Interviewed by Sarah Starr Murphy
Read Connie Wieneke’s nonfiction piece, On Monday My Mother
Sarah: Mother is the whirlwind center of this family, but despite her best efforts there are hints of struggle, like the microwave she can’t afford and her “survival tips.” Although it’s not mentioned explicitly, I suspect that the drugs themselves are a substantial expense. How does class intersect with the challenges the family encounters?
Constance: Definitely my mother was at the center of my childhood and my protagonist, perhaps more than she was to my brother and sister. She was strong-willed, intelligent, given to small white lies. For people who believe in astrology, she was a Taurus-Gemini cusp: bull-headed and of two minds. She had to be to get by. And yes, those “survival tips,” what she called “gifts,” were essential after my parents divorced. Her medications were expensive. She prided herself on getting good deals at the grocery store, and so our food was 99 percent processed, canned or frozen. To this day I hate white bread and canned veggies. She knew about food stamps, but only learned about Medicaid when I was a senior in high school. We didn’t go in for social services; we were all card-carrying union members, voted Democrat, did shift work. Although we lived in trailers, what people now call “mobile homes,” I believed, for the most part I could “make it,” escape that constricted life. We were not “trailer trash.” When we lived in Montana and my parents still together, we relied on commodities—powdered eggs, peanut butter, oleo margarine. My father worked as a bartender before he got on with a company that eventually moved its plant to Pasco, Washington. Despite all of that my parents would have scoffed at us being “poor” and lacking in social “graces.” That said, I remember my mother’s aversion to the annual Mother-Daughter Tea at my high school. That was just as well for me because I always thought she might have a seizure or worse, be socially inept, embarrass the hell out of me. A bit judgmental on my part, I recognized. On that day, I begged her to stay home and promised to make Swedish pancakes for us. She always said yes. I was grateful for that and to this day have an aversion to what I consider “hoity-toity” engagements and manners. And I loved the “please excuse Connie” note she wrote to the school, which never said why I was absent. “None of their business,” she said.
I love the demands this story makes on the reader. Many pieces must be assembled to see the whole picture. In this way, the structure mirrors the mother’s attempt to wrangle children, jobs, epilepsy, and husband into a cohesive life. Was this an intentional choice as you wrote? Are you the kind of writer who likes to begin with structure?
I’ve attempted and written so many versions of my mother in an effort to understand her, to dissect why she annoyed me, why other people still say I wish I’d met her. She definitely did not want anybody to feel sorry for her. No hand-outs. I’m sure the commodities, vintage World War II, in Montana and the food stamps after her divorce rankled her. Interesting to ponder whether she had a “cohesive life.” I think she “made do,” but acted like she was content, which is a class “thing,” I think, meaning we were taught to put a good face on it, which meant toeing-the line, doing your part, working your ass off no matter what the job. The structure definitely helped me to enter her story, or at least my “POV” on her story. I thought I was going to write a poem that began with “On Monday my Mother…” but it had to be nonfiction. So two structure choices: the form and the genre. Line breaks would not work for her story. The “navigated the maze” also was a structural element because I was working on a project with a friend that examined mazes and labyrinths, and how we “walk” them. So for some reason the first line just got me going. And honestly, getting through the maze describes my mother’s life.
Even today, people are occasionally advised to dodge stigma by using the term “seizure disorder” instead of revealing an epilepsy diagnosis. Was the decision to avoid naming the mother’s condition a nod to these concerns? Or is it a reflection of the fact that epilepsy is simply part of this family’s everyday life? If you’re living it, is there any need to name it?
I guess I feel that “seizure disorder,” a phrase we never used, soft-pedals my mother’s epilepsy, “sugar coats” it in some strange way. So, no, not a nod to using politically correct language or absence. She told us about all the famous people who had had epilepsy and maintained she was in good company. When my mother had a seizure, we called it “passing out,” perhaps sometimes, a “fit.” And she always denied she’d had a seizure, which seemed fitting with her ability to dissemble. Our word for a “small” seizure was a “daze,” that second of departure on her part, a momentary stunning that left her standing. We recognized that we had to keep her safe, meaning keep her from having a seizure, by monitoring her “dazes.” We didn’t want to be blamed. Instead of aggravating her, making her tense, “pissing her off,” we would concentrate on getting her to quiet herself. A kind of projected meditation I suppose. It took so long for her neurologist to figure out a “cocktail” to control her seizures, that she didn’t learn to drive until she was close to 50. A frightening venture, we kids, now adults, thought. We rode with her on occasion because she had to prove she could drive and not plow into oncoming traffic, but she was like a teenager at the wheel. Scary. And again we monitored her because we didn’t really “believe” she was “cured” or under control, right? My sister refused to let her children in a car driven by Momma.
What are you reading at the moment? Or, what was the last book you read that you really loved?
Right now I’m reading Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence, which makes me want to read all the books referenced. It’s a funny sad ghost story. Love the narrator, because as with Erdrich’s other narrators, she is flawed, but engaging. Beginning with The Beet Queen, I have loved her fiction. I even did a paper in grad school on Tracks. If she doesn’t get the Nobel Prize for literature, there’s something terribly wrong with the world. Oh yeah, there probably is. The pessimist in me speaking. Though I have to say I feel optimistic at the end of Erdrich’s books.
Congratulations, and thank you for doing this interview!