IN ANCIENT MYTHOLOGIES, the primordial goddess, the source of all life — Gaia for the Greeks, Mother Earth for Native Americans — is nurturing and fiercely self-sacrificing for her offspring. In the case of Phillip Lopate’s mama, not so much.

With A Mother’s Tale, Lopate attempts an extraordinary undertaking for a writer, much less a son: to understand and reconcile himself to the mother he had versus the mother he might have wished for. Lopate, in possession of 20 hours of recorded interviews with his mother — conducted 30 years prior — draws on his recollections of their relationship, all the while confronted with the sound of her voice in response to his own long ago questions.

Learning of this premise in the prologue, I worried whether I could survive the read. Full disclosure: I, too, interviewed and recorded my parents, not once but on three separate occasions. For some reason, I repeatedly misplaced the tapes. I also turned a camera on the two of them, but I’ve never had the fortitude to revisit the films. Thankfully, Lopate must be made of steel. A Mother’s Tale is one more reason to rejoice that Marie Kondo’s manifesto has not yet been embraced by everyone. (If given her test — to hold the recordings close and ask himself if they “spark joy” — surely, he’d have cast them to the ground, poured gasoline, and lit a bonfire.) Lucky for us, the cassettes collected dust in a shoebox in the closet until he was ready to write this entertaining and moving book, which is equal parts reflection, reconstruction, police interrogation, psychiatric evaluation, and, ultimately, tribute to his mother.

Frances Lopate (1918–2000), as conjured through memories and conversation, is a “terrifying vortex” that threatened to consume the author as a child. Having been enlisted as her confidant, her younger son was treated to the intimate details of her love affairs, the misfortune of her marriage, and assorted other tsuris. In his book, she’s revealed not only as a succubus of a maternal figure, but also a singular and compelling example of a working-class woman of her era.

In his memoir, Lopate characterizes Frances’s account as heavy on the self-pity. In truth, in the time-honored comedic tradition of recounting the trials and tribulations of childhood penury (George Burns once famously said, “We were so poor, I couldn’t afford my own dreams”), she could have gone to toe to toe with the best. Orphaned as a child, she was the youngest of 11, and miserably deprived. She endured something of an indentured servitude to her older sister, Larly, “who didn’t give a shit whether [she] lived or died.” She was farmed out whenever family members needed a maid or child care. She was friendless, neglected, relegated to wearing ill-fitting cast offs and shoes so worn that she “walked on the back of [her] stockings.” Her education was sidelined. Running away from home several times, she survived rape at age 15 in a household where she found employment as a domestic helper.

Finally, the Depression led her into a marriage that she suspected, from the outset, would not be fulfilling. And talk about an understatement. Frances, an extrovert, and Al (Lopate’s father), an introvert, were woefully ill-matched and she was never able to make peace with his limitations as a provider.

Though the compendium of woes Frances Lopate describes are not surprising for a reader with knowledge of working-class life in the midcentury United States, her detailed recollections paint an engrossingly vivid picture of the times. As Lopate switches back and forth from his point of view on the page to hers on the tapes, he wonders if it’s possible that his self-absorbed mother was saving up her stories for just such an occasion. Still, if Frances thought a bit too long and hard about her plight, perhaps she can be forgiven. This book might be read as a testament to a time when we actually experienced emotions and events instead of posting hurried entries on social media, allowing for deeper cogitation on the minor victories and maddening persecutions that make up a life. Then, too, Frances is an engaging storyteller; when Lopate writes that many younger people, not her own children, collected around her, it’s not hard to believe.

Perhaps in deference to his mother’s lifelong fascination with psychiatry, Lopate treats us to examples of behavior that would suggest her inclusion in the DSM as a case study for narcissism. Her taped recollection of his father’s suicide attempt (Al appears to have been clinically depressed) provides the perfect window into her thinking. With an offhand dismissiveness, she confesses to never having asked her husband why he tried to take his own life, nor can she recall where it happened; whether Al jumped “in the river, or the bay, off a dock” — or maybe it was the East River? — she doesn’t think she ever knew. Her lack of curiosity and concern stands in stark contrast to the descriptions of the sex she had with her many lovers. It makes sense that Lopate compares her to Madame Arkadina, the “larger than life, self-aggrandizing” actress-mother in Chekhov’s The Seagull. But for the education that Frances was wrongfully denied, she might have had a career as a Harlequin Romance writer.

Meanwhile, her storied career as an adulteress shows her to be master of multitasking: how she managed the household and all that “fucking,” her preferred word, is remarkable, though, Lopate allows that her housekeeping was a disaster, including an account of an episode when the family was evicted because of her slovenly ways. Incredibly, for all her frustration and resentment, this zoftig balabusta did manage to achieve one of her professional goals — that of trodding the boards. Mama Lopate toured the country in numerous musicals and even won her five minutes of fame starring in the iconic “That’s a one spicy meatball!” Alka-Seltzer commercial. She had a lot of living to do and she packed a lot into her 80 years.

Even after she achieved financial independence, his mother continued to rail against the people and circumstances that robbed her of the opportunity to realize her potential and become “the person I wanted to be.” But by the time Lopate challenges her on this point, asking how she can be sure that she could have done better, he has given us enough evidence of her fortitude that I found myself siding with her.

Lopate, who has authored over a dozen books in various genres, also knows how to tell a story, of course, pulling back, for example, just when his reader might think she can’t take one more moment of adorableness (his) that falls under the category of things only a mother could love.

“When you were two years old and I had pictures taken,” says Frances, “you sat down and your little penis went all the way in, because there was so much fat around it, and the man said, ‘look he’s got two navels.’”

“Ok, I’m bored. I’ve heard enough about my child-self,” he writes, deftly pushing the narrative forward.

And yet in the end, it is the son’s tale, not the mother’s, that moved me in the deepest way. When Lopate’s mother turns the tables, questioning his motives for the interviews, accusing him of using her as material to write about, their back and forth swirls into a kind of circular dysfunctional dialogue any child or parent will recognize as familiar. Acknowledging that it’s “impossible to disentangle our separate narcissisms,” Lopate concedes that he’s not sure “which one was more self absorbed than the other?” It’s a quintessential who’s zoomin’ who memoirist’s come-to-Jesus moment.

Invoking Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, he asks, “Who’s going to care about your mother’s life? Must attention be paid?” He decides that the answer is no, “attention need not be paid.” I see his point, but I’m torn. Our lives are but blips in a universe that, according to scientists, may be expanding even faster than once thought, which means we are even more insignificant that we’d previously realized. Still, the potency of the book belies Lopate’s conclusion, and his inquiry brings home the miracle that any of us survive childhood, which is often something of hostage situation. That he gains, if not compassion exactly, an appreciation for his mother, is a marvel; although, as objective as he seems to be, he can’t resist including her admission that “[y]ou children were very important to me. I used to figure: Well, someday they’ll grow up, and maybe they’ll realize my sacrifice.”

And that’s why A Mother’s Tale is both a valentine and a cautionary tale. Mothers, don’t let your children grow up to be writers, but if by some chance they do, don’t ever, ever, get snookered into letting them record your musings about your life. Better to let the kinder wonder, bubbelehs.

¤

Annabelle Gurwitch is the author of the forthcoming essay collection Wherever You Go, There They Are: Stories About My Family You Might Relate To (Blue Rider Press, April 18, 2017).