This is the mother-love which is one of the most moving and unforgettable memories of our lives, the mysterious root of all growth and change; the love that means homecoming, shelter, and the long silence from which everything begins and in which everything ends.
—Carl Jung, Four Archetypes
I keep an old paperback dictionary on my desk. Folded in its pages is a single sheet of faded orange paper marked with a list of notes my mother made after reading a craft book about novel writing. This piece of paper describes character and conflict; how to structure a novel opening; tense changes in flashback; how dialogue is meant to serve the narrative; and more. I can still picture my mother doing this research while sitting in the recliner in the family room, where she surrounded herself with books and magazines, her blue pens, the clipboard, and those unlined sheets of brightly colored paper.
The remainder of my mother’s handwritten notes, typed manuscripts, and other ephemera are contained in a plain white box stored in my attic. This box serves as a record of my mother’s writerly and academic aspirations. It contains meticulously plotted outlines for novels; short story drafts; clippings of absurd headlines from our hometown newspaper; the completed draft of her middle-grade novel; and, finally, two college psychology papers she wrote in the late 1990s when she planned to pursue a master’s in psychology.
My mother already had a master’s degree—in music education, earned in her early twenties—but she’d given up her teaching career to raise her children full time. It was only in her fifties, post-divorce, that she envisioned this next academic step. She had no way of knowing that she’d never finish the degree because her life would be cut short from cancer at the age of fifty-six. She had no way of knowing that two of her college essays, which she wrote for a personality theory course and which contained intimate details concerning how she viewed herself and her family, would end up in my hands.
Whenever I dare to peek inside that white box, I can barely stand to look at the documents waiting there. The manila envelopes containing her stories and handwritten novel outlines at least make sense to me because we’d always shared a love of writing. She encouraged me to pursue my literary dreams as she chased her own. Sometimes it seemed that writing—the act, the art, the aspiration—was our own shorthand language.
Her interest in psychology, however, is foreign to me. Those college papers offer a vision of my mother that moved like a strobe light—a disorienting, shadowy flash I fail to recognize but also can’t ignore.
“Throughout my life,” my mother wrote in one paper, “I have at various times put on many different masks.”
In Carl Jung’s Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, he calls the persona “a mask of the collective psyche, a mask that feigns individuality, making others and oneself believe that one is individual, whereas one is simply acting a role through which the collective psyche speaks.”
We all wear such masks. In the fifteen years since my mother’s abrupt death, I playacted the motherless daughter, the sister, the friend, the wife, the worker, and the writer. But not just any writer: the writer my mother dreamed I could be.
The writer she had wanted to become herself.
Before she died, my mother planned to write a novel with the working title MAYLENE, which is my middle name. As a young child, I thought she invented this name. No one we met had ever heard of it before, and so I believed I was an original, and that my mother had made me that way.
It took an Internet search in the 1990s to finally disabuse me of my own originality. A simple search for “Maylene,” even in those relatively early online days, called up dozens of hits. I was a teenager by then, and aware how unlikely it would be for my mother—for anyone—to dream up a unique name. But it still felt like a failure, a shame, that I was not the only Maylene in the world. I was multiplied. I was many masks, many times over.
My mother was in the earliest stages of writing her Maylene novel in the two years before her death. Among her notes from this time, I found a handwritten list of bullet points concerning the novel’s eponymous protagonist. My mother wrote:
- Maylene is in a transitional period of her life.
- She suffers because her father recently died.
- She is worldly and wise but vulnerable.
- She has always been strong.
- She is sick of being so strong.
Like the novel-writing advice I keep in my dictionary, this list is written on bright, unlined paper. When I rediscovered the page recently, I spent so long looking at my mother’s handwriting that for a moment I grew confused and thought the writing was my own. Our handwriting looks nothing alike, and yet I failed to differentiate between us. I failed to see where my mother’s persona ended and mine began.
Jung wrote of the mother archetype, “Intimately known and yet strange like Nature, lovingly tender and yet cruel like fate, joyous and untiring giver of life—mater dolorosa and mute implacable portal that closes upon the dead.”
Whenever I write about my mother, I sense that portal. My words are an aperture opening and closing, shuttering and exposing. Coming to life. Returning to death.
I have yet to meet anyone named Maylene. Sometimes, even now, I can delude myself into believing I’m the only one.
But when I do a search online, I find this name attributed to a Pokémon character, a heavy metal band, an Airbnb hostess in Portland, a discontinued wedding dress, a Florida bakery, an unincorporated community in Alabama, and on and on. Maylene exists many times over, in varied forms.
If I dig deep enough in the search results, I even find myself.
For a time, when I was younger, I wished my mother had given me Maylene as a first name. Or maybe I wished instead that I had it in me to upend my persona, to replace my first name with the second.
I never did this. Instead, I kept both parts of myself. I wore my masks. I tucked a white box into a hot attic. I became a writer.
As I worked on this essay, I went up to the attic twice to look for that box full of my mother’s writing. The first time, I didn’t find it, and I gave up.
The second time, I went to it immediately. I lifted the lid off a large storage container, looked down, and saw my mother’s cursive handwriting. What she’d written there, in marker on the outside of the box, was something I’d seen many times before. But this was the first time I imagined that she had meant it not for herself, but for me.
All those years ago, she’d scrawled a single name across the top of the box: Maylene.