What happens when a gay, middle-aged daughter who has never gotten along with her makeup-addicted, former television singer mother is suddenly thrust into the role of her caregiver? That’s the subject of James Beard Award-winning food writer Elissa Altman’s new book, “Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing and Longing.” Jana talks with Elissa about how “Motherland” evolved and what it was like for the author to revisit her complex relationship with her mother, Rita, this time through the prism of hands-on care. At age 56, after countless therapy sessions and the publication of three memoirs, Elissa finally has a healthy relationship with her mother. The key to their success? Setting firm boundaries. Elissa is still actively engaged in Rita’s life, but they no longer speak fourteen times a day. Tune in for a lively conversation.
For more details visit Elissa’s website
Follow her on Twitter: @ElissaAltman | Facebook | Instagram: elissa_altman
JANA PANARITES (HOST) – What happens when a gay, middle-aged daughter who has never gotten along with her makeup-addicted former TV singer mother is suddenly thrust into the role of her caregiver? Well, I’ll bet some of you can imagine at least part of how this story goes. But as we all know, every caregiver story is unique. This one covers a lot of ground. Writer Elissa Altman survived a traumatic childhood in 1970s New York, and young adulthood living in the shadow of her flamboyant mother. Settled into a quiet life in Connecticut with her wife of nearly 20 years, Elissa’s life was turned upside down when her mother, Rita, fell and broke her ankle, leaving her completely dependent on Elissa – her only child. Having escaped to Connecticut, Elissa was now forced to revisit her complex relationship with her mother, this time through the prism of hands-on care. Elissa’s story is laid bare in her new book, “Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing and Longing.”
JANA – Elissa Altman is the critically acclaimed author of “Poor Man’s Feast: A Love Story of Comfort, Desire and the Art of Simple Cooking,” and the James Beard award-winning blog of the same name. She’s the author of “Treyf: My Life As An Unorthodox Outlaw,” her work has appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The New York Times and many other places. She’s been anthologized in “Best Food Writing” six times, was a finalist for the Frank McCourt memoir prize, she has appeared live on stage at TEDx and elsewhere and, of course, she teaches. Elissa teaches the craft of memoir, but today, she’s here to talk about her book, “Motherland.” Elissa Altman, welcome to The Agewyz Podcast.
ELISSA – Thank you so much for having me.
JANA – So this book, as I understand it, grew out of a year-long column you wrote for the Washington Post called, “Feeding My Mother.” And back then you wrote that your mother’s life “revolves around remaining at all costs, the skinny glamourpuss she’s been for most of her life.” And your life revolves, professionally and profoundly, as you wrote, around the very thing that terrorizes her: food. But this is not the book that you envisioned when you first sat down to write it on a snowy night in 2016, as you wrote, I think at the back of the book. So how did you envision this book versus how it evolved?
ELISSA – Well, I you know, because my background is mostly in food – historically in food – and the, you know, my TED talk was about feeding and sustaining someone who was body dysmorphic and had a history of body dysmorphia and, you know, and then, you know, I had the year-long column, The Washington Post column, I assumed that the book going in was going to be told, that our story was going to be told through the prism of the table, through the prism of food.
ELISSA – And what I didn’t really understand, what I didn’t really get my brain around, was the fact that nurturing and sustenance come in all sorts of different forms, and they’re not all edible. And my mother and I have been searching for ways to sort of nurture and sustain – I always search for ways to nurture and sustain her. She always searched for new ways to nurture and sustain herself. And so there was very little food in it. A lot of the scenes in the book do take place at the table. But what I was really surprised at was the fact that the book is really focusing on caregiving someone who is averse to it and resistant to it. And that’s another way to nurture and sustain. So I was really, I was really very, very surprised at the way the story unfolded.
JANA – It’s great that you were so open to it unfolding that way too, because…
ELISSA – Yeah, I mean, I think memoir,, you know, I was talking to the wonderful memoirist and novelist Kate Christiansen last night at Print Bookstore in Portland, Maine, and we were talking about the fact that, you know, when you are a memoirist, you know, in the most ideal situation, is that you kind of have to get very, very quiet and step back and watch the story unfold and blossom and flower and it’s, it’s sort of like, you know, like peeling an onion layer after layer after layer. And, you know, I suppose I didn’t really have a choice in the way it was written. It was almost as if the story told itself after her accident.
