Sons and Mothers

Throughout the history of literature, writers have catalogued the myriad ways a man can love a woman. One complex and emotionally fraught part of this genre is dedicated to the mother-son relationship. Once the spell of childhood is broken, first loves, first passions, and other trials and tribulations chip away at what was once a special bond between a boy and his mother. Male writers have often attended to the fragile nature of the relationships with their mothers in memoir or semi-autobiographical fiction. The five works included here attempt to reconcile the child-son with the adult-son, hoping to preserve both.

Mourning Diary by Roland Barthes

The man who penned “The Death of the Author” also kept a diary of mourning after his mother’s death, recording his emotions on scraps of quartered paper that were pieced together and published posthumously. The first entry begins the day after her passing, and carries a grief-stricken tune: “Now gradually rises within me the grim (desperate) theme: from now on, what meaning can my life have?” No woman brought more happiness or order into Barthes’s home than his beloved maman, who he lived with for sixty years prior to her death. His recorded thoughts are not so much an homage to her—he reveals little of who she was—but a profile of bereavement, and how death can fragment those it leaves behind.

Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence

In Martha Gellhorn’s Selected Letters, she writes, “I know enough to know that no woman should ever marry a man who hated his mother.” But what about a man who loves his mother too much? The Oedipus Complex rears its ugly head in D. H. Lawrence’s magnum opus, which was inspired by events in Lawrence’s own life. Set in a working class village in England at the turn of the twentieth century, the story centers on young Paul Morel, a boy alienated by his alcoholic father and fiercely devoted to his puritanical mother. This woman’s influence is so deep that her sons are incapable of loving any woman as devoutly as they do her, leaving all romantic prospects to crumble under her scrutiny.

This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff

In Tobias Wolff’s memoir, set in the 1950’s, the author remembers his young mother through a haze of dazzling nostalgia, portraying her as a super-human paragon of glamorous youth. Toby is touched by his mother’s tenaciousness as she carves out a life for them after a divorce from Toby’s father, her spirited schemes to keep them financially afloat, and her on-point marksmanship. In a transient haze, they make their way to the West coast with prospects of making it rich—or at least leaving behind those who threaten them. When a cruel stepfather enters the picture, Toby’s feelings for his mother become more complex, but he’s unable to shake his boyish regard for her beauty and kindness, even though he finds her a bit misguided. Ultimately, Toby’s mother can’t save him from himself: A hapless delinquent, Toby sometimes involves himself in shady dealings—like lying and stealing cars—before finally escaping his tumultuous home life.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

“He was so far from the child I remembered or the young boy who seemed happiest in the morning when I came to him as the day began. He was beautiful then and delicate and awash with needs,” writes Mary of her son; i.e., the Son of God. Mary’s account of her life runs parallel to the New Testament, except that her story is apparently irreligious. Written not from a follower’s perspective but from a mother’s, Mary condemns the “group of misfits” her son ran around with—men incapable of “[looking] a woman in the eye.” She resents them for his violent death—though she blames herself more—and for his inflated ego while alive. The Testament of Mary is a portrait of a mother’s grief untouched by religious zeal.

Dear Prudence by David Trinidad

There’s nothing quite like reading David Trinidad for the first time, and Dear Prudence, his 2011 collection of poems, is the perfect introduction. Biographical in nature, Trinidad writes endlessly of his unrepentant obsession with Valley of the Dolls, the trials and pitfalls of love and friendship, and frequently inventories lists of items. Writing about his late mother’s possessions, he lists the items on her bureau:

her Kleenex tissues
her Aqua Net hairspray
her Jergens Lotion
her Camay soap
her Calgon bath oil beads
her Clairol shampoo
her Avon lipstick samples: tiny white plastic tubes
her jar of Topaze cream (a yellow jewel embedded in its lid)

Trinidad possesses an uncanny ability to locate the narrative within an aggregate of details; and here, these details also capture a singular sense of his mother.

Margie Cook is a writer of nonfiction and the occasional poem. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.