As a way of knowing and understanding her mother, the author of Circling My Mother takes us on a journey through the various phases of her mother’s life. Her life in relation to her daughter, but also to various other people, including her parents, her siblings, her husband, her boss of many years, and even the priests she admired along the way.
As a young woman, a young mother, a child among many siblings, and in relation to the other people in her life, her world.
Also as a woman disabled by polio she contracted at age three. How her disabilities affected her life, her perception of herself, and her daughter’s perception of her.
How do the various experiences of the woman, Anna, child of an Irish mother and Italian father, come together to create who she was in her life? Did the pain and anguish of her life turn her into a bitter drunk? Was the senility of her last eleven years a way of coping, of distancing herself from the pain?
As suggested by the title, the journey is a circular one, beginning as the author visits an exhibition of Bonnard’s paintings in a museum. His painting called The Bathroom, was created in 1908, the same year that Anna was born. And on the day of this museum visit, the author is also planning her mother’s ninetieth birthday celebration. A celebration Anna will unlikely experience in any real way, because of her dementia.
In the end, and after her mother’s death, the author revisits Bonnard, and tries to make sense of the parallels she observes between the paintings and her mother’s life.
It is always difficult to truly understand one’s parents, and especially when there were challenges in the relationships.
Sometimes the ambivalence we feel for them distorts what we see. The author here has done a great job of trying to clearly deconstruct her mother’s life and world, including the contradictions in her world view. Her Catholic experiences juxtaposed against her love of pleasurable things. Her work ethic. Her sense of responsibility and independence. The fears brought on by her body’s betrayal, because of the polio, and then later, as she lost most of her abilities, and her awareness. When being independent is a strong value, the loss of it is especially painful.
Sections of the book were tedious, in my opinion, but to give dimension to her portrait of her mother, each part had its place. But nevertheless, because of the tedium, I am granting three stars.