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Sal's mom is a mystery. Like a patchwork quilt, she appears to us in little bits and pieces. Some of these bits and pieces show us a portrait of a woman who loves her life and her family more than anything. Other bits and pieces show us a portrait of a woman who is deeply sad and deeply confused. That's just how human beings are, we guess. Full of contradictions – messy, and wonderful all at once.
Through Sal's memories, we begin piece together a history of her mother, Chanhassen. We get to see what life was like when everything was happy and hopeful, and we also get to see what life is like when her mother grew very sad, confused, and lost. What exactly does she want in life?
First and foremost, Chanhassen wanted to have lots of children. When she finds out she's pregnant, she tells Sal, "'At last! Now we are really going to fill this house up with children.'" (23.16) But a few months later, Sal has an accident, and her mother has to carry her to safety. That night, her mom goes into early labor and loses the baby. In order to save her life, the doctor has to give her a hysterectomy. As a result of this operation, Sal's mom learns that she could never again have children.
Wow. If we were to walk in Chanhassen's moccasins, we can imagine that having a hysterectomy and learning that you can't have any more children would be an incredibly difficult and painful experience. So it's no surprise, then, that Chanhassen grew very depressed soon after this incident.
How depressed? Well, she cuts her hair, and she wanders all over the fields and meadows. She's distracted all the time and starts to think poorly of herself. Sal remembers a conversation between her father and mother, in which Chanhassen complains that she's not good enough for her husband:
Two days before she left, when I first heard her raise the subject of leaving, she said, "I feel so rotten in comparison."
"Sugar you're not rotten," he said.
"See?" she said. "See? Why couldn't you at least believe I am rotten?"
"Because you're not," he said. (18.9-12)
Why do you think Sal's mother feels so "rotten"? And why won't she believe her husband when he tells her that she isn't? It's a mystery we can never quite solve, but it does help us to understand her a bit more, when she explains to her family why she's leaving. Chanhassen believes she is neither brave nor good, so she needs to find out what or who she really is. She needs "to leave in order to clear her head, and to clear her heart of all the bad things. She needed to learn about what she was" (18.13).
Despite her mysterious qualities, Sal's mom is still a character we can all relate to. She's unsure of herself, and struggling to figure it all out. It can be hard for us to relate to her at first, because we, like Sal, have trouble understanding why she leaves. But in the end, we know that she leaves to face down her own demons, and we can learn to accept that choice. Chanhassen just might be braver than she thinks.
Sal's mom and Phoebe's mom have a lot in common, it seems. Even though all the Winterbottoms are totally clueless, Sal is able to pick up on Mrs. Winterbottom's deep sadness, perhaps because she had already seen the same thing in her mother:
I could tell that Mrs. Winterbottom was trying to rise above some awful sadness she was feeling, but Prudence couldn't see that. Prudence had her own agenda, just as I had had my own agenda that day my mother wanted me to walk with her. I couldn't see my mother's sadness. (17.22)
Chanhassen and Mrs. Winterbottom have their sadness in common, sure, but they also have one more thing in common: they are mothers, and we know from what Gram tells us ("Being a mother is like trying to hold a wolf by the ears" [10.3]) that being a mom is no easy thing. In fact, it's the defining characteristic of their lives. Could that be precisely the problem?
On another occasion, when she explains why she wants to leave her family, Sal's mom tells us she wants to know who she is "before I was a wife and a mother. I mean underneath, where I am Chanhassen." (23.8) Hmmm. So she wants to discover who she is underneath being a wife and a mother. It seems like filling those roles is no longer enough to make her happy. Or maybe it's never been enough and she's just now realizing it. But whatever's happening inside her, it's clear that Chanhassen's sadness and the fact that she's a mother, are somehow related. Take a look at our character discussion of "Mrs. Winterbottom" for more on this issue.