Book Review: A Letter to My Mom, Lisa Erspamer (2015) – and a Mother’s Day letter to my mom!

May 10th, 2015 10:18 am by Kelly Garbato

“Sent from my heart” – will.i.am

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Blogging for Books.)

The third book in Lisa Erspamer’s “letter” series (previous titles include A Letter to My Dog and A Letter to My Cat), A Letter to My Mom is a sweet and touching (and timely, with Mother’s Day just around the corner!) collection of letters from children to their mothers.

What first struck me about the collection is its diversity. There are a fair number of celebrity pairings, yes, but also quite a few letters written by regular folks too. There are letters from children as well as adults; groups of siblings as well as single letter-writers; women and men, girls and boys; adopted as well as biological children; letters addressed to elderly parents as well as middle-aged parents; even a handful written to mothers who have since passed on.

Happily, there’s also a fair amount of racial diversity; while many of the faces are white, there are also Korean, Latina, African-American, Chinese, Indian, Jewish, and Taiwanese mothers and daughters. Some of the most touching letters are from second-generation American immigrants whose mothers left their homelands to pursue the American Dream and give their kids a better life. Trish Broome – the product of a now-failed marriage between a Korean mother and American GI father who met during the Vietnam War – writes of the many sacrifices her mother, Bok Ja Smith, made for her family:

My back, which rests comfortably against an office chair every day, has never felt over 60 years of hard labor like yours. It didn’t have to stand tall as customers walked through a flea market store, or bend over machines in factories. It hasn’t endured years of carrying laundry baskets or helping children move boxes to and from college.

It does, however, have a Korean tiger tattoo on it that represents strength, and it represents you.

Among the celebrity contributors – Kristen Chenoweth, Cat Cora, Sarah Ferguson, Josh Groban, Mariel Hemingway, Ali Landry, Monica Lewinsky, Lisa Ling, Dr. Phil, Robin Meade, Kelly Osbourne, Melissa Rivers, Molly Sims, Shania Twain, will.i.am, and Ginger Zee – is Jennifer Arnold, one half of TLC’s The Little Couple. When she failed to grow and thrive in infancy, her mother was erroneously accused of starving her. She writes of how her mother became her champion and advocate, traveling the country to obtain medical treatment, staying by her bedside summer after summer, as her vacations were dominated by painful surgeries.

Many of the more exceptional letters come from “regular” people. There’s Patricia Brooks, who rescued her girls from their physically and sexually abusive stepfather; they fled from their home in the dead of the night, carrying little more than the clothes on their backs. They were fortunate enough to land the last spot in a pilot program that provided temporary housing for women and children on one floor of the President Hotel in Manhattan. (Today, they might have been able to bring Tinkerbell the cat too, as more and more women’s shelters recognize the link between domestic violence and animal abuse, and honor the human-animal bond in their work.)

Sonia Kang’s parents were an interracial couple struggling against bigotry and hatred in the aftermath of Loving vs. Virginia; as a child, their biracial daughter grappled with the feeling of not-belonging to either world: “When I called crying saying I’m not Black enough or Latina enough, you comforted me from miles away and you told me that I was enough. And I believed you.”

While there’s no shortage of tearjerkers here, some of the letters are absolutely agonizing. Lisa Hirsch’s letter is to her mom Ruth Elian, who suffers from Alzheimer’s and only occasionally recognizes her. And Susan Nirah Jaffee remembers helping her mother transition during her last month on Earth; what she thought might be a form of “reverse labor” became a “rebirth” for Jaffee, as the experience granted her a new appreciation for life, in all its abbreviated beauty: “Every minute I spent with you, right through the very moment you crossed over, I grew – not in cells and tissues and organs, but in character and spirit and purpose. Although your body was winding down, your soul was blossoming.”

So many of these moms are pioneers, trailblazers, and superheroes. To at least one person, anyway.

Yet it’s all too easy to idolize certain maternal characteristics while stripping away all else that makes moms human; putting mothers on a pedestal and romanticizing a thankless job while continuing, as a society, to devalue it.

A Letter to My Mom challenges this cultural tendency; along with largely favorable (yet humanizing) letters are the few odd negatives. Suze Orman’s letter to her mother Ann, for example, damn near broke my heart. Orman reports that, after she came out, her mom stopped saying the three little words every kid needs to hear – “I love you” – even as she appeared outwardly to be okay with Orman’s sexual orientation. And then there’s the letter from Tejal Patel, which hints at emotional and physical abuse.

