What do I say here? My mother was a mystery to me. I can honestly say that there was never a time that I understood her for longer than a brief instance, then the clarity drifted away as she moved into the next mood. Was she cruel? Sometimes. Did she teach me a lot? Yes, but not in the way I think she meant to. Do I miss her now? More often than I used to.
I will start with what I knew for sure. She was born in 1951 in October. She had 1 sister about 12 years younger than she was. Her dad (Grandpa) raced cars and took the family camping and worked in a well-paying job. Her mother (Grandma) made her wear white gloves and dresses. She was in Girl Scouts for a lot of years. She didn't like Barbie (in fact she was given one when they first came out, my grandmother sold it at a yard sale, still in the box for a quarter back in the mid-eighties). She married my Dad in late 1970 or early 1971 and gave birth to me in September 1971. She had my brother in October 1974. She was divorced sometime after that. She had bone cancer from way back. Married R. McDowell in mid 70's. One finger amputated (don't know when), sternum replaced in early 70's, hysterectomy in late 70's/early 80's, left humerus replaced around '84, continued surgeries on that for a couple years, until a steady decline in the combination of healthy blood cells caused complications and she passed away in early 1994. Does that all sound rather impersonal? Yes, well, even while writing it up there, my own emotions took a little roller-coaster ride.
I have many memories of my mother. They tend to fall into two categories - Before and After. If someone were to ask me "Before/after what?" I wouldn't be able to tell them a specific time. I'm including some things that sum up a little of how I think about the before and after:
There was a time when my mother was like a Goddess to me. She showed us all the wonders of the world around us. When I think about that time I remember being very happy. We made apple jelly and canned our veggies. We hung our clothes out on the line, milked our goat and had fresh eggs most mornings. I remember having a box full of chicks in the living room with a warming light attached to it while the winds were blowing outside. We made our own ice cream and our Christmas presents were home-made gifts. I learned what the phrase "running around like a chicken with its head cut off" really means (yes, they really do run around for a little while with no head). We lived simply and I was so very happy.
There were days, when we lived in Tennessee, that I thought our lives were perfect. We got fresh sausage and bushels of apples from one of the neighbors in trade for some work. There was a huge oak tree outside my bedroom window and when the storms would come in I would watch the branches blowing around. She let me put my bed near the window after I told her I wanted the tree to watch over my dreams. She'd told me something like that and it stuck in my young head. She played with us. And when she was teaching us it still felt like playing. She once gave me a stack of fabric triangles and told me to use all of them and make a large square. After I figured it out, she threaded a needle and showed me how to make a quilt block that looked like a pinwheel. She showed us how to determine what animal had passed our little creek by the way the prints were shaped. She made a tipi out of sheets and ran out one afternoon to save it when a storm hit. She showed us how to make pressed flowers and leaves and then showed us how to make them into gifts for our family. She taught me to crochet and to repair my own clothes. She taught me the difference between iris roots and daffodil bulbs. She showed me how to milk a goat and not spill the milk. We would go for walks in the woods and she'd show us the shelf mushrooms on the trees and would explain how the faeries would sit there in the sunlight and moonlight when there weren't any humans around. She showed us how to find faery rings (where there are violets growing in a circle in the woods) and tell us how the faeries would dance in the middle. She also let me know that dreaming was something to cherish and laying out in the grass watching the world go by wasn't such a bad way to spend the afternoon. I learned to memorize poems and even put them to music if I wanted to. I learned that it is okay to go against authority if you believe in what you are making a stand for. She taught me that sometimes we have to back down even when we know that we are right and they are wrong, for the sake of safety and harmony. ~ All this happened while I was only eight years old.
I don't know what the financial situation was, but I really felt my mother was truly happy too. She played her guitar for us indoors and out. She helped us build a shelter out of branches that could withstand the winds and taught us how to make fires. She showed us animal tracks and taught us how to tell the differences between most of them. She laughed with us while we picked weeds in our garden. She let me help with the milking and gathering the eggs. She was barefoot most of the time and her clothes were soft and comfortable (I can remember peasant style tops and long skirts). She just seemed to be happy.
I can remember the beauty of the irises and daffodils in our front yard and the dogwood trees when we'd go for walks. The gentle way the mists would rise in the mornings and the amazing strength in the thunderstorms that came in so fast we barely had time to take the clothes off the line. I can see clearly the morning when we got to go outside on Mother's Day, before the sun was even up and see the new baby goat who had arrived some time in the night. I can actually still feel the huge oak tree on my back as I sat against it in the summer and read my books, or just daydreamed. If I listen hard enough I can hear our squeals of laughter as Maggie (the baby goat) ran around with us and stepped on our toes when she got close to us.
