My mother is in fine fettle. Chatting with her on FaceTime (isn’t technology brilliant!) recently, she looked smashing. She has gotten over that incident when her geranium pots were stolen. A crime never solved, but she has moved on. My old dad, at the age of 90, is good form too.
Moms and dads. Complicated relationships, tangled emotions and love. That’s the gist for many of us. But to lose a parent at an early age is a keenly felt, never interred experience. Yesterday was Mother’s Day in this part of the world, a day that evokes understandably intense and sentimental thoughts. Not merely a day for greeting cards and flowers.
The (Dead Mothers) Club (HBO Canada 9 p.m.) arrives the day after Mother’s Day and with reason. It’s a beautifully made, gently poignant and moving doc that deals with the loss of a mother. As filmmakers Carlye Rubin and Katie Green point out, one in nine Americans will lose a parent before age 20. They say, “Children, particularly daughters, who lose a mother at an early age can be profoundly affected in countless ways.”
The title of the program is taken from Rosie O’Donnell, who is also a producer, and says in it, “The dead mother thing … it’s like a club. You’re initiated. You get a tattoo. It is not going away.” O’Donnell appears in it as do Jane Fonda and Molly Shannon, but this is mainly about three women who aren’t famous and who don’t know each other. The point is their shared experience of loss, doubt, loneliness and grief.
First we meet Leticia, a 29-year-old with Brazilian roots, living in New York City, celebrating her pregnancy with friends. Amid the fun and affection, she tells us that she keeps her friends and family close, building a support system for herself. We later learn that one worry haunts Leticia – her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother all died from breast cancer as the result of a hereditary gene mutation.
And then there is Ginger in Jackson, Miss., an artist still proving things to her mom, long after her mother’s death. Lastly, we meet Jordyn in Los Angeles, who lives with her grandparents. She explains how fascinated she is by her late mother and how she’s asks her grandmother countless detailed questions about her late mom.
There is a gentle sadness in these vignettes, the filmmakers coaxing hints of melancholy from the subjects. There is little sense of the fibres of loss being probed and made raw.
Then along comes Jane Fonda, in full actorly, confessional mode. “The fact that my mother killed herself made me feel that there was something with me, my fault,” she says. “When I discovered it wasn’t my fault, I was 64 years old.” She links a lot of mistakes in her life to her feelings of guilt and loss when her mother died in Fonda’s childhood. There is an unnerving quality to the directness. “It affected how I perceived myself,” she concludes.
Rosie O’Donnell says her mother’s death was “the defining moment” in her life. When her mom died, “Everything went from colour to being in black and white. Everything went from hopeful of the future to craving the past.” And then there is Molly Shannon, who speaks in a matter-of-fact way about the car crash that took her mother’s life and also killed three others in her family. You can tell the matter-of-fact tone is hard-won.
The documentary gives expression to a very specific experience of loss, and admirably so. There is a dramatic quality to some of the celebrity stories. Shannon says that the crash that took the lives of her mother, sister and cousin made her, in adolescence and adulthood, feel free, fearless and capable of exposing her inner life onstage as a comedian. She believes the “crazy freedom” she felt onstage was created by her surviving the tragedy.
Many of the subjects, both famous and unknown, say they spend long periods wondering what their mother might think of their choices, their lives. That wondering never leaves, they say. And that, in the end, is what makes the doc have a profound effect – it reminds those of us, men and women, who have had a long relationship with our moms, how lucky we are, no matter how complex and layered the mother/child dynamic.