Essays knit modern motherhood to ancestors

Barbara Mahany (Will Kamin)

By Barbara Mahany
Published by Abingdon Press, 224 pages, $18.99

The second book by former Chicago Tribune staff writer Barbara Mahany, Motherprayer, is a self-described collection of "love letters to [her two] … boys — that they might always hold in their hands, see before their eyes, a record of how deeply, intricately, and breathtakingly they were loved."

The book is framed using the perspective of a mother bird and her chicks, starting with the cover art depicting a bird's nest cradling two blue eggs, including the bird-guide Field Notes that separate and group her essays, from "Nesting" through the "Empty Nest."*

While some might find this conceit slightly twee, that is, stickily sentimental and a bit clunkily contrived, it highlights the core of Mahany's book. This is a deeply confessional and naked revealing of herself not as a beloved and veteran journalist, but as a mom wildly and irrationally in love with her children. While the love of words swirls in and around these essays, these are not written from the brain, but from the guts of a mother animal.

The interjection of her Anglo-Irish comfort food recipes — somewhat thematically reminiscent of Nora Ephron's Heartburn — helps bring this collection to that elemental level of home and kitchen, of feeding and warmth, that stretches back from Mahany through her Irish mother, deep into her ethnic roots. British porridge and bread pudding, Irish tea cookies and beef stew with mashed potatoes and Irish butter, and brisket — these are flour-and-butter-heavy, stick-to-your-ribs, get-through-the-cold winter foods.

Of all things, this essay collection is Irish Catholic.

If you do not have that heritage — as I do — the dark, stubborn ferocity of Mahany's cadences may not resonate as far back for you. For me, they echoed generations of pink-cheeked, bright-eyed women, carrying in their cells eons of suffering and survival, who use prayer as a weapon against the evil shadows ever threatening their families.

If you need an Irish-Catholic refresher, watch "The Secret of Roan Inish." You will see the Irish grandmother — raking the coals and invoking protection from the angels and saints over her family before each bedtime — and gain some cultural insight into Mahany's mantra of prayer.

For the old-school Irish Catholic, God is largely an Old Testament figure, aloof and afar. There is no mention of a warm and fuzzy intimacy with Jesus here. Mahany admits she "being of Celtic root, always suspect[s] disaster."

In that framework, "motherprayer is so much more than words. It's what we do and breathe."

"'Be safe' is poetry, is vessel, for 'I would die if you were hurt, were harmed.'"

"Be safe, the holy mantra of the mamas."

Hoping to protect her sons as did her superstitious ancestors, Mahany invokes her "blessed backup squad: the angels and saints, the umpteen vigil lights and infinite vespers that are my hotline, my speed dial, to God and assembled heavenly hosts."

She seeks out "the wide rows of candles … tucked into a cove in any Catholic church. The ones guaranteed to yank God by the sleeve and get the Holy One's wide-eyed attention. Or so I've believed forever and ever."

Mahany came late to motherhood, having her first son at 37 and her second at 45. The miscarriage of a girl child due to a tubal pregnancy before her boys' births resonates and informs this book. She says she "know[s] the dark and the light of fertility."

That original loss at the 12th week of pregnancy is profound: "That was my little girl. I held her for a moment before she slipped out of my hand, the size of a string bean but perfectly, gorgeously human, those arm buds and leg buds and a face I'll never forget."

It is interesting that Mahany uses almost identical language when she talks about cherishing every moment of her two sons' childhoods: "I'll suck it all up, every last drop, before it slithers away, slips through my fingers and back to the stream, where it rushes away. I won't get it again."

In this context, Mahany's confessions of intensely emotional mothering are thus understood — her rage when her younger son gets soundly beaten in an unfairly matched baseball game, or her lying on her older son's bedroom floor, using his backpack as a pillow, crying silently as he struggles with his college entry essay — and forgiven.

Her husband, the boys' Jewish father, Blair Kamin, who is also a writer for the Chicago Tribune, is beloved and lauded by Mahany — "I happen to have married my teacher in the Tenderness Department. In patience, too." For all that, he seems to hover around the edges of this mother bird's nest. As for many mothers, these boys are the loves of her life.

I came away from Motherprayer with an awe for Mahany's courage in revealing the depths of her love, and her terror. Mothers who have experienced the loss of a child, born or unborn, will find comfort here.

Mahany is a poet, her words lyrical and evocative, but she admits, "Words — no matter how hard we try — can carry us only so far."

"Prayer, if we pay attention, if we deepen, breaks out of linguistic bonds. Takes flight. Bores deep. It's free-form verse. As near as our next breath … the quotidian that transcends to mystical."

It is this deep vein of Irish-Catholic mysticism that entwines Mahany's book like so much golden thread, knitting her modern motherhood to that of her ancestors, and beyond.

*This review has been edited to correct the description of the Field Notes.

[Amy Morris-Young graduated from and taught writing at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.]

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here