As Long As I Know You: The Mom Book
by Anne-Marie Oomen
We will all experience mother loss. Yet, our mothers are also eternally with us, their formative presences lodging in our beings in ways that run the gamut from interstitial balm to sharp-edged irritant. How we lose our mothers is shaped by a larger culture and economy of medical and elder care that often compels families to confront terrible choices. Nonetheless, for those of us whose mothers have lived or will live into elderhood, we may also have the opportunity to renew and enrich this primary relationship through attention and accumulating insight.
In her exquisite, moving and resonant memoir, As Long as I Know You: The Mom Book, Anne-Marie Oomen tells the story of a gradual reclaiming of intimacy with her mother. It’s a story of two complex, remarkable women bound by blood yet repelled by decades of difference and disappointment. They are on divergent paths. Her mother has left behind a fierce, energetic competence and is moving into the body/mind deteriorations of old age. Her oldest adult child is on the brink of retreat from decades of rebellion, holding tight to hard-earned independence but beginning to question rigid assumptions about her mother. As their paths cross, they find each other surprised by friendship.
The narrative tension of these contrapuntal journeys builds as waves in chapters that both interconnect and stand alone, gem-like essays that each lead to a revelation or insight that pulls the reader onward. A poet and award-winning playwright, as well as memoirist, Oomen writes vivid scenes with a voice that brings character and place alive, while using metaphor and diction to render the duality of memory and reflection, past and present, in achingly beautiful passages.
The “journey” of the memoir begins with an ending, the death of a beloved father: “In the CCU in Ludington Memorial Hospital, on the western knuckle of Michigan’s high-five hand, my ninety-one year old father, my beloved and gentle father, is wrapped in the apparatus of crisis. We, the family—his wife, five adult children, numerous grandchildren—have gathered, standing around the bed that is strangled in tubes, standing in sudden understanding.”
Into the silence of that shocked and “sudden understanding”, their frail mother gathers herself and says, ‘“His greatest wish was to have all of you return to the church.”’ Her words ignite a familiar incredulity and outrage in her oldest daughter, followed by a haunting, premonitory admission: “Except I know nothing of the work of grief. Except I know nothing really of her.”
And so we begin to learn about this mother, her contradictions, complexity, courage. The first chapter, “Buttons” takes the reader back in time to a childhood memory, a scene where Anne-Marie and her younger siblings are sorting buttons from a huge hat box their mother has purchased at a farm auction. The task of matching and pairing the plentiful, even dazzling spill of buttons becomes a metaphor for contrasting worlds, severed half-spheres in search of each other: Anne-Marie’s world of imagination and fantasy; her mother’s of driven pragmatism and terse utility.
As the father’s death exposes their mother’s accelerating debilities and an obvious need for help and care — rotting food in the fridge, unpaid bills, loss of mobility—we wonder whether and how these two halves traveling on cross-currents, a “child of will” and a “mother of no”, will reconnect.
The challenge for the adult children is the painful conundrum of who gives up her job, her life to move into the house by the river and provide the needed care to a woman who cannot accept her own diminished capacities, the presence of “outsiders” in her home, or the fierce isolation of her loss.
It is a generational rupture of our time. After all, we learn Anne-Marie’s Mom did what was expected of her with strength, grace and tenacity. She nursed her own mother, took in aging relatives, all while raising her five children with little extra money on a busy farm. It was a life of unending activity and chores, requiring what we might call “executive level” planning and management all while juggling bills, accidents, and the constant needs of many. In essence, she had paid her dues as a dedicated daughter, wife, mother, community member; now it was her turn to be taken in, to be cared for in her own home as she had so diligently cared for others.
But her adult children have neither time nor wherewithal to give up needed income, the self-fulfillment of careers; they will not, cannot fulfill the unspoken bargain. And so they must face the progression of choices that narrow and constrict what passes for elder care in this country.
Anne-Marie’s mother is coaxed to move into “the Manor”, an assisted living facility. But, she yearns for her home. Anne-Marie and her sisters begin to empty the house full of artifacts and memories. Eventually, even in assisted living, their mother sustains an injury that will not heal. The only answer is a move into a round-the-clock medical care facility. For any family, it is a rite of passage laced with worry, guilt and the often contorted legal machinations required to pay for it all.
