Missing
by Cornelia Maude Spelman


Northwestern University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0-810-12712-8.
Reviewed by Judy Alter
Posted on 02/04/2011

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Biography; Nonfiction: Life Lessons

Near the end of this memoir, Cornelia Maude Spelman tells us she wanted to be sure that she showed her son and daughter what her mother had not shown her—the family background and the love that went with it. I wish she had told us earlier in the book, because I wasn't sure what drove her to investigate her now-dead parents and their families. Memoirs about dysfunctional families abound, and I wanted to know the lessons learned, the reason for undertaking this painful search.

Her mother, beautiful as a young and free-spirited woman, smoked incessantly all her life, even after being put on oxygen, and submerged herself in her books. Other than that, we don't get a clear picture of Elizabeth. She apparently loved her husband deeply and her children but was inconsistent about showing the children love; we get hints she had some cooking specialties, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and that she worked as a medical secretary. She died young, probably of cardio-pulmonary disease, in a nursing home, but there were also signs of dementia and paranoia. Try as she might by searching old records, the daughter never pins down a diagnosis for her mother's confused mental state.

The oldest child, Frank, was one of those charming men without any sense of responsibility. He married at least four times, as an adult lived with his parents—the mother accused him of trying to kill her—and finally abandoned his family. Cornelia decided she must find him but didn't want him to know she was looking, after all these years. What she found was that he had died two years earlier. And that's the end of that—a chapter devoted to finding Frank but no real conclusion. There's a sister living in Amsterdam, but we are told almost nothing about her.

And then there was Pop, apparently delightful, charming, and also irresponsible, the kind of man who never holds a job, starts a million projects and rarely if ever follows through on them; if he does, they're a mess. An erudite mess himself, he aspires to make a living by the pen but never quite does that either. But clearly his daughter loves him.

Cornelia relates her genealogical search in a rather disjointed manner, eventually accounting for her mother's family (a wonderfully loving father who died early and a mother who became distant and cold), to a less extent her father's family, and even the family of her grandfather's first wife, who died of consumption after seven months of marriage. The attention to detail is almost exhausting, as she explores county records, archives, local historians, and the like, especially in Charles City and Mason City, Iowa, where her mother lived.

A noted children's author and a former social worker, Cornelia Maude Spelman has written a memoir for herself. In so doing it, she has shown us how one generation shapes the next—and how the loss of one member of a generation—can twist the next. She has found comfort, and perhaps readers will also benefit from her journey. But ultimately, the journey into our background is a journey each of us has to make alone.


Cornelia Maude Spelman is a writer, an artist, and a former social worker. She is the author of picture books for children, including a series called The Way I Feel. Her works have been translated into seven languages. Visit her website.

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