My dad-growing-up (R. McDowell) was going to leave us at one point. I think that was when she began to change and not be so happy. We moved to Arizona (not the first or the last time) shortly after that and she began wearing regular clothes with a bra and started smoking again and smiled less. Was it him? Did he ask her to stop being "hippy-fied" as he so often called her? Did he tell her she should stop being so free? That she should try harder to "fit in"? Did he tell her that was the only way he would stay with her? I wish I knew. I only know that she never felt comfortable around the McDowell family and they (mostly the women) always seemed to exclude her in anything they did. Sure, we were invited to things, but even as young as I was I felt we were separate.
I think of her choices differently now than I did when I was younger. She had fewer options than I do. True, we both had two children and we were both single moms, but she knew she would die because of cancer and would have no one to take her children. She also didn't have the same job options I've had. Not to say I've had a lot of skills in the workplace, but I grew up in a different era. She was "supposed to" grow up and get married, even with the revolutions going on at the time. I was raised to grow up and make a difference... even after we moved to Arizona the last time, even with her underlying anger and sadness she still pushed me to not rely on anyone for anything. Perhaps that was why she was so very disappointed when I married Bruce. I became a stay at home mom and didn't even think about working outside the home. I felt so much anger toward her at the time - how could she push me to be independent when she relied on my dad for everything and had so few friends of her own? What gave her the right to want me to be single and not have kids when she didn't live that way?
I think I know now. She wanted me to know, without a doubt, that I had the strength to do it on my own without having to rely so heavily on someone else. Without having to follow their rules. I do know that. I've taken care of my children in the years past with no financial help from anyone, not even child support (although that did start coming in a couple years ago). I do not doubt that I will have an alpaca ranch one day. I know I can do it. I wonder if she ever thought of my dad, or any man, as her partner. Someone she could work with to build the dreams she had.
I believe with all my heart that she has been watching over me. My own daughter has seen her even though my mother died nearly three years before Brianna was born. I believe she protected me during my car accident and I believe she still nudges me when I am not thinking clearly.
There are days I truly miss her and wish she were here so I could share some part of my life with her.
Here is a letter I wrote to her some time ago:
The day's essence drifts through the memories in my mind, blowing the dust from thoughts I haven't touched in countless ages. Where are you now? • I miss you sometimes. My children will never know your magick. Are there gnomes where you are? Do the fairies still dance in the sacred moonlight? • I do try to give them a part of what you gave to me through the years: Strength, Wisdom, Courage. Can you see us now? Do you watch over us? I remember how you showed me what to do if I ever got lost in the woods. • I am lost now.
What compass do I use to find my way? What stars should I look to for guidance? How do I find my way now? Mom, are you there?
I grew up knowing my maternal grandmother. She was a petite, bustling woman who always seemed pulled together. Even when she was wearing denim and a t-shirt, she was more elegant than any other woman I know. I can't remember a moment when she sat doing nothing at all. Her voice was soft and sweet, and I don't remember a harsh word coming from her. She was very creative, too. Ceramics, crochet, sewing, quilting, painting, floral arranging... I'm sure there are more, but I can't think of them right now. I now only have a few of her quilts and nothing more. This makes me more sad than I realized. One of the quilts will need to be restored. It's being passed to my son since it was made the year he was born.
We spent holidays in Payson with my grandparents and I always liked the way their house smelled. Not the cloying rose-scent that another grandmother's house always had, but a fresh blend of pine and sage and lavender. The houses that I remember weren't overly cluttered, either. There were various trinkets from their life together; animals carved from Mt. St. Helen's ash, jade carvings, Grandpa's trophies, Grandma's paintings. All of these things were precious and never seemed like they were just "stuff".
I miss her. I know that she's no longer suffering and missing her daughter and husband, who both went before her. I know that she's not lonely anymore. But, I miss her.
I also remember visiting my great-grandmother once. Her name was Katie Rose. I think I was only 5 or so when we visited her and I remember that her house seemed dark. Dark wood furniture, dark wood trim around her house, velvet curtains over the windows. She was small and seemed so old to me then even though she was probably only 71 or so. I don't know when she died, but then, I couldn't tell you the year anyone died (I have to do the math when I think of when my mom died... Anthony was 3 years old.) I just don't remember those things.
Oh! I cannot believe this thought never occurred to me before this moment. My mother, grandmother, great-grandmother... all are gone. That is such a weird feeling. Not a comfortable one at that.