Jo Maeder’s engaging memoir depends on the sort of unsettled childhood that drives so many fine examples of the genre (The Glass Castle and The Liar’s Club come to mind as two I have appreciated), but there is also a sweetness to her journey of self-discovery that reminds me more of my friend Martha Mason’s autobiography Breath: Life in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung.
Putting Maeder’s book in such company is high praise from me and richly deserved. The full title says a lot about the scope of the memoir: When I Married My Mother: A Daughter’s Search for What Really Matters — and How She Found It Caring for Mama Jo.
What motivates a “not-so-young” New York City DJ to pack up her mother’s huge doll collection, rid her house of decades of hoarded odds and ends, and move Mama Jo further south to “Greens-something,” “Greens-boring,” Greensboro, North Carolina into a home they will share?
The answer is both complicated and simple: love sometimes reveals the right thing to do with a persistence that cannot be denied.
There are many hilarious passages in Maeder’s memoir – and many tender and poignant points in the narrative – but I am most taken by the nuance that marks the storytelling. This happens in two important ways throughout the book.
The first is related to craft.
Maeder shifts back and forth in time between real time – getting her mother out of the house to her brother’s wedding, realizing that she can no longer live alone, excavating the house and moving her mother to North Carolina, and caring for her mother during the last few years of her life – and the past as she recalls and contextualizes important things from her childhood with the understanding she possesses now as an adult. The author navigates and paces the temporal with considerable skill.
The second is related to self-awareness.
With each family secret that is uncovered and explored and with each obstacle Maeder confronts and overcomes related to the house they move into, her mother’s health care, and seemingly exotic Southern culture, the author learns something about herself and softens in intriguing ways that seem authentic and, not incidentally, charming. Most memoirs are journey stories, and this one is as much internal as external.
The most reader-friendly element of When I Married My Mother is the structure; short chapters let the reader easily dip in and out of the memoir or just tear through it as I did. The photos that mark the beginning of each chapter are evocative as visual referents and suitably chosen.
As a final note, I appreciate the subtlety with which Maeder challenges her own pre-conceptions about Southerners and Southern culture. She begins the journey with a sense of the superiority of big city ways and migrates to a position from which she can appreciate both the pleasures of New York and the comforts of North Carolina. As a North Carolina native, I appreciate that perspective.