On eldercare memoirs
Michelle Orange. Pure Flame: A Legacy. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.
Lynne Tillman. Mothercare: On Obligation, Love, Death, and Ambivalence. Soft Skull, 2022.
It’s possible that soon more adult women will be daughters taking care of parents than mothers taking care of children. In Japan and much of Europe, the old’s outpacing of the young is already fact. In fewer than fifteen years, US inhabitants over 65 will outnumber those under 18 by more than one million, according to the 2020 census. But elder care, it turns out, is not unlike child care. It’s also predominately done by women, paid and unpaid; and when unpaid, it produces the same effects on caregivers’ lives: heightened levels of stress, declines in mental health, and significant drops in income. A major difference is that one can sometimes decide whether or not she wants to become a mother. Being a daughter, on the other hand, is never a decision. It is a birthright.
Writing by adult children about the aging parents they care for — a genre likely to expand in the coming decades as the old exceed the young — is marked by a twinned consciousness. Written out of the exigencies of the present as much as those of the past, it strains to acknowledge one’s parents as people yet wants to remain true to one’s own experience of those people as parents. This is not an easy venture. The obstruction is childhood itself: a time marked by an absence of agency and understanding, a well of immense vulnerability that spills over the decades, producing shame alongside rage. Even when the roles of care and attention shift irreparably — as in old age, when one treats her mother more and more like her child — does a daughter ever really stop feeling like one? Does a mother? And more important to the question of literature, when it comes to a story so universal, so commonplace, does anybody care about the specifics?
At the outset of Pure Flame: A Legacy, the critic Michelle Orange writes that “the general catastrophe of mother-daughter relationships makes them less and not more interesting, unfit for inscription.” The conflict represents “an absence of imagination and vitality; it was where story went to die.” The story nevertheless demands to be told. Pure Flame is a work of both life writing and criticism, and in its early pages Orange stresses her intention to “privilege argument over plot, ideas over narrative, something else over straight memoir” — to write, in other words, a book about her mother that isn’t really about her mother. But even as Orange draws on a vast range of writers and moves briskly between her own experience and cultural analysis, the need to know her mother , Jacqueline— to “meet the many versions of her” she has “discounted or failed to recognize” — wins out as she senses that the window for obtaining such knowledge might soon close.
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