The Mother Garden
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". . . unsettling, touching, and insightful. . ."
There is no loss so profound and so deeply felt as the loss of one’s mother.
The women in Robin Romm’s stories have one thing in common, the main characters have lost—or are losing their mothers—and their lives will never be the same. The literate tales in The Mother Garden show women who are diminished by their loss, lost and adrift in a world where they no longer fit.
Only in The Arrival is the mother alive. Her daughter and husband, unsure of how to deal with the impending loss, give into Mother’s whims and tantrums, overlooking her anger and ignoring behavior that would not have been borne when she was well. In short, they treat her with kid gloves, afraid to say or do too much to sap her strength or overtax her fragile reserves. Then a woman washes to shore, spat out by the waves, stumbling into their lives, unwilling to explain her sudden appearance, and Mother comes back to life. Her daughter resents the interloper who uses Mother’s lipstick and looks better in her clothes than she does, but the daughter especially envies the life and color the stranger brings back to her mother as she loses her mother to a stranger. The one flaw in The Arrival is the abrupt end that leaves so much unexplained and unsaid.
In each story, the main character deals with the loss in similar ways, even to the point that they do not feel entitled to love or to be loved by their partners whose mothers are still alive, as if these women deserve to be cheated on and cast aside. In Where Nothing Is these feelings stem from a philandering father, as much as from the inequity of no longer having a mother to make them feel worthy.
Many of the fathers, when mentioned, are absent emotionally or physically. One father turns up in Lost and Found naked and wrapped in a soiled sheet, asleep in the desert. The woman takes her father in, in many ways becoming his mother, exacting begrudging obedience and belligerence until one morning her neat and orderly life is returned to her as though her father had never been there. The story is disturbing and telling in its subtle emotions, almost a ghost tale or hallucination.
In the title story, The Mother Garden, an artist and his friend decide to plant a garden, inviting mothers no longer wanted or needed by their families to flourish among the flowers and plants. For the artist, the undertaking is a statement. For his friend, it is a way to keep mothers safe and protected and to replace what she has lost. Slowly but surely, the garden loses its mothers, and the woman loses her mother once again.
Each woman is cast adrift and lost without a tangible tie to her mother, uncertain of herself and the world around her, apologizing for not having taken better care or being incapable of keeping her mother safe and alive. There is a certain sense of uncertainty, of doing penance in each of the stories, Mother being a strong and vital presence even after death.
Robin Romm’s prose is profoundly affecting, but the stories are uneven, some ending abruptly as though Romm ran out of steam or is unable to continue. All in all, The Mother Garden is unsettling, touching, and insightful in its scope and truths.
Reviewer: J. M. Cornwell