Thoughts on Motherhood: Karen von Hahn
I don’t think there’s a heavier, more loaded word in the English language than “mother.”
It’s been precisely a year since my memoir about my late mother, What Remains: Object Lessons in Love and Loss, was published. I know this because the book came out just before last Mother’s Day, and this year, just as with every other passing of that day on the calendar since my mother died, my thoughts turn not only to memories of her but also inward, to what it means to be a mother myself.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to have two bright and healthy children, a girl and then a boy, both of whom are now in their twenties and have launched into what, fingers crossed, looks like the start of fulfilling and successful lives of their own. I am being literal here when I describe myself as feeling fortunate. Even though I am, and will always be, their mother — that word that now describes me ever since I learned I was first pregnant — I can’t take the credit for this. Sure, the effort and commitment required in just getting them to this point was considerable, but still their achievements are their own.
Which is a part of the puzzle that is motherhood. Once you become a mother, you are forever changed, not only physically — by the soft tummy and stretch marks — but in the way that you see yourself. Your allegiances, your concerns, are no longer primarily your own. There is no giving in, or giving up, or running away from your role screaming — even though you may feel like it at times. It’s a job from which there is no possibility of resigning, or even just taking a day off, ever, and regardless of whether you ever intended it as part of a process of self-transformation, the way that you see yourself will be different forever afterwards. Even after the baby has left your body and entered the outside world, you are no longer really alone, including inside your own head.
That your children have always been entirely separate beings whose essential purpose is to separate from you is the plot twist of this domestic drama. You may have literally conceived them, never mind watered and fed them to adulthood, but if all goes according to plan they will fly the coop and leave you alone with these thoughts. No wonder we find ourselves puzzling what it all meant after the kids have grown and gone. And that’s when we’ve been fortunate enough that everything has unfolded as it should.
Surely the absence I still feel over the loss of my own mother offers proof that this relationship is not only essential and defining, but, ultimately, reciprocal and eternal. For as much as I will always be the mother of my own children, I am also, and forever, my mother’s child too.
Being left with a strand of even the highest quality milky-white pearls isn’t quite the same thing as pearls of wisdom to live by, as Karen von Hahn reveals in her memoir about her stylish and captivating mother, Susan — a mercurial, grandiose, Guerlain-and-vodka-s
oaked narcissist whose search for glamour and fulfillment through the acquisition and collection of beautiful things ultimately proved hollow.
A tale of growing up in 1970s and 1980s Toronto in the fabulousness of a bourgeois Jew-ish family that valued panache over pragmatism and making a design statement over substance, von Hahn’s recollections of her dramatic and domineering mother are exemplified by the objects she held most dear: from a strand of prized pearls, to a Venetian mirror worthy of the palace of Versailles, to the silver satin sofas that were the epitome of her signature style. She also describes the misunderstandings and sometimes hurt and pain that come with being raised by her stunning, larger-than-life mother who in many ways embodied the flash-and-glam, high-flying, wealth-accumulating generation that gave birth to our modern-day material culture.
Alternating between satire and sadness, von Hahn reconstructs the past through a series of exquisitely impressionistic memories, ultimately questioning the value of the things we hold dear and — after her complicated, yet impossible-to-forget mother is gone — what exactly remains.