In the center of our parking lot at Meadowbrook Apartments stands a lone pine tree. It must have endured some kind of trauma in its young life, that chopped out or stunted the center top. Its Y shape branches salute me every morning and every evening, as I come and go from our temporary home here. The tree feels to me like a sentinel or a messenger. It isn’t an old tree. But it has seen a few things, already, and hasn’t let hard luck of being planted in tiny strip of grass in an acre of macadam crush its spirit. An old spirit in a young body. “Chill out lady. And smile, ok?”
My temporary home is his permanent one. The apartment complex, like Casablanca in the famous movie, is a place people come hoping to get somewhere else. People from all over the world are perched here, various languages spoken. Moving trucks come and go frequently. And some also call it home.
Like the pine.
Everyone wants peace. How do we find it? Where do we find it? Today in the parking lot, outside unit 503.
The boxes not in storage are mostly unpacked now. We are installed at Meadowbrook Apartments, on the second floor, waiting not-too-patiently for our new home to be renovated. It’s a nice apartment, looking out into a huge oak. Although ours is located next to the hospital it’s quiet. I haven’t seen a meadow or brook, but the West Trenton line runs though the woods beside our parking lot; the train thunders cheerfully by now and then. The whole complex is full of old trees, consequently squirrels. Also a clowder (a glaring?) of well-fed stray cats. The cats, and the old lady who feeds them, remind me of Berith, a force to be reckoned with, who loved her cats and dogs.
Berith C. Acton was my mom-in-law. She died suddenly, just as we entered the enormous effort of packing our house. I have hardly Had time to think about it. But when I see the prowling kitties, or when Owen wears his bright orange SunCoast tshirt, it aches to be reminded of the empty chair and puzzle table in Treasure Island Florida, just a block from Sunset Beach. Mom did not approve of our move. She let us know that it was “very sad” that we were leaving our home in Maryland, which she had visited so many times, to help after babies came, to witness Halloween, to help us get our tree and bake cookies for Christmas.
One of the early statements Mom made to me was regarding living on a barrier reef island – “terrible for the environment. No one should live on a barrier reef island.” But she did, and loved being so close to the Gulf. She loved living with her sister Gwenda, her travel partner all over the world, who also drove her nuts. She was always complaining about Gwenda. And I am cetain Berith drove Aunt Gwenda just as nuts. Mom loved classical music, Gwenda didn’t care for it. Mom disliked air conditioning, Gwenda liked it. Mom loved sci-fi (Star Wars!! StarTrek!!! even Buffy the Vampire Slayer), while Gwenda enjoyed romance novels. Mom loved cats, but didn’t have one for years because Gwenda hated them. Of course all my information comes from one point of view. When Mom took over the downstairs apartment, each sister had her own floor of the tiny beach house. Then cats could enter the equation.
Berith Acton passed from one life into the next life at noon on June 17th, with her boys all standing near. Even if it had been possible for me to be present, it would not have been appropriate to enter that sacred intimate family space. I would not have wanted to invade Edward’s and his brothers’ time with her, but I wouldn’t have minded a moment of my own. All summer, in the spaces between packing up our house, I have been trying to process the hole that Berith leaves behind, in my life, and in our family’s. Part of that story is also the story of the loss of my own mother, so many years before.
Under very different circumstances than Berith’s my own mom, Marianne Nicholson Gladish, died just before Christmas in1984, when I was twenty-one. It was sudden, the result of an aneurysm from her cancer drugs. She died as the medical staff tried desperately to save her life, no family members were with her. Afterwards my grieving dad dealt with the whole thing himself, on auto-pilot. I cannot imagine how hard that must have been for him. We had no opportunity to say farewell to her body, and it was not a time for cozy family remembrances of her. We desperately carried on all Marianne’s traditions, in an effort to keep some normalcy in our shorn lives. It is no exaggeration to say that the loss of my mom has affected my marriage, and the lives of all my children – for good as well as for bad.
