I always had a difficult time finding an adequate Mother’s Day Gift for my mother, but at one point settled on purchasing a couple flats of flowers and planting them in her yard. I did this for nearly 20 years, also starting seeds for flowers she liked that I couldn’t find, like hollyhocks. Though my style goes for the wildlife habitat and naturally shaped areas of wildflowers and trees, my mother’s yard was carefully sculpted with edged flower beds and shaped shrubs—I know because I was the one who did all the trimming—and she never failed to sneer and ask if I wasn’t going to clean up around here when she visited, we could agree on the riot of color of impatiens, petunias, geraniums and marigolds along with the occasional verbena, alyssum and other annual bedding plants.
The flower solution was more than an answer to a predicament; it reached much deeper than that. To say my mother and I didn’t get along well is a simplification, in fact an affront, to a much deeper issue. My mother lived behind a wall of serious clinical depression, and when I was born she developed most likely a deep post-natal depression that went on for more than a year and had a negative physical effect on her too, changing her body as well as her mind for that period of time. Though she recovered from this, lost the weight and regained her self esteem she had lasting medical and physical issues for the rest of her life. A part of her always seemed to hold me to blame for that awful time in her life and the changes in her body, I could see it in her eyes every time she looked at me. She kept her distance from me, treated me differently, denied things to me and even into her days of dementia she still berated me for imagined things I’d done, never thanking me for the things I actually had done, except for one brief time in all her illnesses she really was weak enough to let the wall down.
I learned some of the explanations for this through paperwork I’d found in her house when I sold it and which I still have, finding at least partial answers to many questions regarding both my mother and my father and their actions. At some point years ago I realized depression was the issue and instead of arguing and rebelling I just decided I’d get the heck out of there when I could. I sent myself to college, and it was the break I needed.
As the youngest I was always on hand until college, and in feeling I was responsible for my mother’s happiness I became her caretaker and in one capacity or another I maintained that role for all the rest of my mother’s life, through my father’s lung cancer and Parkinson’s disease, her many surgeries and medical treatments and nursing her to health afterward, actually teaching her to drive and buying her a car when I was totally unwilling to be a taxi service, pursuing the diagnosis of her lung cancer, and shepherding her through surgery, near death, recovery, home care, personal care and skilled nursing.
But I always knew, trapped behind that wall, was a person just like me. Years ago I had begun slipping behind that wall myself and understood the perspective from that place, but I was lucky to have escaped and managed it through my adult life. Though patience and understanding wore thin and there were times I avoided my mother altogether, I would do anything to see she had what she needed.
I watched the late afternoon light moving across the back yard at that hour when it begins to turn golden and shadows develop a violet hue. The neighbors’ houses funneled it through the tall standing pine trees into long, bright beams moving more quickly as the sun began its descent below the houses, the hill, the horizon.
Like a spotlight a few of those beams quietly searched across my back yard and touched first this, then that, a dried stalk of asters in the garden, a sprig of yellow forsythia, as if each thing it touched was equal and deserved its literal place in the sun.
The daffodils had finally had the chance to bloom in full. They are early, ambitious old daffodils dug from a long-abandoned farm years ago growing in clumps along the road to the upper pasture, likely planted decades before that. Untended they had bloomed at will, and thrived. The alternating summer-like days and single digit freezes with ice and wind in my back yard this spring were nothing compared to the many springs they had risen once again from the soil, pushed aside the leaves and raised their doubled blossoms high above their slender green fronds exposed to wind and storms on the edge of a hill.
I photograph them each year, looking for a new interpretation each year, but this year open blossoms and good light hadn’t come together in a moment that inspired a good photo.
The blossoms were a bit tattered around the edges from beginning their bloom and then stopping when the temperatures dropped below freezing for a few days, but the warm gold of their petals now that they had fully opened was undiminished. I could see the one of the sunbeams moving across them and decided the moment to catch them was now.
By the time I got to the main clumps with my camera the sunbeam had passed, but I could see by the pattern of light and shadows on the periwinkle just pushing up above last year’s fallen leaves that another one or two sunbeams were headed toward these daffodils, a set of four blossoms. I would capture their proud gold tatters touched by golden evening sun rimming each petal and its curves and tears and browned edges in bright light.
