Sourcebooks, May 5, 2015
Hardcover, 320 pages
Book Review of Pieces of My Mother:A Memoir
by Melissa Cistaro
Reviewed by Ginger Beck
Putting the Pieces Together: Reflecting on Family and Loss
Few words are more synonymous with family than the word dysfunctional, and while some memoirs can fall flat when retelling tired family histories, Melissa Cistaro’s Pieces of My Mother is a moving story that illustrates this dysfunction expertly, keeping readers emotionally invested in the family dynamics and emotional turmoil of the author. Cistaro draws from childhood recollections, family lore, more recent personal memories and a cache of unsent letters from her now-dying mother, who abandoned her children when they were small and remained an inconsistent presence throughout their lives. Readers struggle along with Cistaro as she unashamedly vocalizes what many people commonly think but don’t typically say: the dying and deaths of loved ones are not just sad, they are inconvenient. Cistaro fears her own motherhood is a fragile thread able to break at any time. The intricate merging of her past as an abandoned child and her present as a loving wife and mother, coupled with her own mother’s pained and reflective letters searching for connection and validation, is a successful example of how authors can connect with any reader who has struggled to come to terms with painful family history.
Cistaro opens the memoir by recounting the heartbreaking childhood memory of watching her mother pack her car for a trip little Melissa knows is “not a trip to get cigarettes”. Cistaro’s careful writing is striking, drawing readers into the emotions of her younger self:
Bun-Bun and I both have stupid plastic eyes and sewed-on mouths. Inside us there
is nothing but sawdust. Then I see [my mother’s] mouth break open wide like a fish
gasping for air. She is crying inside her car. Everything is underwater. It crosses my mind
that I could swim to her if I knew how…. I press my forehead against the glass and
swallow every word I know. Underwater, everything is quiet and full of ripples. My mom
is a mermaid as she swims away from me, her thick hair waving like strands of long
seaweed. I don’t hear the sound of the car engine starting up, but I watch as my mom
backs up and drives away in her baby-blue Dodge Dart.
This type of poetic language is one of many stunning elements of this book. Cistaro controls her writing, creating a smooth and satisfying read. While many authors may have difficulty alternating between past and present moments, Cistaro transitions between time periods effortlessly, using the past to draw a clearer picture of both Cistaro’s and her mother’s current states of mind.
Cistaro’s memories of childhood are achingly sad, yet beautiful. In one particularly memorable paragraph, little Melissa describes a simultaneously happy and sad time with her brothers following her mother’s departure. They’ve discovered a secret stash of boxes of Duncan Hines cake mixes and are hiding under the house trying every flavor:
My bare legs are coated with fine, white powder, and I draw a smiley face on top of my
thigh. For a moment, I stop wishing my mom were still here. I’m glad there is no one to
tell us not to light matches and not to sneak the boxes of cake mix. I like being here with
my brothers. We’re a tribe of three making a pact in the cool dirt underneath the house.
There are so many colors and flavors, and after a while the cake doesn’t even taste so
good, but none of that even matters. We’ve got sweet things. Fire and sugar.
Cistaro makes sure the distinct voice of young Melissa is easily discernible from her adult voice, yet still strong and compelling.
In the present, Cistaro receives news that her mother is dying, succumbing to the cirrhosis and liver cancer which has plagued her for several years. Abandoned at such a young age with only sporadic contact with her mother afterward, Cistaro feels “all [her] fears surface. She is leaving again.” Cistaro travels to be by her mother’s side as she is dying at Christmastime, but promises her daughter she will return before New Year’s Eve. When her mother’s dying inconveniently takes longer than expected, Cistaro is forced to decide between leaving her mother’s side and losing what could be one of few meaningful moments with her mother she will ever have, and keeping a promise to herself regarding her own daughter, whom she swore to never make feel abandoned, as she herself had been. “I come from a long line of mothers who left their children. What if there exists some sort of genetic family flaw, some kind of ‘leaving gene’ that unexpectedly grabs hold of mothers like the ones in my family? What if the gene is lying dormant inside me?” While struggling with the choice, she still maintains the desire to reclaim pieces of her mother and use the time her mother is unconscious to read years of unsent letters, finally gaining some insight into her mother’s mind and life throughout the years:
I keep rereading her letters. I am the fool still searching for something that will give me
some fragment of closure—that one sentence that tells me why she left…. There isn’t
really anywhere she says ‘I’m sorry.’ But her words here are something I can hold onto.
Here is her voice—the one I yearned to hear, to understand for so many years. This is the
window I can look through to glimpse into her complicated, confused, bright, mindful,
and longing self.
The use of her mother’s letters exactly as they were written and Cistaro’s thoughtful reflections of not only herself, but also of her mother, build multiple layers of emotion that mirror how complicated families and love can be.
In Pieces of My Mother, Cistaro addresses tough ideas: Are we predisposed to repeat the mistakes and shortcomings of our parents? Can we make peace with our family history enough to move forward in our adult lives? Through the careful retelling of childhood memories, analyzing her relationship with her own children, gaining access to years of her mother’s thoughts and coming to terms with her family history, Melissa Cistaro is able to answer these questions masterfully while telling a captivating story.
About the Reviewer: Ginger Beck is a high school English teacher in Little Rock, Arkansas. She is an editor for Gravel literary magazine and is fascinated by outer space and dinosaurs. Her most recent work “Dancers” is featured in the Foliate Oak (March, 2015).