Published on: May 19, 2017
I've been thinking a lot over the last week or two about a piece that ran in the New York Times about a week ago by novelist Edan Lepucki.
The story was about her mom ... but about her mom before she became her mom.
"In one of my favorite photographs of my mother, she’s about 18 and very tan, with long, blond hair," she writes. "It’s the 1970s and she’s wearing a white midriff and cutoffs. My dad is there, too, hugging her from behind, and from the looks of it, they’re somewhere rural — maybe some pastoral patch of small-town New Jersey where they met.
"I haven’t seen this photo for years, I have no idea where it is now, but I still think of it — and, specifically, my mom in it. She looks really sexy; wars have been waged over less impressive waist-to-hip ratios. And she is so young and innocent. She hasn’t yet dropped out of college, or gotten married. The young woman in this photo has no idea that life will bring her five children and five grandchildren, a conversion to Judaism, one divorce, two marriages, a move across the country."
After completing a novel about mother-daughter relationships, Lepucki "put out a call on social media for photos from women of their mothers before they were mothers," and some of those photos and stories are featured in the Times piece.
Lepucki writes, ""I asked contributors to tell me about their moms or the photo submitted, and they often wrote that something specific and special about their present-day mother - her smile, say, or her posture - was present in this earlier version. What solace to know that time, aging and motherhood cannot take away a woman’s essential identity. For daughters who closely resemble their moms, it must be an even bigger comfort; these mothers and daughters are twins, separated by a generation, and an old photo serves as a kind of mirror: How do I look? Even if there isn’t a resemblance, we can’t help but compare ourselves to our young mothers before they were mothers."
I'm not a daughter, but Lepucki's story resonated with me. It made me think of one of my favorite pictures of my mom, which you can see above. She died more than 19 years ago, at age 67 ... but in the picture. you can see someone who was probably in her late teens or very early twenties, someone who had not yet experienced a happy, more than four decade marriage, raised seven children, or spent four years fighting lung cancer. The picture is at once filled with expectations, and yet there are none, because my mom seems completely in the moment. It all seems uncomplicated.
I find myself thinking that this is something we should all consider about all our parents, perhaps especially when they are still with us. Lepucki makes an important point - that these pictures show us not just how our parents were, but also how they are. Because if our parents seem less complex at that early stage of their lives - as we all are - there is an essence in those moments that remains a part of them later in life.
I recommend Lepucki's thoughtful piece, which you can read here.
The notion that we're living in some sort of new Golden Age of Television has become a kind of cliche, but then something new comes along that reinforces the notion. That's exactly what Hulu's "The Handmaid's Tale" has done for me, offering a horrifying view of a dystopian near-future in which society has fallen victim to all its worst impulses.
Many dystopian books and movies focus on how violence and war have laid waste to society, but "The Handmaid's Tale" - based on a novel by Margaret Atwood - shows a world in which a misogynist theocracy, apparently emboldened some sort of terrorist attack that enabled a kind of Marshall Law, has imposed a terrifying order on the citizenry. Men are totally in control, and women have been entirely stripped of their rights. But, with a kind of manipulative brilliance, men have created a kind of caste system for women, essentially getting the women at the top of the system to buy in, because they, at least, are not as bad off as those at the bottom.
Complicating the situation is the fact that infertility has become a kind of plague, creating one level of caste - the handmaids - who are the only women capable of bearing children. They're not allowed to read or write or have any sort of freedom; their central role is once a month to be raped by the man of the household where they live, with the full assent and participation of the man's wife.
If this all sounds grim, it is. What makes it all work is the amazing performance of Elizabeth Moss, who plays Offred (she does not have her own name anymore - she is, quite literally, "of Fred"). We see some of her past life in flashback (her resistant husband was killed, her daughter taken away), but even as we watch her current life, we also hear her thoughts in narration, which provides not just commentary but also rueful context, even some humor, and some root, resistant strength.
I cannot recommend "The Handmaid's Tale" enough. It can be hard to watch at times, but it serves as a reminder of how easily what we think of as societal norms can fall away when people give way to fear and manipulation. The real brutality of the show is how hope has been destroyed in ways both insidious and overt, and yet there remains the spark of rebellion, buried deep (sometimes very deep) within the hearts and minds of some women. Maybe resistance isn't futile, but only if we remain vigilant.
That's it for this week. Have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.