A spotlight of sun passed near them, but did not touch the flowers. I could see that another one was near, and if I could wait five to ten minutes I would likely get my photos.
Should I wait? I had planned just a minute or two outside. It was a busy day and I had work to do. I had, after all, photographed these daffodils annually for at least the past 20 years. What if I was wrong about the sunbeam, if the sun dropped behind my neighbor’s house before the sun moved into position through the pine tree? Would I waste my time?
I would see to it that even if I didn’t get the photo I had in mind, my time would not be wasted. I could sit there and think, I could plan my garden, I could write a poem, I could plan my eventual photos and get ready because the sun would be moving quickly. Five or ten minutes would be gone like the sunbeams moving across the yard.
What did I want for the daffodils in this year’s photos? I thought of the daffodils and their history, and how each year they’d bloomed so early they were sure to freeze, and they did, and then they thawed and went on their way. Not knowing how long it would be until the freeze lifted, they simply paused, and waited as long as it took. I really had no idea now long I would wait for the sun to move over them or even if it would line up with them as I envisioned. A break from my work to turn my thoughts to something unrelated, with a creative spark, was just what I needed to actually finish the job at hand. I decided I could wait too.
While milling these thoughts I watched another long spotlight, not as bright as the others but full and warm, move toward the daffodils and stretch itself out, and knew this was the one. I planned three angles, turned on my camera and waited.
I took one early photo as a portion of the sunbeam touched the daffodils, one of the ideas I’d had. It was nice, and if it was all I got it would do, but it didn’t really capture the battered daffodils warm with sunlight. I would try again.
I photographed as the beam of light reached down to touch the edges of three daffodils, I shifted a little, then all four, then it filled them all with light. It was nice from those two angles, but too literal, still not really expressing the warmth and life I felt from these daffodils.
I moved on the other side of them so that I could capture the light falling through them, instead of on them, and then it was magic. The contrast of the flowers glowing golden, even orange like a flame in the deepest areas, darkened the background of the leaf litter, twigs and branches, and even the daffodils’ fronds. I felt I’d captured the ageless warmth of these vintage daffodils. Time well spent.
Until next year.
NOTE: The six photos in this post are in the order of the six photos I captured while waiting for the sun to move into the best position. The photo at the top was the one I felt was most successful. And when I came inside I took notes on my thoughts to share.
The re-emergence of life in my garden this spring is tinged with sadness as I picture two of my best friends, in spirit, wandering among the green and daffodils and last year’s leaves.
I have a whole household of cats and I never permit them outside to roam, although I take them outside with me while I work in the yard, retrieving them when they wander. Many years of finding and rescuing cats and kittens who have been abused, abandoned or injured makes me keep them inside except for these brief forays, but one of the things I love most about cats is just watching them be cats.
Last autumn, I lost two of them to cancer. The first was the love of my life, Kublai, a handsome, social and affectionate black cat who I met and fell in love with while was in college. More intelligent and sensitive than many people I know, he had enough love to give away and filled a void in my life while big-brothering every stray kitten and adult cat I had since brought into the house. The other was a big, quiet and gentle orange and white cat named Allegro who loved people and whose life was made complete by the presence and guidance of Kublai and me.
Kublai, tough as nails, held out against his cancer for a year with every treatment and remedy I could find for him. One of the best treatments was a trip into the yard more than once each day in my hope that the life in the garden and flower beds would help support him, but as my garden flourished I watched him decline. At the end of September, Allegro was diagnosed with a quick-moving internal cancer, Kublai died two days later, and Allegro followed him two weeks after that.
Now every spot in the yard has a memory of each of them. I have reinstated the bird bath top on the ground that Kublai used to drink out of every day right after I cleaned and filled it, and in the new columbine foliage I can almost see him lying in the shade under the trees. The new green garlic fronds remind me that I only had four more days with him and only suspicions of Allegro’s illness when I planted them. All the bulbs are up and ready in the little garden outside my dining room window that I arranged with Allegro, suddenly frail, at my side in the warm autumn sunshine just the day before he died. And as I rake up the leftover dry leaves I remember Allegro, just before I noticed any symptoms, chasing and trying to catch the first ones as they fell.
