An Unconventional Writer’s Unconventional Memoir: Cris Mazza on “It’s No Puzzle”

"It's No Puzzle" cover    

The writer Cris Mazza and her siblings were blessed with remarkable parents. Her father, a World War II veteran who became a community college physics professor, was a forward-thinking man for his era, ensuring his girls had access to the same educational opportunities as boys. Her mother was not only college-educated, also unusual for her generation, but later returned for a second round of schooling so she could obtain a teaching credential and start a second career in elementary education. Together, the Mazzas made their children the center of their lives; they were rewarded by seeing their clan grow into vibrant, self-sufficient adults. Mazza chronicled these good times in Indigenous: Growing Up Californian, a critically acclaimed introduction into the “normality beneath the California myth that seems all the more dazzling and exotic with the passage of time,” as the Los Angeles Times said. While that book was fueled by memory, her new memoir, It’s No Puzzle: a memoir in artifact (Spuyten Duyvil Books), is powered by the questions that emerged as Mazza considered the objects that would amount to her parents’ legacy.  

After her parents died in the mid-2010s, Mazza sorted through the usual photographs and diplomas, postcards and letters, and other documentation, to preserve a vast family archive, not uncover family secrets. And family secrets were not what she found—not exactly. But she did discover a treasure trove of her parents’ encounters—some deliberate, some unavoidable—with issues of race, sexuality, gender, and class; the same issues now considered at the heart of the country’s current culture wars. In compiling and investigating the artifacts that inspired It’s No Puzzle, Mazza was able to untangle some of the threads that bound her family to a sizeable chunk of post-war social history in the U.S.. Others seemingly led to dead ends, though not for a lack of Mazza’s efforts, as she discusses in this interview.

You begin by noting you were trying to distract yourself from certain events by going through your parents’ archives, but it seems as though you did anything but that. Their lives brought you to the issues being debated in the current day: homophobia, white privilege, racism. Is this problem unique in your family—perhaps because your parents worked in education, which is such a battleground today—or is this just how history works?

I’m sure this is how history works. I’ve noticed in recent documentaries (i.e. the Ken Burns Holocaust) and in my favorite magazine, Smithsonian, the articles and films in covering historic events are also showing historic cycles or repetitions. Sometimes having repetitions (subtly) pointed out is even more scary, but sometimes it’s some kind of comfort, “oh, this stuff happening now isn’t really new, these problems have always been with us …” It doesn’t make the problems smaller, but also isn’t as much “future shock,” to coin that idea from the 70s!

When you ask “Is this problem unique in your family …” I wonder if problem means “head-in-the-sand method of dealing with current events.” Because I found I would rather stare at the artifacts I was researching, even when they spoke of 100-year-old racist real estate policies, than read, listen, or even talk about anything having to do with 2016-21 U.S. politics. And I think it is a problem I have.

On the other hand, yes the notion that going through my archives was a soothing respite is intentionally ironic, because one of the lives “passing before my eyes” was my own.

In your memoir Indigenous (2003), your family life seems highly functional, sometimes even idyllic. In this memoir, that same family is not dysfunctional but there are definitely cracks in that depiction. Did the artifacts—the physicality of them, or their substance—prompt this re-examination? Or is it a matter of time, that the issues naturally come out? Or the death of both of your parents? 

All families have cracks, all parents make mistakes, not all past experiences of an intact functional family (nor the memories of them) are perfectly idyllic. Much of my first memoir, when speaking of family experiences, was in plural first person. That kind of perspective might filter out the flaws and mistakes that were my experience. Yes, I was also aware that my parents would be reading that book. But maybe it was my younger age — I still saw my parents as parents-first. In Puzzle, I wanted to see my parents more completely, beyond or beneath the identity of “parent.” The fact that “parent” is a seemingly permanent identity-cloak is the normal perception of an offspring, but is not the parents’ perception. Imagining their idea of themselves would, however, be fiction. Like one of my subtitles says, “Who was she before she was Mom?” Later, a few pieces do go back to blending their individual identities with “parents” — for example trying to conjure (with a few artifacts as support) how disappointed my father was when I was born, yet another female baby.

You spend paragraphs describing the technological aspect of your parents’ cameras. I found this very interesting, because I’m wondering how those technological aspects—the type of camera, its abilities or inabilities; the type of light it worked with (or didn’t); film it used (or didn’t forward on a spool)—influenced how your family looked at itself over the years. You quote experts on the effect of photographs on memory, but do these specific modes of photography affect your memory, or your family’s communal memory, as well? 

