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For the First of 9 Children, a Quest to Understand Mother

A Mother and Daughter at Midcentury
By Honor Moore

Honor Moore was the first of her mother’s nine children. Enough for a baseball team or a small orchestra: That’s what Jenny Moore said she wanted. Vibrant and capable, she got her blue-ribbon baby boom brood. But her sensitive eldest suffered from the shrinking of her share of her mother’s subdividing attention. “I worried about you,” a friend of Jenny’s confided to Honor years later. “You were replaced so many times.”

From what Moore calls that “wilderness of hunger” came the seeds of “Our Revolution,” her searching new memoir of her mother, the gifted, complicated Jenny McKean, who shook off the straitjacket of her depressive Proper Bostonian lineage and plunged into a life of service, moving in 1949 with her war-hero husband and their first three babies to live among the poor in Jersey City.

By the time Jenny died in 1973, at 50, she had accompanied her husband, Paul Moore Jr., who bucked his robber-baron blood and became the Episcopal bishop of New York, from Jersey City to Indianapolis to Washington to Manhattan; published a well-received memoir; written a play; separated from her husband; moved back to Washington; been accepted into a master’s degree program in fiction at Johns Hopkins; and raced through pages of another memoir while dying of cancer.

Honor, the only one of her mother’s six daughters who chose not to have children, emerged from “the labyrinth of that mother’s attention or lack of it” to become the writer her mother might have been. Now in her 70s, she set out to understand how Jenny became the woman she knew — and to understand their relationship over time — searching for clues to her mother’s interior life in the writings and papers bequeathed to her at Jenny’s death.

Moore takes the trouble to see her mother’s choices in their historical and social context: World War II, with its impact on family formation and the aspirations of young men and women coming of age; the women’s movement, which changed both their lives; the civil rights movement; and the insular society of Jenny’s childhood — “the intricate social architecture that had held the world of the rich more or less in place since the Civil War.”

“I can’t emphasize enough how the culture in which my mother grew up required silence about feeling,” Moore writes. For her parents and their friends, “becoming serious about the church and belief provided what psychotherapy might have — support in freeing oneself from the almost Victorian way of life of their parents” as well as “an entrance to their inner lives and a humanist faith that inspired progressive, even radical — though nonviolent — activism.”

Moore is sparing with the details of her protracted conflict with her mother — “continual criticism, shouting, the occasional slap” and more. She could not have understood then, she writes, “physical exhaustion, the intellectual and spiritual effort, the physical toll of pregnancy.” Her mother, she sees now, was sometimes overwhelmed. Nor could the child have grasped the nature of her parents’ marriage, not least her father’s extramarital affairs with men and women, made public in her 2008 memoir, “The Bishop’s Daughter.”

Readers of that book and of “The White Blackbird,” her 1996 biography of her maternal grandmother, the painter Margarett Sargent, will find some of the details in this ruminative, sometimes lyrical memoir familiar. The process of understanding a parent, perhaps like memoir writing, never ends. The writer and the child return repeatedly to a collection of fragments, rearranging and reconsidering them in the shifting light of age.

“Isn’t it strange that it’s taken so long, all the way into my 70s,” Moore writes, addressing Jenny at last, “for me to feel that I am finally your daughter.”

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