I cleaned up last year’s garden through a blur of tears and neglected many of the things I usually do and forgot things I had done, and I am almost surprised that anything is growing this year. After they died I had them cremated and sprinkled their ashes on the spots they loved best. I think it’s an expression that their love still exists that the iris, like Kublai nearly black with mahogany highlights, sprouted early and is thriving, and the carefree field poppy which is very orange, like Allegro, has already begun to spread and no doubt will bloom freely.
And in time I will forget the illnesses and in my garden I will picture Kublai lurking between the cornstalks and Allegro catching leaves with careless abandon.
I first published this essay on my cat-centric website The Creative Cat in 2013, though it was written for publication in 1988. Some of the references might be more clear in that context, but the sentiment is probably clear even without that knowledge. I included more photos of the subjects in the post on The Creative Cat if you want to see what everything looked like.
Years ago, while I was still working in my day job, I also did a fair amount of freelancing in design, art and writing. One place I’d had a few short pieces published was Organic Gardening Magazine in the late 80s and early 90s, mostly concerning gardening but also an essay. While sorting through old files I found this essay I’d written and submitted along with another they’d agreed to publish. It seemed as if the magazine’s readers and staff were all animal lovers and even gardening stories were full of cats and dogs and rabbits and chickens who were pets, and I’d read a few essays about the losses of pets as well. Though they accepted it this was not published; commentaries such as this were usually held to be used whenever there was a space for them. Magazine staff and format changed soon after this.
But it surprised me to find this story of my household from 1996 and my thoughts in March of 1997 which I’d forgotten I’d written; behind all the correspondence about an article that had been published I saw the title, “The Cats in My Garden”, and it all came back to me. Now, as I review photos from previous years and see all those of Cookie out there with me, and Cookie and Namir in my garden and how grand those years were, and how Kelly enjoyed her visits to the yard in her last few months, I think how my household has changed through the years. Now, beginning another gardening year, I read about another spring emerging after losing two of my cats, and I watch the daffodils, crocuses and squills I planted in 1996 under Allegro’s supervision sprouting and blooming now. Kublai and Allegro were my first two losses of the cats I adopted as an adult.
There have been so many since these two, and yet the flowers we planted and the yard we loved continue to flourish, and just as the flowers inspire me to photograph and paint each spring revisiting how I’d represented them in the past and still finding something new about them, so Kublai and Allegro and all the others continue to still inspire me to create with their image, and still finding things to learn about them.
As the seasons change I look to nature for familiar scenes and welcome details held dear from year to year especially in my garden, my little patch of toil for the 26 years I’ve lived here. Even though I’ve worked and planted and composted and created raised beds and paths and the site holds probably all the memories I have from living here from all the time I’ve spent working and thinking there, I still find wonders, mostly in the spring when it all feels new again after a month or two of break, and sometimes intangible wonders as well.
This year I remembered a series of photos I’d taken in March one year which I called at the time “Winter Leftovers”, thinking of the ephemeral beauty of dried plants that seemed lifeless from afar but had so much character and detail when studied up close through the lens of my camera, natural sepia tones, tiny highlights, clouds of soft fluff and tiny spiky flowers, an entire universe in miniature.
The bright spring sun had shone at an angle from a faded blue sky in mid afternoon on a day just around the vernal equinox and I was late in planting for late snows and freezes. I leave the native plants standing in and around the vegetable garden for the residents of my backyard wildlife habitat to eat from, perch on, snuggle into, build tiny homes upon to weather the dark and cold season, but I was thinking of asparagus and potatoes and salad greens and ready to work it all down and get planting.