Yes, and here’s a very basic example: Mom didn’t have an auto-focus camera with built-in flash until 1972. That’s when family photos started to include indoor shots. There were earlier attempts with slide film—always very dark, mostly silhouettes. But the early 70s, that’s when we “moved indoors” as far as family history via photos. Interesting to note that the Kodak Instamatic and its flash cube came on the market in the mid 60s, but Mom didn’t change equipment then, and none of us had an instamatic until the early 70s. And we never had a Polaroid, with the peel off instant photos. [Just found an interesting article I could have used, if Mom had ever left her Leica for an Instamatic: “The Obsolete Object that Gave Every Boomer a Case of Redeye: How the Flashcube Changed Domestic Photography,” (Harriet Harriss, Slate, December 2021).]

As far as memory, sometimes the (now organized and archivally stored) slides and snapshots can solve a difference-in-memory issue between siblings. And I go to them frequently to tell me how old I was when a certain trip or experience happened — plus I’ve added all the photos I’ve taken starting in college to the record. Perhaps memory-alone would conflate or condense past experience so much, I would start to be like my Dad for whom everything was “oh, about five years ago.” (He wasn’t one to be preoccupied over looking at old photos. In fact, after my Mom passed in 2015, I printed some enlargements for him of Mom on their wedding day which he took in and commented on as though he’d never seen them before.)

For some things, photography only goes so far: The photos from before I was born were windows into being able to see my parents’ deeper, more layered identities. But I had to try to go through those windows to get a clearer shot.

I asked the question above because you also write about the type of camera your parents gave you, one in which you did not focus directly on an object, but with an older technology, through the use of mirrors. This might be a stretch but several times you depict yourself as an outsider in the family, and I’m wondering if this kind of looking—indirectly, through reflections of reflections—had something to do with your point of view; or whether this was a consequence of your androgyny, your choice of career (writing is a solitary profession, as opposed to teaching or musicianship); or …..something else?

The ”something else” is a lot of snarled together things, but not that camera. It had belonged to my maternal grandfather, so I felt I was being given an heirloom. Yes, it was difficult to use and I didn’t do well with it. In college I had to take photography for my journalism major, including developing B&W film and printing in the darkroom. My dad set up a darkroom for me at home with his old (1950s vintage) enlarger, which I believe he had never used. My darkroom was in the basement on a dirt floor without running water! But I preferred this to the communal darkroom on campus. Was my turn toward (very amateur) photography a reaction to my feelings of having been the “extra” (third) female child before they finally got their sons? I didn’t think that way at the time, but looking back, it was probably important that it was something I could do that no other sibling had done, and something that had once interested Dad.

Developing and printing are another solitary activity. And those were the mirrors (on the enlarger) that meant more to my perception. My (technically) first novel (published second) has a character who processes almost everything through photographs, and often while she’s enlarging and printing. She’s a far more obvious loner/outsider than I ever could have been because I removed from her life all siblings and one parent!

I’m also wondering, as part and parcel of the above questions, what your investigation into those few missing months in your mother’s life—when she left a teaching job, went back home to Massachusetts, and then later returned to her same job in California—was inspired by. Did you always know there was this gap? Did the photographs and other artifacts alert you to this gap? Did you look into this gap because of your own experience with sexual harassment, or, because you did not talk to your mother (after her explanation of interracial dating) about relationships (period)?

My eldest sister knew about the gap because Mom had told her, only very briefly, that she had left the teaching job at the end of the 1948 spring semester because a man was “bothering her.” My sister is fairly sure of that phrase, but we did have to rely on memory. It was only that remembered comment (not a full story passed from mother to daughter) that sent me looking for evidence of what had happened, and researching all the possible men I found who crossed paths with her that year. The other artifacts confirmed the gap; but I would have had to find letters she wrote to her sister, which were not among my source material, and even then Mom might not have detailed to her sister whatever was scaring her.

I was interested on several levels: that it was a potentially life-altering experience in my Mom’s life as a young woman before she put on the identities of wife or mother. And yes, because I had a similar resume gap, except mine was after I became certified for a particular profession (secondary teaching) and then never worked one minute in it, never filed one application for one job, and knew—before I’d even finished the certification—I never would. How much of that was caused or influenced by the not-yet-court-defined sexual harassment I experienced during my teacher-training? Good question. Somewhere between zero and 100 percent.

You contacted your African American high school classmate to fill out the details of his experience, but you did not contact the families of the African American women who went to college with your mother (and whose presence figure into the potential contradictions in her life). You did, however, go to the ends of the electronic record to find them. Is there a reason you didn’t go further—just a matter of time, age? Why did you contact your contemporary instead of relying on the electronic record for him?

