My mother was my first reader. Standing in the doorway of her bedroom, I’d clear my throat, take a deep breath and read to her my latest writing with all the necessary vocal inflection and emphasis. She would sit, appropriately attentive and listen, smiling and nodding and often give a happy clap at the end.
My mother was an artist and her favored medium was paint. Watercolors and oils, some hung on the walls of our home but most stuffed in closets and portfolios from her days as an art major at the University of Washington. Later on, she created bowls and mugs and vases from coiled and patterned clay, each one glazed and fired in a kiln kept in a musty furnace room in our house. During her pottery days, the entire house seemed to be covered in a thin film of clay dust. Jars upon jars of milky glaze lined up along her work space–a spare bedroom converted as her studio–just waiting to be painted onto these gray clay creations. I loved how the nondescript, matte glazes would magically transform into shiny, colorful shades of blue and green and yellow with a little time spent in the intense heat of the kiln. I never minded the dust, because when my mother was immersed in her art, she was happy.
It always amazed me what beauty would be born from the union of desire, vision, passion and heat.
I knew better than to choose an art form that my mother was already proficient at. She could be a blunt and ruthless critic of many things. As a young girl, I drew and doodled, too, but could never match my mother’s talent. Timidly, I would share my drawings with her and she would cock her head to the left while studying my work, instinctively pick up a pencil or piece of charcoal and with a few well-placed strokes, add dimension and depth to my simple lines. Like magic.
So I wrote.
I wrote prolifically as a young girl. Poems and essays and short stories, then earnest starts of novels filled with girls named Kimberly and Lindsey who rode horses and had the names and lives I dreamed of having. I’d spend entire summers lost in my writing, my stories like an imaginary friend. Once adolescence descended, I turned to the privacy of my personal journals and stopped reading aloud to my mother. Whatever essays I wrote were for school, rather than myself. I’ve always felt like a writer, but the self-consciousness of growing up and the dysfunction in my home pulled me away from my words and into brooding musicians and backstage passes and the distraction of desire.
Why did you stop painting? I’d ask my mother. Oh, I just wasn’t good enough, she’d say.
My siblings and I unearthed her university portfolios in the storage locker we had moved her furniture into when she was no longer able to live on her own. We gathered around, each clutching our number that we had drawn to see who got to choose first, gasping over and in awe of the talent our mother had as my brother pulled out sketch after sketch, canvas after canvas. Her work like an illustrated diary of her progression as an artist. As a woman. It was breathtaking.
Why did she stop? we wondered wistfully.
Through a long and circuitous route, I found my way back to writing. It was hard to begin again, awkwardly laying down words and paragraphs, thoughts and feelings. It was scary to be honest and bare and vulnerable. As I write, I often remember my mother and how her demeanor transformed when she would immerse herself in her art. It was as if somewhere deep within she became shades lighter, her eyes brighter. I think of her as I finish a piece of writing and feel a palpable change of energy and find a deeper, easier exhale.
I still read aloud everything I write before posting it for public consumption. It’s important for me to hear myself say the words I write, to feel their cadence and rhythm. My words need to sound and feel natural, as if they were coming from me in conversation with whomever is reading.
And more often than not, I imagine myself standing in the doorway of my mother’s bedroom, reading and sharing my words with just the right inflection, waiting for her delighted clap and bravo at the end.
My mother-in-law, Dorothy, is one hundred years old.
One of the things The Mister and I shared was older parents. His mom was in the same generation as mine and there was a camaraderie formed that came from an understanding of what it felt like to have grown up with parents that were older than everyone else’s. But the similarities stopped there.
Dorothy was spry and lively when I met her on Mother’s Day in 1985, a stark contrast to my own parents whose health had already begun to decline. Closing in on seventy years old at the time, she was still planning adventurous backpacking trips around Europe and practiced yoga with her daughter. The Mister had invited his mother and his sister for a Mother’s Day brunch that year, the table set with a pitcher of fresh-squeezed orange juice and a platter of sourdough pancakes. And me.
I was a nervous wreck when I met my boyfriend’s family and barely said a word. His sister, opinionated and loud, overshadowed everyone. I went mute and then worried about what everyone thought of me.
Over the ensuing years, I managed to find my voice again and Dorothy and I forged a warm friendship. The relationship between mothers and daughters-in-law is one of the trickiest ones around and I was grateful to Dorothy for making it less so.
