In her powerful, poetic new memoir The Year My Mother Came Back, playwright Alice Eve Cohen chronicles the worst year of her life: She was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her adopted daughter, Julia, decided to meet her birth mother. Her biological daughter, Eliana, underwent a painful leg-lengthening surgery.
Then, Cohen’s cantankerous mother, Louise—who had died 30 years before—reappeared.
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” Cohen told me in a recent interview in Manhattan. “But that’s how I described the flood of vivid sounds and images that invaded my thoughts. She felt real, as if she were sitting in my kitchen.”
Cohen, a 60-year-old New School professor, had exiled her late mother from her consciousness long before. Her return was not exactly welcome.
“I’d had a complicated and tumultuous relationship with my mother,” said Cohen. “At first I tried to squelch those memories. But I needed her, and so gradually, I let her in.”
Both of Cohen’s parents grew up observant in Borough Park, Brooklyn, before settling in Mamaroneck, New York, a working-class Westchester town where they were the only members of the tribe. As a child Cohen felt isolated and different, targeted by the neighbors who slashed their bicycle tires, threw garbage in their yard, and painted “Jew” on their garage. Though he’d won a regatta, her father was barred from joining the local sailing club because of his religion.
Undeterred by discrimination, Cohen’s mother campaigned for the less fortunate with religious fervor. Her father connected to his Hebrew heritage through music. Cohen’s parents regularly attended services at the local temple, dragging their three daughters along. “Synagogue was giggling with my friends in the ladies’ room surrounded by mirrors, looking at infinite reflections,” Cohen told me.
Cohen’s mother taught her to avoid the Evil Eye, telling her to say, “tuh tuh tuh,” whenever she heard good news. Her mother had cautioned, “Don’t admit that you’re truly happy.”
Even sharing the details of her mother’s joyful girlhood summers with her grandparents at their Oklahoma homestead was taboo. “The only clue she gave about her mother’s Midwestern roots was the acorn she spun for a dreidel on Hanukkah,” said Cohen, whose two-act play Oklahoma Samovar follows her ancestors’ journey from Latvia to the American West as the only Jews in the great Oklahoma Land Run of 1889.
When Christian schoolmates told Cohen she wouldn’t get into heaven, she asked her mother about the afterlife. Her mother was frank. “The dead fertilize the flowers and help new life come into being,” she said, adding that the most important thing was how someone was remembered.
“I came home from summer camp at 14 with my brand-new breasts,” Cohen writes in the new book, “and there was Mom with none at all.”
Cohen told me: “The strangely coincidental timing of this was painful for both of us.”
Her mom had never explained what caused the crisscross scar on her chest, but Cohen had figured it wasn’t the right time to ask for a bra.
“The secrecy terrified me,” said Cohen.
Their bond had already been fraught, said Cohen, but her mom’s illness made things worse. Before her diagnosis, Cohen’s mother was emotionally available: She cooked chicken soup, warded off the Evil Eye by throwing salt over her shoulder, and brought her daughters along for small acts of civil disobedience. Once her mother became sick, said Cohen, she lost any warmth and connection. Cohen’s mom insulted her newly developed body, saying, “You used to be so slender and pretty, and … now look at you.”
Cohen wondered what happened to her mother, who was now gloomy, angry, and bitter. Unaware of the details of her mother’s depression, she experienced an “unrelieved longing: me wanting my mother more than she wanted me.”
When Cohen turned 16, her mother withdrew further, saying, “I don’t want to be called Mommy ever again.” To retaliate, Cohen ate an entire box of Fig Newtons, blaming the tragic confluence of her puberty and her mother’s ailment for their falling-out. Her mother stopped shaving her legs and mowing the lawn. Kids in Cohen’s high school joked, “Alice’s mother is weird, she’s crazy,” when she showed up in her nightgown under a trench coat to speak to the principal.
Though Cohen’s parents never divorced, cancer stressed their marriage. Her mother warned her: “Don’t get married unless you find someone who doesn’t buy the old rules, because the old rules stink.” Cohen’s heart hurt, as she tried to stay neutral in their rift.
“My mother was incredibly loving and dedicated,” Cohen told me, “but her illness created a difficult split.”