The simple answer is because it was easy to contact the two young men from high school. (I might have also contacted the third, the Asian boy with whom I had a highly dysfunctional verging-on-abusive relationship, but he has been absent from all ListServs and Facebook groups revolving around high-school alumni information.)

I contacted my old high-school peers because I already had access and because I had mentioned this project to one of them years ago. It did take years to get it going (Mom’s hospice and death interrupted it, then the scanning and archive storage, etc.). So one of them had already expressed enthusiastic willingness to participate. I ventured to include the other because I also had access to him, and I’m really glad I did because his perspective/memory that I was “fierce” was so startling! And yet dovetailed with who I was trying to be at the time. He didn’t mean the word as a pejorative but a personality type, like intense.

I was pretty excited when I found the obituary for one of my Mom’s African American classmates from Sargent College class of 1946. She had an unusual middle name which of course she would keep even after marriage, so she was easy to find. The other girl’s name was too common and she’d probably married and changed her last name, so finding her was not panning out. But the obituary I found for the first young woman didn’t even give information like whether or not she’d had a career of any kind after majoring in physical education at a private all-girl’s college that was not (completely) “restricted” in the 1940s. And while it gave the names of her surviving children, I knew my Mom had not kept contact with this woman after college so in contacting them, I wouldn’t have had a substantial reason, like that my Mom still remembered their mother with fondness and admiration.

I did try to contact the daughter of a young man who I conjectured, in another essay, might be someone my Mom had a crush on before meeting my Dad. This woman was a psychotherapist and a poet, and she’d written a book on preserving natural areas with her Dad, who my Mom had known as a young man. She did answer my first inquiry, sent via her website, but then never answered my follow-up. I also tried to contact my Dad’s sergeant from the 1946 Nuremberg occupation forces, who was a research psychiatrist at Columbia University and still had a present-tense faculty page on their website. I went through one of his co-authors for one of his books, and that professor answered me. But his elderly colleague—my Dad’s sergeant—had no children to help him with electronic communication, and although I was given a phone number, the same major flaw which had stopped me from ever using my journalism major—not wanting to “cold call” people for information—kicked in.

I’m wondering if you want to say anything about the size or format of the book: it’s big, like a scrapbook; like Something Wrong With Her [Mazza’s second memoir, published in 2013 by Jaded Ibis Press] which was a scrapbook not of your life, but of your books, your relationship w/Mark [Mazza’s partner], and your developing sexual persona and mind. Are you trying to do the same thing here, create a scrapbook that includes you where you weren’t included before (because this is so centered on your parents)? 

In both cases, in order for the images to be visible enough for a reader to get information from them, and yet still wrap the text so text and image were juxtaposed, the pages had to be large. Someone congratulated me on having an “art book.” And your term of “scrapbook” fits well too. Yes, if it appears as a scrapbook of these artifacts, that works for me.

When you talk about the scrapbook format of your book, I’m wondering: What are the risks of using this type of format? I ask because you have some lovely writing in the book and I’m wondering if there is ever a fear that such good writing is going to be overshadowed by the format, or the images which are immediately arresting. Words take work. In answering that question, you might also consider your choice of writing as your art—why not music, or photography, or painting—your family has a wealth of talent. What is it about the written word that is so essential in your life, and this book?

To be clear: I did not have any overload of talent in music or visual art, including photography. This was especially true in music, but I also didn’t have the motivation to practice the many-hours-a-day that it would take to be, shall we say, good enough. (For what? Not sure.) I didn’t need to conjure motivation to sit and write, so I didn’t question that’s what I should be concentrating on. It must have given back something that music did not.

As far as the format of this book … as I said, I like calling it a scrapbook (even though I took the word from you) because it’s exactly the kind of scrapbook I would keep, one that’s mostly — but not entirely — words. Because I seldom use captions, I don’t feel the images detract from the writing as much because one can’t just look at the photos and read captions to get an idea of what’s being written about. One of my draft-readers was distracted, but not by the images, instead the actual text (story) caused her to sometimes not notice or skip the text boxes.

I’ve been interested in the shape of the text and the look of a page since the late 80s when I wrote the double-column “Is It Sexual Harassment Yet?” and the playscript-form “Animal Acts.” My first foray into images were someone else’s images in Revelation CountdownVarious Men Who Knew Us as Girls contained large-text pull-quotes. Until finally Something Wrong With Her and its format-gone-wild of digitized pages from my college journal, letters, hard-drawn cartoons, plus footnotes and emails, etc.  So this book is almost a coming down the other side of that hill.

