Similar to the mother-child portraits drawn in White Oleander and Angela’s Ashes, DROWNING SQUIRRELS (88,870 words) is a memoir that examines the dark side of motherhood while articulating the perseverance and survival of Marina, an adoptee wrestling to overcome the tempestuous whirlwind of two precarious lives, each revolved around an equally callous and chillingly inept mother. As if being born to a lunatic and violent mother who makes prostitution her livelihood is not enough, Marina is then handed over to an adoptive mother who resents and silences her new daughter out of spite. Fearful of assuming the rages of one mother and the coldness of the other in her own role as mother, Marina is determined to discover her own maternal identity so as not to damage her children in the same ways that she had been damaged. She rejects the selfish and cruel nature of each maternal figure and seeks her own individuality as a woman and as a mother.
A narrative that negotiates a space in which the universal mother-daughter conflicts dominate and become unraveled, DROWNING SQUIRRELS targets a world-wide audience of women, mothers and daughters, by intertwining the stories of three generations of maternal figures and the disparate ways with which they parent their children: ATHANASIA, Marina’s Greek mother, parents her children along the edges of lunacy, negligence, violence and prostitution; ANN, Marina’s adoptive mother, withholds affection and love out of fear of rejection, and silences Marina’s roots, history, and identity; the third maternal figure is MARINA herself, a green mom who raises her two children with love and trepidation combined.
Set in Athens, Greece, DROWNING SQUIRRELS infuses the reader with a portrait of squalor that defined Marina’s childhood, and which Athanasia, a victim of abuse and rape herself, saturated with corruption, madness, violence, prostitution, and neglect. The reader bears witness to the raging lunacy of the narrator’s mother, who physically and verbally diminishes the masculinity and vitality of Marina’s passive father. Marina, aged four, watches from the kitchen table as her mother stabs her father, John, on the head and in the eye with the sharp and pointed stiletto of her red shoe. He flees their house, and ultimately their marriage, leaving his five children to temper the violent rages of their precarious mother without his aid. Caught in the middle of befuddlement and immeasurable acuity, Marina suffers the loss of her older siblings as each one is placed in a separate orphanage. She and her newborn sister remain with their mother, exposed to a life without security, food, sleep, or safety.
For the next five years, Marina experiences homelessness, is forced to forage through garbage for daily sustenance, witnesses the depravity that comes with her mother’s prostitution, endures the violence and sexual threats of her mother’s new gypsy lover and pimp, and is mandated by the city to spend one year in an orphanage. Temporary asylum is within her grasp when she goes to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle, but they put her up for adoption when it becomes apparent that Marina’s presence in their lives conflicts with the needs of their own children.
At the age of eight, Marina is introduced to her second mother, a single and much older Greek-American science teacher from New York named Ann. Compared to her birth mother, Ann appears to be the best choice for the little girl. An intelligent and cultured woman, she relies only on herself to achieve her dreams and fulfill her desires. Independent and self-reliant, she travels the world, changes the oil in her car, rewires outlets in her home, has acquired one degree after another, and openly loathes men. Marina escapes the sexual depravity of one mother, and is offered refuge by a frigid and asexual woman who finds it beneath her to be aided by any man. Secretive about the adoption and ashamed of Marina’s past, Ann changes Marina’s name to Kathryn, and forbids the young girl to discuss the first eight years of her life to her or anyone else. Marina has only to break her promise once to lose her new mother’s affections. Cold and withholding, Ann labels her new daughter a liar by the age of eight and a whore, just like her birth mother, by the age of eleven. Marina spends much of her adolescence trying to prove herself worthy of maternal love and affection, and dedicates all her efforts in challenging her mother’s unjustified judgments of her. The next twenty years are entrenched with the futility of these labors of love and only succeed in creating a castrated, virginal, and inert young woman without a clear sense of her own identity.
Amidst the stories of her two mothers, Marina weaves the narrative of her own struggle in taking control of her person and voice. A survivor determined to overcome her mothers and her childhood, Marina establishes autonomy and self-reliance, finds love, returns to Greece to find her family, initiates a relationship with her blood siblings, and reclaims Marina, the name of her birth. Marina, now a mother herself, exposes the complexities and struggles she faces with motherhood. The rage and violence of one mother and the emotional silences fostered by the second mother shadows her when she least expects it, negatively affecting the way she parents her own children. Consumed by unresolved anger one moment and fearful misgivings the next, she fears that her own unstable parenting will undermine the love and care she fosters in her children’s upbringing. She concludes her first-person narrative by realizing the integral role she plays as the nucleus of her family, and that it is up to her to break the cycle of maternal deficiencies that framed her childhood and shaped her understanding of motherhood. In writing this narrative, she is able to both mothers objectively, forgive them, and forgive herself for her own inadequacies as a mother.
DROWNING SQUIRRELS speaks of childhood memories that haunt, of truths that cannot be silenced, and of the prevailing spirit of one woman who overcomes adversity on her own. Marina’s narrative is an inspirational journey that invokes a cry against unspoken maternal misgivings and urges women to create a space of discourse in which they can articulate the guilt, shame, and angst that comes hand-in-hand with motherhood. She justifies the necessity for discernment and self-awareness, calling for mutual recognition between daughters and mothers, for it is only when we can look upon one another as separate and individual entities – as women, not as “mothers” and “daughters”– that we can fully understand one another. In doing so, we can forgive, finally let go, and gain the distinction we desire as women, as mothers, and as individuals.
Copyright© 2010 by Marina Delvecchio. All Rights Reserved.