In 2009, fascinated with multigenerational living and still nursing childhood wounds, Katie Hafner invited her mother to move with her and her teenage daughter, Zo, into a large San Francisco house.
Brilliant and funny, Helen, as her daughter calls her to protect her privacy, had also been a divorced alcoholic who lost custody of Hafner and her older sister. History was not magically forgotten through sharing an address again. (At the time Hafner was 51; her mother, 77; her daughter, 15.)
As Hafner chronicles in her new memoir, Mother Daughter Me (Random House, $26), her experiment in mother-daughter-granddaughter bonding goes south even before the fridge is stocked. Helen’s unvarnished assessment of Zo’s musical talent puts old and young at stubborn odds, and Hafner in the uneasy middle, and kicks off a half-year of simmering resentments and more miscommunication than a French farce (though the tone is not comic).
So emotionally charged is Hafner’s memoir that the uplifting moment comes when mother and daughter are able to acknowledge the failed experiment without any bloodshed. Now safely in her own place, with Helen in an apartment across town, Hafner, a freelance journalist, looked back on what she and her mother once optimistically referred to as their “year in Provence.”
Q. What about multigenerational living appealed to you?
I think a lot of people have fantasies about what a multigenerational house could be like. You know, the grandmother and granddaughter getting close. In my case, the subtext was me wanting to have a relationship with my mother that I’d never had. She hadn’t raised me after age 10, but we stayed in close touch, and my thinking was we could do this living-together thing just fine. There was all kinds of magical thinking on my part.
Q. Your magical thinking extended to architecture, too.
San Francisco is a city with really beautiful houses. The one I found for us was the Victorian of one’s dreams. It was painted yellow with white and gold-leaf trim. You had to go through a gate and a lovely garden to reach the front door. It had this stately, commanding presence.
Q. And yet the curb appeal didn’t carry to life inside.
It was one of these very tall houses built originally for multiple generations. My mother lived on the ground floor. By the time we moved in, we all realized she had this dark little space with single-pane windows that was so cold.
The heating bill was at one point $800 or $900 a month. I would tough it out upstairs without heat. My poor mother would come up from her downstairs quarters, go to the thermostat and say, “I’m giving myself a little treat.” My heart would just break. It was almost like a bad comedy the way things started going wrong.
Q. One of the clashes you had with your mother involved a Steinway piano that she sold. Why was it so important to you?
I was always in awe of my mother, who took it up in middle age and bought this piano that felt like butter under your fingers. I screwed up my courage once and said something like, “I hope it doesn’t leave the family.” She said, “I’ll put a codicil in my will to leave it to you.” Then she started talking about selling it. She said: “Katie, you don’t want that piano. It’s big. It’s not the piano for you.” But none of that mattered. It had turned into this symbol.
Q. Did you have friends you could turn to for advice?
When I told a friend of mine who was living in Beijing about my plans, she said, “Oh, how Chinese of you.” The irony is a lot of American-born Chinese don’t live with their parents. And none of my friends had their parents or grandparents living with them. The problem was, I hadn’t seen it in action. People need to do a six-month test. Or in my case a six-week test.
Q. If your mother wrote a book about the experience, what might she say about you as a housemate?
She would stay, “Stunningly bad refrigerator habits.”