Women Have No History

Written by Amy Jo Burns

Novelist Amy Jo Burns recounts her mother and grandmother's difficult history in this bittersweet reflection on writing your own life story.

When the good people at Mailchimp asked me to curate a series of essays for their Summer Reading Program, I jumped at the chance to elevate writers I love, collecting their stories in this time of isolation. The theme for this series is connection because we, the people, are irrevocably linked by our shared humanity. There is no getting away from one another. We can, however, tell each other the truth, and listen with open hearts when the truth is spoken. Or written. I curated a series of creative nonfiction essays because I wanted you to feel the bare-knuckle truth in the words of these writers. When they swing for you, I want the blow to connect.

Contributing authors write about relationships to parents, spouses, children, homes, bodies, and self. They write about threads running through the veins of us all. They write about the way we are all subject to each other’s lives and decisions, offering themselves to reality instead of running from the inevitable pain of the world. I’m so grateful. Nothing about this project would be as powerful without the inclusion of each contribution from each artist.

Well, you could have been anywhere on the internet, but you’re here with us, and I can’t thank you enough for that. I’m so excited for you to read these essays. My hope is when you do, you’ll feel a little tug on the threads in your own veins. I hope you follow them all the way to the end.

All my best, Ashley

Author

Amy Jo Burns

Amy Jo Burns is the author of the memoir Cinderland and the novel Shiner, which is out now from Riverhead Books. Her writing has appeared in the The Paris Review Daily, Tin House, Ploughshares, Electric Literature, Literary Hub, Good Housekeeping, and elsewhere.

  • My mother left home when she was eighteen. She paid for two plane tickets: one for herself, and one for her cello—the instrument that won her a scholarship to a small college in western Pennsylvania. “That cello was my ticket out of hell,” she once told me. I’ve never heard her play. As long as I lived with her, my mother kept her cello in the closet.

    She grew up in rural Maine, where she went to school only four days a week and broke up fist fights between her three older brothers every morning. “They were always drunk,” she said, no hint of self-pity in her eyes. My mother was responsible for the upkeep of the entire house, and she liked to clean and fold her clothes neatly in her drawers. Gawd, her own mother said to her. You think you’re so much better than everybody else.

    This is how I enter my mother’s past—through the backdoor. A side comment here, an afterthought there. For over thirty years, I’ve been making a mosaic of her life, one fragment at a time.

    When I was young, women weren’t allowed to have a history. They got married, took someone else’s name, made themselves new through their children. Leave and cleave, my parents called it. Forget who you were so your real life can begin. The only problem is an untold story will haunt you, one way or another.

    The saddest truth my mother ever shared with me was her own mother had never liked her. Of course I asked why, since such a truth was unimaginable to me. “I looked too much like my father,” she answered. “My mother didn’t want to be reminded of her mistakes.” Even as a child, my mother learned her own survival depended on never looking back.

    Her father moved out of the house when she was ten, and she rarely saw him after that. He died thirteen years ago, a week before my wedding day. I’d like to say I never got the chance to meet him, but that isn’t true. He had many chances to meet my sister, brother, and I when we took the eighteen-hour drive to Maine. But he didn’t want to look back, either. I don’t even know his first name. 

    My mother hoped to start fresh with her three children—to let us see her family without the stains of how they’d treated her when she was young. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve visited the house my mother grew up in. Slept in the bed she did. Saw my school pictures on the wall that my mother had mailed. Every summer when we arrived, my grandmother’s new husband was roosting in a rocking chair on his screen porch, with his boxers, Lucky and Duchess, seated like gargoyles at his side. Patsy Cline sang on the radio. My grandmother had small gifts ready—a fake crystal on a silver chain, a pink sweatshirt and matching leggings in just my size. Even then the gifts felt like an apology for the distance between us. During each trip, we ate pizza with ground beef on top, played a game of horseshoes, and let my cousin Kristy lead us to the boys’ bathroom at the local park, where she dared us to step inside. 

    “It’s wicked fun,” she said.

    And it was.

  • The last time we visited, I was fourteen and I gave my mother hell for it. We traveled for Thanksgiving, and all I could see then was the Wednesday night party I’d missed with my friends. I pouted all eighteen hours of the drive, perking up only once when I saw pumpkin pie on the menu of the diner we stopped at for dinner.

    “Order it,” my mother said, exhausted. “If it will give you even one minute of joy.”

    This was the first moment I witnessed the weariness that comes with needing to be a daughter and a mother at the same time. It wasn’t easy for her to try and start over with her family, offering the kind of care and loyalty they’d never given her. She didn’t want her children to hate her homeland the way she had every reason to. So for every road trip we took to Maine, my mother packed prizes and snacks to make it fun. My father hooked up a small TV that played “Dances with Wolves” on a loop while he drove through the night. The trip wasn’t only hard for me. It was hard for them, too. They just didn’t want their children to know.

