Whatever they do, mothers can't win

April 19, 1993|By Ann Egerton | Ann Egerton,Contributing Writer

I suppose that there are currently scores of young girls sitting at their parents' word processors and writing ferociously about their neglected childhoods as latchkey children. For now, we have "Dream House: A Memoir," in which poet/editor Charlotte Nekola recounts her youth during the '50s in St. Louis.

She tells of her mother's cooking and baking and keeping house and taking care of her and the two older children. Mother's sin, although she did her housewife's duties every day, was that she didn't seem to like it very much and was often absent-minded and remote. Mothers cannot win.

Although she talked little about her abandoned hopes, Mother, a college graduate at 20, had dreamed of writing children's stories. She never did: "My mother slept [on her dreams] "the way the cat curled on the doorstep." The combination of the faithful execution of her duties and her remoteness made her daughter feel guilty.

Father was a traveling salesman, inventor and boozer, therefore always going away, whether he was home or not. Ms. Nekola calls his frequent absences "an instrument of exchange" for their comfortable life-style and a mother who didn't work. Toward the end of this jumpy chronicle, the author describes looking at a portrait of her older sister (now dead) and brother, and concludes, "not really one good memory to go with it, only many, many kinds of grief and sorrow."

Really? Exactly five pages before, she describes her parents waking her and her siblings up in the middle of the night and five of them watching a lunar eclipse. Of this event Ms. Nekola remembers, "You couldn't tell me it was possible to be any happier than this."

There is no child abuse or even neglect, certainly no incest or violence of any kind in "Dream House."

Harsh words are mostly limited to Father's nagging of the only son.

Instead, we have a couple with scars of their own who worked hard to provide a comfortable home and solid education for their children, who took them on family vacations, allowed them pets and thoughtful treats. The author's parents made mistakes in judgment and emphasis on garnering material things -- a normal reaction, I would think, to their deprivation during the Depression.

But this tale, while neither very original or riveting, has fine phrasing and textured and insightful writing. On her older's sister's shotgun marriage, Ms. Nekola observes: "She sang, she ironed, she grew ferns in a pot, but it all seemed a little like a high wire act." Of TV, she says, "I am sure part of my idea of my father, and mother, depended upon the superimposition of the constant, chronic TV image on my own daily experience, like a filter that changed an average homecoming at 6:00 p.m. to the perfection of the TV moment."

One has the feeling that "Dream House" is an emotional catharsis for the writer, and that she will now be free to write more measured and less solipsistic work.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Dream House: A Memoir."

Author: Charlotte Nekola.

Publisher: Turtle Bay Books.

Length, price: 157 pages, $20.

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