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Circling My Mother: A Memoir    by Mary Gordon order for
Circling My Mother
by Mary Gordon
Order:  USA  Can
Pantheon, 2007 (2007)

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* * *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

Circling My Mother starts out so dark that I was afraid this was going to be another mother-hating diatribe. At the beginning of the book, Mary Gordon's mother has lost her mind to Alzheimer's and no longer even recognizes her daughter. Once we're past the present grief at the lost mother, Mary takes us back in time in a loving salute to the woman who gave her birth. This is Mary's mother's story, but it is also the story of Mary, who was an unexpected, but welcome surprise late in the life of her parents. Inevitably, because of the huge role religion and the Catholic Church held in her mother's life, the book is also a meditation on faith.

Anna Gagliano Gordon was born in 1908 and three years later contracted polio. A picture of her at the beginning of the book shows a pretty young girl dressed up in a frilly dress, steadying herself with a cane held discreetly behind her. She was the oldest girl in a large family, who began working right out of high school, turning her paychecks over to her mother to help support her younger brothers and sisters as she continued to live at home. Because of her disability, she walked with a limp and was not expected to ever marry. She worked for many years in the office of a lawyer, the sort of dedicated, faithful employee who becomes almost a partner to her boss, condemned to be a secretary because of her sex and the mores of the times that routinely relegated women to a lesser status than men. Her employment continued after her marriage, not only because her husband couldn't support the family, but because, like many women, she loved her job and was not much interested in the role of homemaker.

The chapters are organized around the influences on Anna: her bosses, her sisters, priests, and so on. Little by little, her daughter the novelist enlarges on her mother's life with more and more information, until by the end of the book, we feel we know both Anna and Mary Gordon. With each chapter we learn more about a different aspect of this quite ordinary woman. She would not have considered herself remarkable in any way. A down-to-earth person, she accepted her life and did not want sympathy or special treatment because of her disability. The office where she worked was at the top of a flight of stairs that must have been agony for her to climb every day, but she climbed them gladly to get to the job she loved. She was not perfect, however. She had a drinking problem which became worse as she grew older, especially after she was forced to retire. She was outspoken to the extent of rudeness on occasion.

Mary started this book before her mother's death. Her mother died at ninety-four after having had increasing dementia for many years. Mary explains: 'I wasn't with my mother when she died, because I didn't live with her. I didn't live with her because I could not. Because she was, to me, unbearable. My mother died alone.' Mary, as an only child, had the full care of her mother in her last years and watched the gradual slipping away that occurs in old people who have Alzheimer's. She was close to her mother and watched her decline (so slow and so inevitable) and she felt trapped and guilty that she could hardly stand to be with her mother in the nursing home, unrecognized any more as the daughter, and knowing that the mother she remembered would have been horrified at the thought of what she had become.

Mary Gordon circles her mother's life and immortalizes her on paper. She explains her lack of sadness at her mother's death. For a person of faith, death is a blessing for someone who has lost her mind and herself to old age and decrepitude. By writing the book, she has tried 'to keep my mother from vanishing,' and she has succeeded admirably. This book is a wonderful, moving memoir and tribute to the mother she loved.

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