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Moonlight on Linoleum: A Daughter's Memoir
by Terry Helwig

Published: 2011-10-04
Hardcover : 304 pages
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"I invited the child I was once to have her say in these pages. I am the one who came out on the other side of childhood; she is the one who searched for the door."

In the tradition of The Glass Castle comes a debut memoir about a woman's hopeful life despite the sad results of her ...
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"I invited the child I was once to have her say in these pages. I am the one who came out on the other side of childhood; she is the one who searched for the door."

In the tradition of The Glass Castle comes a debut memoir about a woman's hopeful life despite the sad results of her mother's choices. Moonlight on Linoleum is an affecting story of a girl who rose above her circumstances to become an early and faithful caretaker to her five siblings. It is about the power one finds in sisterhood to thrive in a difficult and ever-changing landscape as the girls bond in unconditional love despite constant upheaval and uncertainty. In these pages, Teresa Helwig crafts a moving portrait of a mother she loved completely even as she struggled to understand her.

"Putting myself in Mama's shoes, which were most often white moccasins molded in the shape of her size seven-and-a-half foot, I see an eighteen-year-old girl with two children, one of them still a baby. . . . Her former husband is in Korea, drafted after their divorce; she has a sister who disappears from time to time, leaving yet another child in her care; she has no money, no high-school diploma, and a mother unhappy to have her home."

Teresa and her sisters, who were added regularly throughout the 1950s and '60s, grew up with with their charismatic, troubled, and very young mother, Carola. Because of their stepfather's roving job as in the oil fields, they moved frequently from town to town in the American West. The girls were often separated and left behind with relatives and never knew what their unstable mother would do next. Missing her mother became a habit for Teresa; one summer Carola dropped off her two daughters at her ex's family farm.

"If there were an idyllic summer of childhood, it was that summer on the Iowa farm. Yet, if I had to choose a time when I felt most forsaken by my mother, it was also that summer. Even back then, I was acutely aware of the paradox. On the outside, by day, I was like the morning glory vine twining around the back fence. Every day opened to a life I loved on the land. I reveled in and relished the absolute freedom and abandon of being turned loose in Eden.

     "But then, each evening, after the sun set and the dinner dishes had been hand-washed and dried, I became like the moonflower vine climbing up the weathered boards on the side of the garage. The moonflower opens its large fragrant blooms at night; they shimmer like moonlight and sweeten the night air.

     "I evolved a ritual at bedtime before crawling into my bed . . . I held Mama's Polaroid picture to my heart.

I love you. Please come get us soon. I want to be with you more than I want to be anywhere else. These were my prayers, my blooms that opened to the night. Then I pursed my lips against the cool glass and kissed her smiling face goodnight."

There were good times too: Carola made fudge for the girls during rainstorms, helped Teresa's cat deliver kittens, and taught her to play "You Are My Sunshine" on a toy piano. But when her husband was out working on the oil fields, Carola, who had married at fourteen, began to fill her time with men she met in the various towns her roving family moved to. She referred to her secret dating life as "going to Timbuktu," leaving Teresa in charge of her siblings. As Carola roamed and eventually developed crippling migraines, Teresa became a replacement mommy before her own childhood was fully in swing. Stress, guilt, and recurring nightmares marked her days and nights.

"In addition to the amphetamines [for weight loss], Mama was now taking barbiturates for her migraines. Her moods began to yo-yo. She became as hard to predict as the weather. When Daddy was out of town and Mama was in one of her fogs, I learned to fend for myself. And, being the oldest, I learned to fend for my sisters, too . . . It was around this time I came to realize a hard truth. Once your sisters begin looking up to you, as if you really could save them from being poisoned, as if you know a way out of a dark cave, there's no going back. You'll draw your last breath, trying to find that door to the Lost City of Enchantment, because you can't bear to let them down."

Yet, even in the face of adversity, Teresa found beauty in the small moments: resting in the boughs of her favorite oak tree, savoring the freedom she found on her grandparents? farm, and gleefully discovering the joys of dating and dancing. While Carola struggled for an exciting and satisfying life, Teresa faced adolescence and young adulthood, increasingly burdened by Carola's dysfunction. Finally, as the family splintered between colleges, homes, stepfathers, and their mother's disintegrating mental health, Teresa drove Carola to a mental hospital--where at last the mother of five found some peace and order.

Upon leaving the hospital, sadly Carola continued in a downward spiral: more men, a drug addiction, a toddler son's death, and finally her own accidental overdose death in 1974. Though Carola's unhappy life meant Teresa's was marked by hardship and tragedy, Teresa found redemption in writing her mother's story and discovering empathy for the woman continually harmed by her own bad choices. The bonds of sisterhood helped sustain her, and today the girls are still close, still savoring the good in a childhood pocked with pain. Teresa, now a counselor and mother of a daughter, was able to conclude, after visiting her mom's grave and asking her blessing on the book,

I believe joy and sorry rest together, the two sides of love. I have repeatedly uncovered places of joy inside my own heart tucked within the folds of sorrow. 

With enormous skill and sensitivity, Teresa deftly explores the history she shared with Carola and the relentless love of a child for her mother.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.


