Zibby Owens: I am really excited to be here with Elissa Altman today who’s the author of Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing, and Longing. Elissa is also the author of the critically acclaimed book TREYF: My Life as an Unorthodox Outlaw, and Poor Man's Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire, and the Art of Simple Cooking. She wrote the James Beard Award-winning blog by the same name. Elissa’s work has been published in O, The Oprah Magazine, The New York Times, Saveur, and The Washington Post where she wrote a year-long column entitled Feeding My Mother. Her work has been included in Best Food Writing for the past six years. She was a novelist for the Frank McCourt Memoir Prize. She currently lives with her wife in Connecticut. Welcome, Elissa.
Elissa Altman: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. This is great.
Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what Motherland is about? What inspired you to write it?
Elissa: Oh, my goodness. I actually recently described Motherland to someone as a story of what would happen if Anna Wintour gave birth to the Susie character from Mrs. Maisel and the latter had to come back and be the caregiver for Anna. Please forgive me, Anna. I doubt that you will hear me saying these words, but you who knows? I don't know. Motherland is a memoir of moral obligation and certainly a memoir of love. It’s a story about what happens when we are called to make a decision about coming back to the fray, coming back into a relationship from which we have painstakingly extricated ourselves after a very long, arduous and difficult relationship. Do we do it? Do we not do it?
Some years ago, there was a book written by a wonderful journalist named Jane Gross who wrote a long blog for The New York Times called The New Old Age. Then she wrote a book that came out of that. One of the questions was what happens when a senior needs their family and needs their children, and they have a terrible relationship with those children? She actually tells a story about the fact that some people would drop their senior parent off at their assisted living or their rehab or whatever, pay the bill, never to be seen or heard from again. Could I do anything like that? No, I couldn't. My mother and I, as you know through the book, have this crazy addicted relationship, codependent to an extreme. The story was really born out of this experience. I live two and half hours away from my mother. It took me years to get here, years to get away. In 2016, she suffered a significant injury. I had to make the decision or the decision made itself. How was I going to care for her and survive? I call it Modern Family meets Postcards from the Edge. It’s who we are. I do believe that we have a moral obligation to care for the seniors in our midst whether or not they make us want to put our heads in the oven. [laughter]
Zibby: Why now? After she had her injury, what made you say, I have to write a book about this?
Elissa: I had actually started writing the book before the injury happened. I had a year-long column in The Washington Post called Feeding My Mother. I have a long history as a food writer, but Feeding My Mother was really about nurturing and sustaining someone who will not be nurtured and not be sustained. My mom is a former model. She was modeling as recently as fifteen years ago. She is a force of nature. She hates food, loathes it. She will not be nurtured that way. Of course, the universe works in mysterious ways. She wound up with a food writer as a daughter because that’s what happens. I wrote this year-long column about tending to her nurturing and sustenance needs as she was getting older. I had done a TEDx talk that was connected to the same column.
That was really the launchpad for the idea of the book. These two incredibly different mother and daughter, how do I navigate this world when our roles have reversed? I'm now charged with caring for her. How do we do that? I started writing. I was writing essays. I was writing a lot of pieces about it. My second book had come out. I went off on book tour. I came home. It was a Saturday night. I sat down. I put my bags down. I might have had a glass of wine. I thought, I'm going to give myself this day. Then I'm going to start working on Motherland. The phone rang. At the other end was my mother saying, “I fell,” the two words that -- all of us will hear it at some point. “I fell.” She was two and half hours away. I had to get into the car with my partner, drive down. That began the unraveling of what ultimately became this memoir.
Zibby: Wow. I also think as much as your book is about taking care of an elderly parent, it’s also a real coming of age for you, even though it’s later in life. It’s still, how do you create your own boundaries? How do you separate from the close relationships you have from your childhood and become an adult? which is relevant at any age. Somebody twenty-one could be reading this book and completely identify, and somebody eighty who’s dealing with their hundred-year-old parent. There's also that tension.
Elissa: [Indiscernible] say that, the eighty who’s dealing with a hundred-year-old parent. That's the way it is. It’s remarkable.
Zibby: People live so much longer. My grandmother’s ninety-five years old. My mom is seventy. You write so beautifully. I was hoping to read a passage, if you don't mind, from the beginning of the book, which was so beautiful. You had just come in from a run. You say, “On this day, the sun isn't all the way up, and the interior of the house is murky gray. I have just come in from a run. I was never a runner, but I began recently because it creates a kind of porosity. It allows air and light to filter through me and loosens the knot that snares me every morning before eight when I answer the phone. In that slim moment between the ring and my mother’s voice, a rest, a beat, a break in the symbiosis that has defined us and the universe in which we lived, I stand in the kitchen and stare at the phone. I inhale. It rings. The dog barks. I exhale. I choose my response. The seconds between stimulus and reaction, Viktor Frankl called it, in which lies my freedom.”
