When I was a young girl, I thought my mother looked like Elizabeth Taylor. In my eyes, she was beautiful. Tall and dark-haired with long legs and regal, tapered fingers, perfect for playing concertos on the piano or plucking out bluegrass on a banjo, both of which she did at one point in her life. Not so much, though, after I was born.
I wish she could have seen herself as I saw her.
My mom had pain in her life–far, far too much pain than seemed fair and right for one person to endure. From her sister’s suicide when they were both young adults, poised to take the world by storm, to her first husband’s tragic death in the war, to her best friend’s fatal illness right after retirement, I believe my mom’s heart became broken beyond repair. Still, she managed to raise seven children, complete with a full menagerie of critters running about, not to mention two sets of grandparents living with us at various intervals. It was a busy life and one in which she would often be so exhausted that she would retire to her bedroom at the end of an especially taxing day and cry. I remember feeling helpless. I remember hoping it wasn’t me that made her cry.
She was an artist, in every sense of the word. A brilliant artist, in fact, who majored in art at the University of Washington and graduated summa cum laude, an accomplishment she held onto with great pride. Our house was peppered with her paintings–watercolors, mostly, but also a beautiful oil painting of a nude that hung in my father’s office. Later on, she created fanciful wallhangings from textiles and embroidery, countless quilts that she stitched by hand and unique pottery tiles and bowls that still grace the corners of my house. You see, having her art surround me is my way of keeping her near.
As she grew old in the final years of her life, my siblings and I gathered together one afternoon and pulled out her portfolios of paintings, drawings and sketches that had been squirreled away in a storage locker for years. We drew numbers like a lottery, and went around one by one, each picking a favorite piece to keep. This went on for hours. Some of the art we had seen before, but much of it we had not. All of us left that afternoon in awe of the sheer scope of our mother’s talent. I visited her not long after and told her how much I admired her and how priceless it was to have her artwork with me. Not surprisingly, she rolled her eyes a bit and poo-pooed my compliment. She never thought she was good enough.
I wish she could have seen herself as I saw her.
My mother was a passionate woman. Passionate about music and art and politics and social justice. I think her passion overwhelmed her. Having been raised by two stoic parents back in the day where women were expected to be demure and proper, I don’t think she knew what to do with her passion, how to let it out. I wonder if she was afraid of losing control.
When I was a teenager and young adult, I scared her with my passion. Not content to keep my heady emotions tucked away, I would cry and yell and laugh loudly and frequently. Sometimes she looked visibly startled by my outbursts and would plead with me to “calm down.” Inevitably, I would shout “no!” and tell her how good it felt to let it out, how normal it was to show emotion. She warned me about being too angry, (people won’t like you) too happy, (you’re asking for something bad to happen) too in love (they won’t love you back.) I didn’t heed her motherly advice. I came to live out loud, I would say.
You see, I feel in italics and think in capitals.
My passion is a gift from my mother.
Towards the end of her life, having languished in a slow and painful physical decline, I remember sitting with her by her bedside. I would regale her with stories of my life, my children’s activities and amusing things that I encountered day-to-day. And she would lie there, listening intently, sharing in my pride about my kid’s accomplishments, never scolding me for bragging too much about them. And she would gaze at me, as only a mother can. Her eyes full of a lifetime of nurturing, of pain and heartache, of pride and joy. Of passion passed from mother to daughter.
There is nothing like the way a mother’s eyes light up when she sees her children. No friend, no lover, no child will ever look at you the way your mother does.
It’s been seven years since my mom died and I miss her every day. I feel her with me, the way her spirit tilts the picture frames on the walls, causing me to stop and pay attention and go over and straighten them, maybe pausing to appreciate the art held within the glass and frame. The way she reappears, sometimes with her mom, my Granny Ann, as fluttering butterflies in the summer. I miss having her in my children’s lives, wishing they could have known the younger, more vibrant grandma she was before they were born.
But most of all, I miss the way her eyes lit up when I walked into the room. No one will ever look at you the way your mother does. I miss that most of all.
Happy Mother’s Day.