Friday, May 23, 2008
I'll be honest, life with my mother was not easy, especially lately. She was impulsive, defensive, impatient, critical, insensitive, bossy, entitled, intolerant, above reproach, and often, impetuous. And she died, completely without warning on Sunday afternoon, May 18th, at her home in Maryland. I thought life with her was nearly impossible, but life without her is bleaker. Despite our differences, I love her, and wish more than anything, she was still here.
It seemed that there were no consequences for my mother in her world. She did what she wanted, ate what she wanted, and said whatever the hell popped into her head no matter how harsh, and oh, how that frustrated us. But I know, too, that sometimes our greatest weaknesses are our greatest strengths, and often we are hardest on those we love the most. My mother loved my father, sisters and me, set the standard higher for us, is all. I think my mother innately knew that life was too short, and for her, she did not want to be caught up in too many details, too many rules. She was a big picture person. In spending time in her home this week with my father and sisters, it's been good therapy to be close to my mother's spirit; helping my father make our mother's final arrangements, has made my mother's love and the positive side of her larger-than-life personality abundantly apparent.
My mother was an artist; she worked almost exclusively in watercolors for the last 20 years or so. She also had begun teaching art in the Salisbury, Maryland area, and in speaking with her shocked colleagues and students over the last few days has made me remember with clarity her ability to make others feel important and confident. In the last week, I've heard many in her art circle talk about how she had a following, a passion for life, and how she inspired so many. Because my most recent years with her have been complicated, it was, at least for a short time, difficult to see my mother in the way she was described by her art students. But I woke up on Tuesday morning, too early and crying, on the couch in her family room, remembering — knowing — how and why people loved her, in fact, how and why they flocked to her.
Some of my most favorite memories with my mom involve driving, even though she went about it in a way that would horrify society today. She was above the law: she drove fast, and made her own lane, cursed everyone else on the road, and always had Neil Diamond blaring on the stereo. As time wore on, the disregard for the law, the aggressiveness toward other drivers, and most importantly, the Neil Diamond music, embarrassed me (very nearly to death), but as a young child, sitting in the seat behind her in the family van (unbuckled, of course), with the sun on my freckled face, the hot wind mussing up my hair, belting Neil's Greatest Hits, completely unaware of just how inappropriate the lyrics to "Girl, You'll Be a Woman, Soon" and "Desiree" were, was just exhilarating. We often had several friends, neighborhood kids, and/or cousins in the van with us, and wow, we owned the road.
We had coloring books and crayons, but they were gifts from others. Maggie would never buy them for her own children, oh no. The orderliness of coloring books, she told us, might just make us stupid. She approached art like her driving, and she encouraged us to disregard the lines. She allowed us access to her fine papers and expensive supplies, and while she she loudly protested so many other activities and details in life, she'd give us plenty of quiet time, guidance, encouragement, and permission to explore what colors could do on paper.
My mother had an uncanny ability to immediately sense someone's weakness, and to know precisely how to push their buttons. My sisters and I inherited a bit of this, but I think, as we got older, have tried to suppress it because of the conflict it can cause. But Maggie honed those skills without apology, and I think it was this particular trait that made her one hell of a card player. Throughout my childhood, there were peanut- and smoke-filled evenings in the kitchen, and week after week, the contents of her penny jar grew to the point she'd need to get larger jars. If she had been playing for real money instead of pennies, we'd have been rich, that's for sure.
As we got older, we dabbled in scout clubs, but I think because of my mother's disregard for the rules, scouting didn't go so well for the Ott girls. My mom did try, though, and even, at one point, led a Brownie Scout troupe. It would have ended badly, I'm sure, but just in the nick of time, my mother found our school's drama club needed a parent director, so she saved us from the sheeplike group-think of the scouts, and got us small roles in the school plays. My mother was very aware that other parents might accuse her of nepotism, so none of us had any major roles, until her youngest, my sister Jenny, was nearly at the end of her grade school career, and casted her as the lead, and our family dog, Tramp, as Sandy, in the unbearable "Annie." My mom was done with drama club after that, on her own terms, pleased, I think, with her daughter's and dog's performances in an otherwise intolerable show.
Later, we all had stint with the church youth group, which was, more than anything, one hell of a social event, a three- to four-year party. Between the youth group and the drama club, Maggie had cast her net wide, and affected very literally hundreds of school kids, nearly all of whom wound up coming to our house over the years. Our place was Grand Central Station, and I don't remember many nights without someone crashed on the couch. Several times, friends, cousins, neighborhood kids would get kicked out of their own homes, and my mother took them in. Always.
I went off to college, and on the weekends I came home, often found a rowdier scene than what was going on in Wolfe Hall at Trenton State College. Neil Diamond continued to blare, and my mother sat at her spot at the table, holding court with a half a dozen people at any given time. The house was smoke-filled, and the dishes were piled high; bacon rolls and pepperoni bread were warm in the oven, and the card game was cutthroat. One night I got in late, and found the usual scene in the kitchen, but discovered my father, two dogs, several neighborhood kids, my sisters, and a Howell Township cop passed out on the couch in the other room. The game that night was the seemingly innocuous Skip-bo — no money even changed hands — but it left the losers devastated, piled like old clothes headed for the thrift store. The game went on into the wee hours of the morning, my mother victorious, and her victim pile impressive. I never understood until today why the Skip-Bo losers were so ravaged, but apparently, the game was originally called "Spite and Malice."
