Mark Anthony Rolo is an enrolled member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. He is the former editor of The Circle newspaper and Washington D.C. Bureau Chief for Indian Country Today. We asked him about how he came to write his new book, My Mother Is Now Earth.
How did you decide to write about your mother?
Actually, I never wanted to write about my mother’s life for a few reasons. The first is that I was just a boy when she passed on. There are only so many memories an eight- or ten-year-old boy can gather. And of course, the boy of me had a very limited understanding of the harsh realities of poverty, growing up in a home with a mother who struggled with depression and a father who was lost to drinking.
My mother was extremely private. She shared very little things of her heart. Much of that was because many American Indian women of her generation were the same. The work of survival is always cloaked in social and personal invisibility. So I had little to reveal about a mother who hid her heart. How could I know it? Even my father and older brothers were often puzzled in trying to understand her.
But the other reason is that given we came from such a tough, dysfunctional reality, and that all of us, the sons and daughter, have tried to move on, to remove the pain, to keep the good memories alive, I always felt it invasive to write about those last three years of our mother’s life because I never wanted to “exploit” the shared story I have with my siblings.
Of course, I never gave much of this any thought in depth until I met Ann Regan, my editor at Borealis Books. When I was editor of The Circle in Minneapolis, Ann and I used to have rich fellowship when we met for lunch–talking about potential Native American stories that might be appropriate to for the press. Naturally, she was very interested in Native American memoir. And she often wondered if I would ever be interested in writing one. I began to consider her interest, but after given it much thought I decided I just could not tell even my own story because it was so woven into the tapestry of my collective history with my family.
So why did you decide to embark on this journey of telling your mother’s story?
In the winter of 2008, I was living in Madison, teaching at the University of Wisconsin and taking care of my high school nephew, Nicholas, I used to walk through this community garden across the street from our apartment. I was just moved by the slumber of winter. And I kept visiting that garden until the spring was in full bloom. One day I honestly felt my mother’s spirit in the warm wind, felt her presence within the very living, coming alive, Earth. It was through embracing this wild, wonderful sensation that she was, in fact, one with the Earth, as many–if not all–American Indians believe, she was there and so was her story. I stayed in that “Earth spirit,” if I may, and began the book from that dreamy, lyrical reality. It gave me an opening into the story. It brought my personal memories of my mother and those final three years in northern Minnesota to life.
Often, writing the memoir is cathartic for many writers – a process of sifting through unresolved emotions, experiences that lead to making sense of one’s history. Was this true for you?
Indeed, there was a great deal of coming to terms with the unresolved. I lost my mother quite suddenly. I was a boy. I never knew her beyond the year of her death, 1973. The grief and the painful, painful work it does in us when we lose a loved one was forced upon me. I have never been one to bury pain by hiding in my work or in play. And I’m forever grateful that I can’t avoid pain. I must feel it, embrace it. And in the many years since my mother’s young passing on I have worked very hard at understanding me, understanding how my childhood has affected my adult self.
There is great freedom and healing when an adult finds the courage to undo the past in order find change. Therefore, in approaching my mother’s story there was no grief to return to. The loss of her and its impact on me was complete–had been for many years. Sure, there was sorrow and much pain in reliving those final three years, but at the same time, the sorrow was surpassed by this uncanny realization that as I pressed on in the writing I felt like I was getting to know a woman who was taken from me at such an early age. I honestly believe that I have gotten to know my mother and her hidden heart. Amazing. To think one could get to know a parent beyond the grave is more than healing. It is, as we Indians say, full circle.
Given the trepidation and quite frankly, very real fear of “exposing” your family’s’ story how did you resolve the dilemma of writing this memoir?
First of all, my father passed on in 1989. I would not have attempted to write this story if he were still alive today. Like everyone, of all classes and races, Donald Rolo was quite complex. He could be loving and vicious, defender and attacker. I know he loved my mother deeply and thus, the tragedy of their relationship. But as much as I could attempt to convince him that this story was my own story, about my own memory of my relationship with my mother, his wife, I do not believe he would have received that– and mostly because of his own guilt and shame at how he treated her and their children.
My father being removed from this life allowed me to truly embrace the truth that I “owned,” my personal story of my mother and me. I had a right to tell my story, regardless of concern for siblings. So I went through great lengths to truly “personalize” this story, leaving room for family members to say, “Well, that’s how Mark Anthony remembered it. I have a different recollection.” And that was okay with me. At the very least, my siblings agree that the attempt here was to honor our mother–give her the due of more dignity than despair.
If the memoir, for you, is not about closure or resolve in understanding your upbringing, then what does this story mean for you?
I believe each and every one of us has a story to tell. We share an equal worth in the family we call the universe. That one might want to tell their story for posterity, greater clarity and understanding, or simply to reminisce, it is all entirely valid. But I believe the impulse to tell our own story is as ancient as with all storytelling throughout the centuries. From cave paintings to the printed word, we tell our story to find meaning, purpose, in order to better connect to our rightful place in the universe. Our lives, our histories are much more than a series of random anecdotes, recurring scenes that haunt or give us joy. Our lives, our experiences add up to a larger, personal narrative–what has been our journey in this life and what will it be beyond this world?