Aesthetically, the book is lovely, with glossy, colorful pages and tons of snapshots of the mothers – both solo, and in candid moments with their children. There’s even a page, styled like stationary, for you to pen a letter to your own mom should you wish. (I’ve included my own letter below.)

Naturally, this would be a wonderful gift for moms – for Mother’s Day, of course, but also birthdays, Christmas, even Valentine’s Day. Or just because.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

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Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes! While the majority of the letter-writers are white, there are also Korean, Latina, African-American, Chinese, Indian, Jewish, and Taiwanese mothers and daughters included here as well. Among the celebrity contributors are Suze Orman, whose mother wasn’t as accepting of her coming out as she’d hoped; and Jennifer Arnold, one half of TLC’s The Little Couple. Some of the mothers and daughters suffer from cancer, and at least one addressee has Alzheimer’s.

 

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A Letter to My Mom

Dear Mom,

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Within these pages, you’ll find stories of moms who rescued their young children from physically and sexually abusive situations, fleeing home in the dead of night with little more than the clothes on their backs. Moms who were themselves erroneously accused of abuse when their children failed to thrive – as was the case with Judy Arnold, mother to Jennifer Arnold, one half of TLC’s The Little Couple. Judy subsequently traveled the country with her daughter, so that she could receive the very best medical care, holding her hand (and often fainting) through wretched summer vacations filled with painful surgeries. And then there’s the mom who saved her children from a car accident; when the kids shifted their parked car into neutral and it began rolling towards a cliff, she jumped in front of it, only to end up under it. She’s now paralyzed from the waist down.

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Luckily, nothing so dire was ever visited upon us. Although that time you cut your finger and passed out in the kitchen? That was pretty terrifying. I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved to be surrounded by relatives as I was then – we had a Floyd on either side of us who we could run to for help. And the near-miss house fire was pretty bad too. Not that anyone could blame you for falling asleep with a pot of baby bottles on the stove; not while you were caring for four unruly kids between the ages of, what, one and eleven? And that’s not counting the friends and cousins you were always happy to host. I’m sure you took no small amount of shit for it regardless. I’m sorry if any of it came from me.

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Thank you, mom, for reading to me when I was little, for instilling in me a lifelong love of books and learning – even if my spending every summer with my nose wedged in a horror novel instead of doing normal kid things vexed and frustrated you. I know you don’t read much besides the morning paper, but I hope you give this book a try. I think you’ll be able to relate to some of the letters.

Thank you for staying home to raise us. Rare was the afternoon that I came home to an empty house. You were always there to look out for us, feed us, keep us clean and clothed and out of trouble. Major trouble, anyway. You’re not a miracle worker, after all.

Thank you for all the amazing birthday cakes you baked for me, year after year. I’m sorry I made such a stink when Donna sat on my Raggedy Ann cake that one year. I’m surprised you don’t work in the bakery instead of GM; your cake decorating skills are the stuff of legend.

Thank you for trying to rid me of my fussy eating habits, even if it didn’t take until well into my 30s.

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Thank you for all the furred, feathered, and scaled creatures you happily welcomed into the family. You helped lay the foundation for compassion and kinship.

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Thank you for pushing me, even when I’d rather sit still. Thank you for expecting A’s, but still being surprised and proud when I brought them home. Thank you for fighting for me in school, even when I didn’t think I deserved it. (6th grade exceptional program, ugh. I hated it – mostly on account of my fellow students – but your heart was in the right place.)

Full-time parenting is thankless work, but it is work. I don’t think most kids realize this until they grow up and become parents themselves. No, I don’t have kids; but I do have a pack o’ dogs, and given how much time and effort and patience and heart they require, I can only imagine how difficult it is to care for a human child.

Thank you for not nagging, whining, or cajoling about the lack of grandkids, and for loving my dogs almost as if they were the “real” thing. I’m proud to wear the title of “guardian” – and isn’t that just another way of describing what a parent does, anyway? Guard their young. These dogs aren’t like family; they are family.

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In some ways, I think they take care of me at least as much as I take care of them.

Thank you for being there for me, even when I wanted to be alone; for trying to understand me, even though I’m a difficult person to get to know.

We never made things easy on you, yet you’re still here, after all these years.

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I know that today must be an especially bittersweet day for you since grandma died. I’m so sorry that you lost her; doubly so for the way it came to pass. Maybe try writing a letter of your own today? You know I don’t believe in things unexplained – I wish I could say that, yes, grandma can read it from whatever realm or plane or ‘verse she now inhabits – but still. If you believe, that’s enough. And even if you don’t? Your heart will get the message, and that’s really where she lives now.

All my love,

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Jelly Belly Kelly

 

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