I struggled after my mother died of ovarian cancer in 2000. She was 61 and our love was complicated. Two years after she died I hit an emotional wall and had to go find help. My marriage was showing cracks too. I have written about Adverse Childhood Experiences, but there can be love too, even in a difficult household. I wrote this poem during that time.
My mom loved me
It’s herself she didn’t love
She didn’t love her anger
She didn’t love her fear
She didn’t love her sorrow
She didn’t love her shadows
She packed all her troubles in her saddlebags
and rode forth singing
When I was angry
she felt her anger
When I was scared
she felt her fear
When I was sad
she felt her sorrow
When I felt my shadows
she felt hers
I hid my shadows
I hid my shadows for many years
and then my saddlebags were full
They called me
I dove in the sea
I rescued my anger
I rescued my fear
I rescued my sorrows
I rescued my shadows
At first I couldn’t love them
My mom didn’t; how could I?
But I loved my mom
I loved all of her
Her singing and courage
I thought if I could love her shadows
I could love my own
It was hard
It took months
I looked in the mirror at my own face
And slowly I was able to have
Compassion for myself
I am sad that my mom is not
where I can touch her warmth
and tell her I love all of her
I tell her anyway
I’m finding many things as I surface from my dive
Sometimes I feel the presence of angels
I was looking for something else
I found a valentine
that she made me
Many hearts cut out and glued
to red paper
I am so surprised
My mom loves me shadows and all now and forever.
My mother used to quote “Pack all your troubles in your saddlebags and ride forth singing.” Does anyone know where this if from? I have not found the source. It could be her mother or her mother’s parents.
The photograph is my father, the year my sister died of cancer, 2012.He died in 2013.
After 8 weeks (10 weeks from the last menstrual period) the developing pregnancy is called a fetus. It cannot survive outside the womb. A term pregnancy is 37 weeks, and the due date is at 40 weeks. The earliest survival, certainly not natural, is around 24 weeks. This takes heavy intervention and technology, a premature infant on a ventilator for months. There is risk of damage to the eyes from high oxygen and risk of spontaneous brain bleed and cerebral palsy, because the newborn can weigh half a pound. Once born, the fetus is termed a baby.
This is important from a medical standpoint and pounded into us as physicians. WHY? Because in a trauma situation, the life of the mother comes first. In Obstetrics and Family Medicine, the life of the mother comes first. In Oncology, the life of the mother comes first. My sister was diagnosed with stage IIIB ductal breast cancer at age 41. She was engaged and it turned out that she was pregnant. She wrote this essay on her blog, Butterfly Soup:
She had an abortion and chose chemotherapy, because it was her or the fetus. If she had chemotherapy pregnant, at that time she was told that it would probably kill the fetus or cause terrible birth defects. If she held off on chemotherapy for seven months, her oncologist thought she would die. She had a very very aggressive cancer and she already had a daughter who needed her.
She lived until age 49, with multiple rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, gamma knife radiation, whole brain radiation. And she lived until her daughter was 13. Without the abortion, her physicians thought she would have died when her daughter was 7.
My ethics in medicine are that patients have autonomy. I would NOT have wanted my sister to choose to refuse chemo and try to bring a baby to term while dying of breast cancer. However, it was HER CHOICE, not mine. It was private and no one else’s business and how dare people make moral judgements about another person’s medical choices. I give my patients CHOICES. They can choose not to treat cancer and go into hospice. They can choose surgery or refuse it. They can choose to treat opioid addiction or refuse. They may die of a heroin overdose and I grieve. I try to convince them to go to treatment and I give them nalaxone to try to reverse overdoses. I refuse a medication or treatment that I think will harm my patients, but my patients have autonomy and choices. That extends to women and pregnancy as well.
It is NOT a baby in the womb, however emotionally attached people are to this image. It is an embryo first and then a fetus. And in a car wreck, the woman comes first and the fetus second.
It is my mother’s birthday today, May 31. She died in May 2000. Helen Burling Ottaway and I miss her daily. Hugs to all the mothers and the fathers and everyone who has lost their mother one way or another.
I took this photograph in the mid 1980s, borrowing a camera from a friend.
That’s what makes them angry that I love my liar sister even though she lied even though she hurt me even though she lied to them
That’s what makes them angry that I love my liar sister they want to love her lies they don’t want to know the truth they want to hide from lies
That’s what makes them angry
they are hella jealous
they want to be loved like that
they want to be loved whole
they want to be loved entire
they want to be loved even when they lie
That’s what makes them angry
they are so afraid to be themselves
they are so afraid to tell the truth
they are so afraid to be honest with each other
they are so tired of hiding
That’s what makes them angry one says she will be friends if we only talk about the positive about my mother, father, sister I counter: let’s not mention them at all nor your husband. Not a word. She doesn’t answer. Silence.
That’s what makes them sad
they don’t want to feel the anger
they deny the heartache
they avoid the longing
they bargain with their souls
they refuse to feel the grief
let us feel the anger let us feel the heartache let us feel the longing let us feel our grief let us feel our souls
Beloved, we long for you so
Please, Beloved, love us whole
My sister sent me a t-shirt from Wicked. She died of cancer in 2012. The deaths from Covid-19 and every death brings her back to me. And this song sums up our relationship.
I am blogging A to Z about artists, particularly women artists and mostly about my mother, Helen Burling Ottaway.
I find two copies of her resume. One is from 1991 and one from 1993. I will add the 1993 information, but it’s a LOT. My mother was prolific! She complained about getting ready for shows and I did not realize how very many she did! I am so proud of her. She died of ovarian cancer in 2000 and I do miss her still.