Once my kids were born, Dorothy became the grandparent that my own parents were unable to be. She saved my sanity countless times as I struggled as a new mom, taking care of my son for an hour or two while I enjoyed the quiet luxury of a haircut alone. She was the grandparent showing up for baseball games and gymnastic meets, the one at Grandparent’s Day at the elementary school, the one who got down on the rug and played My Little Pony and Thomas The Tank Engine for hours on end. It’s often said that being a grandparent gives us the opportunity for a do-over, to be better than the parent we were on the first go-round. Having lived a messy, imperfect life, I always sensed Dorothy knew this.
She is the grandparent that my children remember and with whom they share the most meaningful relationship.
Today, Dorothy is one hundred years old and although she is still in this world physically, she is rarely with us in the here and now. Unlike my own mother, who became unfiltered and bitter as her mental acuity declined, Dorothy has remained kind and good-natured. She still recognizes us as her family, even though she might confuse us with others from her past.
And today–even at one hundred years old–Dorothy is still a remarkable role model for me, showing me what grace and grit, unconditional love and a life of beautiful imperfection looks like.
Happy Mother’s Day, Dorothy.
I didn’t think you even wanted kids my friend commented when I told him the news of my first pregnancy. Wait. What? Did I really say that? Or was that just the impression I gave off?
I grew up as the youngest in a family of seven siblings, an appropriately chubby caboose of a child. My oldest sister had her first baby when I was only ten years old and I remember her tentativeness around my holding her precious cargo. So I didn’t.
Babies were weird, foreign beings. They still are, in a way.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want kids. It was just that domestication and all it entailed was never on my radar. Until suddenly it was.
I got pregnant right away, the swiftness of conception leaving me stunned and unprepared. I had assumed I would have months–maybe a year or more–to get comfortable with the idea of becoming a parent. Instead, I had nine short months to prepare for the reality of it. I read books and took classes. I did all the right things, made sure I had all the right gear. Two weeks before my due date, my sister hosted a barbecue-slash-babyshower for me at her home. Her neighbor had just given birth and she wanted me to have at least one experience of holding a real, live baby before I was holding my own.
Squirmy and soft but startlingly strong. Warm and gurgly. Like a little pink alien without an instruction book. Her head smelled nice. I was happy to hand her back when she started to fuss.
I went home that night more scared than ever.
I cried when I had to leave the hospital after delivering my son. We had stayed an extra night due to him turning blue and not breathing when I nursed him. The worry that I would kill my baby doing the one thing that was supposed to keep him alive didn’t do much for my confidence. How could they allow us to leave? There would be no nurse at our house to reassure me that I was doing things right. No one to help us stop him from crying. No one to help me stop me from crying.
Nothing prepares you for motherhood but motherhood. Into the fire. Sink and swim.
The Mister had changed every diaper on our son for the first ten days until he had to leave and go out of town for work. I cried as he drove away, leaving me framed in our living room window, clutching this squirmy, gurgly alien of an infant. Later that evening, my brother’s wife called me to see how things were going. Oh, fine I reassured her and then hung up and burst into tears. My sister came to visit and insisted I leave the house for some time by myself. I drove off in my sporty, white Acura with the carseat now strapped in the back and wondered if I’d ever come back. I stopped at RiteAid and stumbled around the aisles, not looking for anything but searching for something.
I parked in an empty lot and cried some more and came back.
I came back and one day at a time I figured it out. Two months into my son’s life, the depression began to lift and I managed to get both of us out of the house in time to attend a support group for new moms and their babies at the hospital where I had delivered. All forty of us and our babies, sitting in a large oval on the floor of a hospital conference room, each of us with the same, withered expression on our face. The facilitator had us introduce ourselves and our baby, encouraging us to check in and share with the group how things were going. One after another, the moms started talking and one after another they’d dissolve into tears. Through the snot and sniffle, each one choked out familiar stories of sore nipples and leaking milk, of not sleeping or showering for days, of how hard–so very hard–it all was. And how much they loved these little, strange alien baby beings, more than they thought was humanly possible.
Dumbstruck and suddenly comforted by the unity of us all, I gazed around the group and saw every woman sitting and nodding in empathy. Some crying, just because. Because sometimes you do that.
Everyone tells you it will be the hardest job you will ever have, but nothing will prepare you. Sink and swim, sink and swim, sink and swim.
Messy, breathtaking, heartbreaking, transformational motherhood.
It is amazing what stunning beauty can be born from the union of desire, vision, passion and heat.