PW: A personal revelation: my relationship with my mother is surrounded by guilt. It’s because I feel I’m not around enough, I’m never able to talk on the phone, I’m unable to give her the attention I used to give her (prior to marriage/parenthood), etc. In sum, I often feel like I’m a disappointment. My mom has never directly suggested that any of this is true, but, alas, I feel that it is. Reading “A Three-Legged Table,” I sensed that Ray has a similar mom issue. My working theory is that this is a common feeling among sons. What do you think, am I on to something?
CP: You most definitely are on to something. Everything in your question pretty much sums up how I feel and how I’ve felt for years. A lot of autobiography comes through in my fiction. Whereas James Jr. struggles with issues related to his father’s absence, Ray’s issues are completely mom-related, and that’s not by accident. My mother is the only person on this planet who believed in me and my writing from day one—my focus on it, my passion for it, the peaks and valleys it has taken me through over the years, and the only person to back me up unconditionally. She’s never wavered. So sure, the pressure is there. The pressure is there to be successful, to publish stories, to publish novels, to make her proud not only of me but of the decisions and sacrifices and effort she’s made for years and years to see her son succeed at what he cares about. When I was younger I slept all day. People thought I was a bum. My mother was the one who pointed out that I was not a bum at all, that I was sleeping during the day because I was exhausted from writing all night. I needed the quiet to focus, and she understood that. She’s always seemed to understand everything about me, even though I left home 20+ years ago. I suspect all moms know their children a little bit better than their children give them credit.
The character Ray in the story avoids his mother because he doesn’t want to see her sick but also for the same reasons you mention in your question. While it isn’t overt, guilt is most assuredly a part of Ray’s avoiding going upstairs to see his mother. I think that guilt is also there in James Jr. and more subtly in Willa, but Ray is the central character and his inability to climb a few steps is telling. I had trouble with this question because while our guilt is probably universal, it’s also personal. I have a wife and daughter and a job and a million other things going on, but not a day goes by where I don’t think, Am I disappointing my mom today? Did I not do something I could have to make her happy somehow? Hopefully my answer to your question just disappointed her a little less.