How to Mother, with Brit Bennett

“An inside hurt was supposed to stay inside.
How strange it must be to hurt in an outside way you can’t hide.”
The Mothers, Brit Bennett

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Me, a copy of The Mothers, accompanying tote and saltwater. (October, 2016)

Often times, we are attuned to grand and sweeping tales about life and death, love and heartbreak, stories which take us to new landscapes, push us to new heights, until we find a well-hidden lesson in one of the pages, so minute that if we weren’t paying attention closely, we would’ve missed it.

When I picked up Brit Bennett’s The Mothers, I knew that it wasn’t one of those tales. It was a book about a small black community in southern California, written in a folkloric way with the nuances of modern technology. The book is named after a group of older women in the community, wise in their years and lovingly all-knowing.

We were girls once. As hard as that is to believe.

Oh, you can’t see it now — our bodies have stretched and sagged, faces and necks dropping. That’s what happens when you get old. Every part of you drops, as if the body is moving closer to where it’s from and where it’ll return.

The Mothers’ lives revolved around Upper Room, a small church in Oceanside, California and its attendants. There was Nadia Turner, a young woman who lived with her father (Robert) and whose mom (Elise) shot herself one day; her best friend Aubrey, a quiet girl who ran away from home (and her mother); and Luke Sheppard, the pastor’s son, Nadia’s former lover who became Aubrey’s husband.

And while Bennett illustrates each character’s struggle with a depth that readers can empathize with, there are also deeper tensions that she addresses with lucidity.

Nadia keeps replaying details leading up to her mother’s suicide in mind, hoping she can find an answer to a growing number of why’s. One can only assume the weight imposed upon a frightened girl, the uncertainties weighing her down. Grief doesn’t have the same face, but it touches the heart and soul in almost the same way.

Grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss. You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip.

Aubrey is struggling to forget an abuser (her mother’s boyfriend), to forgive her mother. After running away from home and finding Upper Room, she sought solace in the small church and met Nadia. Growing up poor and at the mercy of her mother’s lovers, she was always discerning.

Poorness never left you, she told [Luke]. It was a hunger that embedded itself into your bones. It starved even when you were full.

And Luke — the pastor’s son, the injured athlete, the nexus of the two women — struggled to rise above his own family’s hypocrisy. Overshadowed by the responsibilities his parents expected him to carry out, he turned further and further away from them only to find out that the ties that bound them as a family were stronger. How does one reconcile a mother’s decision (which brought Luke immense grief) with their reality?

He wasn’t a bad kid but he was reckless. Black boys couldn’t afford to be reckless, she had tried to tell him. Reckless white boys became politicians and bankers, reckless black boys became dead.

Bennett’s prose is brilliant, with scenes and sentences that haunt you even in your sleep. I woke up many days thinking about these lonely three, as if they were parts of my own memory. Still, the Mothers were there, their voices in the book a kind of life-vest in a stormy ocean, buoyed by the there’s resilience.

There were also other characters in the book that brought me to tears, like Nadia’s father Robert. His was a quiet pain, a slow suffering that builds up over time and explodes. His

A few months ago, I read Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton which was a story about a woman in the hospital recounting her upbringing in a small town. It really only had a few characters, set from her bed at a hospital in New York but it was grand in its emotional landscape. This is what The Mothers is too, only nuanced with truths that Bennett wisely reminds us of.

I admit that when I finished the book, I wasn’t too crazy about it. I felt like I read another story with beautiful sentences in it, failing to recognize the connectedness of what Bennett was trying to illuminate. It wasn’t until I started writing about it that I pieced all of the elements together — the Mothers, the mothers — that I finally understood its brilliance.

And then there was love too, you know. No matter how you write or say it, every great story needs its gravitational pull. It can be shown in different ways, ways that you may not even have expected, but it needs to be there. In this case, who better than the Mothers to tell you how it really is?

“See, that’s the problem with colored girls these days. They too hard. Soft things can take a beating. But you push somethin’ hard a little bit and it shatters.
You gotta be a soft thing in love. Hard love don’t last.”

* * * 

3 thoughts on “How to Mother, with Brit Bennett

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