By Leslie Lindsay
My own mother essentially abandoned my sister and I, not because she deliberately drove off, never to return, but through the devastating effects of mental illness. She left us for good this summer when she died by suicide.
A wife and mother now, I grapple with similar worries and concerns of this illusive mother figure, a similarity in Melissa Cistaro’s PIECES OF MY MOTHER, a hauntingly beautiful and devastatingly real account of her mother’s abandonment when she was just four years old.
We read sometimes to find meaning and understanding in a world that doesn’t align. If you’re looking for hope, forgiveness, and understanding, this is a must-read. But it’s not all roses; Cistaro delves into the depths of despair when she talks about family finances growing up, drugs, alcohol, and her own struggles as a wife and mother: what prevents any of us from just getting in a car and driving away?
Today, I am thrilled to have Melissa on the blog couch.
L.L.: Melissa, thank you for taking the time to pop by. First of all, I have to say how much I really loved PIECES OF MY MOTHER. It’s dark, it’s devastatingly real, and yet so well done. Can you tell us a little more what sparked your muse when it came to actually sitting down and getting the story written?
Thanks Leslie. I don’t think I ever could have written this book had I not become a mother. This may sound odd, but in some ways motherhood has been my muse. When I became a mother, my past came into focus in a way I had never seen it before. I started asking a lot of questions about what it meant to be a mother. It was painful to think that my own mother had been capable of leaving her three young children. I felt this need to understand the complexity of where I had come from. Here I was with a new baby – so completely in love and so completely caught off guard by the everyday challenges of caring for this tiny person. I started writing pieces of my story while my youngest napped. Once my son and daughter were old enough to be in school, I spent every free moment I could writing. I had to use my time efficiently. I never imagined that it would take me twelve years of working this way.
L.L.: I love the structure of the story. You weave in and out of “now” and “then,” showing us exactly where you are in the present, but how you arrived there. Structure can be a tricky thing for a writer. How did you arrive at this decision?
The structure came very late in the twelve year process and for years I struggled with how to put the story together. I wrote a lot of the childhood scenes and the stories of visiting my mom first. It was about two years after my mom died when the structure finally came into focus. I knew I had to write about the last six days I had spent with my mom before she died. These were the most painful and devastating days for me. Emotionally there was so much at stake and I was desperate for some kind of closure or answers during that final trip to see her. And when I realized that I had to go back and write about those last six days, I had a strong intuitive feeling that this was the structure I had been waiting for.
I was fortunate to be in a long-time writing group with Hope Edelman who wrote Motherless Daughters. Hope inspired me in many ways and when my mom died, I remember coming home to find a beautiful basket of white flowers on my doorstep from Hope. There is a sentence that always resurfaces in me, “Daughters never stop longing for their mothers.” I think this is true, whether our mothers are with us or not with us. I continue to miss my mom and have worn her silver bracelet on my wrist for the past seven years. We wonder and worry because we feel the threads of this bond no matter if it is strong or broken. As a mother to a teenage daughter now, I do my best – and still question every single day whether my best is ever enough.
L.L.: Like you, I have an unsubstantiated fear that I will one day “go crazy” as did my mother. You share in PIECES OF MY MOTHER that you fear you have a “leaving gene,” can you speak to that, please?
I wanted to understand how my mother had come to walk away from her three young children. Because I had never understood her story fully, I worried about what kind of mother I would be. What if she had passed on a “leaving gene” to me? What if that leaving gene was laying dormant inside of me? Was I capable of snapping and walking out the door someday? It was unimaginable to me but still I questioned myself. I turned this phrase over and over. This is when I began writing the story that became Pieces of My Mother.
L.L.: I’m not sure that the book really covers this, but did you ever glean any real answers as to why you mom left? Do you have any speculations?
