Excerpts

hile I was still busy with The Silk Garden, my mother came to visit me for a week. She was smuggled out of New York by my sister, who had made arrangements and had gotten her a plane ticket—it was a brazen plan. Moments before my sister picked her up to take her to the airport, my father, as a parting gesture, had stormed out of the house. My mother knew it would mean at least a week of silence between them when she returned, but she left anyway. Knowing my mother, I magine that the instant she closed the door behind her, it was as if that world no longer existed—from that very moment, and for the next week, she was on a trip. It was this ability to compartmentalize that had always been the key to her survival.

Once safely in Boulder, my mother and I talked and laughed, telling stories and catching up. We’d always shared a penchant for dissecting other people’s issues. At this late date, however, I’d hoped we could find a way to talk about our own.

”MUch unhappiness has come into the world
because of things left unSAID.”

I saw this rare time together as a fading opportunity to reach out to each other in a more honest way, but it was clear to me from the outset that she didn’t want to talk about anything that might be upsetting. She wanted to believe that laughing together meant that everything was okay, that it was unnecessary for me to hear her say, “I’m sorry for the way things have turned out for our family, for your family.” If only she’d had some idea of the healing power of such simple words. When my mother got back to New York, my sister asked her if we’d had a chance to talk. She told my disbelieving sister, “There was nothing that needed to be said.”

Long ago I had let go of wishing for a mother who would tell me good things about myself, a mother who would protect me. She once told me she felt as though she had made a Faustian pact — trading her beauty and loyalty for her own protection from the outside world. But who would protect her from her protector?

In our childhoods my sister and I were her small confidants. As an adult, my sister found herself working a hotline to help abused women. The dynamics of control were so familiar— even though our personal childhood experience didn’t include physical abuse. Though my sister spent twenty-five years counseling women in their struggle for safety and autonomy, ultimately she was powerless to help her own mother. “You can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped,” she would say sadly.

While my mother was visiting, Mark and I made plans to take her on a raft trip—she said that she’d always dreamed of having such an adventure. It always surprised me that a woman who was so easily intimidated by an imperious waiter, could at the same time, be so courageous. I remember being with her and Barry and the kids at a county fair. She astonished us all by volunteering to stand in front of a wooden backstop while a blindfolded knife thrower hurled knives around the perimeter of her body. The finale of his act featured a hatchet-throw that cut cleanly in half the rolled-up piece of paper that my mother, at that point standing in profile, was holding in her teeth.

 

he night before “putting in” on the Yampa River for our one-day, gentle-but-breezy raft trip, we found ourselves in a tiny little town with a bunkhouse eatery and only one place to sleep—a very strange and antiquated hotel. Mark, my mother and I shared one big room with three beds and a single bathroom down the hall. We were exhausted from the long drive and everything seemed funny, a condition my mother used to call slug nutty. We laughed at Mark’s spot-on impersonation of a latter-day Katharine Hepburn warning of the perils of river trips—malaria, poisonous snakes, Humphrey Bogart. Long after the lights were out, we kept talking in the dark. There would be periods of silence and then one of us would say something and we’d start laughing all over again. It was a slumber party—like in the old days when my father was away on a business trip and my mother and we kids, heady with freedom, would talk and eat in front of the television and stay up to watch old Bette Davis movies.

The magic of our trip continued the next morning when we woke up to a light dusting of snow on the red rock bluffs. It was cold and windy, but my mother wouldn’t consider abandoning our plans. Always a good sport, she simply bundled up.

My mother and I on our rafting adventure

“Smile, Mom.”

"I am.”

When we got back to Boulder, I took my mother with me on my Silk Garden installations. I’d introduce her as my assistant, telling clients that I had brought her along to carry the ladder and do the heavy lifting. She was in her eighties.