In her new book, In the Cloakroom of Proper Musings, Kristina Moriconi tells the unvarnished truth about motherhood, love, and survival in a poetic, inventive voice. It is the story of a woman who finds herself raising two daughters, navigating the landscape of divorce and single parenthood, caring for aging, ailing parents, and stopping at nothing to find a place she and her girls can call home.
The book introduces itself to us as a lyric narrative, wherein Moriconi takes the autobiographical form and runs it through a sieve of music, breath, imagery, and space. Punctuated by fleur de lis, ampersands, and illustrations from a visual archive of 19th century women, the sparse narrative is as satisfying to read as it is to look at.
It’s fitting that the author includes an epigraph from Judith Kitchen, a master of brief, poetic prose and visually rich narratives. While the story told here is strong and clear, it couches itself in crisp, ephemeral sections, giving a heartbreaking story a sense of rhythm and energy. (For those hungry for more short-form nonfiction and a masterful use of story-supporting visuals, pick yourself up a copy of Kitchen’s Half In Shade to read alongside Cloakroom.)
The story follows the narrator as she conceives, creates, and raises two daughters to adulthood. She leaves an unhappy marriage and strives to co-parent with a harsh and critical spectre. She sings songs and makes art with her children, scraping together the bare minimum to create moments of beauty. She comes to terms with her parents’ failing health. She faces her own doubts, her rage, her feelings of inadequacy. She drinks, and works, and answers her daughters’ questions, so innocent they break her heart.
She finds herself in new schools and classrooms, restrictive places that push her sense of self and understanding of womanhood to their edges. She begins in the Magnet School for Unexpected Mothers, moves to the Public School of Noble and Unselfish Purposes, finds herself in the Finishing School for Mothers Who Never Really Considered Themselves Suitable for Domestic Life, and gets lost in the Schoolyard of Gray Granite Stones and Perpetual Grief. She serves as President of the Home Economics Club and Captain of the Synchronized Swimming team, and she learns: math, reading, art, driving.
The most satisfying journey, though, is the one the narrator takes from fraught, scrappy single parent to self-merciful mother and friend:
“In the beginning, she thinks she’ll be the kind of mother who will remember what her daughters’ first words were. Or exactly how old they were when they took their first steps. Or lost their first tooth.
And maybe, somewhere, she does write it all down. In a baby book someone gives her, knowing she might forget.
In the Graduate School of Older/Wiser Mothers, she finally offers herself forgiveness.”
Throughout this book, I could feel the narrator holding on for dear life without wanting to crush anything: an unquenchable desire to let both the story and the little girls in it fly free. It occurred to me, as I read (and reread) this book, that it has come into the world at an auspicious time, when many of us are asking ourselves what it means to be women, what it means to raise up other women. What it means to love someone without holding them back, without clutching too tight, without letting fear get in the way.
While this book isn’t Moriconi’s first (she published a poetry chapbook, No Such Place, in 2013), it is novel, both for the author and within the landscape of nonfiction. Her careful facilitation of the multi-modal form ensures that this book will appeal to fans of straightforward memoir and hybrid prose. The story and the container are strong and well-executed, and layered enough that each time I return to the text, I find something new. In the Library of Those Who Love Short Forms, Experimental Prose, Micro-Memoirs, and Braided Vignettes, Cloakroom is a worthy, unique, and necessary addition.