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Folding my mother back into my body

Walkabout Mother

Walkabout Mother

My mother told me that a mean old rooster used to chase her around the yard, so her father chopped off its head — but it still ran around headless.  I was but a girl myself when she told me this story and I didn’t like thinking about a bloody headless rooster. But, what terrified me the most, was the idea that my mother could be afraid. I counted on her for bravery.

Occasionally, I was allowed to go through an old trunk of her things from childhood. I found a dream book she had made in high school. Into it she had cut and pasted magazine pictures of  the rooms of her dream house. When I compared the pictures in this scrapbook to our house, I knew she had not achieved her dreams. I also found a picture of her sitting bareback on a horse when she was just about my age. She was barefoot and dirty. She had grown up in Kansas during the dust bowl. Her father was a bootlegger and the story is he was murdered by his gang.

My mother was quiet. I had to watch her face for signs of how she felt about things.  I knew when her eyes flashed and she pressed her lips together tight, she disapproved — but wasn’t saying the words. I was vigilant. Those eyes and lips were my barometer for good and evil.

When I was 12, my mother had a cerebral hemorrhage. She just barely survived brain surgery. (This was before the days of laser surgery.) When she finally came home, she was not the mother I had known. Eventually, I realized that she was gone. This was a problem because there was a body walking around that looked like her. People congratulated me on having my mother back alive.  No one was saying, “I’m sorry your mother came back a zombie.”

As a teen, I had no compassion for the mother zombie walking around. The person I had counted on for bravery was as clueless as I.  Abandoned, I had to go it alone. Hatred and anger girded me for meeting the daily shock of loss and confusion. I had trouble reconciling my experience with what people were (or weren’t) telling me. In time it became easier to just assume I was crazy.

The last time I had seen my mother, before she became the zombie, was the day before her surgery.  My father brought us – her four little kids – to the hospital. Since kids weren’t allowed in the patients’ rooms, we met in the lobby. I remember she looked especially beautiful that day – a new hairdo, make-up, red lips, and pink cheeks that matched her paisley pink robe.

It was like any other day for us, however. We were fighting and running around like the wild Indians we were. I was the oldest and had some inkling of the gravity of the situation, but no one told us that this could possibly be the last time we would see our mother. We probably wouldn’t have been able to comprehend this if they had.

My mother knew, of course. She knew she was coming to say goodbye to us. She came looking her best, so we would have that one last memory of her. She never cracked, even though she must have been stunned, and racked with fear and grief. She was good. We never suspected.

This is why I chose her as the subject of  my second walkabout woman portrait.

Not because she was a good actress and didn’t let on about her feelings, but because she carried the great burden of a mother’s love for us and met this, her most dire challenge, in her own way, and with grace and bravery.

I’ve lived with this mother portrait for awhile now, so I know that it comes from the child who found out her mother could be afraid and wants to make it all better, and from the teenager who wants to atone for her behavior.

I’ve swooped down like a little Joan of Arc and given her the things from her dream book. I’ve broken the neck of the villainous old rooster and triumphantly hung its head around her neck. I’ve adorned her with hearts and rhinestones as proof of my love. I’ve  released the words from her lips that she never spoke and, since I can’t know what they would be — they have manifested as alphabet blocks.

The child who did this portrait doesn’t know yet, that even if you are good and love baby Jesus, bad things can happen, that things aren’t always fair and that there are some things you can’t fix even with a superhuman effort.

This Mother’s Day I feel the tragedy of her life cut short and have only compassion for the motherless daughter I was. I can see now that those years of cutting off my mother — cut off parts of me from myself.

And as these things go, my mother’s walkabout is also my own. Am I doing it for me or her? The line is blurred. I do know that fear is being vanquished, love has triumphed and the rooster is beginning to crow in my own voice — and with words I do recognize.

Beginning here, I am  slowly folding my mother back into my body.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. I LOVE this piece, both the writing and the art….

    May 15, 2013
  2. Tracy #

    This was beautiful, sad, thought provoking and hard for me to read, Betsy. Brought up many memories and feelings for me that I mostly keep tucked away in imaginary cotton balls. I had to repack them and sleep on it before coming back to tell you that you touched my heart with this. Thank you for sharing the story behind your fabulous art.

    May 13, 2013
    • Thanks Tracy – I feel am immense sense of closure around these issues in my life — having done this art and writing. It is freeing me up for the next portrait. It is good to unpack the moth balls, but at the same time, do it slowly with concern and care for yourself. My friend always tells me it is like cooking rice. Too low and the rice doesn’t cook, too high and the rice burns. You want to use the right “temperature” when digging into the moth balls (to mix metaphors!) Take care, Betsy

