In the summer of 2009, Katie Hafner, a widow living with her teenage daughter, invited her 77-year-old mother to move into their San Francisco home. It was the beginning, she hoped, of a “year in Provence.” But the “year” only lasted a matter of months: By springtime, her mother had moved out. “Mother Daughter Me,” Hafner’s sixth book and first personal narrative, uses the intergenerational-living setup to come to terms with her difficult childhood — and to accept the mother that she had never quite forgiven.
In the early pages of the book, Hafner reveals that her relationship with her mother, Helen, has never fully healed from childhood trauma. Not scratches, but wounds — the kind left from growing up with a single mother whose alcoholism and inability to parent resulted in her two daughters (10 and 8) being removed from her custody. In an effort to pave the way toward a more honest relationship, Hafner and her mother begin therapy. It’s the first time the alcoholism is mentioned, and it becomes an extra hurdle to overcome in Hafner’s vision of re-creating the happy family life she never had growing up.
Most of the action in the memoir happens among the three women — in the garage, at the grocery store, at the mall. Hafner and her mother begin their new relationship by organizing kitchen utensils, throwing dinner parties, and navigating an unfamiliar home life. Her tone is consistently matter-of-fact. Although Hafner might say she has been hurt, she never feels sorry for herself. This is refreshing, although at times she sounds just a little too Zen — “I can pick and choose what I absorb and what I deflect.” Still, Helen jumps in at those times (“I think I prefer the unexamined life”), which has the effect of making her more human. Hafner’s daughter, Zoë, meanwhile, doesn’t attend therapy, leaving most of the soul-searching to her mother and grandmother.
Unfortunately, Helen and her granddaughter get off to a rocky start, which lasts pretty much throughout the three seasons Hafner shares with us. Zoë is agitated by her grandmother’s presence, and, perhaps, threatened by living with a woman she had learned to distrust from her mother’s stories. But the memoir isn’t about Zoë, it’s about Hafner’s relationship with her own mother. The dialogue between Hafner and Helen is, indeed, the richest part of this book. With genuine humility, Hafner offers a loving portrait of her mother, a complicated woman who faced her own hurdles as a single mother.
Hafner alternates the scenes in “Mother Daughter Me” with background on ancestors, childhood, the tragic death of her true love (Zoë’s father), and a budding relationship with a doctor named Bob. It’s a lot to digest. And the somewhat disorganized structure, leading away from scenes at home, seems to be the only real drawback of this memoir. While flashbacks are a standard device for setting up a complicated personal history, Hafner’s relationships with her mother, father, deceased husband, and sister each contain loaded and unfinished emotional work; it seems a disservice to explore one area without the full depth that is required. But while it can be argued that Hafner tries to fit too much into this memoir — affairs, divorce, death, alcoholism, money problems, single motherhood, and dating — her attempt to shed resentment is honest and her tone is genuine. She wants to solve these problems, and offers up her own insecurities as a token of good faith.
In the end, while each member of the threesome comes off as frustrating in her own way — Helen for her arrogance, Zoë for stubbornness, Hafner for trying too hard to make things work — witnessing the dynamics among women with such a complicated history is moving. Which was, after all, the point.