JANA – One of the things that really struck me about this book was not only are you an only child, but you really didn’t know your mother as she defined herself until after you were born. And then your dad made this prophetic statement, “Someday she’ll be your responsibility. You’ll never be to give her what she wants. I tried, but someday she will be your job.”
ELISSA – Right.
JANA – Give us a sense of what you were walking into, in terms of having to care for her.
ELISSA – Well, you know, I think that I was acting as her caregiver long before her accident. My Mother – she is an only child. I am an only child. She lost her second husband in 1997, and I felt profoundly responsible to her and to her care. That said, I was also, for lack of a better way to describe it, enormously co-dependent and addicted to her. We were addicted to each other. And, you know, we had this crazy, acrimonious, difficult relationship. And at the same time, we had to be together, we had to see each other. We sort of thrived on the fighting and the carrying on and the yelling. And, you know, if you see movies there, you know, big screen versions of this story, like “Terms of Endearment.” And, you know, I always say that “Motherland” is like “Postcards from the Edge” with Jews and lipstick. And, and it’s, it’s really sort of true.
ELISSA – But, you know, I feel as though our roles reversed very early on. I was, in effect, her mother and she was my child. And long before the accident happened, I felt responsible for her care, her general care, for her needs. My mother also suffers from narcissistic personality disorder. And so, you know, I just this morning, I was talking to somebody about needs versus wants.
ELISSA – You know, when a senior citizen needs something versus wants something, you can apply that to a child, to a five year old, a cranky five-year-old who wants what they want. They want the new toy in the toy store, they want the new sneakers, but what they need is they need to be kept safe, they need to be fed, they need to be sustained. And so our relationship was that situation writ large. And then when she had the accident, that opened up yet another more practical layer of questions about insurance, and money and who was going to be her daily caregiver? And how is that going to work? And so I’ve sort of lived with the two sides to the same coin. And it changes day by day, minute by minute.
JANA – Yeah. In terms of practicality, one of the first signs of that in the book was immediately after she fell and you and your wife, Susan, had to rush to New York, and you were in a hospital and the admitting nurse asked for your mother’s papers, and said they wouldn’t touch her until she signs a directive. I wonder if you could talk about that process of getting a directive. Because your mother had nothing, right?
ELISSA – Yeah, it was, it was just really remarkable. I mean, if you go to an emergency room – or you know, if you’re not a senior citizen – you go to an emergency room and you invariably have to sign papers that allow the physicians to do whatever it is they need to do to help you. And when a hospital is faced with a woman who is in her 80s, they definitely won’t go near her without papers. And so years earlier, when Susan and I had first gotten together, and my father had passed away suddenly as a result of an accident in 2002, Susan, and I were – I think I was 39 and Susan was 49 – after everything had settled, we went to our attorney, and we said we want to draw up a will, and we want to draw up all of the various things that will allow us to make decisions on each other’s behalf. And you know, that will keep us safe. This is part of being an adult. This is what you do, right?
JANA – At some point.
ELISSA – At some point, right. And I mean it is distasteful, and it is unfortunate, but it’s something that we have to do. And it’s much worse if you don’t have it. So when my father passed, I broached the issue with my mother and I said, you know, Do you have a will? And I could see like a top of her head just pop right off. I mean, she just lost it and was furious. How dare I ask her such a thing. And I was trying to hasten her demise as, you know, she put it. So fast forward all these years, and to backpedal for a minute, you know, she ultimately did have a will drawn up, but she called an entertainment lawyer to do it, and so the guy, like, downloaded the general internet will form. And like never had it notarized, charged her and arm and a leg for it.
ELISSA – But you know, my mother’s filing system was comprised of about half a dozen gigantic shopping bags, sort of strewn all over her apartment with bank statements and sheet music because my mother was a singer. And so the materials that she had, what little she had, was in one of those bags, and we just didn’t have the time or the inclination to go sifting through.
