Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Book Bind


"Can we read this?" Grace comes into the kitchen holding a book. She is still in her pajamas. I feel my heart tighten.

"Where did you find that?" I ask her.

"On your desk."

She is holding a book called In Our Mothers' House by Patricia Polacco. I bought the book last year because I loved the title and I love Patricia Polacco and the idea that she would write a book about a two-mom family seemed too good to be true. As it turned out it was too good to be true, which is why I had shuffled the book into the middle of a stack on my desk. The book is filled with beauty: a deeply joyful and loving family, a rambling old house in the Berkeley hills, charming details about food, pets, first steps, tree houses, family dinners. At its core the book is a love letter from a grown daughter to her mothers.

But it is also something else. Amidst the memories of pasta parties and banister-sliding there are also memories of a neighbor, a skinny woman with an angry face and wild blonde hair who wants to keep her children away from the narrator and her family. The first few times she appears her anger is very subtle. She could be any old neighborhood grump. She frowns at the children's Halloween costumes and won't let her children sleep over in the community tree house with the rest of the neighborhood. But when the community comes together for a block party, the drama rises. The homophobic neighbor takes on the young girl's mothers. She yells at them, tells them to go away, and the illustrations show her hateful face and body, her children hiding behind her. Polacco depicts the mothers' pained faces, and the faces of their children crying.

Quickly the mothers offer their children comforting words about this woman not having any love in her heart and the story moves on to the children and their parents growing older. There are a few beautiful pages about weddings and grandchildren's first steps and burying the mothers on a hill near their home. The last page is a picture of children catching fireflies in the yard. And despite the fact that I am deeply frustrated with Polacco for succumbing to the age-old assumption that homophobia is the principal drama in the lives of children with lesbian mothers, the story still feels like a triumph.

And now here is Grace with the book in her hands. I don't want to read it to her, and yet I do want to, because it is far and away the most beautiful depiction of a two-mom family I have ever seen, and I know that she will love it. But I also know I can't read the page about the confrontation with the woman. So I read slowly and carefully and when we get to the pages where the woman is just being grumpy I read those. And when we get to the part about the block party, I hold the pages together and I turn ahead.

Grace loves the book. She wants me to read it again, and I do. She wants me to read it the next day, and the next, and early Saturday morning when I am rushing out the door to my yoga class. "When I get back," I tell her.

"I'll ask Mati," she says.

I panic. I haven't had time to talk about the book with Chris. "Grace wants you to read this book, " I tell Chris. She is at the sink, filling the kettle. "But you can't read all the pages about the block party because--"

Grace walks in the room before I can finish and I have to resort to facial expressions and mouthing the word "homophobic neighbor" several times.

Chris looks at me. "It's 7 a.m. Could I just make some tea?"

For years we skipped over pages in books, although we hardly ever do it now. Now we read every page in Martin's Big Words, even the ones about him being shot. We read all of When Marian Sang (even though it is insanely long), including the pages about the receptionist at the music school who won't let Marian Anderson fill out an application because she is black. We even read Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Samuel Whiskers about the rats trying to make the Tom Kitten into pudding. But In Our Mothers' House is different. It tells the story of a family like ours, but with the addition of a hatred and anger that is completely foreign to Grace. Some might say that we don't know how lucky we are that this is true, and I would agree. But the luck is mine and Chris's, not Grace's. Grace's luck is that she has curly hair and a little sister and a star-shaped cookie in her lunch box every day. Her luck is a house on a dirt road with cows in the meadow and apples that hang low enough to pick. The fact that this house is in Massachusetts, a state where Chris and I can be married and have children that belong to both of us, that is our luck. And the hatred in the pages of Polacco's book, that is part of our story, not Grace's. Not yet.

I am not naïve: I know that someday -- and it could be someday soon -- Grace will be the target of an adult's anger and homophobia. Chris and I do everything we can to be certain that when that day comes she will know how to act and what to do. And our raising of her and June, the ways in which we prepare them for their lives in the greater and less accepting world, does not include the discussion of violence and hatred toward families like ours. Eventually the four of us will talk about such things, we will talk about Harvey Milk and Matthew Shepard. We will talk about Proposition 8 and Chris will tell the girls about the rainy afternoon in April when she rode the bus to the state house in Boston and saw young children hold signs saying "Gay Marriage is a Sin" while I stayed home because I was six months pregnant and frightened of what people might say to me.

