Mother and child reunion

Author who calls Jane Fonda “Mom” recounts her emotional journey coming to terms with her past


Explore“The Lost Daughter: A Memoir”

By Mary Williams

Blue Rider Press, 300 pages, $26.95

More books about moms

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"Mom & Me & Mom," by Maya Angelou. The renowned poet and author digs deep into the most personal story of all: Her relationship with her mother, who sent her to live elsewhere as a child when her marriage crumbled. In detailing their gradual reconciliation, Angelou shows how, in some important ways, her mother never really left her at all. Random House, 224 pages, $22.

"Carrie and Me: A Mother-Daughter Love Story," by Carol Burnett. The worst thing for a parent is to outlive a child. The bravest thing a parent can do is to write a loving, funny memoir of her daughter who overcame teen-aged problems with drugs and living in a superstar parent's shadow to forge her own showbiz career before dying of cancer at 38. Simon & Schuster, 205 pages, $24.99.

"Sum It Up: 1098 Victories, a Couple of Irrelevant Losses and a Life in Perspective," by Pat Summitt, with Sally Jenkins. Summitt suffered six miscarriages while becoming college's winningest coach and redefined working motherhood: Son Tyler was a constant on or near the court with her after his birth in 1990, and now he's by her side as she confronts early-onset Alzheimer's. Crown Archetype, 407 pages, $28.

"Instant Mom," by Nia Vardalos. With all the self-deprecating humor you'd expect from the "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" scribe/star and none of the cluelessness that characterizes many celebrities, Vardalos writes honestly about infertility, adoption and learning to be a mom. Includes a useful "How to Adopt" appendix. HarperOne, 282 pages, $26.99.

There was a time when Mary Williams admits she was awful to the woman she calls “Mom.” Actually considered herself to be at “war” with her. Wouldn’t return phone calls or e-mails or have much of anything to do with her for three years.

Williams didn’t stand a chance, in the end.

“Finally, she came to Tucson, where I was working as a [park] ranger,” Williams, 45, recalled by phone from Arizona a few days before her highly readable, repeatedly surprising memoir, “The Lost Daughter,” was published last month. “She got out of the car and looked so beaten down, I felt awful. My anger began to heal because I had seen the physical effect it had on her.

"That's a mother," said Williams, a former Atlanta resident.

The twist here isn’t the intense loyalty shown by Mom to Williams, an African-American who was born in Oakland to members of the Black Panthers. Rather, it’s Mom’s identity: Jane Fonda, Hollywood royalty-turned-businesswoman and social activist, who took Williams into her home and life around age 16 and has kept loving hold of her ever since.

“Jane is my mother,” said Williams, who wasn’t formally adopted by Fonda but writes of the moving moment when the Oscar-winning actress asked permission to start calling her daughter. “I have my birth mother, who did her very, very best, but she’s someone I’m just getting to know.”

In fact, “The Lost Daughter” culminates with Williams somewhat nervously third-wheeling it at a first-ever meeting last June between her “Mom” (Fonda) and “Mama” (her birth mother, also named Mary). For all the bonding the onetime Panther and Vietnam War protestor did over gossip about Huey Newton and other ’60s radicals, the lunch in a Berkeley restaurant stands out in the book for confirming, once and for all, what a complex thing it is to be a mother.

As such, it joins nearly a half-dozen other compelling books by women that have been published just in time for Mother’s Day. Their authors are all well-known in fields ranging from sports and television to poetry. The stories they tell are as different as the storytellers themselves — goofy comedienne Carol Burnett’s loss of a beloved adult daughter, tough-as-nails women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt’s humanizing struggle to conceive and raise her only child, a son — but each contributes to a fascinating overall portrait of motherhood as something that no one gets to or goes about in exactly the same way. Which probably explains why no two people ever turn out entirely alike.

Yet for pure originality and drama, perhaps nothing matches Williams’ saga of essentially having two mothers. Born on a Friday the 13th, she writes in the book’s opening chapters about being the second youngest of six children whom her mother struggled to raise alone when her father was sent to prison for assaulting police. Life increasingly darkened for Williams as she entered adolescence: One of her older sisters got pregnant at 15, another became addicted to crack and her mother began drinking heavily.

Fortunately, her father’s brother, Landon, was around to serve as a positive role model. He was friends with Fonda and her then-husband Tom Hayden, who ran a summer camp in Santa Barbara that young Mary started attending around age 11.

“When she showed up at camp, you could tell that she was a special person,” Fonda recently told “Good Morning America.” “She came back for several years. And then she didn’t come back.”

After a summer away, Williams finally did return to the camp. By then the weight of her troubles had become so obvious that Fonda made her a deal: Go home, get your grades up and if it’s all right with your mother, you can come live with us in Santa Monica and attend school.

“This was a hugely smart person and she was failing,” Fonda said on GMA. She didn’t respond to questions from the AJC.

Fonda’s offer never struck Williams as odd — “A rapport was building, and I found out later they always had people living with them,” she said.

Nor did it seem strange to her that they would begin thinking of each other as mother and daughter at some point.

“It just happened,” Williams said.

The bond endured, even when Williams’s peripatetic academic and professional travels took her for extended periods to Morocco, Tanzania and Antarctica, all of which she writes about colorfully in the middle portion of the book. And it survived her somewhat rocky attempts to reconnect with her birth family, which reawoke long suppressed anger from her childhood and turned her into a self-described “sulking teenager” who emotionally distanced herself from Fonda.

That was in her early 40s, long after Williams had known the joy of being part of a large, loving, blended family as a result of Fonda’s marriage to Ted Turner. Along with Jane’s other children, Williams first met Fonda’s brash new beau at a California Pizza Kitchen in L.A. — “Don’t be put off by how loud he talks,” Fonda prepped them — but the action soon shifted south. To Atlanta, where the superstar couple was based and where Williams also lived and worked for some time.

And to Avalon, Ted’s plantation near Tallahasseee, Fla., that was the setting for many gatherings of the Turner and Fonda families. Williams describes Thanksgivings spent at Avalon as “my favorite family time.” Turner always gave Avalon’s staff Thanksgiving off, Williams continues, “So in the evening we’d all head into town for dinner at the only place open on Thanksgiving evening: Hooters.”

So strong is the newly minted memoirist’s affection for both Turner and Fonda, that she admits near the end of the phone interview that she didn’t read her “Mom’s” 2006 autobiography. Among the material Fonda covered in “My Life So Far” was her relationship with and divorce from Turner in 2001.

“I want to love Ted just the way he is,” Williams explained. “I don’t want to hear anything about what happened between them. That’s not a child’s place.”

Now that's a daughter.