The title of Jo Maeder’s honest and sweetly funny memoir refers to the three years she spent caring for her aging mother in Greensboro, N.C.  In her late 30s, Maeder gave up a successful career as a New York City pop radio DJ in order to care for her mother, Mama Jo.  Mama Jo had lived alone for decades, her house crammed with an extensive doll collection, hoarded knicknacks and junk. Though the possibility of Maeder’s  move to Greensboro was daunting for Mama Jo, Maeder and her brother, Arthur, as Maeder describes it, Mama Jo has moments of sweetness and whimsy even as some of her eccentricities try the siblings’ patience.  Mama displays a pithy talent for one-liners about everything from sushi to long-winded local clergy.

Maeder’s devotion to her mother is full of respect and humor. Most importantly, that devotion evolves during her gradual transformation over the course of the book. A self-described “Story Junkie,” Maeder is curious about her mother’s early life; forthright, she shares Mama Jo’s stories with readers. Maeder prefaces each chapter with a family photograph, weaving stories from her childhood and her mother’s memories through the narrative of their life together in Greensboro.

The author is honest about her fears, resentments and frustrations. One can almost feel her stress from keeping a brave face as she organizes home aides, doctors and home repairs, and frets about money — all while trying to maintain a freelance career in voice-over work. There are bright moments, too: Maeder is unafraid to poke fun at the culture shock she feels leaving New York, as well as her misadventures with Southern home ownership. Everything from snakes and woodchucks in the backyard, to a maple tree putting roots into the septic tank, plague the house in Greensboro.

Jo Maeder (Photo: Franklyn Millman)

Maeder’s sharp wit makes it easy to laugh with her at these mishaps. Many of her New York habits are hard for her to lose among Greensboro’s collective mentality. No more blasting Led Zeppelin in the car, though she and her mother sing along to jazz standards and Christmas carols. She’s startled by how often, and how profusely, her brother Arthur prays in ordinary life, and by being greeted warmly and called ma’am in a Staples store.

Relaxing into their shared routine, Maeder and Mama Jo go on quirky and adventurous day trips, as well as the more routine local outings to ice cream socials and lunch at the Cracker Barrel.  Both mother and daughter enjoy wine tastings at local vineyards.  But some of their adventures, including an outrageous jaunt to a strip club, are fantastic surprises.

Maeder’s candor and humor may comfort readers who’ve cared for an aging parent. She attempts to juggle having her own romantic relationships, all while looking after her mother and their house, before acknowledging that caring for her mother has become too consuming a role for her. Over the course of the book, Maeder’s bond to her mother deepens, transforming from overwhelmed stress and resentment to a more peaceful, accepting love. Maeder writes about the shift deftly, letting it emerge poignantly over interwoven stories that make this memoir nearly impossible to put down.

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  • betty ming liu May 6, 2009 at 11:08 pm

    This is a tough topic. But it’s a great title for a book and great that the author can love her mother so much. Thanks for the inspiration!