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Review (Outpouring): Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev

I’ve titled this a review, but be forewarned: this may be more of an outpouring of love and gratitude for a book that lives very close to my own lived experience, obsessions, desires, and insecurities. I, too, am the lost daughter of a missing mother. My story is different from Shalmiyev’s, and also painfully similar. Reading Mother Winter was difficult for me: I who revel in difficult books, who can’t get enough of movies that make me cry, who don’t feel invested until challenged to engage with all my emotions at once: I felt both compelled to continue and also sometimes it hurt so much I had to set it down, walk away, come back. “These days, I think of ma,” Shalmiyev writes midway through the memoir, “a Japanese word that doesn’t have a precise translation but is roughly the ‘gap, pause, or space between two structural parts.’ One can be conscious of a place, not as a hemmed-in, three-dimensional entity, but as a form and formlessness coexisting as an interval, between breaths, between destruction and rebuilding, between resting and looking again.”

Mother Winter is a memoir dealing with Shalmiyev’s separation at age eleven from her mother (and her motherland) and her subsequent search for her. Her mother, Elena, was an alcoholic, a “loose” woman, and in 1980’s Leningrad, her father was given full custody of her, Elena being deemed “unfit.” Shalmiyev’s father then chose to take his daughter and emigrate to the United States, leaving Elena behind. The memoir deals in uncertainties, in obsessions, in the space “between resting and looking again.” This space is one with which I am familiar. I was separated from my own mother at the age of seven (she relinquished her rights to me in a court of law, admitting herself an “unfit” mother, due to her addiction to drugs and subsequent negligence, and I was sent to live with relatives who would later adopt me); at fifteen I was separated from her more permanently, as she died in an incident of domestic violence at the hands of her boyfriend, who, like Shalmiyev’s father, in a moment of frustration pushed her too hard against an unrelenting surface.

“The daughters who live in flashbacks will suspend their tongues between the origin and the destination—the past more immediate, more urgent than any new day. ‘Mother, loosen my tongue or adorn me with a lighter burden.’ Even Audre Lorde needs her mother’s permission to grease the gears on the train to the beginning, to knock on coffins.” This urge to go back, this sensation of “the past more immediate, more urgent than any new day” must ring true for anyone who has lost someone important to them. I can’t help but feel it is even more true for daughters who have lost mothers at an early age. Not only the loss of someone loved; not only the loss of a primary caretaker (or what should have been a primary caretaker); but the loss of that model of who-we-are-to-become. “I don’t worship my real mother, but I can’t get her buttermilk smell off my mouth.” Can we choose not to be obsessed with an absence that defines us? Can we walk away from our own silhouette? A man I barely knew once asked me if it was difficult “knowing how to be a woman,” seeing as I had no one to look up to. “She was a pantry-moth mother. Stuck mottled in sacks of grain. Everyone, encumbered, tattle-telling the truth about her. Trying to clean her out of their dark closets. A nuisance. Spat out a daughter so intractable she keeps walking into her father’s hand until it slaps her chin to chest. Passed on a fascial hostility in lieu of a hope chest or a dowry. An ice snap in their connective tissue. Bones cracking like winter branches. Mean to the marrow.”

Mother Winter is told in short vignettes, associative leaps allowing for the voices of surrogate mothers—mostly writers—to come through, and for events and thoughts and images to recur as naturally as they do in life. “Yesterday has never ended,” Shalmiyev writes at one point, and I feel that in the language, in the reoccurrence of violence, in the way that problems are presented but not necessarily resolved. I’m thinking of a scene between young Shalmiyev and her mother, remarkably similar to a scene from my own childhood, where Shalmiyev feels pressured to keep her distance from her mother, not wanting to express sympathy or allegiance with a woman who has so clearly been marked as an outcast. “My mother must have felt humiliated. She must have given up on herself completely. She must have retreated and relapsed even harder. How small she looked sitting on that couch, reaching out for my hand.” Later, a memory surfaces: “You argue with my dad over whether you are drunk again or not. He calls you a liar and you snap like hollow timber. My fingers squeeze the unvarnished wood of my toddler bed. I hear your ribs break as I press my face against the crib slats, which now shake like telephone wires in a hailstorm.” This scene chronologically predates the one where Shalmiyev herself, still a child, is thrown against a bed by her father, sustaining a serious back injury, though the order that these scenes are related in the memoir is inverted. “Russian sentences begin backward” is the opening sentence of Mother Winter, followed by, “When I learned English well enough to love it, I realized my inner tongue was running in the wrong direction.”

I know a little about this kind of backwardness; I engaged in self-harm when I was a teenager, long before finding out my own mother had given in to similar impulses at around the same age. I was molested as a child and did not find out for many years that my mother was also molested as a child. As a child I missed my mother desperately; as an adolescent I did everything I could to distance myself from my memories of her, from my understanding of who she was. I did not want to repeat her. “Some women aren’t to be canonized, publicly accepted, or even acknowledged. My biggest fear as the missing daughter of an unseen and unheard mother pointed to the looming victim legacy as mine to surgically remove and dissect. Because everything started as a copy.” When my friends fret about turning into their mothers, I withdraw a little. At least their mothers are alive, loved.