ELISSA – So you know, here she was in a hospital with an ankle that was basically exploded. She broke all the bones in one ankle, and broke her other foot at the same time. And so the hospital said, you know, we need her papers. And I wound up having to call our attorney in Connecticut, and having him draw up the New York State papers for her, faxing them to the hospital, finding the notary public in the hospital the morning before her surgery – it was a Sunday – and having her sign, in the presence of, you know, witnesses and the notary, the various things that would allow her to be fixed and to be, you know, restored. But it was a crazy, crazy conversation, and one that I will never forget. And it’s practicality gone down a really bad road.
JANA – Wow. And walking was such a big part of your mother’s life. Is. So you know, I alluded to your mother’s background in the introduction, but I wonder if you could fill that out a little bit for people. Who was your mother before even you were born? And how does she identify herself?
ELISSA – My mother identifies herself first and foremost as a singer, as a performer. My mother was gifted with this really astonishingly wonderful singing voice, even as a child, I mean. So she was three years old when she started singing, and was singing on radio. These were the days before TV. And she sang on radio, she won a bunch of performance awards, and then with the advent of television she was on a TV show in the late 50s, called “The Galen Drake Show.” And she was, in effect, the sort of Vicki Lawrence of her time. She was the girl singer who was kind of used as a singing prop, if you will.
ELISSA – But she was also at the Copacabana for a season, not as a Copa girl, but as a featured performer. And she was offered a Columbia record contract when she was 19 years old. And she was single, and her parents said, Absolutely not, it’s going to require you to be on tour. So you can’t do that. And so I think that there was a lot of resentment and anger. And, you know, this is who she was, and if somebody cuts off the lifeline to your identity, you know, that’s something you live with for the rest of your life.
ELISSA – And so she went from singing to modeling. And she was a fur model in New York City for many, many years, and ultimately stopped when she met my father and I came along. But the singing was always there. And so she’s beautiful, and tall and thin and lithe and, you know, has the proverbial model body even to this day. And she’s the kind of person you know, she could wear a burlap sack and look fabulous. And she can, even now. And but you know, when I was growing up, there was just like, the fact of my mother being a singer was sort of mythic, and family parties, family weddings, she would always step up and be asked to sing and be asked to perform. And she would turn into this other person, who was gone before I was born. I had never seen her on television. And that’s really what I grew up with, you know, this otherworldly person as my mother, and it was like, how am I even related to this person? No idea. And I still ask that question every day.
JANA – And she’d never cease to forget to remind you, how much she gave up.
ELISSA – That’s right.
JANA – Which must have been so hard to hear over and over, especially if you don’t have a real context for who she was in your own memory bank.
ELISSA – That’s right. And you know, she would never tell me what – and this is a part of the story – she would never tell me what she gave up. She always posited it as a question. Do you know what I gave up for you? Do you have any idea what I gave up for you? And in the book, you know, I won’t give it away, but there’s any number of things that she gave up. And I, you know, I leave it to my reader to really interpret that and to try and understand what exactly she was saying. And it was very difficult, you know, very, very difficult feeling as though I owed her. I owed her something that could never be paid back to her. You know, that was very challenging. Very challenging.
JANA – Yeah. When your mom was in rehab, you had a hospital social worker named Brittany and – this was very moving – you talk about the irregular mark beneath your left breast. You were supposed to be a twin. I hope I’m not giving away too much here. But I was so moved when you wrote, Brittany is the daughter my mother should have had. She is the twin.
ELISSA – Right.
JANA – Could you talk a little bit about that, and your sense of yourself reflected through this other person who you thought should have been your mom’s daughter, or the twin.
ELISSA – Yeah, yeah. Yeah. You know, I, it’s a funny thing. I mean, I say this in my TED Talk, where it’s the sort of – the ha-ha, the punch line, the joke, you know, that my mother is fearful of food and has had a terribly body dysmorphic relationship to food for her whole life and had fought anorexia and, you know, various other eating disorders. And, you know, she winds up with a short, chubby food writer for a daughter. And, you know, and my mother is this sort of hyper heterosexual glam queen, you know, and she wants to put the lesbian as a daughter. And so and I always say, you know, that the universe works in funny ways.