Part of what makes the recounting of this tangled rite of passage so moving and engrossing is the skillful weaving of the past into the present. Memories sparked by the handling of artifacts, the increased frequency of visits and outings reveal Anne-Marie’s mother’s childhood history: the poverty, loss of a baby brother, a house fire; the escape from the West Michigan farm to Chicago as governess to the children of a well-to-do family and the widening of her world; the attraction to nursing as a profession and the completion of nursing school; the decision to marry John Oomen. Her mother’s strength, determination, energy and devotion are revealed to the reader in direct proportion to Anne-Marie’s release of old assumptions and upwelling of respect and admiration for this complex woman.
In the chapter entitled, “Bloom”, a meditation on the broken bones in her mother’s leg that will not heal leads to a breakthrough memory of her mother running on strong legs to rescue her as a very small child from the terrifying attack of a gander gone viciously territorial: “She came. She came on those long legs already rivered with veins but long striding, the long fierce stride that I would eventually inherit. She came running from the garden, running strong, saddle shoes clomping in determination as fierce as the goose’s. She kicked the goose, kicked it away as it hissed and honked—still pissed, and she pulled me into her arms . . .”.
The memory of her mother holding her, keeping her safe, leads to a reconsideration of why her mother had hesitated and made her father wait before saying a definitive “yes” to marriage. And in that reflection, there is insight: “She was sure of my father, but of marriage? She knew it would change the map she had followed, the very shape of her running her life. Her purpose would shift, would be of rescue—her children, who would be nipped by geese and fall in the dust, the farm, that all-consuming god and gander—but not independence. In this bloom of memory, that revelation. Those legs, my legs. When it came to life, we were both runners.”
The scenes of memory and the insights they yield become indelible through poetic, descriptive language. The catastrophic fire that destroys her mother’s childhood home begins with the innocuous stealth of so many crises: “No one knows when a chimney fire catches because it’s invisible, a secret inside the bricks or mortar until it escapes and proclaims, a sudden singing, darkening across the ceilings, smoke spilling down, a room gaudy in the orange gauze of overhead flames.”
In the eponymous chapter, “As Long As I Know You” her elderly mother responds to the careful question of what it is that makes her life worth living so that if she could no longer have that, her children would know to let her go, by promptly saying, “If I didn’t know you kids anymore.” Anne-Marie reflects upon the deeper impact of this knowing: “. . . the attention and intention one must muster to know a person, to honor with the eyes, voice, face, kiss, to act within this knowing . . . This is what I’m asked to hold in place—the placeholders of identity. And we, now I know: we will not let her go easily.”
And finally, in the medical care facility after a prolonged and ultimately successful attempt to help her mother remember how to swallow pills with the aid of soft ice-cream, she congratulates her Mom, “That was a real swallow.” But her mother misunderstands and turns to the window, looking for a bird, a swallow at the feeder, and Anne-Marie responds, “‘Long gone now,’ I say. Only sweetness is left. Only some quiet rest for the body, a swallow now arching over the bitter fields of the past. Her right hand, the one so compromised by arthritis, lifts and makes a little motion, like a wing tipping, like a bird turning in flight.”
After the reading at the launch celebration of this book, during the Q and A, it was clear that the audience of 150 could have prolonged the discussion of issues and emotions raised by the reading for several hours. What makes this vibrant and grief-laced memoir so relevant is what the rhetorician and fiction writer John Mauk calls, “public resonance.” Out of a population of 331.9 million (2021), about 16.9 percent of Americans, or 56 million people, are age 65 or older according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Many in that age group are caregivers to both younger and older family members. Many more will need some type of assisted and/or full residential medical care for a significant portion of their remaining years. When Anne-Marie has a dark epiphany in the Mason County court house in Ludington, Michigan as the judge bangs the gavel to conclude a competency hearing for her Mom, we, the audience and readers, can relate: “It comes to me with no small shock: the judge does this every day. We are not the rare case; he’s seen this a hundred times. He’s heard a thousand reasons to evoke this process. Make people legally incompetent and, thus, eligible for government services.”
So, we can read this memoir as a private communion with a work of literary art. But, we should also read it in community where we can discuss and share the collective pain, loss, hard choices, love and grief raised with such eloquence by its story.