In the dedication to an earlier book, I wrote that my mother had "performed the miracle of loving others even when she could not love herself." At the time, I thought this was the biggest and most mysterious gift she had given my sister and me. But in recent years of listening to stories of other people’s childhoods and reading books on child rearing, I’ve realized she did something even more difficult—and more rare. She managed to break the pattern of her own upbringing and pass on something quite different to us.
In spite of a childhood marked by more discipline than love—and in spite of the difficulty she and all parents find in giving their children something they themselves did not experience—my mother did her best to make us feel unique and worthwhile. Over and over again, in every way she knew how, she told us that we didn’t need to earn her love. We were loved and valued (and therefore were lovable and valuable) exactly as we were.
My mother used to say, "You're a wonderful poet, but when I read your novels, I feel I'm reading my obituary." People think I'm outspoken, but she was even more so—and now I know that was a gift. She did not suffer fools gladly. Not even her children. Sometimes her bluntness felt painful, but her lack of hypocrisy was inspiring. I have it now and it has made me an honest writer.
My mother hated Mother's Day, as she hated hypocrisy. Here was this anti-war holiday demoted to treacly sentimentality. It was supposed to be a holiday for peace, not for chocolate truffles. When my sisters and I tried to give her Mother's Day gifts, she never let us forget how false Mother's Day was. Mothers are about giving life, not chocolates.
What a firebrand she was! I am so proud of her fury.
Once when I was downcast, having been pipped at the post for the Booker Prize, my mother—a novelist herself—said to me, “I’d be ashamed to think any daughter of mine had won the Booker.” By which she meant (a) "proper" writers did not compete for prizes, and (b) the judges never got it right. I was much comforted.
My mother was a wonderful woman—witty and wise and beautiful, a tiger in defense of her young. And dreadfully, dreadfully moral. “If you really want to do anything,” she taught us, “it’s probably the wrong thing to do. Do what you ought, not what you want.” And she’d be right.
Long after I was an established writer, she was telling me how to write. “Set scenes,” she’d tell me, “Set scenes! How can readers know what’s going on if you don’t tell them?” And when I was well into middle age, she’d put her hand over my wine glass if anyone tried to fill it. “No. She’s had quite enough.” Drove me crazy, but she’d be right.
I discouraged my children (four of my own, three step) from reading anything I wrote. Early on, an English teacher said to one of my boys, “I see your mother’s been writing dirty plays again.” I knew they’d far rather I was a mother than a writer. So I tried to divorce mother from writer as much as I could.
Doing what you ought, not what you want, is a lesson every mother learns, but without her children, what would she be? Nothing. Not me, anyway.
It’s always been impossible to speak of my mother, Ethel Kenyon, as a regular mother when she was so singular. Famous among Hollywood hotshots whose names many no longer recognize, like Robert Benchley and Stanley Kauffmann, she was, Groucho Marx told me when I was 8, “the funniest woman in Hollywood.” When I told her he’d said that, she said sweetly, “Oh, darling, what would he know?” Everyone who knew her lamented that she couldn’t be quoted properly: her words dissolved in translation; the delivery fell flat. It was this combination of elusive, airy wit, and easy charm—and her passion for me—that was my lifeline.
My mother didn’t inform my work directly. And yet, I write about women who do what society says they can’t do; women who feel all the feelings society tells us women don’t or shouldn’t feel; women who insist on finding pleasure in their relationships. So if the model of strong, unconventional, elegant womanhood is at the core of my work, surely she’s there on every page.
My mother, Freidele Bruser, was born in 1922, on the prairies of Canada—the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants who’d fled to Canada to escape the pogroms in the Ukraine. For all the years of her growing up, hers was the only Jewish family in the small town where they lived. My grandfather ran a series of little general stores there that, one by one, went bankrupt.
Her dream was to go to college, and she won scholarships—first to university, and then to graduate school at Harvard (or Radcliffe, as they called it in those days). She graduated magna cum laude. Then—settled in small-town New Hampshire with my father (once again, the only Jew, or close, in a landscape of longtime New Englanders)—she discovered that as a wife and mother of the 1950s, she was unemployable. The university in our town wouldn’t hire her, so she took a job selling encyclopedias door-to-door.
But really, she made a career out of raising my sister and me—and raising us to have the careers she herself had deserved, that had been denied to her. Where she had not received recognition for her achievement and hard work, we would.
I was not yet 4 years old when she began taking down my words—the stories I told, and later, the poems and the songs—and typing them up, with carbon copies for her files. I was seven the first time my mother mailed one of my stories to a magazine (Humpty Dumpty, now defunct). By the time I was 14, I was writing regularly for Seventeen. No big surprise, given my training, that my 18-year-old self would send a letter to the editor of The New York Times suggesting that I write for him. He wrote back: Yes.
Forty-one years later, as I publish my 15th book, when I am asked where I learned to do the work that has supported me all my life—and given me so much joy—the answer comes easily: from my mother. No M.F.A. program; no university, even. Instead, I spent a vast portion of my childhood on the couch beside my mother, reading my manuscripts out loud and then watching as her red pen slashed over the sentences, until there was more red ink on the page than black. She was the toughest editor I ever encountered.
Joyce Maynard is the bestselling author of 11 books of fiction and nonfiction. She launched her writing career as a teenager with the 1972 New York Times Magazine cover story “An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life,” which became the memoir Looking Back. Her latest novel, After Her, will be published this August.