I’m also wondering whether you (or anyone) can make sense of their parents’ lives without inserting themselves into the picture. Can you look at your parents without you (or your siblings) being the inevitable outcome? Is it especially difficult to do with your parents, or your mother, considering their generation, when marriage and family was supposed to be the ultimate goal, how success was measured? 

As I moved on to look at artifacts from the mid-1950s and into the 70s, of course my parents’ children would be present and would have started to impact Mom & Dad’s identities. (And did I call them Mom and Dad throughout? Wow. An incongruity.) But wanting to know them as individuals was why I did stay in the 40s and earliest 50s for so long (six of the 12 essays). It would have taken a hefty amount of hubris to explore their young pre-marriage adulthoods with only the consequence that they would become my parents. Some of course seeped in, the interesting parallels to Dad’s work with a young female German drafting technician in occupied Nuremberg and (years later) making sure his first daughter was not denied education in the sciences, as one example.

While marriage and family were ultimate goals for most women, and my mother embraced those completely, the fact that she went to college and majored in physical education then taught girls phys-ed for several years always seemed to hold her apart from that stereotyped gender-role path. When I was in 5th or 6th grade she went back to college for an “academic degree” in order to qualify to teach elementary school, so she had a profession by the time her youngest was in school, and I did have an educated working mother as role model as well. And yet we longed to believe that Mom “almost made the Olympic team in field hockey” in … what would it have been, 1948? She was no longer a college athlete by then, and the ’44 Olympics were cancelled by WWII, so I don’t know how or why we (or I) ever thought this was possible. Likely it’s a myth about her girlhood I sustained when she was a stay-home mother, added to the actual facts: Girl Ccout and Cub Scout leader and official Red Cross Water Safety Instructor—the identities I cherished (for her) because I could boast about them.

At one point you write, “Am I trying to overlay my own androgyny and (resultant?) scant interest from boys onto her? Yes, I must be…” In the “Unhappy at Parties” essay, you note your increasing discomfort at family gatherings and then say, “Mom was the one frankly happy at parties,” and go on to discuss how much she enjoyed a particular party despite some health issues she was having. I’m wondering how much of this book is an exercise in trying to find your mother, and deciding that you are not like her. Or am I reading this incorrectly? 

I am rather uber aware that I am not my mother. In energy alone I am a sad understudy. When I’m wholly exhausted after driving to school, teaching one class, and driving home … I think of her teaching 4th grade all day 5 days a week, coming home to make family dinner, correct papers after dinner, watch TV with Dad, answer our questions as needed, even maybe play a game (when we were very young). How did she do it? How did she take five kids ages ranging one through 12, camping by a roaring Sierra creek, fish, hike, still make us breakfast, lunch and dinner, washed us, sang around the campfire, made hot chocolate, and still be able to stay up and play cards with Dad? Lead Girl Scouts, lead Cub Scouts, sew quilts and some of our (often unstylish) clothes, paint watercolors, preserve jams, tomatoes, and apple sauce … and eagerly look forward to her next trip with a tour group where she always made friends, some who lasted beyond the trip. And so seldom was impatient or angry. I am so nothing like her.

And also, when you talk about your mother and the boundless energy that she had, I’m wondering: You say that you could never be the woman your mother was, especially in terms of her stamina and energy. But you’ve written 20 books, edited anthologies, are a tenured professor and therefore have seen numerous Ph.D. students through school and onto their careers; you’ve trained dogs, and you garden. I’m not saying these are equal to everything your mother did, or better, but isn’t what you’ve accomplished in your life something that took some wherewithal, some energy, some kind of resilience? I ask not only to get your answer, but to point out that women’s work, whatever it is, is never valued enough. Do you think any of that is going on?

Most of my activities are solitary, therefore (I think) may take less of a kind of energy I seem to lack. Social engagement, including interacting with your own children, is a different sort of energy. How could I not be valuing “women’s work” when I hold my Mom’s energy and activities in such high esteem? Starting with raising five children, but then everything else I’ve already listed. Yes, Dad worked relentlessly too … and did things his children haven’t had to do, from finishing high school at 20-years-old because of the Depression, to finishing college at 28 because 4-years military service during a global war. And like most in their generation, they handled the hardships of their early adult lives with stoicism (Dad) or humor (Mom).

There are a few canonical photos of a screaming child — one of us having hair brushed or compelled to wear a hot snowsuit with a pointy hood — and Mom, somewhere in the frame, laughing at our fury. Maybe she just made the world seem all right, and now without her laughter … there’s only the screaming.


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