A collection of three works of fiction by a New York Times–bestselling author who “write[s] about the inner lives of women with insight and intimacy” (The New York Times Book Review).
Her Mother’s Daughter: In this life-affirming saga that celebrates the love and sacrifices of four generations of Polish-American mothers and daughters, Stacey, a divorced feminist New York photographer, struggles to understand the experience of her mother, a child of Polish immigrants who clawed her way out of poverty and settled into a middle-class existence—while at the same time managing her tempestuous relationship with her own daughter, Arden.
Our Father: As distinguished presidential adviser Stephen Upton lies mortally ill in a Massachusetts hospital, four women gather at his lavish mansion. Half sisters Elizabeth, Mary, Alex, and Ronnie have painful and poignant memories of their childhoods—and their dying father. They haven’t seen each other in years, but as they open up to each other about the man they both love and hate, they will discover the terrible secret that binds them all together.
The Bleeding Heart: Dolores Durer, a divorced professor and mother of two adult children, has sworn off love after a series of disastrous affairs. Meanwhile, electronics executive Victor Morrissey is in England to open a branch office. He has four children and is unhappily married. When Victor and Dolores meet—on a train—their connection is instant and passionate. In this New York Times–bestselling novel about love and marriage, two Americans abroad embark on an affair that will have consequences in both their lives.
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About the Author
Marilyn French was a novelist and feminist. Her books include The Women’s Room, which has been translated into twenty languages; From Eve to Dawn, a History of Women in the World; A Season in Hell; Her Mother’s Daughter; Our Father; My Summer with George; and The Bleeding Heart. She died in 2009.
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The Women of Marilyn French
Her Mother's Daughter, Our Father, and The Bleeding Heart
By Marilyn French
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1980 Marilyn French
All rights reserved.
My mother lived to be old, although she always said she would die young. All through my childhood she warned me — threatened me? — that because of her defective heart, she would depart early from this vale of tears, whereas my sturdy peasantlike father would live forever, drowning the memory of her fastidiously prepared meals in canned pork and beans, which he would enjoy just as much. When I was fifteen and searching through her bureau drawers one afternoon — hoping, probably, to discover some clue as to how she felt about me — I found a sealed envelope marked "To Be Opened After My Death." In a rage I tore it open, pulled out a piece of stationery, and found that her Limoges china service for eight (with some missing), her five crystal water goblets (one had broken), and her silver service for eight were to be evenly divided between my sister and me. Still furious, I burned the thing, and as it went up, I panicked and threw it into the toilet. The paper kept burning, so I slammed down the lid, not realizing it was plastic and flammable. When the toilet seat began to burn, I called the fire department. The neighbors clucked their tongues for weeks afterward about young girls sneaking cigarettes when their mothers were away from home. My mother not only didn't get angry, but she invited me to sit in the backyard with her and smoke. She never wrote another will. I checked.
In any case, her flawed heart did not noticeably shorten her life. She lived long, only she shrank. Or maybe my body blew up over the years, so that when we appeared together in the full-length mirror in the bridal shop dressing room where we were trying on dresses for my daughter's wedding, we looked like creatures from two different species. I can remember when we looked alike, when strangers recognized us as mother and daughter. But now she is tiny and frail for all her middle bulk. Her bones, her very skull, are delicate, smaller than a child's, and the flesh has shriveled on her arms and knit itself so tightly on her small face that her eyes have almost disappeared. Whereas I am tall and broad-shouldered and thick (I don't quite know when that happened) and my face shines like a swollen moon. It wasn't even that we looked like two versions of the same product, one designed for light home use and the other for heavy industry; we looked like two different kinds of creature, like a fat smooth rhino and a wrinkled impala. If you knew that we were mother and daughter, you would suspect some mysterious voodoo process whereby I grew by sucking in all her fluids. Like midges. Midge mothers do not lay eggs, they reproduce young from inside their bodies without benefit of clergy, state, or even any informal male assistance. And the baby develops inside the mother's body, not in a uterus, but in her tissues, and eventually, she fills her whole body, devouring it from the inside. When she is ready to be born, she breaks out of her mother/prison, leaving behind only a chitinous shell. They never have mother-daughter squabbles: midge mothers may sacrifice themselves entirely for their young, but the young never have to hear about it. It is also true, of course, that young so produced begin within two days to reproduce themselves in the same way. They hardly have time to complain about the quality of their lives.
Women of the past had no time for that either, and my mother has little sympathy for those who complain about the quality of life, feeling, I suspect, somewhat like a midge mother. Still, as she stood there in the dressing room mirror, miserable at the poor fit of the dresses she was trying on, wanting to look splendid for Arden's wedding, she swung her head away from the mirror angrily. I looked down on that tiny head and I wanted to caress it, to console her as one does a child, by touching, affection. But my mother is not a woman to be consoled. Her head is stiff on her neck. She gazed in the mirror again, not seeing that her lined face was unblemished by age spots or that her fine soft hair was still blond, and made a foul face at that person in the mirror, and asked me if that was really how she looked.
