Gayle Brandeis  

A Portrait of My Mother Through Other Daughters’ Portraits of Their Mothers  

“Reading other daughters’ accounts . . . I sometimes feel we are all the daughters of the same mythical mother . . . While I am reading these other daughters’accounts, their mothers become my mother.” 

—Edwidge Danticat, The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story

Jylian Gustlin

Jylian Gustlin

            “I am the Queen of Sheba,”my mother announced to me in a regal voice.

            You could say that my life as her daughter, the life of my imagination, began with my mother’s visions. My sisters and I took them as our texts. Thanks to my mother, I was raised to have a morbid imagination.

            I wanted to make my mother happy, that should come as no surprise. She had desires, for a harp, for seasonal seats at the opera . . . . From my mother I learned that truth is bendable, that what you wish is every bit as real as what you are.

            My mother wasn’t perfect. My mother was intense. Things didn’t happen because they were possible, they happened because she decided they would. She took the ought-to-be for the actual and adhered to what she should like and how things should be. It was as though she traveled by a map of the wrong place, hitting walls, driving into ditches, missing her destination, but never stopping or throwing out the map. And she never stopped being Cinderella, and told her own story largely as a series of things that happened to her rather than things she did.

            My mother’s flair for drama always caught me off guard. I said nothing, though. I felt to speak would be to betray my mother. My mother wanted always to be above reproach.

            I could never re-create myself as completely as my mother had . . . I would fly home to . . . discover my mother in a new guise: a millionairess or a coronated duchess, a CEO patenting great inventions, a racehorse owner.

            At times my mother would go into obsessive monologues about our tragedies, about the curse, punctuating with her laments every bite we took. I retreated inward. I couldn’t deny that I did still have feelings of anger toward my mother.

            It occurred to me that maybe my mother could just turn this illness thing on and off at will—-transmutation at her fingertips. Snap and she could be misdiagnosed or terminal. seductress or victim. Because of my mother’s moods, I lived in a state of high suspense.

            My mother had been touched by death; it was no stranger to her. There was no way to undo that, no way to make death forget her name.

            . . . my mother wrote no note, made no phone calls. She did not reach out for help or rescue, and she chose a method far more certain than her old routine of sleeping pills . . . . She wanted to die, and her desire came not from anger but from despair.

            Please help me let go of this story. Please help me to give my heart over to my mother.

            For I could not be sure whether for the rest of my life I would be able to tell when it was really my mother and when it was really her shadow standing between me and the rest of the world.

Our mothers . . .

Jacki Lyden, Daughter of the Queen of Sheba

Amy Tan, The Opposite of Fate

Lauren Slater, Lying

Nadja Spiegelman, I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This,

Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge

Andrea Jarrell, I’m the One Who Got Away

Jacki Lyden, Daughter of the Queen of Sheba

Linda Gray Sexton, Searching for Mercy Street, My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton

Ariel Gore, The End of Eve

Tracy K. Smith, Ordinary Light

Jamaica Kincaid, Annie John


Gayle Brandeis is the author, most recently, of the memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press) and the poetry collection The Selfless Bliss of the Body (Finishing Line Books). Her other books include Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), and the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), Delta Girls (Ballantine), and My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt), which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. She currently teaches at Sierra Nevada College and the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles.