Albion Monitor /Commentary

Family Matters

by Sara Peyton

Early this month a new collection of short stories, essays, and poems by Sonoma County women writers will pop up at local book stores. It is my good fortune to be one of the 27 writers included in Cartwheels on the Faultline, an anthology collected by Forestville writer Barbara Baer and her good friend and mystery writer, Maureen Jennings.

Still, this first venture into published fiction has revealed some pressing unresolved family matters. Stumbling about these sensitive issues, I find myself at 44 acting about five.

Why? Because I have written a mother-daughter story that I don't think my own mother should read. Even my sisters caution against revealing any information about this story during Christmas in Maine -- where I'm headed in a few weeks to visit my mother with my husband and sons in tow. Otherwise, they warn, our unique version of Home for the Holidays may mutate into Silence of the Lambs.

The story reveals much -- perhaps too much -- about my own real relationship with my mother

Here are the facts. I am from a large family and all of them except me live in New England or New York. To date, I have not told any of my parents -- and they include a mother and step-father, father and step-mother -- about the upcoming publication. Of my seven younger brothers and sisters only a few semi-trustworthy sisters -- and show me a family that can genuinely keep a secret and I'll go join it -- have learned of my short story dilemma. Even more absurd, I have secretly stopped my mother's subscription to a local newspaper so that she will learn nothing of the book. Come to think of it my father may have subscription, too. I may have to stop his tomorrow.

The story, Camel's Hair Coat, depicts a fictional event -- well, really a non-event because not much happens. But a testiness in the relationship of the two characters, Joan and Kate, the mother and the daughter, who are off to an antique auction in Maine on a frozen January night, reveals much -- perhaps too much -- about my own real relationship with my mother.

In the story, the mother admits her envy of her daughter's few accomplishments. Family lies are recounted; forbidden family subjects are identified. The details of the story are actual fictions. Still, they expose emotional truths as I have experienced them. The unfolding tale is about the frost that stiffens our close relationships, until something unexpected comes along and cuts through our frozen cravings.

In this story, Joan's unanticipated yearning to lean on Kate breaks through the hardened formalities of their relationship. The story builds to a single moment of pure emotional contact between two adult women, who happen to be mother and daughter.

I find myself feeling like an unwed, pregnant teen, nervously concealing my growing belly from my parents

In real life, there remains my need for my mother's approval and my fear of her Kali-like rage. My story is ultimately all about love, but I worry my own mother would not interpret it that way. Sure I'd like to plow through all the dread and uncover a more powerful connection with my mother. But, perhaps at another time.

I have spoken to other writers about this conflict. One told me her father never understood how she could describe him as anything less than perfect, and then share those feelings with the world in the form of a published essay. If she had to do it again, her father would have never read it. Another woman says her father loved a poem about him, a poem recounting childhood memories of his warm hugs and sweet smells. Though pleased to be honored in verse, this dad was equally happy the magazine was obscure and that his friends were unlikely to read it.

Funny how I never thought this through prior to submitting my story to Barbara Baer. Now I find myself feeling like an unwed, pregnant teen, nervously concealing my growing belly from my parents, but choosing to give up the baby for adoption rather than abort. The truth is, I wanted to publish my most prized fiction effort. I wanted to jump off my sturdy writing platform and try out some literary shaky ground. And, I'm not the only one.

In Cartwheels, Robin Beeman and Laura del Fuego, masterful fiction writers, offered personal essays. Those we have turned to so often as teachers -- Marianne Ware, J.J. Wilson, Peg Ellingson, Joyce Griffin, Karen Petersen -- shared personal stories. The self-described reporters -- Susan Swartz, Miriam Silver, Simone Wilson, and myself turned in short stories.

One day I plan to talk to my mother about Camel's Hair Coat. I will tell her how much I enjoyed writing it; how I began to think about her more tenderly after I finished it. And, I will admit I'm still the five-year-old girl who is running as fast as I can around the house, as my mother angrily chases me for accidentally spraying the living room with the garden hose.

Still the one saying, catch me if you can, and when you do, hug me, too, because I love you so.

[Editor's note: With Sara's permission, we have made available her short story, The Camel's Hair Coat. It appears in Cartwheels on the Faultline: Works by Twenty-seven Sonoma County Women, collected by Barbara L. Baer and Maureen Jennings, Forestville: Floreant Press, 1995, 294 pp., $12.50]

Albion Monitor December 3, 1995 (

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