ELISSA – And I think that for years, I mean, right after I came out, she believed that I was, quote, unquote, doing it just to upset her. And in fact, you know, I tried to explain to her that, you know, I knew that I was different. I didn’t have words for it, and having words for it at three years old would have been enormously inappropriate, but I knew that I was different when I was three years old. And when I talk to my gay friends and friends who are non-binary, they all say the same thing. They all say, Yes, I knew I was different when I was very, very young – I felt like I was not, you know, like everybody else, and so on, and so forth. So that was always our kind of running joke that here is this hyper heterosexual glam queen, skinny, and she winds up with a, you know, a lesbian food writer, as a daughter. But you know, I would look around me at the same time, and I would see friends of mine who were much more like my mother, and I would say, oh, Lisa’s the daughter my mother should have had, and, haha, now, you know, that’s the joke, and in fact, it is really quite heartbreaking.
ELISSA – And so when we were at the hospital and, you know, my mother was there for a long time before she went to rehab, and she had this social worker who came in to see her. And this woman was, like, chipped out of the same mold as my mother, you know, with the makeup and the hair and beautiful, and Pilates every day and long and lithe. And they would sit and look at magazines, you know, fashion magazines together and look at makeup colors together. And finally, you know, one day, I just sort of stood off to the side and watch them. And I thought, Oh, my God, this is the flip side, this is the B side to my, you know, my life. This is what my mother should have had. And, you know, there was a fair amount of self-loathing that goes along with that, of course. And, you know, it was very, very difficult to see.
ELISSA – I – and as you mentioned – I open the book with the revelation that I have this little mark under my left breast at the top of my ribcage. And my father said to me, you know, that was supposed to be your twin, and that’s probably all that’s left of her. And I grew up believing that, you know, maybe that’s the person, that was the daughter my mother was meant to have. And maybe that is the person who would have eased my mother’s yearning, and her need. And of course, it’s taken me – you know, I’m 56 years old now – it’s taken me 56 years and three memoirs to realize that, in fact, nothing could ease my mother’s yearning, and people who suffer from narcissistic personality disorder the way she suffers, their need bucket has a hole in it. And, you know, she turns to makeup, and she turns to fashion, and she turns to music, to anything that will reflect her back to herself. I mean, it’s the story of Narcissus, you know, mirror her back to herself. And that’s really at the core of the book, is the realization that I couldn’t fill that need bucket, I couldn’t be the thing that would make her happy, because that’s not part of her makeup, and it is part of her illness.
JANA – Wow. Elissa, this is kind of switching gears, but nutrition is such a big factor in how well seniors age and whether they become frail, etc. Has your mom’s attitude toward food change at all since the accident?
ELISSA – Absolutely not.
JANA – Oh, my God. [laughs]
ELISSA – Absolutely not. No, no, no. Not at all.
JANA – And she’s rail thin! Oh, my God.
ELISSA – She is. She is rail thin. She’s probably 112, 113 pounds at this point.-
JANA – And how tall is she?
ELISSA – She’s five four now. She started out, certainly when I was born she was probably five seven. And when I started writing The Washington Post column, it was really about trying to feed somebody who will not be fed. Trying to feed a senior citizen who will not be fed. And the fact that – and I said this on my TED talk – if you pick up any of the big glossy food magazines that we all know and love, and you flip through them or you go on to any of the great food blogs that are out there, there are no senior citizens in them at all. There are no senior citizens shown enjoying – you know, being around a table with other people. It’s just, maybe around Christmas and the holidays, you’ll see, like, the person who’s supposed to be The Grandparent.
ELISSA – So the whole point of writing the column and also doing the TED talk was to start to really open up the conversation that would bring senior citizens to the American table, bring them into the current food lexicon that we share nationally. And in writing the column, I had to really sort of revisit my attempts at feeding my mother and the understanding that I could fill up her refrigerator, and I do fill up her refrigerator on a regular weekly basis, but –
JANA – You do?