That is so good! You tell us so much in that passage. Your mother’s calling you every day. You pick up anyway. You dread it, but you do it. I know a therapist and your partner at one point said, “What about not picking up the phone every time?” Talk to me about that, and how this intrusiveness in your daily life came about, and how you learned to cope with it.
Elissa: My fear, and I think it’s the fear of any adult child of a senior person, always when the phone rings, it’s oh, my god, did they fall? Is this happening? It’s crisis management. I don't have children, but I'm sure it’s the same with children. You never know what’s going to happen. You never know when the phone rings. That's the switch in me, in my brain, that flips every time the phone rings. It’s definitely Pavlovian. There's no question about it. She knows that. My mother’s need to reach me and my need to be reached by my mother, it’s very, very old. I recently wrote about the fact that when I was in college in Boston -- these are the days long before cell phones when everybody had a wall phone. She figured out that my number ended in something like 8854. She tried and she called me. She couldn't reach me. She tried my next-door neighbor’s phone number, 8855. Couldn’t reach them. Called the next door, 8856. Literally, instead of just unplugging my phone, I took the entire phone off the wall. She made it around the entire dormitory floor until she finally reached somebody who would then go knock on my door. I was studying. I was hanging out with my boyfriend at the time, any number of possibilities.
I was raised to believe that when your mother calls you, even it’s fourteen times a day, you answer the phone. It’s such addictive behavior. I'm sure that there's a dopamine component to it in the same way that your phone buzzes and you're automatically compelled to look to see, did my Instagram feed get blah, blah, blah? Was somebody trying to reach me? It’s the same thing with my mom. I was trained very, very early on that way. She had same relationship with her mother. Her mother was gifted keys to our house when I was a child. Saturday morning -- my poor dad, long-suffering father -- the door would open. She would show up. There were no boundaries at all.
I'm in my early fifties. It’s taken me a very long time to understand that every single time the phone rings, I don't have to answer it. If there is a problem, if there has been a fall, I will know. I will definitely know about it. I call her in the morning. I call her in the evening. Getting to that point has been a real struggle. I actually went through something that can only be described at the DTs. I went through a detox not hearing her voice, not answering the phone, making the decision to let it ring and step outside, take the dog out, go for a run, take the phone off the hook, any of those. You think about older people, a lot of older people are like children. If I say to her, “Here are the boundaries. I'm going to answer the phone between this time and this time,” it means nothing. It means nothing.
Zibby: When we stop doing this conversation, interview, I'm going to go online and send you an old-fashioned answering machine that you can hear when she talks. Then you will know. If she says, “I've fallen. It’s an emergency,” you can walk over and pick up the phone.
Elissa: [laughs] The funny thing is, is that we all have these digital answering services now. Dinosaurs like myself who still have landlines -- she thinks that I can hear her and that I'm choosing to not -- of course, I am choosing not to answer.
Zibby: I think it would give you some piece of mind. I'm just saying it’s a cheap fix as opposed to the therapy that you may want to look into. [laughs] I'm just kidding.
Elissa: It is a question, though. It’s a very fine line. As people get older, you have to be aware of the fact that there will be a fall. This will happen. She’ll forget the pot on the stove. It might be the neighbor. That's been challenging.
Zibby: I was wondering as you told this whole story and her need to call you so often, if she was aware that she was doing it so much. Then when it got to the point when your father passes away, which was so sad, she says to you, “I've given you a month off, but now it’s all about me again.” I could not believe she said that.
Elissa: She actually said she gave me, I describe in the book as being as wide berth for the month after he passed. He died as a result of a car accident. Encasing the grief were issues of practicality. There were the insurance issues, and the car, and the other people who were involved in the accident, and my stepmother. It was very, very hard. It was gnarly. I don't have any siblings. It was just me having to unravel this. My mother stepped back. It was the first time in our lives that she gave me that period of time. Part of it was the fact that my mother does not do grief well. Grief is something that is not controllable. You can't plan for it. You don't know when it’s going to hit or how it’s going to hit. It creeps up on you. It sometimes is something that you never get over. It just changes. I had a conversation at an event with Claire Bidwell Smith. We talked about that.
Zibby: She was on my podcast.