We all got older, and my parents moved from Howell to Little Egg Harbor, where it always seemed unnaturally quiet. My sisters and I were off living our own lives, and there was a dearth of neighborhood kids. My mother shifted gears and got back in touch with her art. Always the gambler, she took risks, and entered shows, and displayed her work in galleries, and started teaching. I think she really enjoyed the recognition that came along with the shows and contests, but her infectious personality and her lack of regard for convention made her an excellent teacher. I attended a few of her workshops, and was impressed with her style and her ability to make people believe in themselves. She and my dad moved to Maryland in 2003, and she continued teaching, and was able to reach many more people. Recently, she was working on a website for herself, where she had hoped to be able to sell some of her paintings.
My mother wrote scads of letters of complaints to all sorts of companies and agencies. I found this simultaneously hilarious and just plain awful. She seldom bothered to read the fine print, her complaints usually stemmed from user error, and she could never accept responsibility for that. And, her standards were ridiculously high, and I think it made her a bit mean sometimes. Where I'd be inclined to let a lot of things go, Maggie felt that if you were paying for a good or a service, it should be impeccable. I do agree with this, in theory. It's just our society is so screwed, and our economy is even more screwed, and because of low quality standards and stupid hiring practices, many of us have really low expectations. Maggie would be faced with this ineptitude over and over again, and she never accepted it. Ever. Maybe if more of us were as intolerant of low standards, we wouldn't be in our current situation?
Not long ago, she was interviewed by a local paper in her area, and she and the reporter weren't able to understand one another. My mother, as I mentioned earlier, could be very difficult, and at times, downright combative. And the poor reporter was young, and maybe not so cut out for the job, but her editor insisted on getting the story on my mom. The miscommunication between them was over a seemingly simple issue: the color green. My mother has always taken great pride in making her own green paint out of different levels of blue and yellow. The young reporter — eager for feedback — had made the critical error of reading my mother an early draft of her article, and said in a way that was apropos to nothing that my mother made her own green paint. Period. My mother was none too pleased, and they butted heads. After a few rounds, my mother grew worried about how the article might come out, and she knew I understood how she felt about green, and she knew I'd be able to communicate those feelings to the reporter. My mother, a colorful gal, and someone who had never followed the rules, was saying that manufactured green paint was lame, restrictive to an artist, did not pay proper tribute to this wonderful lush planet on which we live. Look out the window, I told the reporter, and look at the greens. No two greens are the same; due to the light and shadows of the sun and the other foliage; due to the levels of chlorophyll; due to variation in species and cultivars; due, simply, to maybe how we see things. My mother set aside the commercial greens, and made her own, with every leaf and every blade of grass she painted, meticulously adjusting her yellows and blues to create lavishly dimensional landscapes, inspired by her own colorful gardens and surroundings.
I have not mentioned this on my blog or to that many people, largely because of fear, but I'm pregnant again, and due August 17th. Losing our first daughter, Catherine, was life-changing, jarring, but left me with a far better appreciation for biology and family and legacy. My mother was devastated by Catherine's death, and she and my father came to see us on the day the baby came, and my mother cradled her little body, aware, as a mother, of the violation and sacredness in that day. Very quickly, though, she pushed me to get pregnant again — which I wanted, although it terrified me, because it is so hard to hope when my only experience was so perfect and uneventful, and ultimately yielded a beautiful baby who did not live, a baby who died on her lifeline. I'm not as much of a risk taker as my mother is, but I know this one is worth it. I appreciate my mother's encouragement, though, so much of it seemed full of the "get over it" mentality; and that just isn't possible, not in those terms. When I did conceive, she would not tolerate my worries; it felt dismissive of Catherine, and I hate this so much now, but this drove a wedge between us. I just needed her to acknowledge my concerns — I am level, despite all the reasons not to be — and for whatever reason, she wouldn't, or couldn't understand my very nervous hopefulness. Maybe she didn't want to vocalize her own fears, her own pain of losing her little granddaughter, in an attempt to keep me positive. This baby — if we're lucky to bring him/her home — will not replace Catherine; this baby is, even in utero, unique, different, and is loved, already, just the same. I don't want people to forget my first child, and it killed me to think that perhaps my mother was forgetting about her. The other day, my dad asked me to organize some files on their computer, and I came across a recent letter my mother had written to some legislators, regarding the type of certificates parents of deceased babies are issued. Catherine was full-term, and her death, ultimately, a horrible accident, but we were issued a fetal death certificate, which did not acknowledge her life, or, that I had given birth to her. Law required that we bury or cremate her, which is something we do for the living, for fellow humans. So, to not get that acknowledgment of her life, and my huge efforts, was hard. My mother wrote to the politician about how beautiful and precious Catherine was, and how much she was loved, and how we all had so many hopes and dreams for her, and she — and other babies like her – needed to be acknowledged as babies, not just fetuses. My mother never shared with me that she had written this letter; I wish she had. Oh, regrets. How I hate to be deprived of both a daughter, and a mother now. I hope this new life within me makes it, and outlives us, as nature intends, but I hate the thought this new person will not have the chance know his/her maternal grandmother.
My mother was 63. Way too young. She never followed the rules, not even the suggested guidelines, in any area of life. So, she was diabetic, and had high blood pressure. She had been trying recently to improve her diet, to even follow the rules a bit. Her death was due to those health issues, and so, we hate that death took her just as she was making some physical changes for the better, it's just so untimely, so unfair. I suppose, in some ways, I'm grateful that her last months were filled with her favorite foods, even if she was not indulging as much in the most recent days. She, like all of us, was imperfect. But she was a force of nature, full of life. And I loved her, flaws and all. My life is emptier without her.