But I didn’t. As I leaned into my spading fork the angled sun caught a sparkle on a delicate spiderweb smaller than the palm of my hand. I walked over to investigate and found a spider no larger than a grain of sand shriveled in the center. She had died long before but continued to cling there all winter long. Her web held up against any number of storms. Her eggs would have been laid on the stem adjacent to her web, and when they hatched the little spiders could have their first meal of the insects caught in their mother’s last web and use her web as a launching pad to their new life. I found the whole idea that the children the spider would never know were provided for by what she had done before she died so moving that on that bright March afternoon I put down the spading fork and picked up my camera and went through my garden looking for other such images.
All the other native plants had left behind skeletons that told stories as well, the asters and chicory and goldenrod and dock, and the effect of these was haunting, like finding a ghost town or a lost world. I photographed each desolate construction with attention to extreme details to capture the intrinsic, transient beauty of these empty shells, capturing the sepia tones, letting them say their last goodbye before the flush of new growth pushed them out of the way.
What was most surprising to me when I went to review the photos this year was when I looked at the other photos in the folder for that day, and what else I’d done in the morning. I had photos from the 54th floor of an office building in downtown Pittsburgh, quite the different perspective from the afternoon’s warm spring sun and attention to the details of desiccated native plants in my backyard garden. I’d been there for a hearing to contest matters with my mortgage company, Countrywide Mortgage, which had acquired my tiny mortgage in 2005 and had forced me into bankruptcy protection to avoid one of their illegal foreclosures in 2006. Despite the fact they and the company that took over their mortgages, Bank of America, were charged with so much wrongdoing, they still insisted I owed them the legal fees related to my foreclosure and fines on those fees and my attorney and I never did figure out what else was included in the $16,000 they said I owed them. Just the foreclosure and bankruptcy, though I owed no other debts, had hit self-employed me hard and taken time and finances away from growing my business, and keeping house and the idea of paying another $16,000 wasn’t even something I ever fully grasped because I knew I’d never come up with it.
I did, though, just not all at once, and even more than that too. Through the years after that BOA continued working out devious ways to get more money out of me. Because of Countrywide’s illegal foreclosure, for which I received a check for $300 in a class-action lawsuit, BOA was not permitted to threaten me with foreclosure, but they threatened me with everything else they could until I was finally free of them in 2013 by moving to another mortgage company, and the mortgage itself in 2016.
It’s hard to say that a decade of financial struggle where phantom fees and charges were continually and unexpectedly added to my mortgage and my mortgage payment was a horrible thing because no one could really see it but me. Despite the financial issues I would not give up my home or my business and I paid everything they asked of me. Even if I had left this place I still would have owed the mortgage and would have had to settle it and also pay for a place to live, so I decided to stay here and just keep making a mortgage payment and somehow work it out. In the end I was offered a settlement by the new mortgage company that I could afford, and I own this house, though I paid far more than was ever planned.
But the more surprising thing was that, even though that situation lasted for a decade and really just ended last year, when I remembered the “winter leftovers” and that afternoon in the garden down to the details and the sun on my back and two cats who are still very dear to me, one who I would lose later that year who were out in the garden with me, I didn’t remember anything of the hearing with my mortgage company, nothing of the struggle and hardship and paperwork and hearings that lasted a decade. I must have ridden home on the bus and looked at the perfect sunny day and decided, instead of getting right back to work, I’d steal a little time for physical effort and something I loved to do, change my clothes, get my two cats and head outside and enjoy their exploration of the spring garden and work off the morning. I only remembered the poignant beauty of what was left in my garden and the beautiful story it had told me.
Aside from those who have “superior autobiographical memory”, we can’t possibly remember everything that happens in our lives. We do make choices, even if we don’t realize. Bad memories stay with us and letting them go is almost like grieving a loss, a loss of a part of our selves that was betrayed, traumatized, or somehow hurt and must heal. But somehow the beauty and inspiration of that day washed away the bad. I’ll carry that beauty forward, and build on it, and leave the bad behind.
I joined in the Pittsburgh Women’s Sister March on January 21, 2017. Though the organizer had said her initial permit was for 400 people and by January 20 only 3,000 had confirmed they were going, the estimate of participation was actually 25,000 people, whole families, of all ages, genders and gender identities, skin colors and concerns. The march was very organized and completely peaceful.