ELISSA – I do, yeah.
JANA – Does anything get eaten?
ELISSA – Um, you know, she will freeze as much as she can possibly freeze for another day. And, you know, I’ll call her and say, you know, Mom, what did you have for dinner? And she’ll say, Oh, I had some chicken and brussels sprouts. And the next – you know, two days later I’ll arrive and I’ll open the refrigerator door, and I’ll look at the chicken, and I recognize the scrapings of the tines of a fork…
JANA …that’s so vivid.
ELISSA …and the sort of gnawed upon brussels sprouts. And to her, when she says, Oh, I had chicken and vegetables, that’s what she means. When I say I had chicken and vegetables it means that I’ve probably had a quarter of a chicken and you know a vat of vegetables. So I think a lot of it for her, and a lot of it from many senior citizens, a lot of the problem stems from issues of isolation. And food for many senior citizens is nothing more than fuel. And it reminds them – eating alone reminds them of the fact that they are alone.
JANA – Yeah. That’s a great point.
ELISSA – Yeah, and that is very, it is very, very common among seniors, to eat less and to not enjoy eating because they are alone. You know, with my mother it’s more complicated, because my mother believes that food is the enemy, that food will make her fat. And if she’s fat, then she can’t be a model, and she can’t be – you know, and when I say fat, I mean, I say that I’m using a hanging quotes, you know, I’m doing little finger quotes. She views herself, you know, at 112 pounds, as fat. As heavy. So I can fill her refrigerator until it’s impossible to close the door, and she won’t eat. And so that’s a significant issue.
JANA – Mm-hmm. She lives with a fulltime caregiver now – Dora. Is Dora still with her?
ELISSA – No Dora’s no longer with her, which is probably – and Dora was a godsend. Dora was an absolute angel on earth.
JANA – She – for listeners, tell us who Dora is.
ELISSA – Yeah, yeah, when my mother was returning home to her apartment in New York, we had a fulltime caregiver literally falling into our laps. And an old friend of mine, her father had passed away, and the caregiver who had lived with him for four years, was looking for another fulltime job. And so there was the connection that, you know, we made to this person through my friend’s family. And Dora moved in, and as I said she was an absolute angel on earth. And my mother hated her from the minute she walked into the apartment.
ELISSA – And that’s also very common. You know, it’s a loss of privacy, of issues of having a stranger live with you as someone who, who you don’t know. And many, you know, many adult children give in to that, or many adult children who don’t have the financial means to pay a live-in will move in with a parent and give up their professional life. And, you know, I know many, many people and friends of mine who’ve done that. And, you know, we were able to cobble together Dora’s salary, and she lived with my mother for seven months. And my mother, since that time, now has a caregiver twice a week. It should be more than that, but two days a week only is what she will agree to, for now. And again, you know, this person is, you know, is a godsend and a blessing. And it also enables me to continue on with my professional life in a different state. And it allows me to maintain my boundaries with my mother, which are hard one.
JANA – That’s an understatement.
ELISSA – Very, very hard one. Exactly. And yeah, yeah, so she lives fulltime in Manhattan.
JANA – And how old is she now?
ELISSA – She will be 84 in October. And by telling you that, my mother, if she ever hears this, she will find me and like, hunt me down because I revealed her age. And then she’ll find you. Because my, you know, my mother tells people she’s 65. And I say to her, Mom, you know, my wife is 66, Mom. And she just doesn’t – it doesn’t register with her at all. Yeah. [both laugh]
JANA – Oh my god. I really loved the passage where the Medicaid examiners, etc. came in. It gives an outsider perspective of this team of people who want to help, they see Rita for who she is, and in a way, I feel like you get a different perspective on your mother and yourself based on things that they say and tell you.
ELISSA – Right.
JANA – Dora telling you, You fall for her games every time. That must have been a relief for you in a way to have some folks paying attention?
