There is snow on the ground now. Autumn faded weeks ago. The last hike I took during the height of blazing color, I marveled at the colors and shapes of the leaves above me, leaves falling gently around me, leaves carpeting the trail under my feet. I bent and picked up a sugar maple. smiling at the golden color, still tinged with green at the tip. I picked up Japanese maple leaves, tiny, pointed and fiery red. There was yellow- green oak, maroon birch, until I finally had a handful of carefully stacked leaves. I cried silently as I walked to my car. I could still hear my mother’s voice, a hundred years ago it seems now, when I gave her one of my drawings for mother’s day.
“Oh, I love trees!” she had said. The drawing was a detailed study of three maple trees against some rocks. “I love anything with trees in it,” she said, looking at the drawing and smiling as genuinely as I had ever seen her smile.
I said, “You want some with color? Mama, I can draw any kind of trees you want.” I was suddenly sorry that I had not brought her something magnificent, an oil painting, something other than a pencil drawing.
“Oh, yes! I love fall leaves. Paint me something with trees in the fall! All those colors! I always wanted to go to the mountains in the fall and see those colors, trees as far as you can see, in orange and red and …well, you’re the artist, paint me something like that!”
My mother had never been to the mountains in the fall to see the leaves. We lived in a small North Carolina town; she had been raised less than 12 miles away. She had been to Aiken, SC, the coast (once or twice) and the small towns in between to visit relatives. That was the only reason anyone traveled, to visit relatives. You moved if you had to find work and you traveled to visit relatives. That was the world my mother was raised in.
She had seen pictures of the mountains in fall. I did paint a picture of fall trees at a lake, with the trees mirrored in the water. She gasped and hugged me and hung the picture near where she spent most of her last days, in a chair surrounded by reading material.
Now, as I gathered leaves, I remember how much she had loved them. I had been gathering leaves every fall since her death without really knowing why I had this compulsion. I had gathered leaves and made placemats, bookmarks, mounted them in small picture frames, pressed them in books to be useful later.
I thought about her as I stood there holding leaves of brilliant red, gold, green-bronze, and purple…and I remembered her saying once, “Oh, I don’t know what tree it is, but the leaves turn red-gold in the fall.” I laughed because I knew the same thing. I couldn’t remember the names of certain trees, but I knew how they looked in the fall.
Suddenly, I realized my mother had shown me a way into art. She had shown me how to love something I couldn’t name. I didn’t have to have a reason to make art; I just had to do it. The pictures didn’t have to mean anything; they just had to be worth looking at. They should be something you wanted near you.
I love the shape of trees, in all seasons, and I find myself looking for them everywhere I go. They are trimmed, trained, and pushed into line in the city, carefully placed in proximity to houses in the suburbs, planted in neat rows along the interstate…but in the mountains they are wild and messy and completely free. Aflame in the fall, boldly naked in winter, tender during spring and welcoming in the summer. They hold out their leafy branches like arms and whisper with the wind while I’m hiking. Birds live in them, calling to each other and me, when I’m there.
They live out loud here and my mother lives in them. I felt that realization like a hard thump on my back. She loved something she couldn’t even get to. She had been raised in the fields, a tenant farmer’s daughter. There were trees nearby, wild, scrubby pines, and dogwoods near the streams. She had probably always felt trees were a safe and welcoming symbol for a time gone forever. I had never realized that about her until she, too, was gone forever.
She was more complicated than I knew. She wasn’t a good mother; this isn’t an attempt to paint my mother into someone I think other people will like. She failed us, as a mother, and there is no way around that. She failed her children but not because she was selfish, an addict, or any of the most popular reasons for failing your children. She failed because she didn’t know what to do and the few things she tried didn’t work. I have lived long enough, and failed enough, that I am beginning to understand.
She was only 17 when she married my father, who took her away from the little she knew. That’s what abusive people do, they isolate their captives. I understand now that she was no older, emotionally, than her own children. She loved us when she was rocking us, breastfeeding us, changing our diapers, etc. But when Daddy walked into the room-or staggered-she knew only terror and as we grew older, she simply watched in frozen horror when he decided to whip us, bellow and terrorize us, etc. She did what most abused people do; she tried to make us understand that WE had to keep from making Daddy mad. I understood pretty early that it didn’t matter what the hell you did or didn’t do, when the demons got into him and you fell into his line of sight-you were a goner. Hell, we made jokes about it.
For years, I hated her, felt sadness for her, regretted her. Now I’m seeing that she gave me more than I realized. She helped me see with an artist’s eyes. She helped me learn to love the natural world, helped me appreciate it; see that there is a universe out there that has nothing to do with me and everything to do with me. She helped me see that everything is connected.
I finally realize she was a human being-complicated as human beings are. She wasn’t one thing. She was brilliant about many things and sadly child-like in other ways. She loved me as only she could and I held that against her. If she could have gone to the mountains in the fall, she would have. She couldn’t, but I could and now I live here. This is the first place I have found true meaning in my life, and I thank my mother for leading me here.
I read this a while ago, at least I think I did, Katie. In any case, whether I did or not, it still strikes me in the gut and heart. It is a beautiful essay about your mother, but so much more.
There is a delicate sensitivity to your words, thoughts, and how much good you are able to distill out of so much sadness in childhood. That is part of the fortitude and innate creativity your mother left in you.
A deep and beautiful memory-essay.
