My mother, Kathleen Collins, was a writer who died when I was 19 and left piles of journals and letters behind. I feel incredibly fortunate to have all this material, as it’s helped me navigate these years without her, trying to make sense of who she was, what our life together was like, who I am. Here, for Mother’s Day, are some snippets of her complicated wisdom and brilliance:
From her journal when she was 44, two years before she died:
March 1, 1986
In some ways, somewhere in the middle part of life, one of two things occur: (1) the negative or the weaker or more imbalanced part of the personality wins out against the positive – one atrophies inside that imbalance and begins to grow stiff. I suspect about 90% of the world stiffens, or settles for the darker side of themselves, unaware that they have the capacity to triumph over their own darkness. (2) the positive side – through some form of encounter with truth – a love (which can emerge in several forms – a love of one, creative work, genuine spirituality or enlightenment, but love, essential love is, I think, the key), emerges. And in asserting itself, it passes through the negative until it manages to dominate it. It is this struggle for the dominance of the positive that is the life and death moment of an existence. It is a tenacious battle. The negative is both a deadly and an extremely pragmatic enemy. More often than not it has reason on its side. But the necessity to subdue it, to force it to yield to the spontaneous will of the positive is the awesome, painstaking battle. Once won, all other skirmishes are minor.
In a 1987 letter to teenage me, a year before her death:
It is refreshing to me to feel every now and then…that the caretaking is finished, and I am free again! Hard to digest, I’m sure. But true. Every step away is both sad and liberating. For you. For me. We will change our relationship a million times as the years move on. And that is because we are committed to change and not to static energy. It is our way. Not many people want growth the way we do. Most people want to settle, find a place of comfort and cling to it. But in all our years of living that is not how we structured things. We lived together, yes, but it was always understood that as some new interest emerged, some new adventure presented itself, it was to be taken advantage of, and if it brought change in its wake, so be it. In that sense I have always loved your separateness from me, always cherished that I was in fact simply your custodian, so to speak, for a period of time until you had your own wings. I still feel that way. That your flying through life on your own pleasure, your own wits, your own steam, is the true excitement, your true living. And my own flying an equally important thing. And that ultimately it is only delight in another that holds one, that is captivating, all else must be a respect for their freedom. Don’t worry though, as all requests are honored if possible. You only have to say when you need me, momentarily, to offer pure mothering. It is, after all, and after all these years, quite deeply ingrained in me and has given me such an intense pleasure.
From her journal when I was 17 and had spent the summer in Europe:
September 2, 1987
Night and day of Nina’s return. She glows, always, to my surprise, the fundamental glow of youthful joy, youthful satisfaction. It is so light one dare not reach out to touch it. I do not envy her it, yet, for the first time I have a sudden overwhelming sense of age. I am no longer young. I look at Nina and know that I am on the other side of time. It is as if, this summer, she leapt with both feet into the full glory, madness, pleasure, romance, sentimentality, idiocy of being young, took all of herself along, bathed in happy waters, drifted inside the madness of sex, food, people, places, day mingling into night, like a palpable thing. For the first time, I feel it, looking at me. It does not mean to take anything away from Nina. She is, I am. But the sudden distance has thrown me. The bridge that was adolescent/child to mother, that bridge, the true symbiosis of early motherhood is dissolved. We are creatures apart – young woman/older woman. What time has taught me stares at me. It hurts a little…the simple fact of having to learn so much and in the process become older….But where was I? I was trying to lay bare this present moment of relief…for the safe return of my child. For the harbor that the love between us allows me to feel. I am dizzy with relief, with thankfulness. All day today I have restrained myself from an ever present urge to weep.
A letter to teenage me, months before she died:
June 8, 1988
I hope you’re feeling good. I realized that I have set a bad example for you—it’s not a good model, my stubborn independence, it must have made you feel you must do everything yourself, be totally self sufficient, not count on anyone but yourself.
Yet that kind of independence can really stop you from receiving love and rely—which everybody needs. It’s the main lesson this prolonged helplessness has taught me, that I was too locked inside, unable to believe really that anyone would want to help me, want to make life easier and more joyful for me.
My instinct was to shut down rather than open up and JUST RECEIVE, let love come in. I always felt I had to do all the giving! But no one needs or should require one’s self that kind of independence, because it becomes crippling, lopsided, a prison of one’s own making in which others who truly love you and take delight in giving, want to give, are barely allowed in. I do hope you can transcend me in this.