ELISSA – Right. Yeah, it is really an interesting thing when an outsider throws open the window and says, No, no, no, this is who you really are, and this is how the world sees you. And this is how the world sees her. And I mentioned earlier that, you know, my mother and I suffered from very – and continue to – I mean, it is like being someone in sort of like active addiction. I mean, we are completely addicted to each other. And if I don’t hear from her at a certain point every day, I start to kind of twitch a little bit. And if she doesn’t hear from me, X number of times a day, she starts to twitch and she gets upset.
ELISSA – So we have these sort of physiological responses to distance and boundaries. And so, if you would envision, like a tumbleweed, you know, we sort of roll through life together that way. And even putting the two hours of distance between my mother and myself in order to save my own life and have my own life, that resulted in many more phone calls – like, you know, every day – and my mother’s crankiness and acrimony, and resentment and all of those things, and I would get sucked in and we would roll through life together into some sort of tumbleweed of fury and rage.
ELISSA – And so these people come in from the outside, and they reduce us instantly to, Are you aware of the fact that she says these things because it’s a game for her? And, This is your language. This is how you communicate. And you know, It’s not normal, and it’s not healthy. And if you’re not careful, she is going to outlive you. And you know, one of the nurse practitioners who comes to visit her that day actually said those words to us. Said those words to me. And it was the first time that someone looked at me and basically said, you know, You are in your 50s, and you are giving this woman every ounce of energy that you can give her, and you’re going to have to be careful, because if you’re not, she could outlive you. And then, you know, what will your life have been, really? And you know, is it enough to love someone without giving them everything? And that’s the question that I ask throughout the book.
JANA – Well, I don’t want to alarm you, but the reality is 30% of caregivers die before their care recipients. So, watch that, please.
ELISSA – Yeah, I’ll keep an eye on that. Thank you.
JANA – And it, you know, it’s for all kinds of reasons – like they’re distracted, they’re not paying attention, things happen. And they disregard their own health for lots of different reasons. But it’s pretty alarming.
ELISSA – Mm-hmm. You know, 30% is a huge number. And people are certainly living longer, I mean we all know that. And everybody’s living longer, so it’s not only just the, you know, the seniors and the senior parents, it’s the caregivers that are living longer. And somebody said something to me the other day, you know, during an interview of – she has a great podcast called, Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books. And her mom is in, I want to say her 70s. And she said something to me along the lines of the fact that, I mean, if my mother lives into her hundreds, I could be in my 80s and caring for her.
JANA – Right. That happens.
ELISSA – And it’s – when you say something like that… it happens! And it’s unbelievable. And how does, how do you manage that? How do people do that? I don’t know.
JANA – Not well. It’s very fortuitous that your partner slash wife, Susan, had experience of her own with caregiving, right?
ELISSA – Yeah.
JANA – And her family background was really fascinating. Tell us a little bit about how maybe her experience helped you.
ELISSA – Yeah, well, my wife’s family, her mother was the youngest of 11 children. You know, big, New England, Catholic farming family, where the kids worked, you know, on the farm from the minute they could stand upright, basically. And all of the women in the family outlived the men, for a variety of reasons. So Susan’s mother lived to a couple of days before her 95th birthday. She was home the entire time. But I watched Susan goes through the caregiver trials where, you know, when it was right around 2013, my first book was out, I was on book tour for it, Susan came with me for part of it, and her mother had had a heart attack.
ELISSA – And we hired somebody to, you know, be with her and stay with her. And her mother waited until we were in Berkeley, California, where I was doing a book event. And Susan’s phone rang. And it was the neighbor saying that her mother had fired the caregiver while Susan was on the other side of the country.
JANA – Wow. Strategic.
ELISSA – Right. She had totally – you know, not only willful like a child, but strategic. You know, my kid is going to be 3,000 miles away, unable to do anything, there isn’t anybody else. And so we raced back and we hired a new caregiver, went back out on book tour. That caregiver was taken out of the house in an ambulance, having suffered a case of stress-related Meniere’s disease. And you know, and Susan’s mother at this point was 91… I want to say 90, 91.