Thank you, Jane. You read the first draft of this in an email from me. I was still working through what I had realized that day. The more I thought about it, the more I realized how much my mother did for me and I have been able to let go regretting all the things she didn’t do, as I say in the piece. I guess it is forgiveness without dismissing the reality of the pain. Understanding that we all fail ourselves and each other sometimes, we are all complicated. In TV, in movies, everything is so easy, so simple. In real life, we have to learn to accept that “it is what it is” and go from there. In my darkest moments, that’s what calms me down. Acceptance, then moving on.
Thank you. I’ve struggled with defining for myself how I felt failed by my mother for such a long time. Like you I have been able to define the ways she did not fail me, and have only been dissatisfied with defining her failure in terms of not preventing abuse. I had an epiphany tonight in reading these words: “She failed because she didn’t know what to do and the few things she tried didn’t work.”
10 years ago, I began losing everything-my relationship failed (spectacularly-he went on a cross country trip with another woman and couldn’t understand why I was upset since he came home to me…) my mental balance, my job, my house….but I started talking to my mother, really communicating for the first time ever. She was very sick. I knew she wouldn’t live forever and I thought, well, I’m a failure at everything else, at least I can be nice to my mother. She wanted me to write, so I started writing for her. It helped me get to know her as a person and the anger just dissolved. There was also no real pity-just understanding. I was in the middle of my life’s biggest mess and I couldn’t figure out how it had happened. I’d done all the right things and still, I stood on a ledge with no handholds. I suddenly understood that my mother had stood on a similar ledge with crying babies all around. My heart went out to her in a way that I never would have understood before. I guess it takes being in a place here you can see and hear with their eyes and ears before you undestand. I am just so very glad that I got it before she died. My hope in writing this is that someone else, maybe you, will take the opportunity to listen, really listen.
Thank you for reading.
Hey, Aunt Kathy. This is a beautiful piece. It is one of my favorites, alongside the bus one, for different reasons, now that I have gotten to read all of your writing on your blog. That makes me happy that I have been able to do it. I have just been so busy lately. I’ve been trying to get in touch with you, but it was mainly to tell yout that I did finally get around to reading all of your works…they are all great. Some of them are great in their own rite, others, also, but in addition to that, because they strike a personal cord.
This one struck a cord as well with me, because of the part about your mother failing you. As you know, it would be insane to categorize the relationship I have with my mother (the one that adopted me, not the one who birthed me) as ‘perfect’. I know this isn’t anything that anyone puts on me besides myself, but sometimes I feel a pressure to have the family that adopted me be ‘perfect’ or for me to view them as ‘perfect’, because it almost otherwise makes it not mean anything (the adoption, life, etc.). I know I have very little to complain compared to what you have been through in your life, and by comparison, it probably could be described as ‘perfect’, but to me, far from it. (and I know I have it better than a lot of other people, also…but still…)
There are lot of people who would argue with me on this point. To a lot of people, she is the ‘perfect’ mother, she has been the ‘perfect’ mother. On paper, certainly, she has definitely been perfect.
And to be sure, she provided for my needs…my physical needs. And that is really what I needed…really needed…and expected.
But I accepted long ago that that would have to do. And that, emotionally, I would have to raise myself. And I have done my best.
My mother adopted us because she didn’t think she could have children. Period. She’ll be the first to admit that one, at least. Then, she had children. And when she had children, she emotionally abandoned the ones that she had adopted. Emotionally, my sister and I were left out in the cold to fend for ourselves. My sister did the best she could in helping me along the way, but she was growing and developing too, herself. She was not equipped to be a ‘mother’ to anyone (at least not at that point). I was rebellious, and was trying not to depend on her…trying to raise myself emotionally to some extent. That’s kind of hard to do when you don’t really have a grasp on your emotions, and you’re still trying to develop them.
To this day I struggle. All of this is why being a mother is so important to me, and why I want to do the best job I can at it, and try to minimize my mistakes. I know I will make them, but I hope I can learn from them, and I hope I don’t make any of the ones that damage my child. Don’t get me wrong…I think it is awesome when people can realize that they don’t want children or aren’t in the right place for them and DON’T HAVE THEM. I didn’t make a point of becoming a mother, but it just so happens that this little being needs me, and I can not turn my back on her.
A lot of people are critical of some of the decisions I have made about Will. But everything I have ever done…all of the decisions I have ever made (since becoming a mother), have been made in her best interest. The reason I left is because we were fighting so much…and I don’t want her growing up in World War 3. At one point, we got to fighting, and he was throwing coat hangers…and she was near. I was afraid she would get struck by one of the coat hangers. I refuse to keep my daughter in a situation where I feel it could become abusive, or where the parents are constantly fighting all the time.
Part of the reason I wrote about adoption earlier is because I wanted to come back to it. To me, a child isn’t your child by birth. There ARE adoptive parents who take on the responsibility of a child, whether they have ‘their own children’ or not, they continue to nurture, raise, and grow that child into adulthood and beyond…physically, emotionally, and in every other way. You don’t become a mother by giving birth to a child. You aren’t a mother because you have sickly-good feelings about some child who is in your life. You become a mother by BEING a mother…by making every decision the right decision for your child. By knowing when to walk away from certain situations for the good of your child. By loving and being there for your child when they need you (not necessarily every time…nobody’s perfect, but enough so that the child knows you are there and will be there for them). I could go on, but I think I made my point and that my post is long enough. Some people just miss the point completely about being a mother and what it is all about. There are mothers out there who have NEVER birthed a child…and there are mothers who are mothers for a time, but not necessarily all the time. There are mothers who are mothers to animals, even, and there are mothers who have no actual ‘children’, but who are nurturing to their community, and are mothers to all of their neices and nephews, and cousins, and so on. To me, being a mother is such a special thing. And in my opinion, not everybody can do it.