Publication Date: 5/5/2015
My Rating: 4 Stars
Coming in Paperback
Feb 2, 2016
This provocative, poignant memoir of a daughter whose mother left her behind by choice begs the question: Are we destined to make the same mistakes as our parents?
One summer, Melissa Cistaro's mother drove off without explanation Devastated, Melissa and her brothers were left to pick up the pieces, always tormented by the thought: Why did their mother abandon them?
Thirty-five years later, with children of her own, Melissa finds herself in Olympia, Washington, as her mother is dying. After decades of hiding her painful memories, she has just days to find out what happened that summer and confront the fear she could do the same to her kids. But Melissa never expects to stumble across a cache of letters her mother wrote to her but never sent, which could hold the answers she seeks.
Haunting yet ultimately uplifting, Pieces of My Mother chronicles one woman's quest to discover what drives a mother to walk away from the children she loves. Alternating between Melissa's tumultuous coming-of-age and her mother's final days, this captivating memoir reveals how our parents' choices impact our own and how we can survive those to forge our own paths.
A special thank you to Sourcebooks and NetGalley for an ARC exchange for an honest review.
Ideal for Book Club and further discussions. Coming in Paperback Feb 2, 2016
Melissa Cistaro courageously steps out to deliver a poignant memoir, PIECES OF MY MOTHER, a heartbreaking story, drawn from memory, letters, and early recollections of her own childhood and family trials.
While trying to sort out her troubled family and a mother who left when she was a small girl, she reflects as a grown woman, while looking at her own family, and wonders genetics can spill over and make you question yourself as a mother. Are we destined to repeat our past environment?
Perfect timing as we approach Mother’s Day, to appreciate our mothers, and realize some children do not always have the proper parents—ones to love and protect them, to serve as viable role models for their children. These children grow up always wondering if they were to blame for their parent’s absence, and desperately seek love and validation.
As a child, Melissa sees her mother drive off while her dad informs the family their mother is "taking a break" from everyone and not very forthcoming about the details. They can only hope she will return for their birthday, or possibly a special holiday. However, when she does, is she really there? She and her brothers--Jamie and Eden, alone without a mother.
Now a mother herself, how can she tell her daughter a dark truth, she was leavable and unkeepable. What if there is some sort of genetic family flaw, some kind of leaving gene that unexpectedly grabs hold of mothers like the ones in her family? What if the gene is lying dormant inside of her? What if her own daughter worries she may leave one day?
She pictures her mom, a thousand miles away, and only visiting a few times, while each of the children carried "her leaving" in different ways. She took all the colors with her. She drifted in and out of their lives like live-in sitters, always seeming just out of reach. She wants her own daughter to feel safe and loved, not left the way she has always felt.
Now years later, a mom with children of her own, she finds herself in Washington, as her mother is dying. Her mom has cirrhosis and liver cancer; all the years of drinking have caught up with her. All her fears surface. She is leaving once again. She will only be sixty five in five days and she promises her own family she will be home by New Year’s Eve. Her own family needs her and wants to make sure she WILL return.
Her mom is as mysterious as ever, yet her mother surrounds herself with bits and pieces of life collected; a life she never really knew – the books she loved. Melissa began to fill her own notebooks, only attempting to understand her mom’s leaving, searching for memories that could rescue her. Believing that if she could dig up the goodness in the things that haunted her, there would be a chance she could save her mom, her brothers, her dad, and herself. If she can get the words right, maybe she can keep her alive. She wants desperately to understand a woman who is dying.
As she is going through her mother’s things, she finds folders, letters, treasures, and all the while she recalls the days she was afraid to move to yet another house, for the fear her mom may not be able to find them; if and when, she would come back. Now, letters her mom never sent may provide her comfort and answers. Her mom and dad were both hoarders, coveting treasures and not one of these items will keep her alive. She too suffers from hanging on to things.
However, as she reads her mom’s letters, thirty-six years have passed since she watched the her mom drive away in her baby-blue Dodge Dart, she still wonders what if she had called out to her, would she have stayed? Now she has to make the decision to leave her mom to die, to get back to her own family and a miracle of her own.