ELISSA – And finally, we said, Fine, if you want to try and live alone, you know, okay. And we’re giving you a month, and we’ll see how it works. And of course, it didn’t work, and she confused her medication and tried to drive and to do all of those things. And we ultimately had to hire somebody to live with her full time. And the last few months were angry, and she didn’t want anybody there. And she still thought she could be by herself. And as grown children of seniors, these are stories we hear over and over and over again. And I’m convinced that in the best of circumstances, it’s not easy. In the worst of circumstances, it can be very, very traumatic for all parties. But in the best of circumstances, it can be just very difficult. And I know very few people whose parents are happy to have a caregiver, or happy to be in an assisted living facility. And, you know, they want their old lives back. And I understand that. I get that.
JANA – Sure. Yeah, absolutely. I know that you were a serious athlete when you were younger. You played a lot of tennis. And since leaving New York, you started running. Are you still doing that?
ELISSA – Um, I was running until I had a really bad back injury last year.
JANA – What sort of self-care are you doing?
ELISSA – Oh… my goodness.
JANA – That’s what that was leading to.
ELISSA – Oh, okay. The inevitable self-care question.
JANA – The inevitable question.
ELISSA – Right, so the inevitable self-care question. I am right now getting back into running. I have never been a runner. As you said, I was a very athletic kid and I was, even as, you know, as recently as 20 years ago I was a ranked squash player in New York City and a very active skier, and I discovered that when you move out of the city, and you don’t have to walk everywhere, and you have to drive everywhere, it takes a lot of work to maintain any kind of active life. You know, you have to drive to the gym, you have to drive to the track, you have to drive everywhere.
ELISSA – So I started running. I was never a runner, I’m sort of like a wanna be runner, and I discovered that I really liked it. And then I had a terrible injury and wound up having, you know, spinal injections and all of that kind of stuff. And it was ill-advised. But I mean, they work for some people, I gather, but. And I stopped at one point and I was like, okay, you know, what does your body really need? What does it really need? And during the time, the really acute period where I was caring for my mom and trying to make sure that all of her needs were met, I really put my own self-care and my own physical needs on the shelf. I just ignored them, and pretty much gave everything that I could give to my mother and her care.
ELISSA – And so it caught up with me. And it does catch up with you. you know. And I had a yoga practice for a long time that was really, really wonderful, and I’d like to get back to that. I discovered how important regular body work is. So I do a regular massage probably once or twice a month. I have a spectacular acupuncturist and I am, as we speak, trying to re-evaluate the role of wine in my life. That’s, you know, that’s the other thing that a lot of caregivers will say, Oh, yeah, yeah, you know, you know, rose all day, that kind of thing.
JANA – I’ve never heard that one.
ELISSA – So trying to sort of – I was gonna say re-jigger, but that would not be a good choice of words. [both laugh] So yeah, so that’s something that has been…
JANA …it’s a process.
ELISSA – It’s a process. It really is. Yeah.
JANA – Well, I don’t want to give away the ending, but I feel like I really earned that ended when I got through that book, because it feels lighter. And I was so happy. And it was so moving. Really, really moving. But I’m not going to say anything more about the ending, except that I feel like I earned it. What do you want readers to take away from this book, Elissa?
ELISSA – Um, you know, I want readers to take away – and without being trite or canned, or any of those things – that the possibility for, if not healing then understanding is there, even in the most impossible of relationships. I think that, for me, it was, I don’t know that I would say it was a gift. But I had as a writer, I had to do what most memoirists do when they write, which is, by necessity, I had to step back from my own story in order to write it from a narratorial standpoint.
ELISSA – And in doing that, I simultaneously saw myself and my mother, you know, as two characters in, you know, for lack of a better way to describe it, you know, two characters in literature, you know, moving through time together. And I was able to see her with all of her – not only her faults, but the fact of her as an amazing survivor, which she is. And myself as a survivor. And that was a real gift. So the understanding that the possibility for, you know, reevaluation and understanding people you think that you will never understand and never get along with – it’s there. It’s always there. Sometimes you have to get really quiet and back away from it, and listen, and look closely at it, and remove yourself from the center of it. And that was a huge, huge gift. Huge gift.
