I sat out on my narrow front porch this morning with a cup of coffee and a foot braced against a slat of the white railing. A still-bright fat white moon hung in the blue sky on its way down toward the mountains as a gentle breeze stirred the leaves on the Locust tree in the pocket park across the cul-de-sac from me. It’s still quite cool, maybe in the low sixties due to all the thunderstorms racing around last night, and I savor the chill as the temperature is headed for the nineties today.
I think how blessed I am to have this house and to be able to sit in the quiet of a Saturday morning watching wisps of clouds drift slowly by. I walk into my house and immediately the bright colors of the paintings I’ve created and hung on my walls draw my eye. I feel such joy today at the opportunity I’ve had to become reacquainted with the inner artist, long hidden away; the same artist my mother scoffed at when I was young. I realize I no longer look at my creations and think how weird they are, or how I’ll starve if I ever thought about trying to sell them. Something is shifting within my being. I am learning to appreciate myself in ways I never could before.
My relationship with my mother across most of my life was adversarial at best. I experienced her as a control freak of the first order, always trying to shift and change who I was to be more of who she thought I should be. She was a person who had lots of inner anger, rage even, and felt free to unload on her children at any deviation from what she thought was the right way to be.
My friends had to be from a certain social class; a certain religion, a certain political party, certain nationalities. She terminated relationships with my friends for reasons she never explained. No one got a second chance to make up for whatever they might have done. I was a quiet soul as a kid. Severance of friendships, especially with my siblings, hurt me deeply.
My father taught me to drive. I took Driver’s Ed, too, but it was my father who spent time with me in the car. How he managed to do that I’ll never know. He was in a terrible car crash when he was a young man. He told me he broke his cheekbone and nose, and his face was bleeding terribly but a man who had stopped to help his family wouldn’t let him in the car to be taken to a hospital because the blood might ruin his upholstery. “It was a long time,” he said, “before we got help.” Despite knowing this, we used to make fun of him because he drove so slowly, especially on the interstates around where we lived. My mother refused to teach me, so my father stepped in.
I took my mother’s car out one day to go shopping. Somehow over the course of the day I broke the glass over one of her headlights. I parked the car in the garage, not even aware of what had happened. The next day my mother took me out to the garage. She pointed to the headlight. “How the hell did that happen?” she asked.
“I have no idea, Mom.” I replied, and honestly, I didn’t. I never again was allowed to drive that car.
It took me many years to realize that a lot of my mother’s behavior was motivated by fear. Fear of judgment by her parents for not raising her family properly. Fear of her community for doing something socially awkward or scandalous. Fear that her children would deviate from social norms and draw unwanted attention to the family. I did my best to toe the line, but mostly I felt a failure.
As I got older I became as much a judge of her as she was of me. My art education ended in eighth grade. Some of my art was good. It got hung on the walls in shows for the school. “Art is a waste of time,” my mother said when I wanted to continue to take it as an elective in high school.
When she made a sculpture to hang on the garage wall of our house, I almost had to laugh. She tried to set tropical shells in cement, showing me how to use a box to shape the sculpture, and how to pour the sandy mixture around the shells. The resultant ridiculous lump with a few almost unidentifiable shells sticking out got hung on the garage.
“The dog could have done a better job,” I thought. A few weeks later she must have thought that herself, for the sculpture disappeared.
The same was true of writing. I took creative writing in high school and loved it. I got an “A” in the class for making things up in my head and creating a whole new world. By then my mother was an executive secretary. She thought she wrote wonderfully for business. Sometimes she would show me something she’d written for her boss. “Mr. So-and-So can’t write for beans,” she said. “He lets me do everything.”
“The dog could write a better letter,” I thought.
We never did get much of a chance to understand each other’s worlds. Only after my brother died did my mother begin to open up a bit. My mother was 82 when my brother died of cancer. I began to see the depth of who she was and to understand how she could have such deep and abiding friendships across her life. I remembered things from my childhood, like the time she gave me an extra dime to go to the movies with my friend. “Pay for your friend,” she said. “Her family is having a hard time right now.”
In the few years before she died we talked about books, her love of reading having turned me into an avid bibliophile from my earliest years. We discussed the virtues of living in a small town after we’d both spent most of our lives in or near a big city. She shared thoughts about getting old, and death, and the grief of losing people you’d had your whole life. “No matter how old they are,” she mused, “Your children aren’t supposed to die before you.”
I have my house because my mother left me the money to buy it. It’s been my sanctuary, a place to recover from the end of a marriage, and the loss of myself. I’ve had the luxury of the time and space to become who I am again in peace. As I sat on that porch this morning, I thought my mother would really like being there, too. She would be pleased she could help me begin to live life again in such a peaceful spot. I like to think she can hear me from wherever it is she might be.
“Thank you, Mom.”