One of the effects of that loss of my biological mother was that I needed Berith in a way that I would not have, otherwise. And over the years, I would find myself trying to plug Berith into that “Marianne void” with very poor results. My mom and my mom-in-law were very different women, with very different stories, and very different life experiences. The kind of open, warm affection that was natural to my mom (and dad) was foreign to my mom-in-law — I suspect that she never received it herself. Her family was more shy, and in Marianne’s family emotional wounds hung out there. My mom was the “golden child” in her family of origin, my mom-in-law seems to have been the “problem child” of the family — with a super-achiever older sister keeping her in line. Would Mariane have enjoyed knowing Berith? I think so; my mom had an excellent sense of humor, and wonderful social skills — something her daughter has struggled to learn.
The first time I spoke to my mother-in-law was by phone from University of Chicago, on pretext of finding a book, since she ran a book shop. Berith could sniff out a “pretext” a mile away, and did not care for polite chat. She was very uncomfortable talking to me, and edgy, and basically let me know she didn’t understand why the hell I was calling her to ask such a question. I was not prepared to be completely rebuffed. I wasn’t prepared any of the subsequent times it happened either.
By the time I met her, Mom-Berith had a long colorful history expressing herself boldly, loudly, and heartlessly, in defiance of the niceties of social life. Everyone in the entire extended family including Edward’s dad seemed to have stories of outrageous or hurtful things she had said, at one time or another. But then the whole family Is a loud, boistrous group, protective of each other and connected, but much more comfortable drinking together than talking about emotional wounds or repairing them. Not a good place for bleeding hearts. Or, is it?
But my mom-by-marriage doted on her cats. Mom told her cats all the crazy, affectionate, and silly things, in a loving voice, that she couldn’t say to her loved humans. (She is known in Treasure Island for yodeling at the top of her lungs to call the kitty home for bed.) To her human children she sent her love by mail — packages for every holiday, cards with money in them for every birthday of every son, daughter-in-law and grandchild. Elaborately wrapped gifts arrived at Christmas with lots of handmade bows, and later hefty checks when shopping became too much. She loved her family, yet she could not express her love for her family. The first time she echoed my “love you!” at the end of our family phone call Edward said that was the first time he had ever heard her say those words. Did I mean it? Did she?
Each Decemeber for many years Mom came to stay with us to bake her famous Christmas cookies. I would take her shopping, and let her take over my kitchen, mixing, rolling, baking, then wrapping each one, and packaging them in boxes to ship out to the family recipients. It is challenging, letting another woman take over your kitchen, and every year it started smooth then got uncomfortable, as I inevitably chatted too much and about topics that made her uncomfortable, and she prickled and took contrary views apparently just to pick a fight.
Looking back it reads like theater: Right at the time of year when my psyche was preparing for the anniversary of this blow the loss of my own mother, into my life I invite a woman who is famously undemonstrative and difficult. Usually Berith would not have wasted time on someone of my personality, nor I on her. We were complete mis-matches. And how much more so at Christmas time, season of family and pain, fullness of heart and emptiness, of loving and loneliness. She and I floundered and frustrated each other, year after year. Certainly she wanted to know her grandchildren and connect with Edward, even if she was not able to tell them the things she really wanted them to know. Instead she rolled cookies with them, argued about politics, drank her gin on the rocks, and watched the news.
The dark humor here could have been the end of the story. But looking back, I see that it is not. In her last years, loneliness softened her, and Mom-Berith expressed care for me, possibly to enjoy my company, or at least trust that I cared for her and was not a faker. And I learned to be better at loving safely, creating the required boundaries, and not to pour my heart out.
I remember how hard my own mother tried to teach me these social skills, with little success. I took my psychic wounds seriously; I bled. Mom-Marianne tried to teach me teen social skills, too: how to talk to my peers, how to stand, to appear nonchalant…she was very gifted at putting things into words. But I didn’t get it. Poor Marianne! She worried about me (which of course was no help). Later my wonderful husband showed me how, by loving me and being a fantastic example of social ease. But Mom-Berith showed me in her own way, brutally, but not brutal on purpose but because that is just the way she had always functioned. Reflecting on this makes me laugh out loud, as I am typing it. How we confused each other!
