Jul 10, 2020
A number of books on my shelves were from my mother who died many years ago. I pick them up now and then when I want to read something different, much different from our lives today. On the inside cover of the last two books I found “3/2003” written in my mother’s arthritic handwriting, two months before she died. Needless to say, I read them with changed eyes.
The last I read, Obscure Destinies, a collection of three Willa Cather stories, had an additional note, “A GOOD farm story.”
My mother was born and raised in tiny Weiser, Idaho, and while she lived in a stately brick home her founding father built she lived closer to the land than some. The dirt cellar shelves were lined with pickled pretty much anything and the barn at the rear of the property housed Bessie the cow and countless chickens destined for my grandmother’s Sunday pot. Her father raised sheep and dabbled in a number of other entrepreneurial ventures. From college she went directly into marriage and lived out her life in metropolitan centers.
One story titled Old Mrs. Harris centered around an old woman who though bent and aged continued to serve her daughter and grandchildren unflaggingly despite her pain and exhaustion. Near the end my mother’s shaky pen underscored several lines describing how children will never know how much we mothers do for them until they’re old themselves and we’re long dust. Oof, the blow of guilt from the grave! I re-read the passage several times. Yup, that’s what it said.
As I painted these young boys I couldn’t help but think that although so much has changed since my mother was a little one braving leaches in the nearby irrigation ditch, some things haven’t. Kids still love exploring shallows with sticks, or really, anything involving sticks. How 100 years ago my then five-year-old mother was exploring her physical world in little old Weiser, how I did the same in California in the 50s, how my grandchildren did so last night here in Massachusetts.
And as I reflect on those words, so cruely discovered long past any hope for redemption I realized that just as children with sticks will risk squishy things underfoot to discover their unseen world, we adults do the same. Because what Cather, through Mrs. Harris, was saying was that we can’t know, we will never know, because it is something to be lived in order to be learned. Maybe it’s self-justification. Or maybe it’s an opportunity for me, even at this late date, to hold up a mirror to myself and know the pains and privations my mother, anyone’s mother endures, understanding that it will never be known. And maybe that’s just the way it’s supposed to be.
Painting: Mirror Lake © 2020