A deeply moving complex, honest portrayal of family, of motherhood, yet uplifting and captivating; alternating between Melissa and her mother, we see firsthand how a parent’s choices impact their children’s lives for generations to come with emotional devastation.
From regret, understanding, acceptance, to forgiveness; a book of the strong bonds of love and motherhood. What doesn't kill you, will fortunately make you stronger.
(author photo © Adam Karsten)
About the Author
Melissa Cistaro’s stories have been published in numerous literary journals, including the New Ohio Review, Anderbo.com, and Brevity as well as the anthologies CHERISHED and LOVE and PROFANITY. She works as a bookseller and event coordinator at Book Passage, the esteemed independent bookstore in Northern California. Melissa graduated with honors from UCLA and followed her literary pursuits through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program and the Tin House Writer’s Workshop in Portland.
Between the years of raising her children, writing, bookselling, teaching horseback riding, and curating a business in equestrian antiques – Melissa completed her first memoir. Pieces of My Mother will be released on May 5th 2015. Website Twitter @melissacistaro
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a house underwater
Bun--Bun notices my mom outside before I do. He tells me about it. We watch her walk toward her car. She’s wearing her summer dress that is the color of ripe avocados. Her brown purse, slung over her shoulder, is as fat as the raccoon that crawls into our garbage cans late at night, and she has an armful of clothes hooked into her elbow. Her favorite coat drops onto the pavement.
It doesn’t look like a coat the way it crumples up on the ground.
I know that coat so well, every bit of tan, brown, yellow, and red—-every small wooden button. So many times I have traced the curling patterns and small rows of dots with my fingertip, and my mom always reminds me that the pattern is called “paisley.” She turns around, picks up her favorite paisley coat, and tosses it on top of the pile of clothes she’s already put in the backseat of her blue car, then slams the car door shut.
As she turns around to look back at the house, I have Bun--Bun do a little wave and a dance as I duck below the window in my room. She’ll think Bun--Bun has really come to life. His tan head and floppy ears are made of real rabbit fur that only recently began to shed around his green eyes and on the tips of his ears. I know how to make him look like he’s hopping through a field. I lift my eyes just above the ledge. My mom is standing next to the car looking down at her feet.
I am supposed to be taking a nap, but it’s too hot and I don’t like to sleep. During nap time my whole room comes to life and anything can happen. Stuffed animals talk to each other, fairies fly out of the wall sockets, and plastic horses gallop across the hardwood floor. My brother told me that when I’m five like him, I won’t have to stay in my room during nap time.
For days now the air has been like fire, so hot that it ripples above the concrete and makes things outside look like they are underwater. It is the kind of heat that has made our next--door neighbor’s dogs hide underneath our house where it’s cool and dusty. Mr. Bird, who owns the dogs, came over and told us this just yesterday.
“Dogs know what to do with themselves when California heats up like this, but not people,” he said. “It’s the kind of heat that could cause some folks to snap.” And when he said that word, “snap,” he took the toothpick out of his teeth and broke it in two. Then he laughed like he thought he was clever. Later, I saw his broken toothpick on our porch and kicked it into the dead grass where it got lost in all the yellow.
I open my bedroom door and peer into the living room. My brother Eden is asleep on the couch with a box of Lucky Charms wedged underneath his arm. The TV is on and I watch for a moment as Underdog flies across the gray screen, and I remember that my brother Jamie isn’t here. He’s almost six and the oldest. He left the house earlier to go swimming in his friend Bobby Winston’s pool. My mom was mad when Mrs. Winston showed up early to grab Jamie for swimming. She told Mrs. Winston that she only had two cigarettes left and didn’t want to go out to the store in the heat.
When Mom is out of cigarettes, she counts on Jamie to be here with Eden and me so she can run down to the corner market. If she has to wait too long to get them, the house begins to swell with noise—-the clap of cupboards opening and closing, the crack of the ice--cube tray slamming against the counter, and her voice rising over ours like a mockingbird.