Elissa: She's an absolutely amazing woman, amazing writer. It just changes. My mom gave me that month for whatever reason. Part of it, I think, is because she couldn't deal with the grief. It was day thirty or day thirty-one. The phone rang. She said, “It’s been a month. It is now time for you to focus on me.” Those words will stay in my brain, in the crevasses of my brain for the rest of my life. That was really the moment when I realized that this is not a normal situation. She is, in fact, suffering from NPD. People who suffer from NPD, which is narcissistic personality disorder, it’s not something that can be cured. They need what they need when they need it. They will go to any length to feed those narcissistic coffers.
When she said that, it was that moment in time where I realized what I had been facing all along, and what I was going to be facing for the rest of my life, and the rest of her life. Senior citizens often need a lot more emotionally. They become like babies. They regress. That's something that just happens. This is that and more, a different version of that. It was a shocking revelation. When the world around you says, “Of course. We all knew this. Why didn't you know this?” I didn't know it because I was in it. I was living at the center of it. I was at the eye of the storm that is my mom and the storm that was our relationship, that is our relationship. When that happened, as awful as it was for her to say that and for me to hear it, it put so much into perspective for me. My partner was sitting there. She said, “Of course. She's verbalizing what we all have known to be the case with her and her truth.”
Zibby: The problem, because I read a lot about narcissistic personality disorder, is that the person who has it often doesn't acknowledge that they have it. They don't respond well to treatment. The only thing you can do is deal with it yourself, basically. Also, I've read that oftentimes, it sounds like obviously this did not happen with you, but that children of parents with narcissistic personality disorder often marry people who also have it.
Elissa: [laughs] I'm happy to say that I went so far in the other direction. I married a wonderful woman who is a quiet Connecticut Yankee, very much an observer, a brilliant book designer, and again, very quiet, observant person, and probably an empath to an extreme, which is the other side of the spectrum.
Zibby: A lot of the book was spent describing your mother’s appearance and her focus on it herself, her former glory and her makeup, and how she had to look perfect all the time, and your response to that. After I read the book, I meant to go online and google your mom. I was dying to see a picture of her. Then I was like, that's creepy. I'm not going to do that. The way you wrote it made me so curious because you make her sound -- was she really that amazingly --
Elissa: -- Yes.
Zibby: Yeah? She really was?
Elissa: And she still is. I’ll send you a picture.
Zibby: Okay, please do. Makeup in general, let me talk about that for two seconds. At the end of the book, you have her in the scene surrounded by bags and bags of makeup. You have another scene where you go into her medicine cabinet and see rows of this Clinique Red Red Red that she wears all time. Makeup has so many meanings. I feel like you were trying to make up with your mom throughout this book. Here she is putting on more and more makeup. I felt that there was something to it.
Elissa: I also describe early on in the book, her longing to put me into a makeover situation. I was eleven. The definition of a makeover is to undo that which exists. That's the actual dictionary definition of it. I don't know so much that I wanted to make up with her. I wanted to have a sane life with her. We have struggled together. It has been a parallel struggle. As frustrating as it has been for me to have a mother with whom I share zero in common except for a sliver of DNA, maybe a tiny, little bit, a thin strand of DNA -- I look like my dad. I talk like my dad. I'm built like my dad. I respond to the world around me like my dad. I sound like him. He was a great writer. I attribute a lot of what I do and who I am to my father.
I think I was a source of great frustration for my mother. She couldn't understand why I was not this person who looked just like her and acted just like her. We’re as different as night and day. It’s been frustrating for her. It’s also been very frustrating for me. Why can't you understand who I am? Perhaps that might be a way we might have made up, would've been to come to terms with the fact that we’re very, very different. We love each other anyway. We’re almost there. We’re at that point. I don't really get sucked into the engagement of the whole animosity thing anymore. That's another dopamine rush for her. She loves the fight. She loves the argument. It’s just not who I am. I was for a long time when I lived there. It was very difficult.
Where makeup is concerned, it’s absolutely a central meaning of makeup in our lives. For my mom, makeup was that which she was able to hide behind. She grew up believing and being told by her mother and her father that she was very unattractive as a child. She grew up in the late thirties, early forties at a time of the bombshells in the movies, and the war, and the pin-up girls, and so on and so forth. Every time she looked in the mirror as a child, she felt that there was this terribly unattractive person staring back at her. She claims that she was heavy as a child. I've seen pictures of her. She was a little chubby little girl, but not in any way that you’d be like, “Oh, my god. This child’s going to be ill.” She was not in any way like that. She was a tremendous fan of the movies as a child. Her parents would drop her off at the movies and pay them seventy-five cents just to let her sit there all day. She was also an only child. She wanted to be like these people she saw in the movies. She was a singer as a very young child on radio. Then with the advent of television in the late 1940s, she thought, that's what I want to do.
