Judy Batalion’s mother had been an artist, a published poet who followed Leonard Cohen around Greece. When readers encounter her in her daughter’s fine memoir “White Walls: A Memoir About Motherhood, Daughterhood and the Mess In Between” (New American Library), she appears to be a shadow of that earlier self, surrounded in her Montreal home by piles of unreturned library books, thousands of videocassettes, stale danish and towers of rotting cans of tuna: Every surface is piled high with stuff, all precariously close to an avalanche.
In this domestic chaos, Judy’s father sleeps in a corner of the basement as there’s no space in their bedroom. Most nights, Judy can barely sleep due to the accumulated dust. As a young girl, she feels shame, hoping that no one at her Jewish day school notices that she gets picked up after school some days by her grandmother, on foot, rather than by a fashionable parent in a sleek car, like the others. She wouldn’t think of inviting a friend over. The author recalls “the feeling of drowning, that I’d never be able to get what I wanted because what my mother wanted was already there and I had to use that up first.”
Her memoir is in perfect pitch: The reader feels compassion for these characters, and appreciates the author’s ability to see humor as well as darkness. In alternating sections, Batalion tells two stories, her own coming-of-age and finally leaving home, and a present-day story of her marriage, her anxieties about motherhood and the birth of her two children.
Batalion’s mother — the memoir is dedicated to her but she is unnamed — was born in 1945, in Kirgizia, while the family was in transit from Siberia back to Poland. She spent her earliest years in DP camps, “born into the fresh smell of a murdered family, a refugee before she even knew what home was.” She had one doll and then none when she gave that to another girl. Later, she made sure that Judy had Barbie dolls, 100 of them.
Judy’s grandmother Zelda, who lived nearby in Montreal, was also a hoarder, filling her closets beyond capacity with already discounted clothing she’d bargain for. When Judy and her brother Eli would eat dinner there after school with their grandfather, they’d set up newspapers on the floor where the four of them would eat her grandmother’s multi-course meal of made-from-scratch food (after she haggled with grocers). Often, Zelda retold her stories, of escaping from Warsaw by swimming across a river.
It was only years later that Batalion connected their hoarding and their experience of the Holocaust, understanding that her mother had been “formed in the cadence of hiding, running, survival.” She wonders what has been passed on to her, and what she would pass along.
Judy’s father, a doctor whose family had immigrated to Canada a generation earlier, tries to maintain a semblance of normalcy. On Sundays, even in the snow, he and Judy would take long walks all over the city. In an interview, she recalls being hyper aware of everything around her. “I grew up in such a chaotic space; I needed to be like that to survive.”
Batalion attended a Workmen’s Circle school where most classmates were grandchildren of survivors, and she learned to speak Yiddish. She says, “I was extremely lucky to have been good at school — school was ordered and I got a lot of attention for doing so well. I think that saved me and got me out of the house to go to Harvard.” In fact, it was her mother who convinced her father to let her go. “I like to think,” she says, “on some level, that she knew I needed to be freed.”
After graduating from Harvard, Batalion moved to London to continue her studies in art history. She turned her academic eye to other people’s stuff, writing her doctoral thesis on domestic representation in art. “I wanted to understand what home was. My personal obsessions drove my academic interests,” she recalls. She spent a decade working as a curator in design while living in a spare, one-bedroom, white-walled apartment. While she appreciated the order she is able to maintain, she never felt quite at home. In those years, the somewhat shy Batalion did stand-up comedy in London.
She says that she has been exploring the themes of the memoir — “the same obsessions with mother-daughter relationships, with stuff” — for all of her life, whether as a student, an art historian or a stand-up comic, but always from a more distant angle than in the book, which is most intimate.
After her grandmother died in Montreal, Batalion visited from London and found things had gotten worse at home. She could barely open the doors to rooms in the house, which was overrun with plastic bags of files — her mother was involved in all sorts of legal matters related to her parents’ estate and she feared people were after her. Batalion writes, “And then there were the dozens of clocks — bright blue and orange, pink and green, thick silvery hands and thin gold numerals, flashing digital and faux grandfather, each set at a different time, the congregation asynchronous and thus tracing not only the seconds, but the seconds between the seconds, one long allegro of passing, a blaring metronome with no pause, calling to mind our internal clocks, the fragility of our rhythms, the ease with which it could all go terrifically wrong.”
Batalion never told anyone about her home situation, and her father wouldn’t speak about it either. Only once, when they visit her in London, does he stand up for Judy when her mother is being extremely difficult. Later, a social worker suggests that those who live with others’ mental illness become absorbed in it. She believes that some of that happened with her father, and that he also wanted to maintain their family harmony.
The “kismet moment” of her life was when she was living in London, dating the man who would become her husband. Jon invited her to his parents’ home to break the fast after Yom Kippur. Just before they got out of the car, he tells her, as though to warm her against the unexpected, “My mother has a lot of stuff.” It turns out that she too was a hoarder. But Jon didn’t have shame and even made some jokes as though it was a quirky habit, and she learns a lot from him.
Now, their home in the Chelsea section of Manhattan is neat and organized. She prefers not buying things, and admits that with children “it’s impossible to lead the white-walled existence I dreamed of for so long” — and she has trouble throwing out the bejeweled toilet tissue rolls her older daughter Zelda brings home from preschool.
Through her experience of motherhood and through writing, Batalion comes to feel more empathy for her mother, understands the deep trauma that her mother and grandmother experienced, and feels their enormous love for her.
These days, her mother no longer leaves the house, and is no longer accumulating additional stuff. “My mother always surprises me,” she says, recounting that after much trepidation, she showed the memoir to her mother who took her time — which made the author more anxious — and then made a suggestion that the tone in one of the chapters was off, that her mix of humor and pathos was limiting the emotional impact of the story. Judy was enormously relieved.
“Life is messy,” Batalion says, when asked about her book’s message. “You can’t really control it. And it’s possible to change family dynamics. Be honest with yourself.” She adds, “I’m not trying to teach; this is a memoir that offers my friendship to people who might experience similar things.”