Birthing creativity from loss: Three generations of women and their home

Kat Dean and I met almost 10 years ago, when we both called the idyllic village of Hastings on Hudson our home. To be fair the post industrial steel town has its fair share of problems and in the eyes of many has long since lost its idyllic crown but for us, the time we shared there was truly special. Long intellectual conversations, laughter and song surrounded us and our collection of friends. She and I had come to Hastings in search for ourselves, a mission we realized wouldn’t be completed in our time there. Filled to the brim with good memories we both left, perhaps not so coincidentally at the same time, to head in different directions both geographical and philosophical.

Some of my answers came wrapped in a now four year old girl. 

Some of Kat’s answers came in this house.

 

 

What I am sharing here is not a doctrine or series of exercises designed to increase creativity.  This is simply a narrative of my journey through the creative process, one that with the recent death of my mother I now comprehend in an entirely new light.   My sense is that my experience is not unique.  Our creativity seems inextricably linked to the generations that came before.  For women, our mothers and grandmothers may play a huge part in how we view our ability to create.

With my mother’s passing I now live in her home, the home my grandmother built in the early ‘70s and lived in for twenty-five years.  The home my mother lived in until six months ago.

This is their story and mine.

Creativity on my mother’s side of the family has taken many forms.  For starters, in my mother’s lineage the women ruled.  Always.  As far back as I’ve been able to document, the women on my mother’s side called the shots, were the primary earners, certainly saw to it that their children didn’t starve.

They were East Texas country folk. Anyone who knows, knows that this was a bleak existence, made even bleaker by the depression.  When you live on a farm there are no dainty dames.  Everyone tills the soil, wrings the necks of chicken and carries manure on the soles of their shoes.

Born in 1911, my grandmother was the oldest child of three and was born into pre-depression wealth.  Her great-grandmother came from the Scottish Calhoun clan of South Carolina and inherited a great deal of money on her parent’s death.   This inheritance was passed down to her daughter who then left her fortune to be divided between three sons, one of whom was my grandmother’s father.

One by one, each son squandered their fortunes.  The women in the family stood by and watched in desperation, having little power to stop them.  At least this is how the story is told by the women.  And the women in my family usually outlived the men.  So the women got to record the family history.

For my grandmother, knowing wealth until she was eight years old then having it snatched away, was humiliating.   Her family lived for a time in a house with a dirt floor, and even though it was the depression, those in poverty were scorned.  It was a humiliation she spent her entire life repairing.

She bought run-down properties, fixed them up herself, then rented or sold them at a small profit.  She did this working as a schoolteacher, and raising my mother.  Her marriage, as she told it, was emotionally brutal and profoundly disappointing.  But in those days there was no divorce.  Not even when my grandfather was placed in a mental institution, did my grandmother divorce him.

My mother, born in 1938, was the only child of a woman desperately fighting her way out of an impossible life.  And of course there were casualties.  And of course my mother was the primary one.

But this period also gave birth to my grandmother’s first notable creation.  She realized financial stability and independence in an era when it was nearly impossible for women to do so on their own.  It wasn’t until much later that my grandmother would be able to pursue what she really wanted.  To write books.  To tell the world about her life.

While my grandmother put her dreams on hold, she nurtured those of my mother who received all the elocution, singing and acting lessons her little body could withstand.  My mother discovered that performing, especially singing, brought her the much needed acceptance and love she was not getting from her parents.

But there was a catch.  With my grandmother you were allowed to excel, just not exceed her.  So though accolades came, I know my mother also paid a price for being what my grandmother would never be.

And certainly my mother’s relationship with her own mother was conflicted.  I witnessed emotional abuse that bordered on the physical, between them both.  My mother spent her entire life coming to terms with the confusion of being loved and rejected by the person we all hope will be our greatest champion.

The moment she was of age, my mother fled Texas to attend UC Berkeley where she fell in love with San Francisco and my father.  It was decades before she would return to Texas for any duration.  In Northern California she flourished like the plants that grew everywhere in our San Francisco home.

After my brothers and I left for college, my mother was finally able to live her life fully as an artist.  When I turned eighteen my mother auditioned for and was accepted into the San Francisco Opera and had a sixteen year career there.  I never knew her happier.  She had arrived.

My grandmother never saw my mother perform at the San Francisco Opera.  I have no memory of praise or congratulations being sent by her.  Though she made visits to San Francisco from time to time, my grandmother remained oddly mute about her own daughter’s success.   This could have been due to the strain between them.  I attribute it to jealousy.

My mother was with the SF Opera up until the point that my grandmother fell victim to Lou Gehrig’s disease—an affliction that slowly collapses speech and breath, yet leaves the mind mercilessly alert.  The winter my grandmother lost most of her ability to move, my mother came to Texas and cared for her in this house.  In the bedroom I now sleep in, she read to her mother, helped bathe her, stayed night and day with her.

On January 1, 1991 my grandmother passed away.  My mother resigned from the SF Opera, had her belongings packed and shipped to Texas and she stepped into my grandmother’s place.

A motel and other business my grandmother had tried to keep afloat during her illness were in need of care.  My mother did, over the next 17 years manage to turn them around.  She was perhaps trying also to change the karma of her young life here.  Show her mother that she could be as good a business woman as she had been.  And my mother did create a thriving, creative and successful business that surpassed what her mother had accomplished.  But she paid a price, I think.