    I didn’t understand much then about what my mother’s past had been like, except for the words that slipped out of her mouth, each an escapee. Abuse. Booze. Poverty. Welfare. Her body clenched when she was asked about it. My mother wanted to save her three children from her own pain, even if she couldn’t save herself. She didn’t want her own history.

    There was only one reason my mother took us home with her. Her own mother might not have loved her well, but her grandmother did. Great-Grammie Lucy’s house was always full of children. She taught my mother to bake bread and swear in French. She ate blueberries until her whole mouth was blue. My mother was cherished in that house with the wood stove, and safe. She brought us back home because she wanted to give us a grandmother, the only good thing her childhood had given her.

    Unless we were visiting Maine, dispatches from my mother’s old life came in flashes of bad news. When I was eleven, we got a call from my grandmother. I remember the phone ringing on a warm afternoon, her name on the caller ID. We knew something bad had happened. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be calling. My cousin Kristy—only a year older than me—had died in a car crash. Two teenage boys were playing chicken in their pick-up trucks. She was on the passenger side and got crushed in the middle when the trucks swerved too late. 

    Even in her shock, my mother tried to soothe. “The doctor said Kristy didn’t feel a thing.”

    But how could that be true? I couldn’t understand; I thought time would reverse itself somehow. Fix what had broken. That night I couldn’t sleep. I slipped into my parents’ room in the dark.

    “Mom?” I whispered. 

    Her eyes shot open, and she gasped. My mother stared at me like I was her ghost. She didn’t resemble herself in those shadows—she looked like a child, still terrified of a place she couldn’t escape. I slept next to her while my father slept on the couch. Before my mother left for the funeral—alone—I heard her whispering to my father.

    “This is life where I come from,” she said. “Fast and hard.”

  • That was the first time I’d heard anything about what her life had been like.

    For almost a decade, my mother was called home for funerals, until she wasn’t anymore. Without a history safe enough to call her own, she constantly passed between two worlds—who she was in Maine, and who she’d become in Pennsylvania. I was a freshman in college when she had a final falling-out with my grandmother, because my sister had chosen December 23rd as a wedding date. She’d done it to make sure I’d be home in time to be her maid of honor after I’d finished all my finals at school.

    After a lifetime of my mother spending holidays and vacations taking her children to Maine, my grandmother declared that my sister’s wedding was too close to Christmas and they wouldn’t be making the trip. My sister cried, and my mother felt a double portion of the rejection she’d weathered as a child when it passed to her oldest daughter. There it was—her past not only haunting her, but haunting her children, too.

    “That’s it,” she told us. “I won’t cover for her anymore.”

    There was no malice in her voice. Only grief. Only the sound of silenced memories lining up to be told. I found out all the things I thought my grandmother had picked out for my birthdays, my mother had done for her and put her name on the card. I also discovered the only time my grandmother displayed our photos was when we came to town. The rest of the time—like my mother’s cello—we were tucked away in the closet.

    My mother wept. She wondered if she’d been right to make her own mother appear kinder than she truly was, if all she’d done was sell a lie to her children. But it was a betrayal of a selfless nature, one that disguised neglect. My mother never wanted us to hurt the way she did, once upon a time. 

    By the time my grandmother died in 2006, she and my mother hadn’t spoken in six years. Before my grandmother passed, she wrote my mother a letter. It was accompanied by a check. They hadn’t had any contact since my sister’s wedding, and I hadn’t sent her an invitation to my wedding at all. I have a lot of regrets in this life, my grandmother wrote. But I do not regret having you. It was the closest she’d ever come to an apology, to granting her daughter a true history.

    My mother didn’t want the money. She returned the check with a card of her own, thanking her for what she’d written. But that money found its way back to her after my grandmother’s death: her share from the will. The estate lawyer claimed he couldn’t take it back, so my mother gave the money to a charity, and slowly—one fragment at a time—she gave her memories to her children, too.

  • These are sad stories, but my mother is not a sad woman. Her home, like her grandmother’s, is full of grandchildren’s laughter and the smell of baking bread. Ten years after my grandmother died, I started to write a book about a woman hiding from her past. Shiner is not about my mother’s life, but it’s inspired by her strength. The novel is now being printed in French, and the title translates to “women have no history.” 

    Women have no history. This was the curse my mother inherited from her mother, the one she’s lifting not just for her children, but for herself. She left home when she was eighteen—left home and never looked back, so the saying goes. But who has actually done such a thing, moving on without leaving a single tie intact? It’s easier to leave without having to return. It’s the looking back that threatens to skin a woman alive.

    I know more about my mother now than I do about most people, but her secrets were never revealed in a fairy tale fashion. There was no happily ever after, no good old days. What remains are flashes that don’t fit into a clean storyline. And why should they?

    There isn’t only one way to have a history. This was the best way my mother knew how.