Last week I called my mom to wish her a happy birthday. In many ways her life is a miracle. The day she was born her mother, Lorena, died in childbirth. They were only able to save her. “I thought about my mother all day,” she tells me over the phone. When I hang up, a wave of grief flows out of me in great sobs. I still feel the loss of Lorena, not just for my mom, but for myself; for the grandmother I never knew.
Over the course of my life my mother has recounted the events of her birth without emotion, as if a distant narrator. I remember when she showed me the scar on her right arm, a mark from when the doctors cut her yet-to-be newborn skin as they struggled to remove her from her dying mother. I felt sad when I heard the details of the story, and noticed the tough, protective layer my mother formed to shield herself from the devastation. I have tried to imagine wrestling with a loss that is inextricably linked to the wonder of your own life. “My mother made the ultimate sacrifice,” my mom explained to me once. In my mother’s story, motherhood is a sacrifice of love. I believe there is another story of creativity and healing unfolding.
The details of Lorena’s life remained a mystery to my mom, lost in her father’s desperation to find another wife to raise this child. He buried the memories of the woman he loved alongside his grief deep inside his heart. Over the years it grew into guilt, anger and regret. He was a hard-working, stoic man who rarely expressed affection and had a quick temper. Lorena’s death was hidden from my mother until she was a teenager. The truth was cruelly exposed to her on the playground from teasing classmates.
Subterranean pain is like a weed in my garden with a spreading root system connected to a mother plant. It grows ghostly and white underground, feeding on resources and eventually finding its way to the surface on the other side of the garden where it tangles with the roots of the other flowers trying to bloom. I hold the ache of these stories inside me. They are released when I create something from my heart, which is what I learned from my mom.
The only photo of Lorena I have is of a blurred, heavy-set woman in a long, calico dress standing in front of a barn door, a cat at her feet. I can’t tell if she is squinting or smiling, or if she is wearing a house dress or a Sunday dress. What is the occasion? Who was she in this moment?
I am getting to know Lorena, at least in spirit. On the farm this summer, the great grandmother cottonwood and ash trees whispered to me and I felt comfort in their strong roots and trunks and exuberant, towering branches. I found refuge in climbing trees when I was little, so perhaps even then I was seeking my grandmother’s wisdom.
I can now imagine what Lorena’s days were like when she was carrying my mom inside her. She was singing, planting, baking and making. My mom received those messages of love. Lorena’s love of making has been infused into the line of women that she originated, and it is now hardwired into the souls of my mother, myself and my two sisters. I feel her spirit this week as I weave what I have grown and gathered into wreaths for people to enjoy.
My mom has always expressed this love of creating and sharing the gifts she makes. She was also baking and stitching and dreaming when I was a seed growing inside her. She became an entrepreneur, and her handmade doll business, Bonnie’s Bundles Dolls, has been her passion for 50 years! I believe it was creativity that saved my mom’s life. She can keep giving birth to something new again and again. With every doll creation, she brings another soul joy.
During our summer vacations she required that we played outside and kept a journal to write stories and draw. God forbid we would enter the house, where she was creating dolls, and claim we were bored. She would quip, “If you’re bored, you’re boring!” She taught our Girl Scout troop how to bake a pineapple upside down cake in a reflector oven while camping, and how to make miniskirts without a pattern. Growing up, we spent our summer weekends at craft fairs where she would sell her handmade dolls from an elaborate booth. She encouraged me to follow my business ideas, so while other kids were selling lemonade, my business plan was miniskirts and hand-lettered birthday banners.
I still struggle to own my creativity. At first I made art to make my mom happy, for her to love me and see me, and for her to feel good about herself. Now I make art to understand my own journey in the world and heal the wounds. As I write this, the realization is tangled in the emotions from the women in my line. When it comes out I feel a sense of relief.
As I get older I feel a softening around my mom. She is always creating something new, whether it’s a batch of brownies, a doll or a poem. As I age, I feel less judgment and more awe at what she had to overcome. Her creation process is a form of survival. I’m grateful for her example of a handmade life. I know this is something only I can create, with my soul and through all of my ancestors who left their recipes and songs and patterns on my DNA for me to express in my lifetime.
Kate Watters is a farmer, floral designer, writer and musician. She has led a colorful plant-centered life from various angles and now makes her livelihood from a farm oasis in Rimrock, next to Beaver Creek. She grows flowers, medicinal herbs, pollinator and fairy habitat and hosts plant gatherings. To follow her entrepreneurial and artistic adventures arising from the soil visit: www.agavemariabotanicals.com and www.katewattersart.com