All this came back to me when I read Mothers and Daughters, a brilliant, angry, unflinching novel by the Croatian writer Vedrana Rudan. (Will Firth is the translator.)
Rudan interweaves vivid scenes of the narrator’s daily life with commentary on family, mother-daughter relationships, and eldercare. The narrator, the successful owner of a shop that sells hand-carved wooden angels, wishes her mother would die. She feels constantly guilty, though her mother is in “the best nursing home in Croatia.” She dreads visits to the home, an attractive building located on a hummock in a park, because her mother constantly complains about pain and says she needs pain pills. Her mother also refuses to walk to the restaurant for meals or use the bathroom (she wears expensive diapers). The nurses assure the narrator that her mother is perfectly fine, and say she is play-acting. One detail particularly struck me: her mother complains that it hurts being bathed.
I remember my own mother refusing one day to go with the aides to be bathed. They gently pulled her out of the chair, which appalled me, and told me she faked sickness when it was bath time. She had always loved baths, so I found this quite disturbing. I assured her I would wait for her while she bathed.
I was particularly struck by the narrator’s observations after her mother’s death.
I regret that I don’t know how my mom smelled, I’ve always felt guilty because I’ve looked on her as if she was your mother, not my own.I didn’t stroke her gray hair, but I should have, and I would have if she wasn’t my mother.I didn’t pat her white, bony shoulder, and I would have if she wasn’t my mother.I didn’t look into her bleary eyes, and I would have if she wasn’t my mother…How can you talk with a mother you don’t love?
Rudan describes the unlikable narrator’s pain over her dysfunctional parents with more rage than I’ve seen in a book in a long time. And yet we relate to her. “When did I first think that the only good father was a dead father?”
A brilliant, if bleak, novel about age, memory, family, and death.