Oh, I just have to change the date on the manuscript.” So I changed the date to April 11 . . . and a whoosh went through me and I suddenly realized that April 11 was my mother’s birthday. I got teary and said out loud, alone in my living room, “Happy birthday, Mom,” and I hit “send.” I think she approved.

The Year My Mother Came Back comes out March 31.

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