And, I loved her. I feel protective of her. Edward came back from Florida saying “My mother had a hard life.” I believe that she had no tools to say what was in her heart, and so she grew a thorny, hilarious, dramatic, prickly shell over her tender side to protect it. I long to hold the little girl she was, to tell her all the things that were special about her. That is my way. But I expect that little girl might have stamped on my toe and told me to cut it out. That was her way.
What makes us who we are? Nature? or Nurture? You have enriched my life, Mom. I am amused, and improved, and in the end warmed by knowing you. I am sure you are giving them fits in heaven. XO
i am moving to bryn athyn pennsylvannia this summer. i feel happy to go. but it is also very stressful packing up uoilli everything. i hope it is over soon.
i think that the new house would be perfect for my parents because it is smaller. it is not home but it is lightt inside and very good for having people over for parties.
i hoped we could move in soon but not everything about this house is perfect for us. we will be living in temporary housing until it is ready for us. it will just be harrrrd not to have finished the house beffore we go from maryland.
i am going because i need a better life and friends. that is the thing to remember.
Owen and I are each working on posts for the blog, amidst the confusion of a crazy summer. But meantime, this just arrived in my inbox and I had to share it with you all. From the Peace of Heart Community blog, written by my dear friend Amy Groschell. Amy writes here on a topic that has been in my heart all summer, and I couldn’t have said it any better. With love, dear readers —
“Any dance of celebration must weave both the sorrows and the blessings into a joyful step…To heal is to let the Holy Spirit call me to dance, to believe again, even amid my pain, that God will orchestrate and guide my life.” Henri J.M. Nouwen
BLOG: Joy & Pain, the dance of life
I am convinced that behind every belief system lies either a private pain or a fear of pain and suffering. Today’s current climate couldn’t be more reflective of this. While it is true that a virus of little known magnitude is sweeping through our world, it is also true that many others have gone before it. What makes our response to this one so different? I would propose it is our ability to name it and, to some degree, avoid it unlike the life-altering diagnosis of autism or cancer as it seems our fear of infectious disease is exponentially greater than diseases of unknown etiology. The human mind has a great desire to know what it is dealing with it we can find a solution to it. In some ways, the ability to name it (via testing) has given it power. In addition to power, the ability to name it has provoked fear. Fear of catching it, fear of a loved one catching it, or fear of what will happen if one does catch it. Often, fear of the unknown is greater than the unknown’s reality. Somewhere in America we missed the memo that suffering is a part of this world. It’s part of the experience that makes us human. Those who have suffered the greatest often are those most compassionate to others around them experiencing hardship. As one who has had a fair share of suffering, I don’t mean to sound insensitive. At one point we will all undergo something very hard. Something that seems like it will overtake us. Some experience that sends us into deep waters. What will our response be? While we cannot control the response of others, we can control our own. Many who have traveled to 3rd world countries notice immediately the joy and happiness of those with much less. They don’t have shoes, insurance or access to immediate medical care or medications yet find joy in the smallest things. How can this be? I believe the answer is simple: they know joy and sorrow are intricately connected. They know them to be part of the same human experience. I lived an idyllic life as a child. Autism hit me as a young mother: twice. I became fearful of “what was next”. When the dreaded next thing happened, losing my husband and father at the same moment, I knew it was impossible to avoid suffering. I began to see life less as something I controlled and more as something I navigated. Essential to me was giving space for God to move. The more I tried to have control, the less space He had. The result under those conditions were always less than desirable. Reducing my expectations gave way for scenarios I could never have dreamed of.
