Book review: ‘When I Married My Mother’

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 21, 2009

“When I Married My Mother,” by Joe Maeder. Da Capo Press. 2009. 292 pp. $25.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
Author Jo Maeder takes a bittersweet look at caring for an aging parent in her memoir, “When I Married My Mother.”
At times hilarious, at others heartbreaking, this memoir traces the end of Mama Jo’s life, and how Maeder became her partner.
For people who are facing the issue of aging parents, this isn’t an easy read. Baby boomers are increasingly squeezed between children and their child-like parents.
Maedor is extremely lucky in her efforts to care for her mother. Not that she doesn’t have problems ó she has to cope with everything from snakes to septic tanks on her own. But her mother, once under the proper treatment, becomes a loving, fun partner. And Maedor, unmarried and childless, can devote most of her time to her mother.
Somehow, despite years of animosity from Jo, they find a peaceful, loving relationship that fills Jo’s desire for a husband and a child. Finally, she has someone to care for, and finally, her mother is ready for that care.
Mama Jo and her daughter, Jo, at first go on numerous adventures, including a night of dancing with drag queens at a fundraiser.
As Mama Jo weakens, their nights are often spent watching old movies in her bedroom.
Maeder’s family is traditionally non-traditional. Her father, now dead, was much older than her mother, a military man who liked order, while her younger mother has always been burdened by order.
Mama Jo turns to doll collecting to satisfy her emotional needs ó seeking the company of beautiful children who will never leave her or grow up or argue.
The family separates, with the children, Jo and her brother Arthur, moving with their father, whom they call Poddy, to Miami. Mama Jo stays in Virginia, eventually divorces Poddy and remarries.
When her second husband dies, the depression that has plagued her for years turns into an obsession ó she becomes a hoarder, not just of dolls, but of minutia like toothpaste caps (doll cups) and those little plastic circles that come in pizza boxes (doll tables).
When it becomes obvious Mama Jo can’t be on her own anymore, Jo tries to cope long distance from New York, where she is an anomaly ó a fortysomething rock DJ.
But it’s not enough. Jo’s brother, Arthur is estranged from their mother due to an argument over something he threw away. He leaves it to Jo to tackle the problems.
Jo finds her mother crammed into her home, rooms so full of junk the doors won’t open; bills and collection notices piled all over. Her mother is desperately depressed, angry and agoraphobic.
A health crisis forces the issue, and Jo realizes what she must do. She approaches it as a series of onerous chores, feeling resentment that her life is being put on hold.
But as she and Arthur go through their mother’s things, Jo begins to change.
She leaves New York, buys a house in Greensboro to be closer to Arthur, and moves Mama Jo in with her. At first, she makes fun of Southern accents, foods, manners and the Bible belt. Don’t give up though ó she comes to love many things Southern (with the exception of snakes).
The touching part of the story is how she comes to love her mother. For the first time in a very long time, she doesn’t resent the odd person who brought her up. She understands her mother, now on an anti-depressant, has suffered, from her less-than-loving marriage to her own dysfunctional roots. Mama Jo’s mother and grandmother lived unconventional, if strict lives, molding her into a person of strong feelings and no acceptable way to express them.
While many aging parents retreat within themselves or fall prey to dementia, Mama Jo begins to come alive, sharing memories, cracking jokes, abandoning her hoarding. She adjusts to her new home with grace, although she and Jo have their tense moments.
Jo finds competent, caring aides; she manages to fight an insurance company and win; she gives up full-time work for home-based projects. She, too, does it with a healthy measure of grace.
As the end of Mama Jo’s life gets nearer and nearer, Jo mourns and celebrates ó at least they had these last couple of good years together.
The memoir isn’t for everyone. Jo Maedor isn’t particularly fascinating, her life not that titillating. What counts is her relationship and her growth as a human being, one who sees beyond age and into the heart.