Memento Mori

KENNY He didn’t know it was possible to just go home, and that there would be people there, and it would be okay.
— Homecoming

In the absence of their parents, Edith and Kenny close ranks to try to protect each other. Dad’s completely checked out, and toward the end of the play, the siblings realize that he may, in his own way, be mourning his wife by distancing his children. The home is a strong symbol of family in the play, and in the last scene, we see Kenny, Edith, and Benji go in to a family dinner without Dad. Unlike their father, the young people manage their grief and broken family by forming a new community and redefining their home and family on their own terms.

Even though EDITH shows the kids dealing positively with their loss, Dad’s grief-stricken situation is one not uncommon among Asian-Americans, especially those who have emigrated to America. C1 board member Elisa gave us a heads up on poet Julie Feng’s thought piece on how Asian-American communities are affected by mental health illnesses such as depression and the attendant stigmas attached to admitting to suffering. Julie links to studies that highlight connections between mental health disorders and factors like immigration, acculturation, assimiliation, and inter-generational trauma.

One interesting connection between these factors and the play is the way Rey plays with the characters’ isolation — Edith and Kenny, though geographically isolated, retain a strong connection to Mother and to their house, land, and Benji; Dad’s isolation keeps growing as he runs from his mistakes and is self-imposed. Feng aligns with Kenny and Edith, advocating connection and communication as ways to combat the stigmatization of mental illness and grief. She says,”Parents, guardians, spouses, siblings, friends, teachers, doctors, and counselors need to be vigilant. They need to believe the people in their lives. This is a problem than can be fixed – as long as we actively decide to do better.” Throughout EDITH, we see the kids strive against all odds to stay together and stay bonded — from Kenny and Benji surreptitiously passing notes in class to Edith breaking out of school to reunite with her brother.

Comparing Edith and Kenny’s continuing connection to their Mother to their fractious relationship with Dad makes this quote by Dr. Lourdes V. Lapuz, a psychiatrist from the University of the Philippines, stand out. Writing about the importance of mothers in Filipino culture, Dr. Lapuz said:

A person grows up in the Filipino culture with one paramount assumption: that he belongs to someone. When he presents his self to others, it is with his family that he is identified. He belongs to the family as a whole as well as to it’s members. Between the parents, there is a further choice as to whom one belongs. Almost always, it is the mother. The loyalty, allegiance and the sense of obligation are stronger with her than with father. One must never cause her hurt or displeasure. The greater attachment to the mother is, of course, inevitable not only because of biological circumstances, but also because of the prolonged intense emotional nurturing of received from her. Here is where to belong gains the meaning of to be loved, cared for, and protected.

Though Dad ends the play unreconciled with his children, Kenny and Edith seem to understand more about themselves and what brought them to this point as the play ends. Kenny leaves open the possibility that Dad will join the family again: “He’ll come in, eventually.”

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For Mother, on Mother’s Day

EDITH Fergie. I wish mom was here. Now you sound like Kenny. I know she’s here, like that. But I wish she was here here. Like, not dead. So she could protect us, instead of me.

— For Mother

Today in rehearsal, we continued working on Act I, particularly the climactic moment where Edith shoots, thinking she’s aiming at Benji’s mother. Though it was ironic to think about Edith possibly shooting mothers as we rehearsed on Mother’s Day, the moment brought up thoughts about what Edith’s life will be like without her mother and how the characters in the play deal with Mother’s death, which lends the play a deep, but often unacknowledged, undercurrent of grief.

“Everyone will have a mom and a dad. So I’ll have a you and a Benji.” (Photo by Paul Fox.)

The events of EDITH are contemporaneous with essayist Hope Edelman’s seminal study of grief in young women — her book Motherless Daughters was published in 1994. Like Edith, Edelman lost her mother to cancer when she was a young girl. The idea for the book grew out of her frustration with the lack of resources for young women dealing with an irrevocable loss. The thesis of the book stated that “losing one’s mother early shapes a woman’s emotional terrain for life.” Edelman wrote that motherless daughters like Edith have “a keen sense of isolation, a sharp awareness of our own mortality, …[and] the strong desire to give our children the kind of mothering we lost or never had. We look elsewhere for nurturing, but don’t know how to receive it. We tend to be hyper-independent, always braced for rejection and unable to ask for help.” Much of these descriptions apply to Edith, whose isolation is increased by her remote surroundings and whose hyper-independence is fed by her perceived need to prove to Kenny that he needs her so he will not abandon her like their father did following Mother’s death.

Book

Each year on Mother’s Day, Edelman publishes an open letter to other motherless daughters. This section especially stood out as evocative of not only Edith’s relationship to her late mother, but as a description of her journey toward becoming a young woman and navigating that path without female role models:

Those of you whose mothers have recently died, who are still immersed in the necessary and normal stage of acute grief – for you, I know, it’s hard to believe that the pain you’re feeling will lessen over time. It takes up so much of you right now, I remember. It may even help you still feel close to your mothers. I remember that part too, and it was hard to let that go. But please, let it go when you’re ready. This sorrow won’t always define you. Mother loss will always be part of your story, but it does not have to be your story. Your story is a gorgeous, unique tale that’s going to be full of highs and lows and pain and happiness, all the things it means to be human. You just got a heavy dose of the hard part too young.

You may feel now that your life will never be the same again. I won’t try to tell you otherwise. You’re right. A mother-sized hole will always exist in your life. But as the author Abigail Thomas has said, eventually you get used to never getting used to it. You recognize it as part of what has made you, you, and then you’re ready to move forward with that part integrated into your beautiful, complicated whole. This is the highest form of acceptance, I think.

Edelman’s complete open letter can be read here.