The question remains, what is our response to suffering or the fear of it? Do we behave recklessly or in blatant disregard of others? No. We dig deep into our beliefs systems about our bodies, how our immune systems are designed to work and how we can support them, and we make other lifestyle changes that support our health. We seek medical attention if we do get sick. We reduce our exposure to media and social media. We check in on our family and neighbors and make sure we help meet any unmet needs they have. We do not stand as judge of the beliefs of others knowing they have a secret pain or fear that they alone must navigate. We recognize their journey as their own. We trust that God ultimately is in control of all things. We use strategies like prayer and meditation, and we follow experts who give us tools that bring us peace. “…In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33b)
Amy Groshell, Co-Founder, Peace of Heart Community
I love the cranky prophet, Jonah. He who, dragged back to the task assigned him by God, unappreciative of being saved from drowning (by a large fish), unsuccessfully calls the city Ninevah to repent its evil deeds, and then watches sour but hopeful to see Ninevah blasted for disobedience. But Poor Jonah! God forgives them. Some religious leader. He makes me laugh.
I think I laugh because I see myself there, all my plans and my agenda(s).
When I got the memo that a large portion of the rest of my life might be given over care of a person with significant special needs I was bitter. Like Jonah – hey! I didn’t ask to go to Ninevah! And it wasn’t just care of Owen that overwhelmed me. I ran away from my caring for children job in a hundred little ways.
A poem written at that time, most likely scrabbled down standing at the kitchen counter on my way to doing something else, expresses it —
Running to Kansas —-
in the garden patch
among the bees
Running away at the sewing machine
the washing machine
the committee meeting
Running to the novel in the bathroom – the music in choir–
Standing at the kitchen sink,
you are running away,
mother at home.
Standing now, to face the human need—
the hands that grab
the mouths that want
the eyes that want and weep,.
release the urge to find another world.
It will wait.
Creation like life never ends —
Be here, now.
Mother at home.
It has taken many of my 26 years with Owen to accept the job with grace. To learn how to physically care for another human without resentment or impatience — not to merely tolerate it, but to enjoy it. Of course I love my son, but the work of physically caring for another far past the usual cut off point is what I mean here. Side note: some of those unsteady moods I experienced (sadness, rage, despair) can be attributed to bipolar illness. I take medicine now to balance my mental states, and it is a gift.
Most recently in my mother journey, I understand my task is to support without intruding my agenda. EVEN if it is a very supportive, enthusiastic, loving agenda. Mom’s enthusiasm can be in the way. Last month Owen stopped being willing to communicate with me supporting him. I missed that connection sadly. But it wouldn’t work. After a few weeks he was able to spell an explanation: I CANT TYPE WITH YOU BECAUSE I FEEL YOUR GREAT HOPES FOR THINGS THAT COULD BE. Then he walked away. Later he explained more, in a conversation supported by his dad – I HAVE THEM [hopes] TOO. I JUST WANT TO DO IT MY WAY.
If you love someone, set them free.
How ironic to try to set someone free who depends on you for nearly every action in his life. Yet no person is more in need of that emotional freedom.
This Mother’s Day, I was treated wonderfully well by all my children, with calls and flowers, cards and gifts. One surprising gift was a song by Owen co-written with his teacher Brian Laidlaw.
It meant so much to receive this gift from you, Owen, to hear your words, to know that you feel this way, after all that we have been through together. You wrote those words, and in the same way that love produces more love, a never-ending stream or trickle (just when the pot seems empty sometimes), so artistic creation seems to breed more artistic creation – there is no end. So your entrée into the creation of your own artwork fuels mine – and where once I felt like I was drowning, I discover myself rescued and carried by a magical fish, to dry land.
i feel nervous about germs. this might seem funny to you since i ouilli have a struggle to not eat garbage. but i really am afraid of getting sick.
my mom says that i have an incredibly strong immune system because i eat garbage. she feels that that the germs make me stronger but i still feeeeel worried.
i need more evidence.