When my mother was in her heyday — her second heyday, but the only one I saw — that is, when my sister and I were grown and married and she had a little money and leisure, she had her hair cut in a soft short bob called a feather cut, and went to an expensive shop and bought beautiful clothes. I still remember them: she had a red wool suit with a short jacket collared in leopard, and a black wool suit with a high round neck trimmed with mink, a navy blue wool dress with a skirt cut on the bias so it whirled when she walked, and a short white wool knit jacket, double-breasted with gold buttons. She drove an old Cadillac, and announced her address proudly to saleswomen in the good shops. Into these shops she carried a stiff smile, eyebrows that seemed permanently raised, and her fine clothes. These shops were the only place she could obtain the sense of having a public life. Sometimes she and my father went out to dinner, but in those years she was so loudly disapproving of restaurant food that my embarrassed father resisted going. They played bridge once a week with my aunt and uncle, but a formal suit was a bit too warm for such an occasion. She seemed relatively content in those years.
But when she aged, her body changed. She grew shorter, the skin on her arms and legs shriveled, and she expanded in the middle. Her middle got to be four sizes bigger than the rest of her. It was impossible to find fine clothes to fit this alien body, and she began to buy polyester pantsuits with expandable waistbands, or wraparound skirts. father were visiting Palm Beach, they walked into a shop on Worth Avenue, and the owner blocked their passage, asking rudely what they wanted. "A golf jacket," my mother blurted angrily. He nodded his head brusquely to the left. "Try down the block. We don't have them." She never got over this incident. "He wouldn't even let us in, Anastasia! How did he know we wouldn't buy anything? What was it, do you think? Was it because we're old? Because my clothes look cheap?" She told this story repeatedly, always ending it with the same questions: she must have forgotten she had asked them before. I was never able to find answers that satisfied her.
It tormented her so that she was still talking about it a decade later, and I got the sense that the incident had plugged into a recurrent nightmare. As if you suddenly found yourself in real life peeing in a toilet exposed to a room full of people, or saw your hair falling out in clumps, or whatever your recurrent nightmare is. The storekeeper had treated her with contempt. It occurred to me that she had arranged her life so that she would never be exposed to contempt. Certainly none of her family would think of treating her contemptuously. Her husband treats her like his sovereign; sometimes he even refers to her as "my lady." And my sister and I and our children also defer to her as if she were royalty. We placate her, fuss over her, wait on her. When we speak, we direct our faces toward her and enunciate very distinctly, so she can read our lips as we speak. When we cook for her, we avoid oil, onions, garlic, most spices. She is helped, by someone, in and out of cars, up and down stairs, and even through doorways, because she is feeble, arthritic, and subject to the dizziness caused by inner-ear disease. My daughter's husband, meeting her for the first time, found her a grande dame. I was surprised to hear him say that. I had never seen my mother that way.
Not at all. We didn't defer because we feared her, because she held power that could strip us of our estates or rank, or heap them on us if we pleased her. We did it because ... we always had. Because Daddy did. Because she seemed to need us to do it. It didn't seem much to give her, making her the center, deferring. Because somehow we understood that she had suffered more than anyone, more than any of us, and that in some sense we were responsible for her suffering. When I was a child I could not understand in what way it was my fault that Jesus had died, or how it was he died for me. I felt rather indignant about the whole thing: I certainly hadn't wanted him to die, and I failed to see how his doing so had in any way helped me. But I had no trouble whatever understanding that my mother had in some sense died for me, that she was a kind of midge mother whose effort had been so extraordinary that she had saved us, my sister and me, from being midge mothers in our turn. Because we are not midge mothers, we had vitality and pleasure and strength even after we had children. So we laid it at her feet, our vitality and strength, and tried to give her pleasure too. That was difficult though, and became increasingly so as she aged. She would watch our gyrations, our efforts to serve and please, like a bored dying aristocrat who knows that her servants are well-paid to please her. There was a cold distance in her eye, and sometimes a sneer of contempt upon her lips or a mocking edge in her voice. Visitors would see my father offer her tea and shawls, me offer scotch and sympathy, my sister, with an edge of hysteria in her voice, trying to make her laugh by recounting a recent family mishap, and they would perceive a family pattern, and try to fit in, as was appropriate. I would watch her watching them, and I knew what she was thinking: Nothing, nothing you do can console me for the loss of my life. I heard it, I saw it, I understood. For only I knew her heart.
I am talking about my mother in the past tense as if she were dead, but she isn't. Her walk is as tottering as an infant's and her breathing sounds like the cooing of pigeons; she is nearly blind and nearly deaf even with her hearing aid; and she is afraid to cross a street or climb a staircase because of her continual dizziness. But her mind is sharp and she looks marvelous and people praise her looks. She smiles like a knife edge, but they do not recognize that: she is an old lady, and all old ladies are sweet.
When we are alone, she grimaces and mocks them: "Oh, the sweet old lady! That's what they think!" Then falls silent, sips her scotch and holds the liquid in her mouth a long time before she swallows it. When she was still smoking, she'd light another forbidden delight. "I don't feel old," she'd protest. She'd sit up suddenly, as if energy had returned to her limbs, and announce, "I feel eighteen. Twelve!" Nine, I would think. You feel nine.