She left behind her beloved San Francisco and the vibrant life she’d had there.  She achieved wealth in Texas, something she’d never known as an artist, but I could tell she was lonely.  She had her dogs, her employees and her money, and a house that she filled floor to ceiling with art, but she stopped playing music, she stopped hosting parties, she rarely socialized.   To this day I have very mixed feelings about her sacrifice.  But my mother was determined to do it, and on some level I may never fully understand, this probably was exactly where she needed to be.

And then there is me….

My mother told me that in 1961, the year I was to be born, she fell into a deep depression when told that her first child would be a girl.  She confessed to me that her relationship with her own mother had been so devastating, she was terrified that if she had a daughter our relationship would mirror theirs.  She was letting me know that even if it wasn’t always obvious, she loved me.  She was simply afraid to have a daughter.

Like her mother before her, my mom made sure I had every acting, dancing, singing lesson her limited budget could provide.  But when at age thirteen it actually looked like I might make something of myself as a singer, her support became muted and at times took a turn toward disapproval and veiled hostility.   It was easier to switch than endure my mother’s subtle anger and digs.  I stopped singing and picked up the pen.  I learned to type.  I decided to write instead.

As it happened my grandmother at this time had retired and finally had time to pursue her own writing.  She completed a biography that she would self-publish.  She wrote every day and even had a secretary to type the stories she voiced into a recorder.

I spent summers with her in Texas and in the early morning hours we came together, shared stories of our lives, shared our writing.  Writing for me became the safe creative outlet.

Though I loved to write, I also loved dance.  I knew I could always write later, but dance was best achieved when young, so I changed my focus after graduating High School and attended New York University’s professional dance program.  In keeping with tradition, my grandmother and my mother never attended any of my dance recitals there.

After graduating I stayed in New York City. New York was for me what San Francisco had been for my mother.  It was fertile ground for everything I wanted to do and be.  In addition to dance, I pursued acting.  To earn a living I taught aerobics and while teaching met professionals in the music industry.  An unexpected leap into that industry led to a twenty-year career in music production.

Facilitating recording projects was creative, but in reality I was babysitting other people’s creative babies.  All the time I spent in recording studios, I wanted to write and often did, secretly.

Eventually I came clean and let family and select friends know the dirty ugly truth that even though my sentence structure was crap, I was a writer!  Though I’d written numerous stories while she was alive my mother read few of them.  Like her mother before her, nurturing her daughter’s creativity wasn’t easy.

There is no one I’ve ever been closer to then my mother.  No one I have laughed harder with; no one I have had more in common with; and no one who has hurt me as profoundly as she did.  And I believe she would absolutely say the same of me.

We had huge rifts that lasted years before they were mended.  A few years before her death we had another such rift.  Thankfully, her illness came with enough warning that I was able to spend some quality time with her before I lost her completely.  From the time she was diagnosed with endometrial cancer she lived for nine months.   I was with her almost to the exact moment of her passing.  And in those last weeks near her in hospice, the chaotic drama of our love and anger resolved into compassion and forgiveness.

The women in my family don’t live easy, and they don’t die easy either, but they never die alone.   Their children mean everything to them.  And their children have always returned home in the end.  As all the dust of perceived injuries settles I have seen clearly that I had a great mother.

With my mother’s death my brother and I have inherited a fairly complicated estate.  And I have moved now to Texas to oversee my part of it.  My mother wrote in her will that she hoped that what I now receive will help me live the creative life I have always wanted to live.  I hope so too.

With my mother gone, there is now a journey I might not be on if she were still here.  That doesn’t mean I prefer her gone.  For all our conflict she was my safe haven—she was my in-case-of-emergency person.  But in an odd way there is more room for me now.  And this journey has it’s geography in the house that my grandmother designed, that my mother made her own, and that I now must make my own.

Sometimes I rant.  How could she have put me down so often?  Why was she cruel when she didn’t need to be?  Dismissive?  Why wouldn’t she involve herself in my life’s accomplishments, my creativity?  All the hurts I have kept an unconscious list of swarm up like locusts.  There are times I’m mad as hell at her.  But most of the time this house is love.  I’m blessed that this is how I get to say goodbye.  Because, though this house sometimes feels hollow and empty without my mom in it, mostly it feels like one, enormous, warm enveloping hug from both her and grandma.

I have turned my mother’s home office into a writing room.  For the first time in years I am writing every day.  As I sleep in my mother’s bedroom, and I take care of her dogs, tend to her gardens, cook in her kitchen, recline in her living room, I get to know her over again.

And I feel both my mother and my grandmother smile as they watch me tap away at the keys of this computer.  Over all, the send off from the women who came before me has been sweet and sustaining.

Loss, painful as it is, can be a catalyst for jumping hurdles.    It can birth a new creative process.  Literally.  At least it has for me.

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~

I was born in 1961 in Northern California. Spent my formative years growing up in San Francisco, in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I moved to New York City in the early ‘80s to dance, and after a number of years being completely broke in that pursuit I fell into the Music Industry, working in production for almost twenty years.

Around 2001 there was change in the industry, away from recording the bulk of a project in a large facility to recording almost the entire project in a home studio.

Since then I have been a licensed massage therapist in Texas, trained at the Boulder College of Massage therapy, I have waited tables in Washington, DC, been a poll worker and volunteered extensively with the ACLU of Texas, Amnesty International and the OSCE. I am halfway to completing my paralegal certification. After my mother’s passing six months ago, I moved back to Austin, TX. Along with my own collie, Jaz, I have her two collies as well. Everything in my life is new right now, but there is a ton of puppy love.

 

3 thoughts on “Birthing creativity from loss: Three generations of women and their home

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *