Saturday, August 16, 2008

Four Family Women

It adds to the challenge, but also the interestingness of things, when we find our memories are wrong, to whatever degree. I thought I had an ensemble photo, taken with Uncle Harvey's good camera and with his talented eye, of me, my mother, my sister Rachel and my mother's mother. However when I dragged out my slightly bug-inflicted family photo box from the top of a closet, I realized such an image would only exist in composite form, if I put 2 or 3 photos together. There is a photo of my mother in an orange dress, her mother, my sister Rachel, and one of Grandma's favorite caregivers, Virginia Radeke - I'm not in that photo, which would be OK, but a worse problem blog-wise is that the photo of the other women did not recopy well - too much of it was in the shade of Harvey's back porch - and wonderful as Virginia was, she doesn't fit my theme of family women. Using multiple photos instead of one is not necessarily a bad thing, although I intended my text to explain one artfully, psychologically consolidated photo of all of us. This makes it harder for me to get my points across, but I'll do my best below to patch together my original notes and updated text that fits the actual photos.

In the photo I had planned to use, my mother seemed at the time, and still looks in reviewing photos, so old...this was a couple of years before she died but her illness had already begun. She was also worn down by taking care of a senile parent, a hyperactive toddler, and a sensitive elementary schooler (moi). The too-dark-to-use photo reminds me that she liked orange too - her tweedy dress fabric probably seemed old-fashioned to me at the time, as did the orange-tweed new sofa we bought for our recently remodeled front room (my dad put down real wood planks, absolutely beautiful and perfect looking but something I had no appreciation for at the time, since that was an era when people carpeted over hardwood, thinking it progress). How interesting that she wore orange, since I have started wearing orange again...she had a red purse (which I forgot until my dad recently found it when moving his chest of drawers, it had been packed in there, a time capsule under old clothes and linens, soon after she died), and I recently bought an orange one. [In this substitute photo Mother is wearing one of her typical floral fabrics, that included orange, and the faded image has gotten more orange with age.]

Grandma had what was called hardening of the arteries, probably not Alzheimer's but something else that kept her from knowing where she was. She was still her sweet, polite self but she ran away when she could manage it, she obsessively picked microscopic lint off the floor, and she periodically went into tearful tangents about boys falling into the pond, about to drown...some kind of flashback to a childhood farm image...I thought then, and now, how horrible it was that senility had trapped her into anxiety nightmares from which she couldn't wake up.

In the same photo I didn’t use, my sister Rachel looked so out of place in the grouping, almost feral - not even kindergarten age yet, she was somehow fully in charge of herself, though hardly fit to be so...hunched into a child's miniature chair, with bare feet and skinny legs stretched out in front. [Even in this more dressy photo she clearly wants to be somewhere else, wearing something else.] But it's impossible to ever mention Rachel without saying that she had, still has, long moments of sweetness amid the wildness. She did run and climb like a monkey, didn't like to wear shoes, and sometimes left her shirts at home too, running short-haired and flat-chested like a tomboy. Although my mother took pride in my long little-girl hair, lovingly combing and braiding it (despite my shrieks of pain), she soon gave up on Rachel's, which was a different texture anyway, and cut it short, pixie cuts being rather in fashion then, anyway.

I also have to add that the adult Rachel has beautiful hair and as an adult keeps it beautifully arranged, is also capable of pulling together perfect makeup, lovely jewelry, and has a good color/dress sense. I know she's heavier than she wants to be, but her personality is somehow larger than life, so her size is not ill suited to her personality, and the whole effect can be so charming. Going from small to large size at a young age was not typical for a Scholl child - my brothers and I started out husky and then got slimmer, at least until middle age, so as an adopted, but loved and (we once thought) well integrated child, the size morphosis, and probably more so, her outgoing personality, set Rachel apart. My brother Tim behaved as an extrovert but I don't think that for him it came as naturally as it did Rachel. He acted as an extrovert to achieve more goals and make more personal connections, but an extroverted lifestyle - the furor & press of people around - was not his comfort zone as it was Rachel's.

And me...I felt lumpish and often peevish but savvy at that age, which must have been just before we realized I needed glasses, and obviously before I went on my adolescent, doctor-prescribed diet (carefully counting 1000 calories a day from a chart the doctor gave us, although I had heard my mother tell the doctor I didn't really eat much – true, I didn't, but everything I ate was a carb). I look at my image now and I see both savvy and gravitas in my face and posture, also more style than I thought I had, consumed as I was with thoughts of lumpishness.

Literary postscript:
I’m reading Collections of Nothing, by William Davies King, a book about his collections of hundreds of types of valueless items such as empty tuna cans (he has dozens of brands and varieties) and cat litter labels (he keeps them under plastic in 3-ring binders)…but more importantly the book is about who he is as a person and a personality, and why he collects. His need for and love of collecting can’t be separated from his childhood dreams and traumas.

I was especially struck by a quote at the end of his description of a sculpture he assembled while in college from his collection of broken chairs, an exhibit meant to represent his sister’s nervous breakdown. “There is no great joy in surviving…and value that is hard to share.” Ostensibly he’s referring to the chairs he threw away after the exhibit, but also to his survivor guilt at having a sister afflicted by cerebral palsy, brain damage and schizophrenia.

I hesitated to include the quote in this post because it sounds so dramatic, but as I read it I resonated with this important knowledge – my life since Mother has lacked the joy she would have brought to it. Not to say I’ve had a bad life, or that her existence in my adulthood wouldn’t have brought its own problems, but her loss created a shadowy hole I can look away from, and shut my eyes to, but can’t fill.

Author King also talks about how collections are attempts to compensate for other losses. That point is also highly resonant for me (the motherless Princess of a closet full of Chucks).

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