A daughter’s memories correspond with the timing of letters written—but never mailed—by her absent mom, in Pieces of My Mother, Melissa Cistaro’s excruciating memoir about finally unearthing, and coming to grips with, the big picture of her family’s deep dysfunction.
It’s only as her mother, Mikel, is dying, and Cistaro begins rifling through her home office, that she stumbles upon the letters. They fully reveal for the first time her mother’s painful life journey, before and after she abandoned her family.
Cistaro delves deep into the wreckage wrought by her mother’s abrupt departure when she and her brothers are ages four, five, and six. They go on to be single-handedly raised by their loving but also imperfect father, seeing their mother only occasionally.
Cistaro pens her story as nonfiction; it’s immediately evident that she has an abundance of weighty material to carry it without fictional padding.
The first scene takes Cistaro back to the day that changed her life. It’s a hot summer afternoon. She is watching out of the window as her mother loads her belongings into a car, preparing to leave her young children home alone—and forever. Their father is at work, unaware of her imminent departure. Cistaro writes,
“I know this is not a trip to get cigarettes.
I want to yell out to her: ‘Please don’t leave …’
I am trying to say it. But nothing comes out.”
The guilt of not asking her mother to stay becomes a recurring theme that haunts Cistaro into adulthood.
Drawing from scores of notebook journals she kept over the years, Cistaro goes on to detail her and her brothers’ turbulent childhoods and adolescences. She continues on into the present day, as she struggles with insecurities and questions about her own role as a wife and mother.
Pieces of My Mother particularly soars in its crafting, the masterful way in which the past and the present, and elements of the story in general, are edited and knit together. Juxtaposing scenes and chapters connect critical moments from Cistaro’s past and present with her reflections as she reads the letters. We see Cistaro, at age four, watching her mother leave while she is supposed to be taking an afternoon nap. In the next chapter, she lays down with her own four-year-old daughter, who is having trouble falling asleep. Cistaro writes,
“She smiles, pleased that I am lying on her bed, then whispers a reminder,
‘Don’t leave, Mama.’ The room tilts again; the ceiling stars go blurry.
The words I never once said.”
We see Cistaro losing a tooth during a deeply disturbing, rare visit with her drug- and alcohol-addicted mother, followed by a scene in which her own daughter loses a tooth. She rubs a forehead scar in consternation while reading Mikel’s letters, immediately followed by a car accident scene from her childhood, in which her visiting mother is driving. And a tussle with a chicken at Mikel’s home reignites a long-ago memory of a farm their father bought after their mother’s departure.
While they don’t exonerate her mother, the letters do explain some things, at the very least providing much-needed context. They tell, palpably, of a young mother overwhelmed by three babies, who longs to get away from diapers, strained peas, and stifling responsibility. Walking away from that—if they’re honest—is something many mothers fantasize about. Mikel actually follows through. Not without regrets, though.
“Now darlin’—you must write to me. I want to hear about school and your friends and the animals at home,” she writes to an adolescent Cistaro, while her daughter is shakily navigating her teenage years without a strong adult female presence. “And please, please let me know how you feel—I mean really feel—about my going away so suddenly and about things in general.”
Had she received those and other loving notes from her mother as a teen, at the time they were written, Cistaro ponders, would her life have been different? Cistaro writes,
“In her letters, I feel her full presence for the first time—
the beautiful, complex and full human being she was.
There are no concrete answers in her letters.
There isn’t anywhere where she really says ‘I’m sorry.’
But her words here are something that I can hold onto.”
Cistaro’s beautiful prose – she is a gifted writer — sweeps the story along, as when she writes,
“I rest my lips against Bella’s shoulder
and breathe her in like sweet, warm bread.
I want my daughter to feel safe. Every day I rebuild a scaffold inside myself
in hopes that she will have something sturdy to hang on to.”
There is always more to be understood about a situation; unearthing the why requires opening your heart to what might seem best left buried. In stumbling across her mother’s letters, Cistaro gets the chance to go there. In reaching resolution—not necessarily the same as granting absolution—Cistaro pushes beyond her own lifelong pain and simplistic childhood views to maturely empathize with her mother’s underlying agony and to see her as a multi-dimensional person whose full breadth of experiences complexly led her to abandon her family. She comes to see Mikel a woman who, as one letter eloquently states, “have and will ever mourn the loss of my babies … none will know the agonies of missing you.”
Brutally and beautifully honest, Pieces of My Mother chronicles the intertwined, soul-wrenching journey of a mother and her daughter in search of individual, and shared, peace.
May 2015, Sourcebooks
$24.99, hardcover, 320 pages
—Reviewed by Karyn Saemann