Three Daughters, Three New Memoirs About Mothers

DID I EVER TELL YOU?: A Memoir, by Genevieve Kingston


WHERE RIVERS PART: A Story of My Mother’s Life, by Kao Kalia Yang

Mothers rarely reveal themselves fully to their growing children. Who would it serve, after all, to pull back the curtain on the woman-in-charge and reveal a fumbling human? Like the Wizard of Oz, moms don’t always know how things work, but let’s not scare the kids.

Kristina Mailliard, the mother at the center of Genevieve Kingston’s wrenching memoir, DID I EVER TELL YOU? (Marysue Rucci Books, 288 pp., $28.99), had no choice but to jettison the fantasy early. Diagnosed with breast cancer at 40, when Genevieve was 3, she died eight years later, leaving 11-year-old Genevieve (Gwen) and her older brother, Jamie, knowing too much about her and not nearly enough. Kingston saw the fall that broke her spine when the cancer had colonized her bones and accompanied her parents to the town where Kristina attended a “spiritual healing” group. She was 6 when her mother learned that she wasn’t expected to live out the year. Kristina defied the predictions, but new end-dates kept coming, exacerbating family tensions. “It was exhausting,” Kingston writes, “spending every moment together, living every day to the fullest.”

Also hard: watching her mother spend hours assembling boxes of letters and keepsakes for her son and daughter to open on milestone days until each turned 30. “I began to hate the boxes,” writes Kingston, who ached for her mother’s full attention instead. “How could the boxes be more important to her than I was?” She opens each package on schedule as the book progresses, cherishing the baubles and words of encouragement, yet there’s a hollowness to the ritual. “The person I needed to call upon for help in unsnarling the tangle of my life was not the smiling, gentle mother wrapping birthday gifts,” she writes, adding, “I needed all of my mother, not only the softest pieces.”

As it turned out, Kristina had left behind some rough edges as well — raw, confessional videotapes her kids stumbled across in the attic, and her longtime therapist, who’d agreed to answer questions if Gwen and Jamie asked. Both helped Kingston see the rage and terror her mother had papered over, as well as the steely will she’d summoned to keep going.

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