I wish that Mrs. Winston had offered to lend her some cigarettes or get her some, but she didn’t. She just pointed to her hairdo, which she called a “beehive,” and said, “This darn heat is just killing me and my hair too.”
After Mrs. Winston left, my mom said she thought that hairstyle looked “goddamn ridiculous.” I picked up the box of cigarettes lying on the table and carried it to my mom. She tapped the last two out of the package. Then we sat side by side on the plaid couch as she smoked each of them. Out of her red shiny lips came rings of smoke like little white doughnuts floating through the air. I reached up and stuck my finger through the center of one. She pulled my arm away and whispered, “No, just watch.”
She said she liked it when the rings began to lose their shape and stretch out. She said they were beautiful the way they disappeared. I didn’t like it when they went away. I preferred it when they first came out of her red lips and looked like powdered doughnuts.
“Make more,” I said. And she did, like magic, over and over.
With my brother Eden asleep and Underdog ducking back into a telephone booth, I sneak past them and into the kitchen where our old fan is clunking around in circles, but no cool air is coming out. On the counter there is a pitcher of sticky orange Kool--Aid with three black flies floating on the surface. The sight of the soggy flies makes me uneasy, and in an instant, the heat feels like it will swallow me. I want my dad to come home from work.
I race back to the window in my room to see if my mom is coming back in. She is standing in the same place. I want to tell her that it is too hot out there for her, that she could melt. But she’s stuck out there, it seems, and I’m stuck in here.
I need her to come back in the house. I need her to tell me that nap time is over and that tonight we will go to Fosters Freeze where the ice cream races out of a noisy machine and into perfect swirls of vanilla and chocolate.
Instead, she opens the car door and gets in. I lay my hand against my bedroom window. The glass is warm and it feels like I can almost reach her.
I know this is not a trip to get cigarettes.
I want to yell out to her: “Please don’t leave…” I am trying to say it. But nothing comes out. I just watch her without blinking once. Bun--Bun and I both have stupid plastic eyes and sewed--on mouths. Inside of us there is nothing but sawdust.
Then I see her mouth break open wide like a fish gasping for air. She is crying inside her car. The air wobbles above the concrete. Everything is underwater. It crosses my mind that I could swim to her if I knew how. Jamie does; he would swim to her if he were here.
I press my forehead against the glass and swallow every word I know. Underwater, everything is quiet and full of ripples. My mom is a mermaid as she swims away from me, her thick hair waving like strands of long seaweed. I don’t hear the sound of the car engine starting up, but I watch as my mom backs up and drives away in her baby--blue Dodge Dart.
Jamie says he was bad and that’s why Mom left. Eden cries the most and spends extra time in the backyard looking for gypsy moths and black crickets to kill. I collect small boxes from around the house—-empty Band--Aid tins, Lipton Tea containers, and Lucky Strike matchboxes. They are tiny suitcases that I can hide things in. Anything I want: buttons, bad thoughts, daisy petals, and even the shiny sequins that fall off my Christmas stocking. I put these small boxes just beneath my windowsill, all lined up and in order, and keep them there so that I can show them to my mom when she comes back.
Our dad tells us she’s taking “a break” from us for a while but he doesn’t like to talk about it. Jamie says maybe we will see her when the weather cools down. Or maybe she will come if one of us has a birthday. I keep hoping it is all a mistake. When I hear laughing late at night outside our house, I stay awake in case it is her coming back. And sometimes I hear the radio next door shouting out songs she would sing along to. I can feel her swaying me in her arms and singing “Good--bye, Ruby Tuesday.” I am waiting for her to come bolting through the front door and never stop hugging us again.
A sitter, who is not our mom, comes to live at our house so our dad can go back to work. And when that sitter gets tired of us, a new one arrives. Everyone says I am too young to remember what’s happened and that children my age simply don’t remember the details. I can’t blame them for saying that. But I am as quiet as a cat, watching everyone and everything. Buy the Book
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