She went to High School of Performing Arts in New York and basically starved herself, lived on cigarettes and black coffee as a sixteen-year-old, sold her lunch sandwiches, and tells this to me all the time. She changed her body from a metabolic standpoint. She's very long and thin and live. She's always been that way, like 117 pounds. My left leg weighs 117 pounds. [laughter] She fell in love with makeup. She fell in love with it. It became the thing that saved her. She put it on and looks in the mirror, and she's the person she always wanted to be. She hoards it. I think she has always hoarded it. There was that scene in the book where we go back to her apartment and we find thirty-one tubes of Clinique Red Red Red lipstick. My mother keeps Clinique in business. I used to get really crazy and upset about that. Then I realized it’s her nurturing. It’s her sustenance. It’s the thing that she needs, to excess. There's definitely an addiction component there. I'm not at the point where I can say, “Okay, Mom. Enough.”
Zibby: How does your mom feel about this book?
Elissa: My mother believes that all publicity is good publicity. My mother is also a long-time singer. She was on television. She still sings from time to time publicly. She read all of The Washington Post articles, grumbled about them a little bit, grumbled when The Post revealed her age. That was the thing she complained about. She knows that we have had a very difficult time of it. I have said to her, “I'm hoping that this book is going to provide hope for other mothers and daughters who live at polar opposites and don't know that there is a way to find peace together.” I don't want to give away the end of the story, but we did find a way to really understand and love each other. That is possible. She knows that's there. As long as she knows that's there, it’s okay. She's got the galley. She hasn’t read it yet. She walks into Shakespeare & Company on the Upper West Side and waves it around. That's who she is. She points to the cover and says, “This is me. This one’s me. This one’s her.”
Zibby: That's just crazy. I mean, it’s perfect. It’s so perfect. Let's say you were starting life from the beginning again, let's say from when you're sixteen years old, or somebody else is sixteen, or has a child, or is going through something similar with a similar type of mother, or at older age, from all of your experience with your mother, do you have advice for that person?
Elissa: Step away and learn who are as an independent person. With that independence, you will be able to step back into your relationship with her and find love where you might not think that it exists. That break that I had, the physical break, the move away from New York -- my mother doesn't drive. It’s not like she can just get into the car and drive up to Connecticut where I live. The move away from her was an emotional break from her. It was a physical break. It was a psychological break from her. Had that not happened, I probably would not be having this conversation with you. It was very, very important. It was the hardest thing that I could do. I didn't have to go to California to do it. I didn't have to go to Japan to do it. I moved a couple of hours away.
I found the possibility of my own life and finding love and meaning in my own life. Once I was able to do that and to honor my own needs, I was able to step back and be her caregiver with boundaries. It’s something that I never thought was going to happen. When I was living in New York City in the nineties, I used to come home from work and find her sitting in my lobby. She would show up at my office. My boss would come downstairs and say, “She's here again.” She thought that was okay. Had I not made the move away, I never would have been able to see her a separate person, and see myself as a separate person, and honor her as a separate person. She's an incredibly extraordinary and interesting person. I was far too close to her to really see that until I left.
Zibby: You're such a talented writer. Truly, I'm not just saying this, I loved the book. Some sentences, I had to pause to reread. I love when books make that happen to me. Do you have any advice to other authors out there? I know you've done tons of essay writing and memoir and food writing. Any advice?
Elissa: Primarily, the world that we live in now is such a distracting world. A lot of writers say this and offer this as advice. It’s really, really important to disconnect from the digital universe. By that, I mean social media. A lot of us use our cell phones as our primary phones, myself included. Shut it off. Put it another room. The need to pick it up and look at it absolutely pulls you away from the time and the focus that you need to create something that is longer than a sentence long. That's one thing. Dani Shapiro once wrote a few years ago, it was quite a while ago, I was a prophecy, I think. It was a piece that ran in the newyorker.com. It was “A Status Update is Not a Memoir.” Use your social media. That's fine. Give yourself the time away from it to create the longer-form work. That's my first suggestion.
The second always is read. Read everything you can. Read out of the genre that you work in or that you want to work in. Think about sound when you write. Think about economy of language, all of those things. A lot of us don't think about sound when we write. Read out loud to yourself. Read your work out loud to yourself. Just listen. The aural, A-U-R-A-L, quality of words is as important as what we read on paper. It’s something that few people really think about. That's really important.
Zibby: Everything I ever write, I read out loud to my husband.
Zibby: Not like I have a book like yours. [laughs] Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” I feel like I could talk to you about this all day.
Elissa: We probably will.
Zibby: That'd be nice. Thank you. Bye.
Elissa: Thanks, Zibby. Bye.