- She Finally Gets Her Close-Up
columbus, oh: mad river books, an imprint of the ohio state university press, 2017. 188 pages, cloth, $24.93.
Over the last 50 years, Phillip Lopate has published eight collections of essays, including Portrait Inside My Head, three collections of poetry, three novels, two books of nonfiction, and one memoir, while editing six anthologies, most notably The Art of the Personal Essay. His reputation as one of the most distinguished living essayists in the twenty-first century is unquestionably deserved. Mad River Books has published A Mother’s Tale, Lopate’s latest nonfiction book. Not quite a collection of essays, not quite a memoir, A Mother’s Tale is a brazen conversation, a dialogue between mother and son, a drama that I can imagine as a play.
A Mother’s Tale shares an intimate conversation between 41-year-old Phillip Lopate and Frances, his 66-year-old mother, discussing her life as a child, bride, wife, mother, and independent woman, singer, and actress during a period when all those roles were undervalued. It comes to the page courtesy of transcripts from a series of 20 hours of interviews conducted by Lopate over three summer months in 1984. Thirty years later, quoting directly from transcripts, he tells the story of his mother’s life. His siblings and other family members are on the periphery, while Lopate the younger and Lopate the older watch Frances unfold center stage. Lopate’s questions, observations, and comments are scattered throughout in response to Frances’s account of her [End Page 203] life. Circling these two is Al, Frances’s husband and Lopate’s father. Lopate’s revelations about their dynamics are fascinating.
Lopate shows that what stories we choose to recall and how we fashion them in our memory remains a mystery. He juxtaposes Frances’s recollections of her husband’s brutality with those of her own dalliances. She moves among these recollections with equal measures of rage, self-pity, and exuberance. The details she chooses to reveal about failing to save her father from death, her first mortifying sexual experience, her sister’s pitiless treatment of her, and the poverty, oppression, marital strife, regret, and self-destruction of her early life are all wrapped up with memories of a glorious later life on the stage, life on the road, and cadres of outlandish friends. Certainly, for most, these extremes are not where daily life is lived, and yet they are what Frances remembers, what she chooses to paint for her son, how her fractured memory sees the whole of her life. It is an astonishing life, glued together by audacity and narcissism. In both the young and the older son’s perspectives, a vivid tale unfolds.
There is no sentimentality in these 188 pages. Lopate does not interrupt to smooth the corners of his mother’s coarse edges. Instead, he often plays the role of suspicious interlocutor, interjecting his voice when Frances’s recollection does not square with what was the deeper, more probable story. The older Lopate is not beyond finding humor in her sometimes lopsided tales. At several moments in my reading, I laughed aloud in response to his challenge or summary. For example, in his mother’s lament that at the time that Israel became a state, she was cheated out of the chance to go into the kibbutzim, with Al perhaps becoming a general in the Israeli army, Lopate’s thought is, “My father the Israeli general. The road not taken. I can just see him with an eye patch, like Moshe Dayan, leading the tanks through the desert.” The Lopate persona is present, but it is Frances who takes up the room.
The book opens with a fine and fiery prologue in which Lopate addresses the complicity that existed between mother and child, beginning when he was age eight hearing his mother’s woes about marital disappointment. Years later he came to realize “she was unburdening herself at the same time as burdening me with adult problems . . . that were robbing me of my innocence.” Examples of shockingly candid revelations about her sex life...