Do you know your mother? I don’t mean her identity but who she is as a person. Does she know you? Truly know you. Mother-daughter relationships are fraught even under ideal conditions. What if your mother has dark secrets she’s unwilling to divulge? What if she might be mentally ill? How about if she develops degenerative dementia causing her to fade away before your very eyes? Toronto-based poet Damian Rogers grapples with these issues and much else in her graceful, melancholy memoir An Alphabet for Joanna: A Portrait of My Mother in 26 Fragments (Knopf Canada).
Joanna is a wandering spirit who follows a boyfriend from their Michigan home to California in the late 60s. She marries him but it doesn’t last. Soon she meets Rogers’s father after randomly knocking on his door as an Avon lady. She travels back to Michigan after becoming pregnant and they try to make it work, but Joanna’s inconsistency, their youth, and the fact that they barely know one another dooms the relationship. Joanna moves back to her childhood home where her parents raise Damian while Joanna tries to grow up herself.
This home, as Rogers describes it, is a minefield of unresolved memories and trauma. Her grandparents each have their own room, as does Rogers, while Joanna stays in the basement. Her mother leads her own life, waitressing and taking art classes, parenting only now and then. Rogers is close to her grandparents but has separate relationships with each because of their estrangement from one another. It’s a house full of invisible but very real barriers between all its inhabitants.
When Joanna is able to get her own place and build a career in advertising, the mother-daughter dynamic remains unconventional. While Rogers’s longing to know her mother and spend all available time with her is palpable on every page, their bond is more friend-shaped than filial. Rogers repeatedly refers to Joanna as helpless. She seems unable to function in some fundamental ways. The roots of her dysfunction eventually reveal themselves.
Rogers travels to the Montana plains to trace her matrilineal line. She tries to unlock how her mother became such a closed book. “I’m aware that this idea of inheritance scares me. In one of the back rooms of my brain, I struggle to draw a line between my mother’s life and my own.” Through her research she finds a series of tough women who appear to have barely revealed themselves to anyone in their orbit. In Joanna’s case the key may or may not lie in the abuse she suffered at the hands of a troubled older brother.
Rogers is careful and wise not to reduce the entirety of her mother’s life to an aftereffect of victimization. There is much that remains unknown because the main actors won’t talk or are gone. This withholding tendency will be familiar to many. But even when everyone is forthcoming, gaps remain. It is doubly difficult to make sense of your loved ones’ pasts when their minds begin to slip away. It’s tough to know whether Joanna would have eventually answered all of Rogers’s questions, but she didn’t get the chance.
The jumbled abecedarian structure of this book illustrates the effect of memory loss in a lyrical way. Each chapter begins with a series of nouns that start with the same letter and run alphabetically to include the chapter’s name. These lists sometimes take up an entire page and read like a poem. Their sequence suggests meaning and narrative in ways that become impossible for people with cognitive challenges to connect. As Joanna’s dementia worsens, Rogers becomes her caregiver. While sorting her mother’s belongings to move her into a nursing home after she starts to wander off and can no longer live on her own, Rogers finds many lists. Joanna repeatedly tries to name as many animals as she can recall. They’re Joanna’s desperate attempts to hold onto her own mind.
The concept that your mother is a person apart from her relation to you is crucial to grasp if you want to become a full-fledged adult. But what if she doesn’t know who she is? The thing that haunts me most from Rogers’s eloquent investigation into her mother’s past and present is the sense of how much of our lives will always remain unknowable. Even before the onset of her dementia, Joanna appeared shadowed, even to herself. In the end, Rogers is left with a damnable question, asked by many people close to her, “Does your mother know who you are?” v