Are You My Mother?

Not the Mother I Remember - Amber Lea Starfire

Not The Mother I Remember
by Amber Lea Starfire


"Try to see it my way
Only time will tell if I am right or I am wrong."
—John Lennon & Paul McCartney

While the Beatles may have been singing about romantic relationships in their 1965 hit, "We Can Work It Out," the lyrics could easily be about the generation gap that became so apparent in that tumultuous decade. Expectations were shifting, especially for women, and Amber Lea Starfire's detailed memoir poignantly captures this moment in time through the parallel perspectives of her own childhood stories and her mother's meticulous—and startling—personal journals.


In a scene reminiscent of Terry Tempest Williams' recent memoir, When We Were Birds, Starfire discovers boxes of journals while cleaning the apartment her mother, Jackie, must leave because her Alzheimer's disease is too advanced for her to live alone. While Williams' journey grows from the enigmatically empty pages she finds on her mother's shelf, Starfire is faced with volume upon volume of detailed writings that cover year after year of adventures, flirtations, affairs, and most of all, longings. This is not the fragile woman Starfire felt she had to protect as a child, but a woman struggling to blossom beyond the expectations of her role as wife and mother.


Starfire alternates between her own childhood stories and excerpts from her mother's writings. Both voices are strong, and though they share the same experiences—an ambitious "world tour" in 1962 and cross-country flights with Jackie as a new pilot—mother and daughter come away with very different lessons. Jackie is spreading her wings, while young Linda (Starfire's given name) often feels neglected. Starfire's gift as a writer is that she shows both perspectives, and while her hurt is palpable, she doesn't condemn her mother's actions, but instead seeks to understand them.


One particularly poignant scene chronicles a visit to Planned Parenthood for birth control. It's a powerful moment, personally and politically. While Jackie is acknowledging the teenage Linda's maturity and independence in a way many mothers of the time would have been unable to do, she's so ashamed of the whole affair that she waits outside the clinic, as though this is a crime and she's the driver of the getaway car. Scenes like this capture the conflicted messages Jackie was giving, and Linda receiving, as they both tried to figure out their roles in the world.


While they never completely "worked it out"—Starfire didn't read her mother's journals until after her death—this mother-daughter memoir brings the two closer together than ever. Anyone who grew up in the 1960s will appreciate Starfire's unflinchingly honest look at a confusing, if ultimately liberating, era for women.


Sheila M. Trask for Story Circle Network Book Reviews April 2014