      May 13, 2013
  3. Gosh Betsy, what an amazing piece. So painfully confessional and revealing of the human condition, your human condition and a true example of how though your story is so personal to you, it transcends one person and becomes universal. Though many will have stories about their mothers which are no less difficult and painful, the details being different for each one, the universality of the feelings and suffering are shared amongst many.
    In the film ‘Finding Joe’, about the work of Joseph Campbell, Akiva Goldsman, screenwriter (“A Beautiful Mind”, “Cinderella Man”) talks candidly about his long childhood abuse and how he would not wish it on anyone and how he had to come to terms with it when very young and as they say, its always work in progress. But he said despite all that, “It’s what made me, me”.
    I suppose that is what is so difficult at times, the ‘what if’. What if this and that and how would I have turned out if this had not happened and the anger too, anger at the lost years and the lost chance to grow up with those who pass too early.
    We have by some means or other been granted these amazing brains of ours, but when young and in development, they need such love and comfort and attention and play, it is very hard for us to grasp the reality of life and when one (or more) of those sources is taken away early, we can but only suffer somewhat and in this modern age we perhaps have lost our guidelines a little, unless we are fortunate and are surrounded by those who understand and have wisdom and it falls upon ourselves to come to terms with our experiences and that can take a lifetime it seems.
    I attended a seminar recently on screenwriting, one of its speakers was a lady who was a script editor on ‘The Full Monty’, ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘Four Weddings’ and she said that “Storytelling is the most important job in the world – BAR NONE!” A bold statement, but on reflection I think a true one. We do believe the stories we tell ourselves and are told, I guess its a matter of telling the right and proper stories for the good of ourselves and each other.
    I am attempting to write a screenplay about a young girl who had an awful life when young, rape, trauma, parental oppression, you name it, she suffered it, but after years of struggle opening doors that lead nowhere, she finally realised (after reading ‘The Alchemist’, among many books) that she had to become the hero of her own life and she did and became an inspiration for many along the way. She died when 31, which was cruel, but she seemed to reach some sort of fulfillment in her short life. Its just so damned hard to realise whats happening to us along the way, our consciousness at times seems to get in the way.
    Allow me to finish with that man again….Joe,

    “What is it we are questing for? It is the fulfillment of that which is potential in each of us. Questing for it is not an ego trip; it is an adventure to bring into fulfillment your gift to the world, which is yourself. There’s nothing you can do that’s more important than being fulfilled. You become a sign, you become a signal, transparent to transcendence; in this way, you will find, live, and become a realization of your own personal myth.”

    Joseph Campbell, Pathways to Bliss

    PS A woman writer called Jay Griffiths, whom I was fortunate to meet and spend time with, has a book out called ‘Kith -The riddle of childscape’, which looks at children’s upbringing and throws an interesting light on it and perhaps what goes missing within it. Worth a look.

    May 13, 2013
    • As always Les, thank you for taking the time to read my story and add your perspective. I got chills reading “Storytelling is the most important job in the world!” I so agree. I am excited for you about your screenplay. I am guessing you are very much up to the task of telling your story. Have you read “Naked, Drunk and Writing” by Adair Lara. I just started reading this. It seems that by accident I have plundered into writing “personal essays” as she puts it. Take care, Betsy

      May 13, 2013
      • Thanks…not read that one, but with a title like that I can’t resist!!

        May 13, 2013
        • She reveals she managed to maneuver the word “naked” into the title because statistically it was one of the words that always got people’s attention.

          May 13, 2013
  4. Thanks Bets. There’s a lot here I have never heard. Funny, but I only know “the other mom”.

    May 12, 2013
    • As Aunt Jeanne always said, “Robin and Carol are raising each other.”

      May 12, 2013
  5. Gretchen #

    This Mother’s Day is also filled with memories of my mother, her challenges, strengths, anger and disappointments being left with two little girls age 3 and 6 months after my father committed suicide. The art and title, folding your mother back into your body was incredibly profound, thank you for sharing!! Our lives are influenced by our mother’s experiences, today I honor your mother, my mother and all mothers who continue to have a strength from some inner source to do the best they can and survived in this sometimes unfair world. Sending you blessing dear Betsy:)

    May 12, 2013
    • Thank you for your comment Gretchen. Being a mom now myself has been an education. There is some inner force that keeps our children’s welfare first and foremost in our minds/heart in any and every situation. Whenever I walk across the Vista St. Bridge, I say a prayer for your family. Hope you are well and happy. Love Betsy

      May 12, 2013
  6. How well I remember your mother. She was always gay, or so it seemed to me as a girl. I was heartbroken when your family moved to California. I didn’t know about the bootlegger, but I did know about the burst aneurism. Our family mourned her loss, even though she went on. Thank you for sharing this! xo T

    May 12, 2013
    • Hi Terri – young as I was, I do remember the day we drove off to California and how sad everyone was. I have always appreciated how supportive your family was. Thanks for commenting Betsy

      May 12, 2013
  7. nancy bardos #

    ohmy, Betsy…..what a difficult but now very tender story. thank you for the telling of this and the sharing of the art you did. yes, thank you very much.

    May 12, 2013
    • Hi Nancy – I so always appreciate you reading and commenting! Hope you are well and having lots of adventures. Betsy

      May 12, 2013

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