by Tim Gilmore, 5/8/2022
The way my mother appears in this old photograph is how I remember her best. That smile lit up her face. Her hair lush, high over her forehead, I loved brushing, and she wore those rings, silver and turquoise, on almost every finger. If I zoom in to the digital scan of this photo taken in 1982 or ’83, though she blurs and grows pixilated, I see her pupils.
Knowing what happens next alters the moment. It fails to let the moment exist as it is. It intrudes. It violates its space. I try to step into the moment this photograph was taken, as is, knowing nothing else. She was happy, this moment, maybe the happiest she’d been or would be.
The inside of our house, that little concrete-block ranch-style house built in 1959, looked like a 1970s antique shop. It’s a tackiness I love, layering over, as it does, my childhood. My mother loved clutter and antiques and lamps and chandeliers and gold filigree and gold laminate and gold plating and those 1970s candlestick holders with dangling glass crystals.
She’d collected dolls in various ethnic costume from around the world and porcelain Victorian figurines and folding fans and Norman Rockwell prints. She loved turquoise in bracelets and rings and necklaces and brooches.
That’s the moment, as it was. As-it-was means as-is. The moment crystallized. Frozen. In which I’d like to live frozen forever.
But because I was 12 when she died of ALS, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, an age when the end of a certain childhood innocence crashes into adolescence, when time itself changes, as you first see outside the moment and become self-conscious, I could only have made her a shrine in my head, and I did.
It’s been altered. I know now she was flawed, both hurt and hurtful, deeply injured, in earlier years injurious, even vicious. I know now not only of sins committed against her, but crimes she committed. I know now that we’re both the choices we make and the choices that make us. I know that knowing so fails to exculpate us, that it’s an explanation, not an excuse, that we must aspire to be angels, but we’re only smarter apes. Even so, beautifully so.
I strive to inhabit this moment, the moment of this photograph, when not only had what came next not come, but my mother’s past suffering stood somehow apart.
This moment, so long ago, seems a dream, and yet was present and yet she’s always present. Also always present is her absence, an unfillable hole in my center that I’d have thought would have scarred up and healed by now.
So yes, there’s the shrine in my head, and the hollow core behind the sharp blade of the xyphoid process in my chest, but there’s also my mother’s typewriter and my great-grandfather’s fountain pen and those things are sacred relics, but are also present as ever they were. I have them both beside me on the floor-to-ceiling bookcase beside the chair in which I write.
One side of Moses M. Keene’s writing utensil is a fountain nib, the other a mechanical pencil, the casing a nacreous, an opalescent shimmer of greens and golds and firedamp whites. Its original paper case still houses it and bears my mother’s inscription: “Grandaddy Keene’s pen-pencil Died 1941.”
And here’s my mother’s typewriter, a Montgomery Ward Signature 100, the machine I saw perched on the kitchen table, above the goldenrod linoleum before the sliding-glass doors, when I came home from school in 1982 or ’83, seven or eight years old. She was “writing,” albeit by typing, and I started to write scary stories my third grade teacher let me read to the class.
My mother told me I was here for some special reason, how God had a particular plan. I can only imagine how we’d have differed over how I should steer my life had she not died when I was the right age to enshrine her. Oh but I was rudderless for a lifetime. My older sister Katie used to ask me if I thought Mom would ever get well. Katie said she sometimes liked being sad, I knew already what she meant, and after Mom died, she said Mom would’ve insisted I become a preacher, and I knew she was right. I’d always known.
I always feared I wouldn’t know how to find the thing for which I’m here. I’m almost the age my father was when I was born, the age my mother was when she died, and still I’m awaiting some cosmic being to knock on my door and hand me my assignment.
And here’s my mother’s typewriter on the kitchen table when I come home from school when I’m seven years old in 1982. Two things happen. I start to write and never stop. And I imbibe the idea of the writer.
My King-James-Version Biblical education favored poets and prophets. Ironically, the 1960s rock-musician-poet, against whom my fundamentalist childhood community had warned, followed the early-1800s Romantic Period archetypal poet who followed the wildman New Testament “voice of one crying in the wilderness” who ate “locusts and wild honey.”
I learned the writer moved between wiseman and fool, sage and romantic. I learned how William Wordsworth was both, young radical becoming less wise as he grew into the Victorian sage. In Wordsworth’s poem, “Resolution and Independence,” more popularly known as “The Leech Gatherer,” first written in 1802 when the poet was 32, he laments, “We poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.”
Then archetypes became stereotypes and the typewriter cared not to distinguish between them. So Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Faulkner and Kerouac and Capote were drunks. So Hemingway and Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath and John Berryman and David Foster Wallace committed suicide. So Ezra Pound and Tennessee Williams and Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were institutionalized.
So there’s an art school stereotype of self-imposed melodrama among pretty young people desperate to be geniuses trying to prove their bone fides by enacting mental illness, alongside more scientific treatments like Kay Redfield Jamison’s 1996 book Touched by Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.
Katie said she thought our mother was bipolar, “manic-depressive” in now obsolete terms. Depressive, yes, but I never saw “manic.” Surely my own depressive history descends from genetic factors met with environmental causes such as, well, the death of a parent. Though I worried as a child about “catching” schizophrenia, from which suffered my father’s older brother and nephew, I had little cause for concern.
Still the great physician-writer Oliver Sacks pondered a continuum between schizophrenia and artistic vision, writing, in his 2015 memoir On the Move, “I wondered whether systems in the brain concerned with the perception (or projection) of meaning, significance, and intentionality, systems underlying a sense of wonder and mysteriousness, systems for appreciation of the beauty of art and science, had lost their balance in schizophrenia, producing a mental world overcharged with intense emotion and distortions of reality.”
Common psychological difficulties in adults who lost a parent during childhood include depression, anxiety, propensity to addiction, fears of abandonment, lower self-esteem, etc. Nobody sexually abused me. Nobody beat me. Parents scoffed when private Christian schools started sending home parental permission slips for students to receive “swats” as discipline. Nobody starved me though. Nobody cursed me. My parents loved me. I always knew it.
If I could sit down at the kitchen table in my childhood home, the table which is now in my dining room, and face my mother, she behind her typewriter in 1982, me behind my laptop in 2022, what might we say to each other? How might my response be conditioned by the shrine that’s lived inside my head longer than my mother lived as my mother?
I try to imagine my mother, in the moment, seated in that rocking chair in which she so often held me, gold and porcelain and crystal glass all around her, 1982, to see her then, that day, that hour, with its afternoon light coming dimming in, then that daily satisfactorily sad twilight, an evening knowing not the next, my father at her side, me sleeping long-limbed and knowing nothing nearby, tomorrow, unlike all her previous tomorrows, hopeful, iridescent like her grandfather’s fountain pen, colors lighter golden and brighter pearl wavering across the undulating sky in the ancient and everlasting distance.