[UPDATE: This is a link — I hope — to a song that Owen recently co-wrote, with Brian Laidlaw, his new teacher – called the CoVid Blues]
[Owen uses supported communication. As he practices with his support people, he is gaining more and more control of his disobedient muscles, more and more independence at the keyboard. I compare the process to what a person recovering from a stroke might go through, recovering the connection between brain and body.. This piece is entirely his work, as he wants you to see it. — Wystan]
I am a poet and songwriter who has been communicating with a letter board or keyboard for about five years. I wrote this poem to express my longing to be free of limits. I hope others let loose and experience life in every gale or breeze. I find that writing is a good first step to becoming who you are.
March 28th, 2020
I would be very happy for you to share my poem. I am very glad you like it. I will check out your blog this weekend. I think it’s great that you and Owen have a joint project.
Please tell Owen not to despair. I also came to letter boards quite late. I still get angry when I make a mistake or can’t get my thoughts out as quickly as I’d like. My parents would like to see me type independently, but I freeze at the very idea. I don’t know why, but every new step is scary.
Owen might want to try sessions with Chris Martin for poetry writing. He got me started.
Eating Broccoli on the Moon, is available at unrestrictedinterest.com or Amazon.
Thirty-five years ago I studied at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, with a professor Roger Anliker. When I knew him, Anliker was a petite man with jet black hair combed back from a pale and lined face. He smoked in class. He seemed fragile, but highly intelligent and scary.
When I climb back onto that page of my history, I am standing in a large airy studio before a tilted drawing table, the rumble of an enormous ventilation system filling the air. My miserable and vague charcoal sketch of a nude male lies before me, sans genitalia. I am hoping no one has noticed. Maybe the tilted table hides my lack of skill and bravery. I am new at drawing from nude models, and dreading the professor’s approach. But Anliker stands beside me, a cigarette between his shakey fingers, and an enormous ash built up and dangling from its end. A few sheds of ash fall across the paper and he whisks them impatiently away.
Whatever he actually said about my attempt at drawing is lost to my memory – but if he had said something clever or critical I am sure I would have remembered it. (I can still hear Stanley Whitney cheerfully using my first painting in his class as the bad example, “Ah, now this is a piece of shit.”) What I do remember is a sense of patience…and humor. Anliker (my class called him Roger) was the kind of man whose razor wit terrified junior classmen — some students called him “God” — but under the apparent arrogance and critical tongue was a kind heart.
Everyone deals with chaos on the pages of their lives, one way or another. And certain things Roger Anliker taught about drawing have armed me for arenas I doubt he expected. Though it’s true, he did cast a pretty wide net. He had no trouble presenting himself as a deity.
When you are starting a picture, Roger said, always make three models. Don’t just go with your first idea, he said. Come up with three ideas and choose the best one. This stuck with me. Chicken coop additions, strategies for fundraising, ways to talk to difficult people have all benefited from this counsel. So of course have my paintings and screenplay scripts. Christmas plays. Garden designs. Puppy training. My children can tell you that “make three models” has been an idea impressed on them, too.
Create three examples. Draw three pictures. Think of three possibilities. And choose the best one.
Roger had more to say about models. Always have a model, he said. Don’t draw from memory, from your head. If you’re going to draw an alligator, and you don’t have an alligator, find something that looks remotely like an alligator and use that.
He also said, ” If Grumbacher [sketch paper company] knew how large your painting was meant to be, and sold you a piece of paper exactly the right size for your drawing, that would great. But they don’t. If you get to the edge of your paper and you aren’t finished, then grab another piece, and attach it and keep going! Don’t allow the size of the paper to determine what you are creating.”
Thirty-five years later, as I am standing in my kitchen, making the morning smoothies, I suddenly remember those famous words. I am trying to think how to deal creatively with my son’s anger and unhappiness with his lot in life. He is stuck. We are all frustrated and stuck. How do we go forward?
Imagine life outside the confines of the page you see. Ignore the edges. Make three models. Throw out the two that don’t work. And go.