“THERE ARE NO PICTURES for these words,” writes Sophia Shalmiyev in her gut-wrenching new memoir, Mother Winter. This is both a statement of fact — Shalmiyev has few photographs of the mother to whom this book is, in part, addressed — and a justification of the memoir as a genre whose aim is not simply to recollect a lost or forgotten past, but to unearth the forces that have shaped the people we become.
An account of Shalmiyev’s troubled 1980s childhood in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg, Russia) as the daughter of an Azerbaijani-Jewish father and a Russian mother, Mother Winter traces the intersecting forces of casual abuse, persistent poverty, shocking neglect, and naked antisemitism that constitute the author’s earliest memories. But as the memoir makes clear, all this is mere background noise compared to the formative trauma that has followed Shalmiyev into adulthood: the absence of her mother, Elena. The void left behind reverberates from every page, from words that attempt — and necessarily fail — to make sense of what remains, for the author, an incomprehensible and unassimilable loss.
As a young child, Shalmiyev learns that she cannot rely on her alcoholic mother, who is eventually stripped of her parental rights by a court that adjudicates in favor of her more responsible (but hardly innocent) father. Even after her rights are terminated, Elena flits in and out of her daughter’s life with unthinking cruelty, repeating the act of abandonment over and over again. As this memoir makes abundantly, painfully clear, no act of will can snuff out the longing for a mother, the desire to be mothered. To live with such unfulfilled desire, as the author must do, is to experience trauma as a recurrent onslaught, a nightmare that never ends.
Shalmiyev’s narrative style is disjointed, full of repetition and temporal shifts, reflecting critic Cathy Caruth’s claim that trauma represents “a break in the mind’s experience of time,” and thus, a disruption of the normal unfolding-in-time of events. That Shalmiyev’s most evocative passages are those that conjure up a dreamlike state should also come as no surprise, since dreams, as Caruth argues, are precisely the space in which one can “attempt to master what was never fully grasped in the first place,” that is, the trauma itself. Take, for example, this lovely meditation on the Japanese word ma, which
doesn’t have a precise translation, but is roughly the ‘gap, pause, or space between two structural parts.’ One can be conscious of a place, not as a hemmed-in, three-dimensional entity, but as form and formlessness coexisting as an interval, between breaths, between destruction and rebuilding, between resting and looking again.
Though not explicitly addressed here, it’s hard to miss the specter of the absent mother who, like the Japanese ma, is untranslatable, a gaping hole in her daughter’s consciousness.
In one of many poignant passages, Shalmiyev recalls standing before the mirror as a young child, braiding her own hair while reciting “motherly love mantra[s],” such as, “I’m so proud of you, […] my strong, my brave, my lovely little girl.” On other occasions she would tell herself, by way of consolation, “If your mother won’t stand behind you brushing your hair, saying — Look how beautiful you are, I’m so proud of you […] — you get to choose whatever you feel like wearing.” Despite, or perhaps because of her “mother-wanting imagination,” the young Shalmiyev identified with the fictional maternal orphan Pippi Longstocking: “Like Pippi, I liked to pretend that my mother was watching over me.” Except, of course, that Pippi’s mother is dead; Shalmiyev’s, merely and profoundly absent.
While Shalmiyev’s account bears some resemblance to other narratives of loss and mourning — one thinks of Roland Barthes’s Mourning Diary (Journal de deuil, 2009) or Hope Edelman’s best-selling anthology Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss (1994) — Mother Winter is not a story of loss but of longing, a longing for something that was never more than mere fantasy. Because her mother never was a stable presence in her life, Shalmiyev can only project from memories filtered through the wishful thinking of a child.
In 1990, shortly before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Shalmiyev’s father secures refugee visas for himself and for his daughter, and the two immigrate to the United States, leaving Elena behind for good. In a particularly chilling passage the author recalls “the day we didn’t say goodbye,” when she visited her maternal grandmother, with whom Elena was living, for a final farewell. Shalmiyev’s mother is nowhere to be found, and her grandmother beseeches the girl’s father to wait, “to give my mother a chance to turn up for a real farewell.” Though they leave with the promise of “Until tomorrow,” there is no follow up. Instead, Shalmiyev holds on to the unfulfilled promise: “Until tomorrow is what I keep.”
The permanent erasure of her actual mother leaves Shalmiyev with only the specter of a mother, a mystery that she can neither avoid nor decipher. “[W]hen mystery is too anxious of a box to contain us,” writes Shalmiyev, “[w]e all have a propensity for false pattern recognition, to look for meaning, a belief system […] — a story that can signify a completeness we have only felt in the darkness of our mother.”
What we have here is an evocation of eros, defined by the poet Anne Carson as “a sweetness made out of absence and pain.” Such sweetness can be hard to stomach in a story of parental abandonment and abuse. Lacking a mother, Shalmiyev idealizes maternal connection, projecting her own fantasies of what a mother should or could be. Elsewhere, Shalmiyev expresses the desire to absorb and be absorbed by her mother — an uncanny desire that is understandable when we recall that it is predicated entirely on the void: “I had no body without you. […] Nothing was mine to be absorbed because I wasn’t absorbed by you, or you by me.” For Shalmiyev, this visceral need for physical connection can be fulfilled only by a mother — or by having children of one’s own.
When, as an adult, Shalmiyev travels back to Russian in search of her mother, she tries to dissociate in order to ease her own pain: “I would pretend that instead of you being the missed and missing one, it was me who had to be mourned by you.” Reflecting on eros and absence in A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (Fragments d’un discours amoureux, 1977), Barthes notes, in Richard Howard’s translation, that “[a]morous absence functions in a single direction, expressed by the one who stays, never by the one who leaves: an always present I is constituted only by confrontation with an always absent you.” By inverting the terms of the erotic entanglement with her mother, Shalmiyev can begin to extricate herself from the recurrent trauma of her mother’s absence. But dissociation can only go so far, and the author’s decision to have children is itself motivated by the need to “stop myself from looking for [my mother],” by becoming “too busy raising children to go back to Russia again.”
While the choice to become a parent is deeply personal and complex, one can’t help but wonder about Shalmiyev’s motivations in having children. As bodies that were once absorbed in her own, Shalmiyev’s children — who we learn about only in passing, as mere extensions of the author rather than discrete characters or human beings — are reminders that she, too, was once briefly connected to a mother who exists for her now like a “phantom limb.” In this, Shalmiyev’s missing mother is not unlike her newborn son, both of them once but no longer literally a part of her.
The book’s closing scene is somewhat gimmicky, but nevertheless bittersweet. In a game of hide-and-seek, the author’s children enact the famous Freudian fort/da trope, in which the pain engendered by absence — of a beloved object, or, in this case, a mother — can be transformed into the pleasure of presence. “Found you, Mama,” says Shalmiyev’s daughter, an expression of childish delight and a poignant reminder, as if we needed any, that the author can find no such happy resolution.
Shoshana Olidort is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Stanford University. Her research focuses on poetry as a mode of performing identity through a consideration of five 20th-century Jewish women poets.