JANA – Mm-hmm. One of the things that occurred to me was that on this particular book tour, you’re probably meeting people or having exchanges with people that are quite different from those that you met on your previous book tour. Are you getting caregivers coming up to you and sharing stories?
ELISSA – Oh, yeah. I mean, we when I was in Washington, actually, no, it was Books And Books in Coral Gables, in Florida, and the event manager actually had to shut down the questions, because everybody has a mother, or everybody has a father, and everybody you know, is a mother or a father or not. But everyone wanted to talk about issues of caregiving and emotional issues and practical issues. And, you know, everyone wanted to tell the story of you know, having a difficult relationship with a mom. And it’s such a universal truth that we all work at our relationships with our mothers, whether we do it now or we did if they’re passed.
ELISSA – And I think the most interesting thing for me, though, was the fact that I’ve been speaking to very culturally diverse groups of people. So there was an Asian woman in one of my readings, who raised her hand and said, I have to take my mother in. That’s what we do. And I don’t know what I’m going to do, and I don’t know how I’m going to survive it. And when she said, Well, that’s what we do. I thought, I could say to her, Well, you have other choices, but in fact, she doesn’t. That is what culturally requires that she does. And she will do it, and she will find ways to survive it and to come out on the other side of it. So people of every background, every color, every socio-economic background, and that has been – talk about a gift for me. I mean, that’s been really, really wonderful. I have learned as much from the people I’ve spoken to, as they might have from the book.
JANA – Wow, that sounds like a great place to end. Do you have any last thoughts that you would like to leave with folks before we close?
ELISSA – You know, I think two things, I think that caregiving, and this is probably something that’s said a lot but cannot be repeated enough: caregiving is a marathon, it’s not a sprint. And self-care is very important. Boundary setting is very important. And if you can’t care for yourself, then you can’t care for anyone else. And that’s immensely important. That and the fact that you may be surprised at where the role of caregiver takes you. As I said, you know, as you opened our conversation with, I did not expect my relationship with my mother to change in the way that it did.
JANA – How about you? How did it change you? You’ve kind of alluded to this throughout the conversation, but maybe you can put it a different way.
ELISSA – Yeah, you know, my goal in life was to get as far away from someone who was the source of trauma, lifetime trauma for me, just to get away from her and to save myself. And, you know, that was the, you know, the fight or flight instinct kicking in, in me. And all of this time, you know, all of these years later, it’s been three years since her accident. What I have come away with is, I think, a lot more patience, far better boundaries. 14 phone calls in one day is not normal under any circumstance. It’s just not. It’s never okay.
JANA – What are you down to?
ELISSA – We’re down to, you know, we’re down to two.
JANA – Oh, wow.
ELISSA – And I call her in the morning to make sure that she’s up, that she’s eaten, that she hasn’t fallen in the night, that, you know, all of those things are, okay. And then I call her usually at night just to make sure that, you know, she’s had a good day and make sure that she has everything she needs. And I let her give me the recap of her day and that’s what we do. But you know, it was 14 calls at one point, and that was my normal. You know, that was my okay. So boundaries – I had to relearn boundaries. And here I am at 56 years old, and I relearned them and they are pretty much rock solid for me now. And that’s fine. And that’s the way it should be.
JANA – We’ve been speaking with writer Elissa Altman about her new book, “Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing and Longing,” a vivid, emotional journey through the turbulent waters of Elissa’s shared life with her mother, and the mutual frenetic obsession that has defined their relationship. We’ll have links on the Agewyz website to Elissa’s book and all the ways you can connect with her. But if you want to dive right in and get a flavor of her writing, check out Elissa’s website, which is elissaaltman.com, that’s E-L-I-S-S-A-A-L-T-M-A-N dot com. Elissa, thank you so much for being on the show, and for this amazing, powerful, colorful book, “Motherland: A Memoir of Love, Loathing and Longing.”
ELISSA – Thank you so much for having me.