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Discussion Questions

One of the most complex characters in Moonlight on Linoleum is Helwig’s mother Carola Jean. In what ways does Carola “rise” to the occasion? When does she “miss the mark?” Did you find her a sympathetic character? How would you describe her feelings for her children?
Helwig surmises that her mother’s willingness to give her away when she was three caused her to cling even more fiercely to her mother. What are the differences in a child’s eyes between love, loyalty and the fear of abandonment?
Sometimes, a seemingly ordinary conversation can turn around a life. After hearing one such conversation between her mother and JoAnn, her mother’s friend, Helwig writes “JoAnn’s words tore open the smothering sac I had been struggling against… JoAnn set me psychologically free. I wasn’t flawed.” How can one conversation wield so much power? Has someone said something to you that forever changed the way you viewed yourself?
In the book, Helwig states “It was 1961, the same year President John F. Kennedy established the ‘President's Commission on the Status of Women.’ Gloria Steinem would not become a national icon for the feminist movement for another eight years.” How much of an impact do you think women’s rights had on Carola Jean? What messages did young Terry receive from her mother about being a woman?
The task of “minding” the children was often left to Helwig, the oldest. How did her parental role impact her relationship with her sisters? What are the limitations of a child raising children? How did these limitations affect Carola Jean who was only fifteen when Helwig was born?
Helwig found solace in the limbs of an old oak tree on her grandparent’s farm. What inner strengths must one have or develop to cope with adversity? A major theme in Helwig’s book is her love and connection to the natural world. Why do you think Helwig placed such importance on these experiences? Does a child experience the natural world differently than an adult? Did you have a special place of solace and comfort growing up?
At the end of the book, Helwig decides to return the care of her two youngest sisters back to her mother. Do you agree with Helwig’s decision? Do you think her sisters were better or worse off as a result? Was Helwig’s decision paramount to her own personal growth and life as an adult?
Helwig’s stepfather obviously loved his wife. Did he love her too much?
In the book, Helwig writes “Love was not unimportant to Mama; to the contrary, she looked for it like Daddy looked for oil.” What type of love did Carola Jean seek? Physical love? The love of a soul mate? Self-love?
Helwig references a number of experiences in school—some positive and others negative. How important is a teacher’s role in a child’s life? Do you still remember a positive or negative experience with a particular teacher? What advice would you offer a teacher as a result of your experience?
How would you characterize Helwig’s relationship with her mother? How does their relationship change as the book progresses?
Helwig’s mother remarked that she might write a book one day. How do you think Helwig’s mother would have reacted to reading about herself in Moonlight on Linoleum? What might Carola Jean have said that Helwig didn’t?
If you were to drive by Helwig’s trailer house on the outskirts of town today, would you imagine a young girl like Helwig living inside? Why or why not?

Suggested by Members

TOPICS: Who/what influences contributed to Terry turning out so well in spite of adverse circumtances? Davy? Biological father? Grandparents?
The many contrasts in the book: Moonlight/Linoleum (very intangible and metaphorical versus very mundane and concrete) - the mother's goodness and badness, tenderness and indifference, many others.
The universal need to seek parental approval, even of parents who, objectively speaking, don't deserve their childrens' devotion.
by frankelly (see profile) 01/27/12

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

Readers loved Helwig’s unself-pitying embrace of her mother, as well as of her life and the cards it dealt her.

--ELLE Magazine, #1 Readers’ Prize, December 2011

I really loved this book...[It] is a touching portrait of a family with an unshakable attachment to each other–forged in the flames of adversity…Anyone with a less-than-picture-perfect family of origin (that is to say, almost all of us) will find this memoir heartfelt, tragic, uplifting, funny and inspirational. There will be comparisons to Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, but this is an original portrait of an original woman, and the strong women her weaknesses produced. Highly recommended.


Even through some dark circumstances, this memoir was an interesting and eye-opening experience. It was comforting to see the two oldest daughters Vicki and Terry smiling and embracing each other in a photograph…And the group shot at the end sealed the deal; no matter what these girls were exposed to, they conquered any obstacle no matter the size.

-–Chicago Tribune

Great descriptions. You finish the book rather awed by [Terry’s] positive attitude, given all she's gone through.

ELLE Magazine Reader’s Prize Juror, Joanna Russell Bliss

Book Club Recommendations

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
  "Moonlight on Linoleum"by Silver's Reviews (see profile) 09/04/13

Welcome to the 50's.....Grandma and Grandpa taking care of children, Mom gone, only Dad. Doesn't sound like the 50's to me....sounds more like the way families are today.

Moonlight on

... (read more)

  "Not True Feelings"by datu56 (see profile) 07/22/12

Felt the author was not giving the true feelings of the children. As dreadful their life was for children, they seemed fine.

Knowing a simlar situation, the children were suffering with

... (read more)

  "Moonlight on Linoleum"by frankelly (see profile) 01/27/12

Although each member's reaction was unique, the points of consensus were that this book is well written and poignant, filled with interesting characters and situations, and that the writer is very good... (read more)

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