In her essay, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, Alice Walker writes of Black women who were forced into literal and figurative prostitution for generations. And although some of what she says is applicable to Black women only, much of it applies to women. Especially women of our mothers’ generations and many generations before:
…they forced their minds to desert their bodies and their striving spirits sought to rise, like frail whirlwinds.. and when those whirlwinds fell, no one mourned.
Our mothers and grandmothers, some of them: moving to music not yet written. And they waited.
They waited for a day when the unknown thing that was in them would be made known.
They were Creators, who lived lives of spiritual waste, because they were so rich in spirituality – which is the basis of Art – that the strain of enduring their unused and unwanted talent drove them insane.
She was writing -- in that section -- about prostitutes, but the essence of her message is the same for many, many women: they could never fully realize the Artist within, although they did find ways to express their creativity.
Since my own mother died so young, I can not ask her how this was for her, but I can guess from what she left behind: the scraps of evidence I piece together like a solitary sleuth; trying not to romanticize her, I sometimes trivialize her. She, too was an Artist.
Although she left behind no musical compositions, no paintings, no unpublished poems or novels, she arranged the world around her in ways that celebrated and honored its inherent beauty, grace, and symmetry. She was a curator who celebrated the bounty, the colors and shapes and gifts of God’s Creation. Here’s what I know:
· She dressed with flair and exceptional taste. She was a quintessential forties siren.. southern woman, wearing tailored suits and dresses with just-right shoes and hats. She adorned and carried the body God gave her with pride and even a bit of self-love. She allowed herself to be a work of art.
· Her home was adorned with things passed down from her mother and grandmother, things of beauty, texture, color, and shape, old things honored, not discarded. Collections of milk glass, lace doilies made by her ancestors’ arthritic fingers, colorful afghans, rocking chairs placed just so.
· Her vegetable gardens were huge and magical places filled with beans in rows and fat pumpkins and bright red tomatoes. There is almost nothing more beautiful than an old wicker basket filled with yellow squash and green beans and red tomatoes to be eaten for dinner.
· She arranged for her children to have ballet lessons and French classes. Although these stopped abruptly when she died, it was always clear to me that she wanted for us an appreciation of the world’s culture and artistry. To this day, I can not watch a ballet without crying.
So, even though my mother, Marjorie Lee Patton Cain, did not leave behind any traditional works of art, she affected the world around her. She died, some say, from grief.. losing too many siblings to our family’s disease, addiction, and losing her own parents too young, and spending and wasting her energy trying to save them all and when she couldn’t, worrying about them – she left something more. In her short years of parenting, she created a legacy of appreciating the world’s artistry. She did not live in vain.