Alice Eve Cohen didn’t expect her mother to take center stage in her memoir. But as she was writing about a very challenging year in the life of her family, her late mother seemed to appear, on the page and at the kitchen table.
“What is she doing here, I wondered,” she says in an interview in a café near her Manhattan home. She came to see that her story of her two daughters, one adopted and one biological, was also the story of her relationship with her mother, who died more than 35 years ago. Cohen, a solo theater artist, playwright and author of a previous memoir, has written an honest, compassionate and beautifully crafted story about being a mother and a daughter.
I have to admit, Cohen had me hooked with the title and didn’t let up. Many who have lost a parent have had the fantasy, yearning or hope she names, “The Year My Mother Came Back” (Algonquin).
The memoir covers 2008-2009: That year, Cohen’s youngest daughter Eliana needed to have serious surgery and her older daughter Julia, who was about to leave for college, decided to seek out her biological mother. At the same time, the author was diagnosed with breast cancer and required surgery. The book also flashes back to Cohen’s early life.
Cohen’s mother Louise Giventer Cohen had breast cancer when the author was 12 and she then had disfiguring surgery; Cohen felt that her loving mother became a shadow of herself. This mother and daughter then had a complicated and difficult connection, although by the time the author was completing Princeton, things warmed up between them again. Two weeks after they had dinner together and “seemed to accept each other lovingly,” Louise died suddenly, not of cancer, but of a cerebral hemorrhage. Alice was 22, devastated by the loss.
Louise was “a woman of her times and ahead of her time,” Cohen says. She was a left-wing intellectual, a sociologist and professor at Columbia who, because of her family and other duties, never had time to finish her dissertation. Cohen remembers her mother “typing as fast as she can” on the typewriter she’d had since she was a Barnard student — Louise wrote thousands of pages, working on it for much of her adult life. A social activist and feminist, Louise took her daughters campaigning for civil rights; she played tennis, made chicken soup and would throw salt over her left shoulder to keep away bad spirits.
But in the years since her mother’s death, Cohen had intentionally put Louise out of her mind, other than around the anniversary of her death, when the light of June days would flood her with memories.
She writes, “I exiled her, like banishing an errant boyfriend from my thoughts; burying my memories of her as deep as I could, so my unrelieved longing for her — and my anger at her — would go away.”
The memoir is a powerful story of forgiveness — forgiving her mother, forgiving herself, realizing that it’s OK not to be a perfect mother. Revisiting their relationship, she comes to understand Louise in a way that she didn’t in her youth, “to reconcile in a way that has benefited me and benefited my children.”
It’s also a story of how memory works. Cohen opens the memoir with a quote from the editor and writer William Maxwell:
“What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as a memory — meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion — is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling.”
Cohen’s first memoir, “What I Thought I Knew,” provides the backstory for this one. When she was a young woman, Cohen was told by doctors that she was infertile, and she and her then husband adopted a baby girl. About nine years later, when she was suffering from severe abdominal pain, doctors suggested that it was a symptom of menopause and when she felt worse, they thought it might be an abdominal tumor. In the emergency room, she learned that she didn’t have a tumor but was six months pregnant. She was then divorced and engaged to be married, and her fiancé (now husband) encouraged her to have the baby, even though there was evidence that the fetus was damaged by X rays, CAT scans and prescription hormones. After considering late-term abortion, at the 11th hour she decided to go ahead with childbirth.
The name Eliana means, “My God has answered me.” When Eliana was born, her body was curved like the letter C, and doctors said that she wouldn’t walk. But they were able to straighten her curved spine and lengthen her shorter leg, and now she can run several miles at a time.
When the first book was published and Eliana was asked if she was upset to learn that her mother had considered abortion, the wise fourth grader, replied, “I don’t care about what you thought of me before I was born. I care what you think of me now.” Now 15, Eliana has known all along that she is greatly loved.
That Cohen is a playwright and performer enhances her writing style. She has an ear for dialogue and a feeling for vivid characters that drive the plot.
“I think of the story of my memoir as I might think of telling a dramatic story in a play,” she says.
She has been drawn to Jewish themes in her plays, which include “Oklahoma Samovar,” based on her own family’s experience of coming to America from Latvia in 1889 and heading to Oklahama; a children’s play, “Hannah and the Hollow Challah”; a solo show based on her memoir “What I Thought I Knew”; and a multimedia piece about the Golem. She also acted in Joseph Chaiken’s production of “The Dybbuk” at the Public Theater.
To write this memoir, Cohen did research, interviewed her sisters, who remembered their mother differently, looked at old photo albums and tried to remember “what was left out — we don’t take pictures of difficult moments; I was trying to remember what was between the pages.”
She realized that she wasn’t just writing this for herself, but was writing for her mother. “She died before her contribution might have been known by as many people as might have been.”
While Cohen was working on the book, her father died at age 97. After consulting with her sisters, she included some details that she might not have included were he still alive. “I think the book is more complete — it tells a more honest story, of my entire family.”
Cohen grew up in Mamaroneck, where her family went to synagogue once in a while and celebrated holidays at home. At Princeton she became much more interested in Judaism. These days, she enjoys going to Congregation Beit Simchat Torah and admires its inclusivity.
At moments, she still feels her mother’s presence, even her hug. “It doesn’t matter whether she’s a ghost, or a memory, or my idea, or her idea, or God’s idea, or dust, or sound waves, or transfigured molecules, or an echo from the Cosmos. She’s here with me.”
Cohen points out that Mother’s Day (which became an official American holiday in 1914), has feminist underpinnings that would resonate for her mother. In 1870, suffragette, poet, abolitionist and author of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” Julia Howe Lord created the “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” calling on mothers to unite in promoting world peace and tried (unsuccessfully) to have a day dedicated to the cause.
Alice Eve Cohen will speak about “The Year My Mother Came Back” on a panel, “Three Memoirists on Motherhood,” with Abigail Thomas and Melissa Cistaro, on Wednesday, May 27 at 7 p.m. at McNally Jackson bookstore, 52 Prince St., Manhattan.