LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth
|A Review By Rebecca James|
|Augusta, Gone (2001) Martha Tod Dudman
"You want to push away your daughter when it gets like that. Because there's too much self-reproach in seeing her stoned, lying, dirty, lost. The kind of girl you never meant to have. And it seems as if she is the daughter that you most deserve. So you want to push her away. Get her out of your life. So you don' t have to see what you've done wrong."
Her voice has raised several decibels throughout our now fifteen minute conversation. I hold my cell phone a few inches from my ear as I crouch by my computer, hoping my students, currently captivated with their latest installment of the film Of Mice and Men, cannot hear their classmate's mother's frustration. I can tell she's struggling not to cry even as her angerfortunately not directed at meseeps across the line. Her daughter, an honor's level student, has been missing from school for a number of days. Thirty-three, to be exact. I can see her, confronted with the lies she has believed, crushed by the thought that her honesty with and love for her daughter wasn't enough. "I've done everything! Counseling, doctors, tests, restrictions, contracts, you name it!" Again, her frustration and disappointment is palpable. She is a woman who has exhausted her normal options with her daughter, and she's asking me for help. And I am lost.
A few months ago, I lost my mom to breast cancer. It was a long, drawn out, and miserable experience to witness; I am simultaneously comforted and hurt more by the closeness we developed over the past decade. Before that, however, she could have stepped into the role of the mother on the phone, lacking options and trust and energy to handle the girl who used to be her pride. The weight of my teenage rebellion catches me off guard sometimes; it's long past and I earned back her trust and, eventually, admiration long ago, but still the crushing mass will suddenly stomp on my chest, often when I am at the height of frustration dealing with my fickle adolescent students. Thank god I am not your mother, I think to myself. Then I blush because I was so terrible, and I have left so much unsaid.
Martha Tod Dudman found herself in my mother and my student's mother's positions, and decided to document her helplessness through the twisted mess of her daughter's decisions. I have a penchant for memoirs, and Augusta, Gone (2001) is no exception. It took me awhile, but I figured out what was different about this one. I normally review memoirs that depict the dysfunctional family through the eyes of the adult child. I often choose those tinged with (or dripping with) sarcasm and self-deprecating humor. David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, Robert Leleux, Jeanette Walls. But where are the parents? Do they get a say? Did it seem logical to them to make the choices that their children have spun and disseminated as disastrous and dangerous? As a teenager, I hated, sobbed, thrashed out against my mom. She was irrational, controlling, and didn't love me. Right?
In Augusta, Gone, Dudman finds it difficult to pinpoint exactly when she should have known Augusta was not a normal teenage rebel. Not that it mattersshe would have been at a loss to make different choices. Like the student whose mother I could not help, she couldn't bear the sweet-faced lies that fell so easily from her daughter's lips. Reading her lamentation, I cringed. A memory of myself, huddled by a pay phone with a group of kids I barely knew, taking a swig from a bottle and dialing home to report my whereabouts in a fake, sweet, sing-song voice and ignoring the clenching in my gut as my mother bought my lies. Augusta does the same.
Dudman retrieves her, time and again, from her hangouts: "I can smell the deceit. I can smell the sad torn sex of the place, the dirty laundry of the place, the yeast-infections, old-beer, cigarette-butt smell of the place. The stale pennies, the crumpled dollar bills, the old-pizza, faded-baseball smell of a place like this." And Dudman knows it well because she herself was a true product of the 60s who drove her own mother wild with anguish.
Augusta, like me, more than likely like my student, disappears for days at a time. Her mother is consumed by the gap she leaves behind. "I sit at my nice desk all neat and tidy with my lists of things to doall my careful lists of slightly unpleasant or dull or scary chores and little rewards in the eveningordering something out of a catalogue, something that will transform this dreary October landscape with its slashing skies and windy rain-swept trees and wild patches of unmelted snowtransform it into yes a summer afternoon with light light linen clothes in colors that seem like inspiration: butter, straw, sage, wheat.[...]I'd invent words that have never been used for colors before. I'd invent words that would be understood by the women who lie on their couches in the evening with their stacks of catalogues, who roam the Web looking at pictures of things that they might buy. They wouldn't even need swatches. These are the colors they would recognize. Heartbreak. Divorce. Terror. Missing Child."
I think of my own mother as I read these words. Of how I came back, unrepentant, angry, un-acknowledging or unaware of the colors that must have tinged my mother's weeks.
Augusta's story (and mine, and with luck, my student's) ends positively. An alternative school in Maine presents an experience that finally reaches Augusta. It was actually the school that drew me to the memoir in the first place, but it was finally recognizing my own narcissism in my student and in Augusta that kept me frantically reading late into the night. Augusta, Gone is a powerful awakening for any adult child ready to face the music.
Rebecca James divides her time between teaching and graduate study in Allentown, Pennsylvania and reading and relaxing in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 18, No. 03 April 04, 2008