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May 8, 2017

Dinitia Smith on Connecting with Her Mother Through Writing Fiction

Posted by tom

Dinitia Smith’s most recent novel is THE HONEYMOON, which is based on the life of George Eliot, the famed author of MIDDLEMARCH. It shares Eliot’s passions and explores the meaning of love. In her own life, Dinitia has spent decades wanting to know more about her mother, who passed away when she was just four years old. She has missed her ardently and wished she knew more about her --- so much so that she wrote fiction about her in an effort to get to know her better.

In 1989, I wrote my second novel, REMEMBER THIS. It’s a fictional work, but it contained elements of what I remember of my mother. To write it, I mined my memory, trying to recreate her, her sweet voice. But how much of it was true, I don’t know.

Perhaps it is a memory that could only be found through writing a book. This is what I remember of her: red-blonde hair that, in my memory, is like gossamer shimmering with light, pulled up and away from her face. She’s wearing a gray v-neck dress with big shoulders in the fashion of the 1950s. Her voice is lilting with the slightly southern intonations of her American background.

We are in England, right after the War. I am four years old. She is playing the piano in a room with French windows that look out onto a garden that has topiary in it. She is braiding my hair and telling me not to go out into the alleyway behind this garden because there are “bogey men” there.

She becomes pregnant and grows sick with toxemia, for what seems like months. I’m not allowed to disturb her, so I sit on the floor in the hallway outside her bedroom door, watching it. Now and then, a maid comes out carrying an enamel bowl. Then, one day, while I’m absent at nursery school, an ambulance comes and takes her to the hospital, in an effort to protect me from seeing her go away.

Shortly after, I’m riding my tricycle along the pavement, my father striding alongside me. “Mommy has gone to Jesus,” he tells me.

“What happened to the baby?” I ask.

“I’m afraid the baby died with her,” he says. I’m calm about the news and I don’t cry --- perhaps because she’s been sick for so long it seems, and not there. We will be all right, I think. I can take care of my father, though I’m only four and a half.

My father remarries. But, like so many relationships between stepparents and the children they’ve inherited, it is vexed. As much as my stepmother might have wished to, she couldn’t replace my mother.

It’s not until I’m in my 20s and I’m visiting the tiny town in America from which she came that the reality of her death hits me. I’m sitting with the funeral director’s wife who was her best friend in high school. It was she who received my mother’s body when it arrived for burial from England. She remembers it was a pine box, and that my mother was still covered with blood from the delivery table. The woman tells me she couldn’t quite understand. “Perhaps that’s the way they do things in Great Britain,” she says.

And it’s then that the overwhelming grief comes over me. That afternoon, I sob in the arms of the friend who’s with me. It comes to me, all the darkness and anger.

But who is she? People tell me she was sweet, and a good pianist. But that’s all. After a while, I cease asking about her in frustration at the pat answers. Did she have no qualities that would make her human, real, no tiny flaws?

Ever since, my life has been a search for her. My beloved husband is my lover, my friend, and a parent too, nurturing and reassuring. But I have an odd tendency to fall in love with other peoples’ mothers. Those who have mothers, to me, come from another country, a foreign place. I have existed in a land that they can’t know.

Sometimes now, as the years have passed, I go back to REMEMBER THIS to see what I wrote about her. Because it was so long ago, perhaps it contains some truth, some fact, that I have since forgotten. Perhaps I can find her there.