Reading Matters

Lopate tapes mom ‘to keep her alive’

“No way a book can keep on like this,” I kept thinking as I read Phillip Lopate’s memoir “A Mother’s Tale,” just out from Ohio State University Press. “Where’s the relief from this bellyaching, blaming, woman, who confides way too much intimate information in a taping session her son conducted 30 years ago?”

Why, then, did I fold down the corner on every other page? Why did I stick with it to the very end?

Because Lopate’s unsentimental probing makes it a book about Mother in the larger sense. And Mother is for most of us that membrane we long to puncture in order to get to the plasma beneath. Who exactly was this woman? What were her secrets? Which child did she like best?

Lopate, who directs the nonfiction MFA program at Columbia University and is the author of “The Art of the Personal Essay” and “To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction,” must have understood the universal appeal of exploring an age-old dilemma: a son whose love for his mother is deep and primal though the mother despises the father to whom the son feels unfailing loyalty.

Frances Lopate, born in 1918, the daughter of Jewish immigrants, early orphaned and raised by indifferent older siblings, was nothing if not bold. Over a period of 20 hours in the 1980s, Frances tells her son about her early marraige to a man who never talked; her many lovers; her four children, the last by one of her lovers; and her career as a factory worker, candy store owner, actress and singer. She is by turns hilarious, aggravating, pitiful, defensive and endearing.

Lopate rediscovers the tapes 30 years later, when he is 70, and realizes that the labor of transcribing them wasn’t so much about getting to the truth of her life – or even to add to the truth of his own. It was, instead, “an attempt to keep my mother ‘alive’ for as long as possible, to get her off the gurney, to hear her voice again, and, in this way, to bring her back to life.”

But Lopate, who admits to not one Golden Pond moment between them when she was alive, says he has not found it any easier “to embrace her ghost.”

I was curious why Lopate, an elegant prose writer, did not transform the tapes into a more traditional memoir. He tells us why: Because, he says, the tapes “...graphically showed, to me at least, how one edges toward an insight and then backs away, how we rationalize or shift the blame onto others.”

And that alone is worth all Frances’s kvetching.