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.