Japanese aesthetics values marks of wear by the use of an object. This can be seen as a rationale for keeping an object around even after it has broken and as a justification of kintsugi itself, highlighting the cracks and repairs as simply an event in the life of an object rather than allowing its service to end at the time of its damage or breakage.
I recognize that some mothers, were they of another species, might eat their young.
Last weekend I hosted a friend whom I’ve known since I was ten. We were not friends in those years, nor the years that followed as our lives crisscrossed throughout high school. I had not seen or heard about her in the ensuing decades until a random comment she made on a mutual friend’s Facebook post mentioned Spokane, which began a series of PMs where we discovered the many parallel paths we had wandered, including both of us migrating from California to the inland northwest. Through the recent years, that comment began to turn us from wayward classmates into friends.
Last fall, for the first time in the six or seven years our friendship has blossomed via social media, I drove to Spokane to begin a real-life friendship. I invited her to spend last weekend to continue getting to know one another. Here we are, two people with myriad shared experiences and acquaintances, but no actual personal history. She spoke at length about her mother and their complicated relationship.
Her mother was our Brownie leader until she suddenly quit, her assistant leader following suit. When no one else would take over the troop, my mother stepped up to the plate (as I would do for Kate’s troop in a similar circumstance decades later). My friend’s mother withdrew her and her sister, apparently because she disliked and disapproved of my mother.
We wove many tales of how our respective mothers thwarted our childhoods. And, indeed, my mother was often less than supportive, particularly at any mention of turning my creative talent (artist, actor, singer, writer) into a livelihood, even discouraging my goal of college as I entered high school, and the contempt she held when I finally started college at 30.
As we talked throughout the weekend, truly unraveling our histories, I learned how stark and lonely her childhood was amidst people without soul. I was also reminded that my mother, for all of her sins, also had many redeeming qualities. Over the past five years, my unresolved anger toward my mom has surfaced, often quashing the softer memories. But as every one of my friend’s stories ended with her mother as villain, I realized that I require a more varied palette to paint a realistic portrait of Mom.
For the record: my mother was a spectacular Girl Scout leader—which was completely out of character and quite startling as she had never exhibited any previous behavior that indicated the strategic maneuvers and aplomb she would employ as we mastered everything from hand-sewing “dunk” bags for our mess-kits, to building campfires, to learning how to strategically place rocks as markers for our rescuers should we get lost in the woods. Juliette Low would have been proud (as was I).
Conversely, when she became leader of my sister’s troop ten years later, she would show up in the velvet hot pants, knee-high boots and ribbed t-shirt that was the uniform at the downtown L.A. restaurant where she worked the lunch shift. Serving as her assistant leader, I begged her to go home and change first. At the least, before I would allow her to enter the classroom where we held our weekly meetings, I would make her remove the gold-chain threaded through the belt loops. It had a small medallion of Snoopy sleeping atop his doghouse with the words, “Aw…f@*k it” (spelled out), hanging off the end of the chain. The fact that my mother did not comprehend how inappropriate this was on her own tells the other side of my mother.
In fourth grade, Miss Collins tasked my friend and I with creating a marine life mural together that was entered into the L.A. County fair. We won third place. It was only during our initial Facebook “conversations” that we learned that neither of our mothers deemed it worthy enough to warrant an hour-long trek to Pomona, the site of the annual L.A. County fair, to see our masterpiece on display. Neither of us have any record of that mural, nor photos of us standing proudly aside our ribbon (I am assuming there was one). In the ensuing years, we would discover a lot of similarities to our childhoods and the dismissiveness our mothers felt toward daughters they barely understood.
My mother was light and shadow: at once selfish and self-centered, and then tender and caring. Within one human being, I learned the whole of the human condition—it’s generosity, pettiness, hilarity, vengeance, optimism, cynicism. I saw her painstakingly build tender spirits and then crush them with a few pointed words stabbed into the jugular, sometimes twisting it to ensure the most pain and bloodshed. I watched her nurture deep friendships and then sleep with their husbands or boyfriends, leaving dead marriages and betrayed friends flailing in her wake.
Mom was not easy, but she was certainly interesting. I believe my tolerance and compassion for the spectrum of human behavior is attributable to the inconsistencies and intrigues of my beautiful and broken mother who loved me and my sister with a ferocity that could elevate or bury depending on the day.
I did not blindly love and adore my mother as the abused often do of their perpetrators. I loved and adored her because she was forged of two people, twisted together like some gnarled tree along a craggy coastline, withstanding tides and winds, but still standing against all that life and nature has thrown at it. I always recognized her beauty, even though I was terrified of the furies.
I am grateful, on this Mother’s Day, that I have been reminded of my mother’s softer side and have undergone a softening of my own toward her memory. I am reminded of the many confidences we shared, of her wicked-smart humor, of her sentimentality and affection, of her stoic ability to survive drug and alcohol abuse, heartbreak, bad behavior and her own childhood neglect. Through loving this complex woman, she broadened my understanding of human nature, of its many contradictions and inequities.
Motherhood can be noble, or ignoble, or a little bit of both. We are not less because of our brokenness, we are somehow more. Like a piece of broken pottery made whole by the Japanese art of kintsugi, we can be patched together with gold—made stronger, more beautiful—perhaps better able to contain love and extend grace because of our frailty.
My wild broken mother also made me a better mother to my beloved child, as I mothered with intention, raising my beautiful girl on a firmer foundation, filled with support and gentleness. Alas, I too am made of light and shadow, broken shards. I know that I have failed Kate in numerous ways. I hope she is as understanding and forgiving of me as I am toward my mother. I hope she sees me as something more beautiful because of the flecks of gold piecing me together, making me stronger—just like my mother before me—and my grandmother before her.
Thank you, Mom, for loving me and making me want to be better and do better (I miss you so much). And thank you, Kate, for doing the same (I miss you so much too).
Happy Mother’s Day to all of the beautiful, fragile women veined with gold.
A song for today: In My Daughter’s Eyes | Martina McBride
P.S. I am now 65; the sky did not fall; there is no painting in the attic deteriorating as I write. As with everything, life goes on.