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  • Occasions of Sin: A Memoir
  • Jocelyn Bartkevicius (bio)
Occasions of Sin: A Memoir By Sandra ScofieldW. W. Norton and Company, 2004256 pages, cloth, $24.95

Sandra Scofield opens her memoir Occasions of Sin with a startling image: a series of black-and-white nude photographs of her mother, Edith, in pinup girl poses. Scofield describes the eight-by-ten photos methodically and precisely: the natural light from the window; the raised arms and stretched torso; the angle and expressions of the face. Scofield also describes the afternoon those pictures were taken, how she returned from school early, opened her mother's bedroom door to check in (Edith had long suffered with the illness that would soon kill her), how she saw her mother, naked, posing before the neighbor who ran a children's portrait studio. He knelt on the bed, she held back a filmy curtain.

This beginning sets up the intricate story that follows. Scofield's memoir explores two strands of her past. It is on the one hand a backward glance through memories and photos, a tough interrogation of the identity and legacy of a mother who would leave those photographs and little else to her oldest daughter. And yet it is also a narrative of the life this mother and daughter led together, a tender rendering of their deep connection. Two questions drive the narrative: what kind of mother and person Edith really was, and whether her oldest daughter would follow her fate.

There is another daughter besides Sandra, younger and seemingly less connected to the mother (and to Scofield), a sometimes shadowy background presence in the book, as is their father, at least until late in the memoir, after the mother's death. At their poorest, in their early lives as a family, the four of them lived with Edith's mother, and even when they could afford a subsidized apartment of their own, relied on her in times of crisis. The grandmother plays a larger part in this story than do the sister or father, often appearing as part of a familial love triangle with the mother and daughter. However, Occasions of Sin is chiefly the exploration of this mother-daughter bond.

The title, like the opening, suggests that the book will focus on the sins of the mother and on how those sins are visited on the daughter. Certainly, [End Page 179] Scofield suggests, there was an aura of sin about her mother. In the conservative Texas communities where they live throughout the 1950s, Edith's sexiness, her apparent affairs, and her later life apart from her husband raised eyebrows. So did her passions for art and literature, and her dreams of transforming her life.

As much as Edith longed for the passions of the body, she also sought those of the soul. She converted to Catholicism, but even her clear devotion to the church did not rid her of her aura of sexuality, her difference. Instead, it caused further alienation. "Becoming Catholic," Scofield writes early in the memoir, "was one of Mother's notions. A 'notion' set her apart from her hard-working kin; it was an impulse that sprang from eccentricity; a torque in her self-perception. She didn't seem to know who she was."

So who is the mother, as depicted in this memoir? Clearly, she was devoted to her oldest daughter. She bought her books and read with her, often in bed. She provided art supplies, and encouraged her to draw and to write stories and poetry. And when she converted to Catholicism, she brought her oldest daughter along on the spiritual quest.

Like her mother, Scofield enjoyed the trappings of her new religion. "Being Catholic added a whole new slate of activities," she writes. Mother and daughter attended Rosary masses midweek, and church breakfasts after Sunday Mass. "We wore little woolen squares on strings around our neck, called scapulars, and bought hats for Sunday Mass. What I liked best about our new, improved life, though, was private: Mother and I praying together in our room before bed." Scofield even entertained dreams of becoming a nun, boarded at a convent school far from home, and became something...


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pp. 179-182
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