Idolizing June Cleaver as a model of motherhood, Cohen and her sisters gave their mom a broom and dustpan set as a birthday present—and then became flustered when their mother ran to her bedroom in tears. Cohen didn’t understand her mother was a feminist, offended by the well-meaning gift.
Cohen’s mother had earned two master’s degrees from Columbia University and worked as a researcher for renowned anthropologist Margaret Meade. She put her husband through business school, delaying her own dissertation to raise her three little girls. “My mother was smart,” said Cohen. “Her father encouraged her ambitions for a big career, but the realities of the 1960s meant there were tremendous obstacles to getting ahead.”
Their relationship remained tense and distant for 10 years. But when her mother landed her dream job at Empire State College, Cohen treated her to lunch in Greenwich Village. “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been,” her mother said, radiating peace. “I’ve finally found myself at age 57. Call me a late bloomer.”
“Her happiness made me happy,” Cohen told me. They had finally reconnected; once again, her mother offered comfort instead of disapproval.
Two weeks later, her mother died from a sudden stroke. Cohen spent two years grieving after their brief reconciliation. Then, Cohen writes, “I needed relief from those two years.” Cohen exiled her mother from her mind so she could move forward in her own life.
Eventually Cohen married and moved uptown. Searching for a spiritual home for the High Holidays, and a Hebrew school for her adopted daughter, Cohen schlepped Julia to several temples before friends told her about Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, known as the gay synagogue. It grew from 30 people in the 1970s to thousands filling the entire Javits Center on the High Holidays. “Everybody is welcome, even heterosexuals like me. No one is excluded because they can’t afford tickets or membership,” said Cohen. “I find it fulfilling spiritually, a meaningful experience.”
In What I Thought I Knew, Cohen documented her intense journey to motherhood when doctors misdiagnosed her pregnancy at 44 for a tumor. Her daughter Eliana was born with a growth disorder that Cohen blamed on the synthetic estrogen she was taking. What I Thought I Knew won the 2010 Elle’s Lettres Grand Prix for Best Non-Fiction, was named one of Oprah’s 25 Best Books of Summer and one of Salon.com’s Best Books of the Year.
Cohen’s husband traded his artistic freelance career for a corporate communications gig with steady income. Fragile baby Eliana had learned to keep up with her schoolmates despite her uneven legs. Julia had been accepted to Cohen’s alma mater. Proud, Cohen emailed her close friends the good news, and then regretted it, fearing the Evil Eye.
When Cohen received a breast cancer diagnosis a few months later, in 2009, she was terrified. “I knew I had the advantages of modern medicine,” said Cohen, “so I wouldn’t be disfigured but I promised myself I’d handle it differently.” For one, she would not keep secrets the way her mother once had; she told her daughters about her condition right away.
“I was determined to be there for my children. Given what each of my daughters was going through, I didn’t feel I had a choice,” she said. “Also I needed a lumpectomy, which would not change my appearance.”
Cohen’s mother had undergone a double radical mastectomy decades before and lost her lymph nodes, leaving her weak and traumatized. “Breast cancer treatment was very different in the 1960s,” said Cohen, who was able to walk Eliana to school every day, continuing on to her radiation appointments. “I wouldn’t disappear the way my mother had emotionally disappeared for awhile.”
But it was difficult. Cohen enlisted her husband to change the bandages and clean the open wound from Eliana’s leg-lengthening apparatus. Breast burning from treatment, Cohen still welcomed her daughter’s hugs. Cohen’s mother became a ghost-like presence, as Cohen lay exposed on the radiation table.
“It was the first time in decades I allowed myself to want my mother,” Cohen said. “Thirty years after her death didn’t seem like a convenient time to suddenly need her.”
These visits from her mother led to Cohen’s decision to make her mother’s voice a character in the new memoir.
“Being on the other side,” said Cohen, “I can see my mother loved me and she had parts of her life that were important to her that had nothing to do with my sisters and me.”
Mother-fantasies continued as she wrote the story, which did bring Cohen closure. In one last otherworldly communiqué, when her editor had asked her to turn in the manuscript, Cohen wanted to make a few more changes. The day she finally sent it in, she looked up at her computer and saw it was April 11, her mom’s birthday. Cohen felt it was a sign of approval for the book that was now a tribute to her mother.
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