norbert blei | mother love

11 05 2008

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND…No. 142 | May 11, 2008




Norbert Blei

Mothers are all fiction.

There are mothers and sons and mothers and daughters. Fathers do not enter this picture in the same way.

There are American mothers, Black Mothers, Hispanic mothers, Native American mothers, Asian mothers, English mothers, Canadian mothers, Eskimo mothers, French mothers, Scandinavian mothers, Italian mothers, Russian mothers, Slavic mothers, German mothers, Greek mothers, Mediterranean mothers, Jewish mothers—all unique and universal.

There are horrible mothers; there are beautiful mothers; there are invisible.

There’s your mother and there’s my mother. Night and day.

Anyone expressing himself in the arts is always carrying his mother around with him, listening to her trying to get her two words or more in there. “There” being
whatever the writer, composer, painter is trying to tell the world for its sake, his sake, his mother’s sake. Mothers never stop telling you something.

Even after they’ve left the scene, as mine did, twenty-five years ago. “Don’t forget…”

One of the main tasks of the writer: to remember.

All memoirs are fiction. To remember is to forget. In the forgetting comes the fiction. The making-believe.

At this point in my life I have written more about my father, an office worker, who was more silent, more distant, than my mother. But I was closer to my mother in what I do, even though she was a factory worker. Her life was all fiction.

Her influence upon my life, my work, seems far greater. She was always telling me something when I didn’t appear to be listening, which is the nature of the mother-child relationship, how one eventually creates his own identity.

Will you listen! Do you hear what I’m telling you?

When I wrote the book, NEIGHBORHOOD, I included a chapter, based on a newspaper feature I had written about my father, a white-color worker who was an employee of the same bank (his first job) for almost 50 years. There is no story in the book about my mother. Which I regret. But I wasn’t prepared to tell her story.

My mother was all fiction. My father was all non-fiction.

The only in-depth piece of writing I ever did ‘about’ my mother is a short story that appeared in the second collection of short stories, THE GHOST OF SANDBURG’S PHIZZOG.

The story is called, “This Horse of a Body of Mine” m published originally in Tri-Quarterly magazine,, and published after her death. “This horse of a body of mine,” is something I heard my mother say any number of times in anger or desperation. She was always on a diet. She spent her life working the nightshift on a factory assembly line to earn enough money so that we both had what we needed which might make our lives in some way better. She was a clothes horse. A shoe freak. A woman who never saw a piece of jewelry that didn’t look good on her. She always wanted to be a dress-size smaller. Thinner. More beautiful. Free to be who she thought she was.

I could tell you stories and stories ‘about her.’ I smile as I write this. I see her, Sundays, sitting at the kitchen table, wearing an apron, beautifully dressed, her hair done-up, blonde, lipstick, rouge, nails painted, smoking a cigarette. She was going somewhere. She was always somewhere else. And that’s important.

She was drinking coffee, nibbling on a piece of poppy seed cake she baked, after cooking a traditional Czech dinner of roast pork, dumplings and sauerkraut for just the three of us…the beer glasses empty, the radio tuned to her songs, her coffee cup continually refreshed…my dad headed out the back door to put the garbage in the alley. She’d take a deep drag, exhale a large cloud of smoke over the table, and sigh: “I tell you…that father of yours…He never wants to do anything.”

I could tell stories and stories ‘about her’ but, so far, I have written only one that attempted to ‘resemble her,’ while at the same time, more importantly, capture a woman whose spirit refused to die. Which is where the fiction came in and why
she remains so much a force in everything I write.

At six the next morning, I rise to drive to Wisconsin. I see mother in the light of the kitchen, her robe, her gray hair, saying the rosary. She has a small statue of the Blessed Mother in front of her along with a votive candle, an ashtray, her cigarettes and coffee.

I move quietly behind her, press my hands into her shoulders, bend down to kiss her on the cheek. “Don’t bother with anything, “ I whisper. “I’m all right.”

With the rosary wrapped in her fingers, she squeezes my hand, attempts to rise, and begins to say, “Don’t forget…” in the midst of her prayers, while I press harder into her flesh for her to continue, to remain just where she is.

from THE GHOST of SANDBURG’S PHIZZOG and Other Stories, Ellis Press, 1986

Blei’s stories well up from the secret places of the writer’s psyche . . . and the reader’s. His characters are people we have met every day, but in his hands they touch magically and mysteriously the dark realms of legend; the World War II vet introducing his long-haired son, just returned from Vietnam, to buddies at the VFW; the mad Irishman defying his own mortality with his “chair trick”; the mother, dying of cancer, stuffing herself with smoked fish, roast lamb, salami, cheese, and bakery.

This book was a 1986 Pushcart Foundation “Writer’s Choice” selection and was selected for the NEA Literature Program’s 1987 Buenos Aires Book Fair exhibit of New American Writing.

“Blei’s powerful, uneven, brooding interest dwells two streets down from Nelson Algren, a block away from Harry Mark Petrakis, and along the busy line from Ernest Hemingway to Carl Sandburg, a few versts from Chekov.”Chicago Sun-Times

“Blei may be expected to make a significant contribution to the American short-story heritage. This is a good book.”Choice

“The man is very, very good, a true son of the Middle West who descends from the brawny (and brainy) line of Sandburg and Hemingway . . . he is a grand story-teller.”Frederick Busch

“Overall, these stories in a traditional mold, often containing subtle, experimental variations on language, present a refreshing alternative to much of the autobiographical fiction written today.”New York Times Book Review

“Each of Blei’s stories is different, each breathes life into characters whose flesh and voice and spirit fill your room, your home, your heart.”Andre Dubus




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