But we won't tell them any of those things now. Right now we are working on helping Grace ride a two-wheeler and sound out words for a book she is writing about the bunny we are getting in the spring. Right now we are trying to convince June to sit on her Dora potty seat and stop hitting her friends when they take a toy away from her. Right now we are trying to convince both of them to eat something that is not a noodle covered in cheese.

Chris and I know the story Patricia Polacco is trying to tell. We know the story, and we know how it ends for some families and how it ends for others. And while we don't tell the story to our girls, we do carry it with us. The life we live is colored by the reality of prejudice, the possibility of harm. We manage these losses both publicly and privately, and Grace and June are witness to our choices and our actions, even now when they are too young to understand much of what we do and why we do it.

On Monday afternoon Grace is at school and June is napping. I am clearing off the dining room table and see the book. I open it, right to the page with the hateful neighbor. The illustration is so graphic, the children's faces so sad, there is no missing that something is terribly wrong. I don't know what to do: I love the story of this family, but soon enough Grace will be able to read the entire book herself. And before that, she might ask a babysitter to read it to her. The book starts to feel dangerous, which is an altogether terrible way for a book to feel. But it is dangerous: my daughter does not have any idea that there are people in this world who do not like her, who do not want to be near her, who do not think that she should have been born, because of who her parents are. I hold the book for a long time and then before I lose my nerve I open up Grace's art supply cabinet and take out a glue stick. I cover the woman's angry face with glue, I cover her cowering children, I cover the faces of the crying children. Then I push the pages together, and I smooth them between my hands, over and over, until they form one new page, only slightly thicker than the rest.

Erin White received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts where she taught writing for 3 years. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Passionfruit, Babble, and elsewhere. She lives in the hills of western Massachusetts with her partner and their two young daughters. For more of her writing, visit her personal website, Hatched by Two Chicks.

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I have an overwhelming urge to hug you right now. The world is changing (too slowly, I know), but I am hopeful that the angry, homophobic neighbor won't have to be part of our children's stories.
My heart is in my throat right now, tears in my eyes. What a powerful piece, Erin. And heartbreaking. I am with Amy, hoping that that kind of anger and fear is not a part of our children's lives.
Great last line for a beautiful column! We borrowed Polacco's book from the library and enjoyed it (though my husband admonished me for not warning him that it was a tearjerker).
Your layered feelings about the book quite echoed mine. Our daughter at five tells others about having two mamas (married 1 week before Prop 8) with the comfortable assuredness of the Berkeley child that she is. I wanted so much to read her this story for the gift of its parallel to her life, without the hateful-neighbor drama and the grief that we all want to forestall as long as we can. I long for books in which families like ours inhabit stories as everyday people, to have the plot expand beyond "look! what a lovely family despite how unusual we are!" to being just plain old people in a story not about "That". Thanks for your thoughts.
Beautiful piece. I love the ending, and what I love about the ending is that it really universalises the story. Coming from a quite specific place of being a family with two moms, the story opens out encompass the story of all mothers - wanting to protect their children from the big bad world. I'm impressed you glued the pages together. I would have just "lost" the book.
I love your way with words and how you express your feelings. Just as you teach and expose your children to the unfairness of the world through stories about being black in America and any other population that has been downtrodden and unfairly treated, you will have to include this portion of history also. Hopefully, just as we have seen a black man become president, we might also see the first woman president – perhaps made more wonderful if she were also lesbian? But you did really impress me – I, too, NEVER would have thought about the glue -- and a beautiful story would truly have been “lost.”
What a beautiful story. Coming from the midwest, a place where I have only ever once seen two mamas and never seen two fathers, I never would have thought how this issue affects their children. You have written about it in a way that touches any parent's heart, no matter their sexuality.
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