The march was part of the main Women’s March scheduled for that day in Washington D.C. and was initially focused on preserving women’s rights to employment and pay equity, reproduction and personal safety we felt we’d finally achieved. Many people feel threatened by the remarks both current and historical the newly-elected president has made about and to women as well as the acceptance and normalization of those remarks by other citizens in this country, and fear both a backlash and a change in laws regarding protections for women.
But no one handed out signs or banners to carry, or gave a specific reason to march. Most of the signs were handmade signaling that most people had found their own reason to join in and shared that reason with their own creation. Issues ranged from Black Lives Matter and civil rights for all minorities and people of color, LGBTQ issues including marriage equality and transgender rights to declare themselves for their own gender identity, a living wage for all workers, immigrant rights and protections, disabled rights, affordable health care and more as well as comments challenging and refuting the president’s own remarks.
You’ve come a long way, baby
In the 1970s Virginia Slims cigarettes were marketed with a clever slogan you could sing: “You’ve come a long way, baby, to get where you got to today.” A commercial illustrated that at one point in history women were not permitted to smoke and were punished for it, but now they had their very own cigarette brand. Not commenting on the clever marketing of cigarettes, smoking wasn’t the only thing women were not legally able to do for most of the time this nation has been a nation. Women were legally unable to vote until 1920, fewer than 100 years ago, so they couldn’t even use the democratic process to assure their own rights. Between the time we were finally legally permitted to vote and the early 70s we did come a long way in education , employment, housing and more, but even to today, pay equity and equal opportunities in employment are still an issue, and the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, passed by Congress in 1972, is still not ratified by all the states and has never become a part of the law of the land.
I was not old enough to be employed in the 1960s, but I remember when employment ads could specify that the job was not available to women, even if women were capable of doing the job. It was also legal when women were hired or fired based on their appearance.
I also remember when Title IX was passed in 1972 stipulating that schools receiving federal funds had to give equal opportunities to female students in academics and sports to give women an equal opportunity to distinguish themselves and qualify for scholarships or better employment opportunities after graduation.
I also remember starting to work as a typesetter in the early 80s and being told that setting type was a man’s job, even though exactly why was never explained to me, though I believe it had something to do with setting “hot type”, or making the metal plates that had traditionally been used in printing. We were computerized by the time I started as a typesetter, but apparently even composition was a man’s job.
When I began freelancing and painting signs a man complained about my $25.00 fee, adding with an ugly leer, “Sometimes you gotta give it away for free, honey.” I never again met with a comment as rude and suggestive as that one, but kept my guard up after that, continuing to freelance from then to today, and actually built my commercial art business based on those beginning freelance experiences.
When I began shopping around for my house in 1989 I specifically looked for a “carpenter’s special” that was inexpensive and that I could repair myself. I was more than competent at this after caring for my parents’ house and several rental places. I was told by more realtors than not that I should wait to buy a house until I was married, and often asked what my husband thought. When confirmed I was single I was told that I should buy a condominium where someone was around to take care of everything because women didn’t know how to do those things. After I found the realtor who looked past all that and found the house I now live in, plenty of hardware and home repair stores told me to send my husband down to pick something up when I walked in with clear and specific questions. Sometimes these comments from realtors and others were made patronizingly and sometimes very rude and insulting, but even though it was easy to prove I understood how to remove and replace a bathroom faucet it often wasn’t accepted. I patronized the hardware store that accepted my questions and always gave me the best products and other information I could use because caring for an elderly house is a learning project.
Those are the “highlights” as it were. By the 90s remarks like those still happened, but were more on more of a personal level than the institutionalized style I’d encountered before that. None of it ever stopped me.
With those instances in my experience and in my lifetime I have always been aware that discrimination against women was still alive and well, tucked into the corners, and still don’t take for granted that I can do what I please as I please to do it. Some communities still have laws regarding a man legally beating his wife, or that women are barred from certain types of employment. But even with laws in place, it’s our social culture that still permits these discriminations. I’m shocked by many of the current comments that people find normal about how women should be treated, and have been treated, to the amusement of others.
