If my mother's story were a myth or a fairy tale, it would be a hybrid of the hero's saga of triumph over evil and a cautionary tale foretelling the social shift that would improve women's rights. If you had known her story without knowing the woman, you would have assumed she was doomed. But she was a complicated, courageous person, who both proved and refuted that assumption, and I imagine few who knew her would have guessed her thorny tale.
My mother was a highly capable individual who met with too many of the bad things that can happen to a woman. She intimated family abuse throughout her life, but never revealed until a few weeks before her death of Creutzfeld Jacob Disease at fifty-nine that she had been assaulted by her mother's second husband. She graduated at the top of her high-school class and won a scholarship to a local college, but lost her hard-won higher education to unplanned pregnancy. She married the love of her life and had four daughters, but eventually she became a raisin in the sun, frustrated in her aspirations, and a violent parent herself. After thirty-two years, her marriage to my father ended in divorce.
My mother was unusually forward-thinking for a woman of her background, and despite her struggle with violence, she had a strong ethical core...which brought her into conflict with the Catholic faith in which she was raised. The contradictions of Catholicism with her own experience, and her basic need for self-determination and self-respect, caused her to leave it behind -- and to provide us with alternative views, including a passion for classic mythology. She was determined that her children would not be prescribed by pregnancy and religious hypocrisy, as she had, to working poverty.
She was a force of will, working full-time and managing our home while my father worked two and three jobs himself for most of my childhood. In response to her own upbringing, her first priority was to provide us with a safe, stable home. In each of her jobs, my mother was the "sharp gal" who trained the man who then became her boss, making a respectable living while she continued to take home subsistence pay. She did not quietly accept these inequities, but job options were limited and EEO didn't exist, so she bore them. My mother was determineded that her daughters would have the opportunities she herself had foregone; and yet our greatest ally was the person we feared most. Her rage at the world was often directed at us, and we lived in terror of her, even as we could not help but to be infected by her passion for learning, the facility of her intelligence and the clarity of her social insights. The conundrum of my ethical, violent, strangely insightful and sympathetic mother was a touchstone for my sisters and me throughout our adulthood.
At fifty, on the heels of her divorce, my mother moved to California. I was already enrolled at the American Conservatory Theatre, and was frankly not happy to have her near. But in those years, we finally rolled up our sleeves and got down to the difficult business of creating a relationship based on something other than violence and defensiveness. It was hard and unpleasant work over the first few years, but it eventually became the thing of which I am most proud in my adult life. My mother put herself back in college, she began to travel as she had always wanted (China, Egypt, Europe, Alaska, Hawaii, the continental US), and she advanced professionally with ease. As she began to accomplish her goals, her ambivalence about motherhood receded and she allowed herself to be a proud mother, more accepting of her own fallibility.
For the first time she earned not only my empathy, but also my love and respect. As inconceivable as it had always been to me, I developed a good relationship with my mother, from which I took real pleasure and comfort.
A year before she died, in an incident at a family gathering, my mother erupted again in an act of violence. I was the recipient. It was a loss of control almost certainly brought on by the Creutzfeld Jacob Disease effecting her brain and behavior, but we didn't know that then.
The trauma and betrayal of that incident took me apart. My sisters and I had been complicit in keeping virtually silent about my mother's violence up to that point. With the secret out -- I chose to let it out -- old wounds were opened and my family was thrust into an explosive confrontation with the residue of violence in all of our lives. My sisters and I had even hidden the extent of my mother's abusiveness from my father. It was a divisive, sorrow-filled year. Then in March of 1998 my mother was diagnosed with CJD, and six weeks later she was dead.
I tell this story for three reasons. First, the devastation of my mother's final act of violence had the unexpected effect of matching me with the art that is my truest fit. The sorrow of her disease and its impact on our relationship is something I will probably explore in painting for the rest of my life.
When I was growing up in a Montana not far from its pioneer days, I often heard the phrase "necessity is the mother of invention." As my mother became less the laughing, bold woman of my earliest childhood and more difficult to live with, I turned to school choir and dance and journalism for safety and the satisfaction of accomplishment. I used to transform that pioneer phrase into "mother is the necessity of invention." She was. That turned out not to be a bad thing. I tell this story, secondly, because I want to affirm that art saves lives. It has saved mine over and over again.
That is not to minimize my blessings -- I dip often into the well of humor and humanity my father gave me, which taught me that no matter how painful the story, a life must be constructed of something larger than pain. And though there is no reason to seek it, trauma can force you to call forth the web of support among friends, family and colleagues that would otherwise never have been identified or fully valued.
But finally, my mother's story in and of itself is moving and representative. Her tragedies are heartbreaking, but her triumphs are all the more significant for what she was up against. I resolved not to keep her experiences, or mine with her, secret any more. Secret-keeping confined my mother to a solitary struggle with the violence done to her. To speak might possibly have brought her some support or at least some understanding.
My mother's life -- all of it -- has made me look hard at the choice between bitterness and forgiveness. Her example, positive and negative, was a powerful one. She was an unyielding champion for what my sisters and I could be, and she taught us not to settle for the way things were if they were unacceptable, but to fight for change. My mother did not always fight successfully, and she carried -- and dished out -- a lot of battle scars…like anyone who confronts comfortable injustices. She was too much alone in her struggles. But in her prev years, she derived a well-deserved satisfaction from her efforts. I believe she would have continued to thrive had she lived longer. Her example taught me that pursuing my best was an obligation, first and foremost to myself.
Even the prev, merciless twist of fate that took away her self-control and her hard-won progress makes me want to honor her and the complexity of her story. Anything less would be an insult to a brave, flawed, extraordinary woman. To hide it would dishonor both our efforts.