My Mother's Notebook:
The blessing of being different

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing, Atlanta, Sept. 26, 1998)

This is a column about being normal.

When I was a high school student, I won a state poetry contest. My winning poem was a heartsick lament written about the soul-less girlfriend who had jilted me. The poem described her as a "mechanical goddess." On the day my poem was published, I came home from school to find my mother in a rather somber mood. She held the book in which my poem was published.

My mother, who is a stroke patient now, had not been the world's most sensitive parent. Usually, when I sum up childhood with her, I tell people about my experience during the Cuban Missile Crisis. While everyone else was building fallout shelters, my mother assumed her usual position on the sofa with a cup of coffee, devouring a dozen novels at a time.

Living amid this panic and being forced to hide under my desk at school during atomic-attack drills, I was nervous to say the least. I bugged Mama repeatedly to build us a fallout shelter. Finally, one day, she looked up from her book and said: "We would rather be burned alive than live in the ground on canned soup for six months."

So you get the picture.

I came home the day my poem was published and my mother sat down with me. She told me the most important fact of life she was ever to communicate. "You know," she said, "you probably really are going to have a difficult life. People are not going to understand you a lot of the time."

With that she handed me the poetry book. My poem was illustrated. I looked at the illustration and back at her, confused.

"Why is it illustrated with a car?" I asked. It showed a cartoon jalopy on a junk heap with a lovesick look on its "face."

"Because they thought it was about a car," she replied, sighing.

"They gave me an award for a poem they didn't even understand?"

"Yes," she said. "It's a good poem, but they didn't get it."

"I guess I didn't make it clear enough," I said.

"If you had made yourself any clearer, it would have been awful," she replied. "Welcome to the big world."

This was an uncharacteristically sympathetic moment for my mother, herself an artist in her youth. She had spent most of my childhood trying to make me "normal," even though she, for example, ranked attending an hour-long garden club meeting as only slightly better than six months in a fallout shelter.

Throughout childhood, I preferred living in my imagination by drawing and writing, but Mama was determined to normalize and socialize me. I was subjected to everything from horseback riding classes to gymnastics. My reading time was curtailed. (My parents once dragged me away from my books and threw me, like a vampire, into the sunlight and fresh air.) It was all eventually for naught, of course, doing nothing to normalize me but very effectively making me feel guilty about being "abnormal."

So, her statement on this day in the final year of high school was a reversal. Yes, as she was constantly saying, I did "march to the beat of a different drummer." This time, though, she didn't follow the statement with a thousand qualifications about the need to fall into step with everyone else. It is funny how such moments can undo a great deal of resentment.

More than 20 years later, after Mama's stroke, I visited her and my father at their home on the Georgia coast. On a table in the den, I found a collection of pages tied together with ribbons. It was labeled: "My Artist's Notebook." As I began reading, I thought it was something from my own past -- a school project I'd forgotten. But, noticing a date, I realized it was my mother's, from the time she was 16.

Nobody around had any idea where it had come from. And so, for me, it was heavensent. As I read, my mother spoke to me from her own childhood about her ambitions as an artist. And every page was shot-through with the fear of her own destiny -- how she would be regarded as a weirdo, never make any money. The images in the book revealed her own conflict: Norman Rockwell's homey illustrations contrasted with work from the surrealists.

My mother chose the "normal" route. She married and had children, became very prosperous, eventually tying up her art supplies in the attic, terrified, I assume, of the unconventionality of her own vision, though she suffered depression throughout her life. Of course, after so many years this explained to me her motives in my childhood. She wished to spare me the kind of discomfort that nagged at her because she was different.

After I found the book, I cried a very long time. It was such a miracle. My mother's voice has been taken by her stroke, but somehow this 55-year-old book appeared and was able once and for all to explain how she had tried to protect me from her own fears of being "abnormal." When I went into her room, where the maid was brushing her hair, I showed her the book. I asked if I could have it. She lit up. In fact, the whole room was filled with the light of forgiveness. I knew that she was granting me the blessing to follow my destiny, even though hers had been sacrificed .

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