Melissa Cistaro: I was desperate for some clear and definite answers before my mom died. I was searching for that “Ah-ha” moment of finally understanding what caused my mom to leave. But what I found is that her story was so complicated and layered that there was no single or “ah-ha” to be found. There was no name for my mom’s struggles as a mother and that is part of what I was trying to explore in the book. Often, we want a title or quick diagnosis for something that troubles us. The last thing I ever expected to find on my final visit was her folder titled “Letters Never Sent.” These letters are really one of the greatest gifts she left behind. In her letters, I meet her as the beautiful free-spirited woman she was as opposed to the mother figure she might have been. I discover my mom’s best and worst self wrapped up in this bundle of letters she left behind.
L.L.: I am assuming your parents officially divorced as in the end, your mother is married to another man. How did that transpire?
My father never remarried. My mom married another man for about a week in the late sixties. In her forties, my mom went back to school and got sober for seven years. It was during this time that she met the man she married.
L.L.: Like many readers, I felt a bitter tang of resentment toward your mother. Yikes! I hate to even admit that. Yet, somehow you were able to soften and appear at her bedside as she lie dying. I think that must have taken a tremendous amount of courage. Can you speak to that?
It was important for me to understand my mom during her final days rather than judge her for the choices she had made. She was weak and sick and I didn’t want her to die. I felt extremely vulnerable and was afraid of having some sort of breakdown after she died. I didn’t know how her leaving again would impact me. I wanted her approval right up until the end. And I was also a coward during those days. I wished I could have been more direct with her and asked her more questions, but I simply wasn’t capable. We never know what will surface when we are faced with death so close. I knew that I didn’t want to just tell the story about the poor choices my mom made by leaving her children, but I wanted to get to a place of forgiveness and try to understand her. Occasionally, a reader will comment on the anger – or lack of my anger in the story. My anger usually surfaced as fear. My brother Eden was able to let out his anger with my mom before she died. He says he spent 20 – 30 minutes screaming at her for all the ways she had wronged him. I think this helped him. But this would not have worked for me. I had a much more quiet and introspective way of communicating with my mom. I believe that when we find true forgiveness, the anger recedes and we find compassion.
L.L.: What advice might you give to someone who would like to write about something painful? I’m thinking of the emotional implications, the way the truth is always different depending on different perspectives, and what one might hope to gain by sharing their story?
We cannot betray our truths. If there is a story boiling inside of you – find a way to tell it. Maybe it comes out in a piece of music, a painting or a memoir or a fictional story. But why should we die with the stories we long to share still inside of us?
Our memories will not be the same as our siblings and parents and lovers. Their stories are their own. Emotionally, this was a very difficult story for my father to read. He was not aware of the emotions I held inside as a child – and yet my dad and brothers have been incredibly supportive of the book. Writing this memoir has been a long and painful journey – but I am glad I stayed with it. I am especially grateful now as I hear from readers who express how much the book has inspired them to tell their own stories.
L.L.: Oh gosh…I could go on and on, but what questions have I not asked but should have?
Melissa Cistaro: I always like to mention that I work in a wonderful independent bookstore (Book Passage) which is really a dream job for me. I’ve had the opportunity to introduce many of my favorite authors and I get to read a lot of wonderful books. Working in a bookstore keeps me both humble and inspired. It is a gift to witness this passion for storytelling and the lasting power of books in our lives.
L.L.: Thank you so much for being with us today, Melissa. I so enjoyed your story.
Melissa Cistaro: Oh my goodness Leslie, thank you for the wonderful ways that you are supporting authors and their books. It is a privilege to share my story here with you!
Bio: Melissa Cistaro is a bookseller and the events coordinator at Book Passage, the legendary San Francisco Bay Area independent bookstore, where she has hosted more than 200 authors. A writer and mother of two, she has been interviewed on a number of radio shows and has been published in numerous literary journals including the New Ohio Review, Anderbo.com, and Brevity as well as in two anthologies alongside Anne Lamott, Jane Smiley, and other writers. Melissa graduated with honors from UCLA and continued her education with the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program. She has participated in the Tin House Writer’s Workshop in Portland and The Writer’s Studio in Los Angeles. She lives in San Francisco.
For more information, or to connect with the author, please see:
[Cover and author image courtesy of Sourcebooks/L. Williams. Family photo of Melissa, her brothers and father from the author’s personal archives and used with permission. Book trailer is available on the author’s website, http://www.melissacistaro.com]