Mothers and Earth, Joined in the End
To read Mark Anthony Rolo’s My Mother Is Now Earth (Borealis Books, 2012) is to have your heart suddenly rise into your throat, spreading its warmth unexpectedly toward your eyes, releasing an exquisite pain. Like all really beautiful things, this book exacts a toll, but one that is worth paying.
Through childhood memories and dreams, Rolo tells the story of his mother who died too young, leaving her alcoholic husband and huge brood to fend for themselves. Innocent and brutal, Rolo’s younger self lays bare the shame shared by so many Indian women who were guilty of the terrible crime of being poor and in the white man’s world.
Although the author’s Ojibwe heritage figures heavily here, the element of racism is only incidental for this rural family plagued by poverty, alcoholism and sexism. Isolated from family and friends by her alcoholic husband, Rolo’s mother, Corrine, seems trapped by endless days of cooking, cleaning and child-rearing that drive her to the brink of madness. This story of a mother’s love is not a sentimental tale of self-sacrifice. Corrine’s love for her children is sharp and spare, driven by necessity but fiercely maternal.
Although there is despair aplenty in this book, Rolo describes his mother’s innate dignity with a powerful, poignant hand. Her Ojibwe spirit permeates her and her family’s lives, transcending the gritty limitations of the daily routine. The story is the quintessential portrayal of how Native people maintain connection with culture and the earth in an authentic and instinctive way.
Writing His Mother’s Presence
Mark Anthony Rolo is an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe of Wisconsin. He is the former editor of The Circle newspaper in Minneapolis and a former Washington, D.C., bureau chief for Indian Country Today (the precursor to Indian Country Today Media Network) .He has written several plays, including What’s an Indian Woman to Do? ICTMN asked him how he came to write My Mother Is Now Earth.
What motivated you to write this book?
I didn’t want to write about my mother. I didn’t really know that much about her: She was so closed, and I was only 10 years old when she died. The book found me. Quite honestly, my mother’s spirit came to me. While teaching at the University of Wisconsin in 2008, it was my habit to walk through a community garden across the street from my apartment. One spring day I felt my mother’s spirit in the warm wind, felt her presence in the coming-alive earth. I felt my mother’s presence so strongly as I wrote this book. Although I used to dream of her often as a boy, I hadn’t dreamt of her for more than 35 years, until I decided to write this book. She instructed me to be careful; I have tried to honor her request and have told the story only from my own specific memories and dreams.
What did you learn from writing the book?
I really felt that I got to know this woman in the process of writing. Do you know the story of the man who finds his father frozen in ice on a mountaintop? The father is the same age when he died, as the son is when he discovers his body, and the son feels as though he is looking at himself in the ice. For me, I felt as though I got to know my mom beyond looking at her frozen image in the ice of my memory. In writing the book, I see now that my mom was telling me that I had to take over responsibility for the family. I honestly believe I have gotten to know my mother and her hidden heart. Getting to know a parent beyond the grave is more than healing. I have come full circle.
Was writing this memoir a cathartic experience for you?
Yes. The grief of her loss embraced me. I am grateful, however, that I don’t seem to be able to avoid pain; I have to feel it, embrace it. I have come to terms with many parts of my unresolved past. I have found great freedom and healing in exploring the past and finding change for myself. But writing the book has not been so much about catharsis but about spirituality. It was a spiritual journey of getting to know my mother.
What do you hope readers will gain?
I was recently speaking about my book on [the radio program] Native America Calling and was struck by the number of elders who called expressing sadness about their mothers and how we don’t honor our mothers in the ways that we used to do. I think it is healing, especially for Indian people, to realize that changing your perspective about your life and family can be helpful. I don’t think our lives are a bunch of random anecdotes. Everybody’s place in the universe is equal. Looking at one’s life as a narrative can be helpful for anybody.
What is the take-away message?
We come from Earth, and we return to it. I believe that is always the journey for the Indian. As people may notice, the book is filled with imagery that describes merging with the earth. My mother is now one with the earth.