Not just women, but anyone who is “different”
And if those little bits of rudeness toward me were irritating, I can’t imagine the systemic and institutionalized discrimination shown toward people with a skin color that didn’t appear to be white, or people who loved someone of the same gender, or people who by no fault of their own couldn’t live normally in this society because of a missing limb, or sense, or a mental or emotional issue that kept them from being part of everyday life, or someone of a religion that is not Christian. In other words, people who did not fit the very narrow definition of “normal”, defined by whoever was in power at the time. If I feel that my rights as a woman, so long established, could be easily swept away, I can’t imagine the rights of those so newly won, in the past eight years.
Most of those in power have been white and men. When it’s taken these many years for women and others to finally feel we have protections that allow us to live as full members of our society, those who made the laws did not include everyone in the laws explicitly or by inference and we feel we need representation that resembles us and in the approximate number that exists in our population. Without it, legally or socially, the progress that has made in accepting all the diversity in this country could simply be lost.
So what were we marching for? To not be forgotten. To hold onto what we have. To be recognized. To not forget disrespectful and discriminatory remarks the new president has made. To join with each other to make something greater than we could do alone. E Pluribus Unum.
Below is a gallery of images from the march. I will caption them someday so they have a little more narrative.
Raise Your Hand, Raise Your Sign, Raise Your Voice
And Justice For All
And here is me after the march was over. Thanks to my friend Bonnie for taking my picture! When you’re the photographer, people never get to see you.
The illustration above is a sampler of all the shades of pastel I’ve used while painting portraits and sketches of people of all different “colors”, skin tones and ethnicities. Tell me, who is “black” and who is “white”? And what does “colored” mean?
In truth, we are all “colored”. Each of our faces has the darkest and lightest tones and all those in between, and even some colors we’d be surprised to find in skin tones. I can tell you that all the colors I smudged there have appeared in the highlights and shadows and mid-tones of every face. It largely depends on where you are standing in relation to the light.
Some people have suggested that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of black children and white children going forward hand in hand, the ideal of seeing a person not for the color of their skin but for the content of their character, had the goal of a “colorblind” society. That’s a noble ideal on one hand, where we just don’t notice the color of a person’s skin in any situation and go on from there.
But does that truly bring justice to wrongdoing and change society in a way that makes the injustice people have suffered because of that color unacceptable? To suddenly begin to ignore the color of a person’s skin and jump immediately to integration is to jump right over the injustices done to people because of the color of their skin. It’s also ignoring an essential part of another person, shutting the door on a section of their life, a part that makes them distinctive. King did not use the term “colorblind” in any speech or written document, but his point is described by historians as a more “color aware” society where we recognize our differences, celebrate them and thereby heal through those very differences among ourselves.
When I create a piece of visual artwork I look for what makes the subject inspiring to me, what makes it distinctive, what makes me excited to share it with you. I like contrasts, I find what makes my subject different in its class, what makes it stand out from its surroundings. It’s my joy to find and share “the extraordinary in the ordinary”. If everything I painted looked the same, what need would there be for artwork?
Looking at people has always been like looking at a field of flowers for me—I find it hard to settle on one before I skip to another while I enjoy the visually exciting effect of all those different colors and shapes and heights and structures. Then I can can pause on each one and get to know each in its own unique detail.
When I rode the bus, long before I painted anything let alone a human portrait, I quietly studied all the faces around me for color and shape and texture, eye color, the hair that framed it, accessories and jewelry, and was often started by a stern expression of someone who didn’t understand why I studied them so intently. I was just looking for the things that made them unique and beautiful—not in the classic sense of beauty but in the classical sense, in that beauty is truth, in being true to who we are inside showing that on the outside, like the flower in the field that can’t help but be what it is.
If we are colorblind, we intentionally ignore some of the fundamental differences that make each of us irreplaceable. That denies a basic part of our personal existence and of human existence as a species; it denies a portion of our very identity as an individual.
That takes an awful lot of effort. Why not admit to our differences and get to know each other in full, and find the beauty in each of us. We have always been and will always be different from each other and might as well get used to it.