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January 9, 2001

Books by Kay Kimbrough

Patricia Foster
University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 2000.

Foster's memoir begins with an episode from her mother's childhood, a childhood of poverty, abuse, neglect and loneliness. It is 1935, her mother is twelve and the depression is in full force in the coal mining communities of North Alabama. She ends the memoir with, "But perhaps this isn't my mother's story at all." Despite Foster's doubts, the mother's story is at the heart of the book, dominating the other stories, just as the mother's character rises above the narrative and survives all the forces that could have obliterated her.

The mother was born to Mary, a woman who had been rejected by her mother and who married a man who was never faithful to her. She bore sixteen children, worked hard, made her children work hard and gave Foster's mother no affection or attention except for a daily whipping for "talking back." Out of this dreary existence, this young girl became a good student and a sensitive human being who determined to get out of her world and into one where she could accomplish something. She was on her way to that goal when she met her husband-to-be and became a wife instead.

The wife she became was different from the wife her mother was, but some similarities were there, hiding behind a nice house, good clothes, a social life in a small town in South Alabama and three children who were being given all the advantages she had never had. She worked as hard as her mother had, polishing silver instead of scrubbing greasy pots, constantly driving her children to activities and lessons instead of driving them to wash dishes or clothes, worrying about her husband's approval instead of worrying about who his new girl was and living with fatigue from holding the family in balance just as her mother had worn herself out feeding her family and keeping the house clean. Foster's mother had another burden to bear: she cannot find satisfaction in her perfect middle-class life with her perfect husband and children. She is not happy to go to parties where alcohol fuels fake enthusiasm for life, to play bridge like other women of her class, to lead the social life of the town or to cultivate friends as her husband does.

Part of Mrs. Foster's uneasiness stems from her growing up in hard times in North Alabama coal mining country where social life was absent, except for church, and part from her intelligence, her drive to accomplish and learn. Unlike other wives of professional men, she chooses to teach science and to lecture on nutrition and health for civic and church groups. She also focuses on her children, watching her son and her first daughter succeed and accomplish their goals with ease. The author, the second daughter and youngest child, is troubling to her, for she does very little with ease, but becomes anxious and uncertain about who she is and what she is to be. Patricia Foster receives the burden of her mother's unfulfilled ambitions and her anxiety about her role as the wife of the town's popular and extroverted doctor.

The results of this burden create the bulk of the book, and Patricia's story is a familiar one. She struggles with lessons, performance anxiety, a popular older sister, unfashionable hair, a flat chest, feelings of being out of place in college at Vanderbilt where the sorority girls are sophisticated, perfect and at home in Southern society. She falls in love, marries young, regrets it immediately and finally divorces, still young and still trying to find something to do, something to be.

Foster's conclusion that she had spent her youth trying to save her mother is a valid one; she feels the pressure to do something wonderful to make her mother's life complete. She also feels pressure from her father, though it is from a distance. Her father had also risen out of poverty, growing up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the son of a baker who worked for someone else and died while his oldest son was in his teens. His story is not given in detail as his wife's is, but after working in the paper mill for one year, he has saved enough to go to the University of Alabama and become a doctor. In a dispute with Patricia about her California fashions she is displaying while on a trip with him to New Orleans, he tells her, "Don't come home until you can get your picture in the paper." His expectations were in the air all along.

The story of Foster's parents is typical of the "greatest generation," those who grew up in the depression, went to war and came home to an optimistic world of new houses, new gadgets, new opportunities and new money. It was a new world and its children were new children, to be perfected by lessons, sports, trips, camps, good clothes, vitamins -- all the best that money could buy. The burden some children suffered in living up to these expectations was not part of the picture, but Foster felt that if she could not be the winner, the best, she must be a failure.

The beginning of Foster's life was uncertain, for she was an Rh factor baby who would not have survived her beginning in a small Fairhope clinic if her mother had not read articles about the newly discovered cause of brain damage or death in infants with the condition. Her mother saved her life, but she was too anxious about the child she had saved and communicated this fear to the child. The bond between mother and child was so strong that the child interpreted it as a duty to save her mother by being wonderful. Finally, Foster realizes that it is herself she must save.

Foster eventually makes peace with her father, realizing that she too has standards for others and that when those standards are not met, she feels shame, embarrassed by her connection to those individuals. As an adult, she lavishes concern and love on her mother, who seems to have relaxed in her older years and given herself permission to have a good time.

The problems the author experienced that she presents in painful detail are attributed to Southern culture and the backgrounds of her parents and the American view of success as something that brings "a good living" and results with "your picture in the paper." There is another element that is not given much space but that illuminates the problem. The problem is the lack of freedom Foster feels while she is growing up and while she is trying to find what she can do or be. The same problem must have plagued her mother, who was not free to escape her role. Imagine her storing the silver, canceling the children's lessons and informing the family that they had to decide what they wanted to do for themselves while she pursued her own interests. Imagine her saying no to some social activity her husband has planned, staying home to work on an article on nutrition that she will try to publish.

The book is dedicated to Foster's mother. After a lifetime of supporting her family, she ends her life crying "all the time" and feeling life a failure, believing "she's left no visible mark." The daughter she saved has left a "visible mark" for her, saving herself while preserving her mother's story.


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