My mother feels nine; I feel older than she. She has not noticed that I have aged. She seems to expect me to look as I did at thirty, slim and untouched by lines or grey hair, and she gazes at my increased girth critically, and wonders why my hair is so dull. She doesn't realize that I have as many pairs of eyeglasses as she and that my hearing is not as good as it was. "You always had wonderful hearing, Anastasia," she says if I mention the subject. Better than hers, is what she means. And good legs. These were her two wishes for her first daughter, the spells she wrought to undo her own baleful influence — bad hearing and thick legs. I do not know if she thought she had any gift to offer me. I suspect not. She once said the only talent she had was for dancing. She was a good ballroom dancer. I was not.
Sometimes I think I will die before she does. I don't want to. It might cause her pain. For myself, I don't care. I am living out years I would not have been granted had I been born a hundred or two hundred years ago. I am nearly fifty, an age not many women reached then. And I have bad habits. I smoke too much and drink too much and also I travel frequently by air. I often stay up late at night, I have to fight for sleep when the sounds of morning begin: car doors slamming, motors fighting to wake up in the cold winter stillness, the whine and grind of garbage trucks, the fucking birds. I like to spend the night out of bed, walking through the streets of foreign cities, arms linked with those of newfound friends, all of us uproarious, singing, laughing, making jokes about being arrested (in certain cities, anyway, like Zurich), going from pub to pub to after-hours clubs, ending in my hotel room (sneaked in past the desk clerk in Zurich, that proper city) where there is always a bottle, four or five of us sitting around on the beds, smoking, drinking, laughing, singing until dawn has given way to morning. My newfound friends and I swear love and fellowship which, next day, I will remember and they will forget. Still, if I meet those friends in two or three years, they will remember me but I will not recall their names, and perhaps not even their faces. The night we spent together will have gathered itself with the other soaring nights of my past, each of which stands discrete and distinct in my catalog of ecstatic moments, yet from all of which the faces have disappeared.
Because I always have to come home again. Who knows what those faces might have turned into had I stayed? I don't, on the whole, stay with faces. I seek moods. The faces that are constants in my life — well, I don't care to replace or repeat them. My children, with all their unending problems. My parents, with theirs. The only thing that endures is that line, blood, the people who can't be changed, exchanged, substituted for. Not that I want to change them, not that there's anything wrong with my life. Quite the contrary. My life is exactly as I want it, as I would have wanted it. I have independence, and — finally — enough money so that I don't have to worry daily about making ends meet. I have a career I love and some success in it. I get to travel all over the world, something I wanted to do from the time I was very young. I have everything anyone could want.
Except last time I was home, I went out to Long Island as I always do to visit my parents at the lake. They were sitting together in the glassed-in porch, on a wrought-iron sofa, gazing out at the lake and the birds, and each of them had an arm laid on top of the sofa cushions toward each other. And suddenly, gently, hardly noticeably, my mother's hand opened and surrounded my father's wrist. She reached toward him. She touched him. And my eyes filled with tears and I thought — the way odd thoughts just suddenly light up in your mind — I thought: oh, if only you'd done that years ago! It would have made all the difference!
Later, of course, I saw her gesture as a braceleting, a manacling of his wrist, this man on whom she so depended. Later, too, I wondered at my teariness: I never cry, never. At least, I never did. Because since then I find myself bursting into tears at anything at all — pictures of famished children on the television news, stories in the papers of lost children, reunited families, young fathers dead on duty — in fires, in police work, in the military. A television play about the incarceration of an old grandmother in a nursing home reduced me to a sniveling pulp, grabbing tissues by the handful from the box I finally put beside me.
Of course my strange emotional state does not interfere with my work. Many days I get up early in the morning and go out with my camera to photograph; many nights I work in the darkroom into the morning. I prepare diligently for my journeys, reading everything recent so that I will have some idea of how to approach the new subject. Usually I look for what no one else has found interesting. I don't like to add to a line of thought already developed, like a footnote to someone else's chapter. This isn't because I am egotistic, although I may be. It's because I figure that the lines of thought that are already developed are those that are acceptable, and if you want to change things, you have to look for what is illegitimate — in subject or in approach. This tendency has caused me great difficulty in my life: it is always easier, whatever your line of work, to fall in line behind those who have gone before, and add your little tot, than to say the hell with what's gone before, what about what hasn't? Such an attitude can keep you poor.
But I never felt I had a choice about this. I couldn't bear to look at anything as it presented itself to be seen. I didn't even really see the damned rocks but only what lay under them. And this is because of my mother, I know that even if I don't quite understand why or how. All those hours I spent at her feet. "Tell me about when you were little, Mommy. What was your mommy like? What was your daddy like?" I never stopped asking, not even when I was fifty. As if under the rocks that were her stories, there was something buried, something hidden, something I could discover if I persisted that would make all the difference.
All what difference?
Excerpted from The Women of Marilyn French by Marilyn French. Copyright © 1980 Marilyn French. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPart 1: The Children in the Mills,
Part 2: The Children in the Garden,
Part 3: Arrangement in Grey and Black,