At one point, Shalmiyev describes a memory of her mother of which she can’t quite make sense. She goes on to write, “I became very old once I saw those men having sex with her limp body. I became her mother and she my baby. Now, shaken, we were both crushed-ice girls, all mixed up. I would have to learn about Elena by reading an instructional manual that didn’t exist. There were no chapters in novels or essays in anthologies that could teach me to keep loving Elena through witnessing what seemed like rape, but could have been a choreographed orgy, or even sex work. A choice, not choice.” My own mother turned to sex work when the withdrawals were bad enough, when her body’s desperation outweighed everything else. I have a similar memory of witnessing a sexual act in which my mother was both present and not present. Limp. I remember holding my stuffed dog and thinking that my mother must also be filled with stuffing. Inanimate. I do not know, and will never know because she is not here to tell me herself, whether what I witnessed was rape.

Unlike Shalmiyev, I am not an immigrant. I did not have to leave behind my native tongue. I do know for a fact that my mother died, and who killed her. I can only imagine the ongoing torture of maybes and what-ifs. And unlike Shalmiyev, I have not chosen to have children, to seek closure or healing through the act of perpetuation. But her insecurities regarding motherhood are not unknown to me. “It is in me to leave my children. It is my destiny to make them unhappy. Those are the roaches scurrying around my mind when I turn on the lights in the kitchen of the proverbial house my mother built. When my mother drank instead of continuing to nurse me as a ten-month-old, she cut away at the stable and confident future-mother-me…” I do not want children. I think it is a choice that I have made. But also I sometimes consider the possibility that it was a choice that was made for me, that I am the result of a failed childhood. Never mind a “stable and confident future-mother-me;” it took me this long to even begin conceiving of a stable and confident future-me.

I have two older sisters. One of them was also adopted. Her name is Nastya (short for Anastasia). She is Russian, and like Shalmiyev, she left Russia when she was eleven. My sister and I have not spoken in many years; I know she has a family, a daughter; I do not know where she is or if she is happy or if she is a good mother to her daughter, whose name I do not know. I could find out all of these things if I wanted. Sometimes loss is ambiguous and also chosen. Life is messy and weird and hard. My sister and I both lost our mothers to violence; we grew up in a family that discouraged us talking about our former lives, our biological families. I often wonder if it isn’t the loss so much as the subsequent repression and refusal to allow space for the loss that caused the most damage. Shalmiyev writes about how when she traveled back to Russia to look for her mother as an adult, her family discouraged her, told her not to waste her time on an alcoholic and a whore. The first time I called someone a whore I did not know the word internalized, I did not understand the way patriarchy turns women against each other. The first time someone I loved called me a slut I thought of my mother, and perhaps it was around that time that I began longing to know how I was connected to her more than I longed to differentiate myself from her.

Mother Winter illustrates to me in gorgeously honest prose some things I already know in my heart to be true: loss is not something you get over, but something with which you learn to live. Humans are complicated and flawed and are capable of being harmful one moment and nurturing the next—but historically, women are given less lenience to be fully human. (Shalmiyev’s father is never deemed “unfit” as a parent despite the fact that he is physically abusive—what is worse, negligence through absence or an abusive presence?) We romanticize motherhood and pressure women into giving birth but provide little support for mothers who struggle with that rigid role or the children who find themselves abandoned in the wake of it.

It also reminded me that my own book—a book entitled Matryoshka, which deals with my own missing mother and all of the contexts to which that loss belongs—resides in that perpetual motion of resting and then looking again, in the between-ness of living a life that is both beautiful and also stitched together by memories of loss, by traumatic experiences from which I will heal but not ever truly leave behind. And whether that book ever finds a home or an audience, it is integral to who I am and how I continue to live on in the shadow a history that is still very much present in me. “Whenever men sing love songs to women on the radio I don’t think they are for me. I picture myself as the guy and I’m speaking directly to my mother. If the lyrics seem sexual I bypass those words by humming and concentrating on the need, the want, the chase, the absence, the raw and base desire to be one with another. This has nothing to do with fucking. It’s about symbiosis.” Perhaps at its core, Mother Winter assures me that I will never become too old to stop missing my mother, that no matter how much time passes, the distance between myself and the events that shaped me has not grown, that in fact I feel closer to them than I ever have. Perhaps as we approach death we also approach the womb. “Mother is a circle—a complete and perfect hole.”

Towards the end of Mother Winter, Shalmiyev writes, “The deer survives the predator, but it doesn’t survive the effort of running faster than itself. Even with the lion finally left behind, the deer dies from her survival, too shaken to enjoy silence, always listening for danger.” This is not exactly a comforting sentiment—not only will the children of trauma remain haunted by their own vigilance, but that vigilance, developed as a survival mechanism, may eventually take its toll on us—and yet I am comforted in knowing I am not alone in feeling it. Thank you Sophia Shalmiyev for writing this haunting, searching, tenderly tenacious book. I, too, make mothers of writers, of sentences, of words, and am grateful to find myself newly born(e).

Darla Mottram