Last Sunday was Mother's Day and I spent much of the foregoing week ruminating about my mother, who died two years ago on June 28.
One of the painful things about thinking of my mother is that I have very little of a material nature by which to remember her. I've always been one of those people who hoards objects that have become suffused with memory. I'm not talking heirlooms. I have worthless bric-a-brac from friends who died early in the AIDS epidemic that I can't bring myself to discard. I have rocks and sticks from hikes, 25-year-old houseplants, an uncle's fountain pen, a solid-gold watch that doesn't work.
As I explained in a column last December, my father died in November after completely disinheriting me without explanation. That means that besides being deprived of any of their money, I also received none of my parents' possessions – the things I grew up around.
I do have two pictures of my mother when she was young and a few pieces of furniture she gave me when she moved from Atlanta to St. Simons Island. One of them is a farmhouse-style cabinet acquired long after I left home.
I also have endless dreams about my parents. One repetitive dream involves the cabinet. It awakens me almost every night with a respect for the capacity of the unconscious to succinctly express the most complex situation in a few images.
In the dream, my mother and I are somehow hovering above the cabinet. I use the cabinet in real life mainly to display some bizarre wooden sculptures from the peyote-happy Oaxaca region of Mexico. My mother is overseeing me as I place one of the sculptures on top of the cabinet. She keeps telling me, "Not so close to the edge!" I keep moving the sculpture back to placate her and, then, as soon as she looks away, I move it back to the edge.
Meanwhile, my father is rummaging around the cabinet, oblivious to what is going on above him. I see only the top of his head. "It's over his head," my mother whispers.
My mother's fear of "going over the edge" was a lifetime preoccupation. After she had a stroke about 15 years before her death, I found an artist's notebook she assembled for a school project when she was 15 or 16 and it's filled with her anxiety about becoming an artist. Here is a typical passage:
"The chief advantages of the artist's life are independence of action, interesting contacts and a power of growth which is limited only by the limits of his idealism. Its disadvantages lie in its lack of material compensation and in the tremendous economic danger awaiting aspiring artists should they devote all their time to the practice of fine art, ignoring wholesome opportunities ... in commerce and industry. There is no nobler vocation than art and none which demands so much from its followers."
Despite the notebook's description of an epiphany in front of a painting at Charlotte's Mint Museum, when she decided "then and there" to become an artist, Mama put art aside. And, then, throughout my life, she worried constantly that I was being seduced by the artistic vision – that I would indeed go over the edge.
Thus the dream, with its manipulation of completely outlandish art objects, is an explicit description of my life with her – even down to my longtime habit of creeping to the edge when she wasn't looking and then retreating to please her. This became my habitual style, long after she gave up any explicit efforts to make me "normal."
My father's role in the dream is a perfect expression of reality, too. He was never very involved in my life at all and frequently told me he didn't understand me. "You're exactly like your mother," he'd say when we argued. I was psychologically disowned long before I was disinherited.
It's striking that in the dream, my father occupies the space into which I would fall if I went over the edge. I always suspected part of my mother's effort to reel me in was to protect me from my father.
Beyond this dream's one-scene summary of my life with my parents, I'm stricken by the role of the cabinet, a specific object from real life that, as I said, has become something of a touchstone for remembering my mother. It reminds me that the world we call inanimate has a great deal to communicate if we listen deeply – in the way that painting disclosed my mother's path to her at 16. I wish she had heeded the message.
Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology. For information on his private practice, go to www.cliffbostock.com.
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