Susanna Sonnenberg’s memoir Her Last Death recounts the author’s dysfunctional relationship with her mother. I couldn’t relate. My mother, Bobbie, was perfect. Well, of course she wasn’t perfect, but she was all the things Sonnenberg’s mother wasn’t: pragmatic, steady, selfless, reasonable. I could always count on her counsel and support. Our disagreements were few and far between and I couldn’t have gone months without talking to her. She died in 2006 of lung cancer at the age of 67 and I miss her every day.
I know I was lucky. Lots of women have fraught relationships with their moms. It wasn’t in my mother’s nature to be competitive or confrontational. She wasn’t interested in being center stage. She wanted her children to be happy and I know she probably made many sacrifices to ensure our lives were as good as she could possibly make them.
Sonnenberg was born into a family of wealth and privilege. Her parents, Ben and Wendy Adler (known in the book as Nat and Daphne) were movers and shakers in NYC. Her father was something of a literary legend on Grand Street in the 1980s. Her parents divorced when Sonnenberg was three, and Sonnenberg’s relationship with him seems rather sporadic until she’s older and makes a concerted effort to spend time with him.
Her mother is a larger-than-life character. From a very young age, her mother confides in her, depends on her, schools her in the skewed way she sees the world. When Sonnenberg is just a little girl her mother tells her “”You must never let a man remove your knickers unless you intend to sleep with him.”” Daphne parades an endless string of men into their apartment; she seems only to have to crook her finger. As Sonnenberg gets older, some of these men happen to be her classmates. On her sixteenth birthday, Daphne presents Sonnenberg with a Montblanc fountain pen, “…the finest pen ever made…for your writing” and a gram of coke, which she proudly announces she cut herself. She cautions her daughter: “Please, please, darling, don’t ever do someone else’s coke. You never know what it’s cut with. Promise?”
Daphne is clearly mentally ill, but somehow that doesn’t make her sympathetic. Sonnenberg isn’t particularly sympathetic, either, but at least you can understand how she ends up so screwed up. And she is: she’s selfish and self-absorbed. She sleeps with pretty much every guy she crosses paths with. It takes her a long time to figure out who she is and what she wants. The last third of the memoir is pretty much un-put-downable.
Being a mother requires a great deal of sacrifice. In her way, Daphne loved her children, but that love was predicated on her own desires. She always came first. For many years, Sonnenberg lives by that same creed. It’s not until she really falls in love and has her own children that she understands how much must be given of oneself.
I lift my children from the water and rub them warm with the towel. I bind them tight, hold them against me, whisper into their hair. I know this is love. It’s the single moment of parenting in which I am certain I am doing the right thing, in which, without review, I yield to an instinct.
My mother had good parenting instincts. She knew how to say the right things. She protected us when we needed it, and pushed us out into the world when we needed that, too. Parenting is hard work. It’s frustrating and exhausting and scary. Sometimes it’s no fun. But then, sometimes, it’s everything.