Helen Burling Ottaway
Del Ray Atelier
105 E. Monroe Ave
Alexandria, VA 22301
SELECTED SOLO SHOWS
1991 Nov Will have solo show at Bird-in-Hand Gallery, Washington, DC
1989 Sept “Cascades: Watercolors of Washington State”, Bird-in-Hand Gallery, Washington, DC
1988 Nov “Fantasy Etchings”, National Orthopedic Hospital, Arlington, VA
1987 Oct “Spirits to Enforce, Art to Enchant”, Fantasy Art, River Road Uniterian Church, Bethesda, MD
1986 Mar “Prints and Poems”, Poetry by Katy Ottaway, Martin Luther King Library, Washington, DC
1984 Nov “Forests, Flower, and Fantasies”, Sola Gallery, Ithaca, NY
Apr “Birdland and other Lullabies”, Pastels, Gallery West, Alexandria, VA
1981 May “Fantastical Bestiary”, Etchings and Drawings, Gallery West, Alexandria, VA
Mar “The Way of the Brush”, Watercolors, Gallery One, Alexandria, VA
TWO PERSON SHOWS
1986 Nov Two Person Show, “An Occasional Pair of Claws”, Fantasy Art with Omar Dasent, Gallery West, Alexandria, VA
1985 Apr Two person Show, “Figures and Foliage”, Pastels, Capital Centre Gallery, Landover, MD
1982 Nov Two Person Show, “The Four Seasons”, Gallery West, Alexandria, VA
SELECTED GROUP SHOWS
1990 Feb “Visions 1990” Westbeth Gallery, New York, NY
1989 Feb “Year in—Year out”, Studio Gallery, Washington, DC
1988 Mar “independent Visions III”, Metro Gallery, Arlington, VA
May Juried Show, Sculpture, The Art League, Alexandria, VA, Juror: Bertold Schmutzart
1987 Dec Juried Show: “The Best of 1987”, Martin Luther King Library, Washington, DC, Jurors: Dr.
Jacqueline Serwer, Sandra Wested, Robert Stewart
1987 Apr “Independent Visions, Fifteen Women Artists”, Metro Gallery, Arlington, VA
Feb “Portraits 1987”, The Art Barn, Washington, DC
1986 Oct “Juried Show, “Printmakers VIII”, The New Art Center, Washington, DC
Jan “Independent Visions”, Metro Gallery, Arlington, VA
1985 Dec Invitational, “Highlights of the Year”, Martin Luther King Library, Washington, DC. Jurors:
Linda Hartigan and Monroe Fabian
Nov Invitational, “The Macadam Nueve-Splintergreen Conspiracy Show”, Gallerie Inti,
Washington, DC. Curated by Omar Dasent and Ann Stein
Oct Juried show, “Printmakers VII”, WWAC, Washington, DC. Juror: Jane Farmer
Mar Invitational, “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to be Artists”, The Splintergreen
Conspiracy, Martin Luther King Library, Washington, DC. Curated by Omar Dasent
Mar “Shakespearean Images”, Hofstra University, Hempstead, NY
1984 Nov Juried Show, “Printmakers VI”, WWAC, Washington, DC. Juror: Carol Pulin
July Juried Show, “Printmakers VI”, WWAC, Washington, DC. Juror: Jo Anna Olshonsky
Oct Four Person Show, “Just Four”, Galerie Triangle, Washington, DC
“The First Great American Camel Show”, Gallery West, Alexandria, VA
1983 Mar Juried Show, “Printmakers V”, WWAC, Washington, DC. Juror: Barbara Fiedler
Feb Juried Show, “Artists – Art Historians: A Retrospective 1972-1982”, National Conference, The Women’s Caucus for Art,m Bryce Gallery, Moore College, Philadelphia, PA
1982 May Juried Show, “Woman as Myth and Archetype”, WWAC, Wshington, DC. Juror: Mary Beth Edelson
Feb Invitational, “Art is where the Heart is”, Gallery 805, Fredricksberg, VA
Feb “The Printmakers of the WWAC, The Torpedo Factory, Alexandria, VA
Jan Juried Show, “The Eye of Eleanor Monroe”, WWAC, Washington, DC Juror: Eleanor Monroe
1981 Oct. Juried Show, “Collage and Drawing”, WWAC, Washington, DC Juror: Jan Root
Numerous juried shows, the Art League, Alexandria, VA
Numerous group shows, Gallery West, Alexandria, VA
1967 B.F.A Cornell University, Ithaca, NW
1992-currently Teach Drawing and Watercolor, Capital Hill Arts Workshop, Washington, DC
Teach Art Class for Seniors, Recreation Department, Alexandria, VA
Teach etching workshops and watercolors at the Delray Atelier, Alexandria, VA
1987-1990 Graphic Artist, Al Porter Graphics, Washington, DC
1985 Fall Co-Director of Gallery West, Alexandria, VA
1982 Director of Exhibitions, WWAC, Washington, DC
1982 Director of Gallery West, Alexandria, VA
1981 Chair of Exhibitions Committee of Gallery West, Alexandia, VA
Taught watercolor classes at Washington Women’s Art Center, Washington, DC
Taught children’s art classes for the Arlington Recreation Department
1967-1970 Assistant Curator at the Ithaca College Museum of Art, Ithaca, NY
I am blogging A to Z about artists, particularly women artists and mostly about my mother, Helen Burling Ottaway. Today’s post is about my mother and my sister: another woman artist. Christine Robbins Ottaway.
I do not have much of her fine art. She was a landscape architect and historic preservation expert and worked for Caltrans. She also wrote, on her blog Butterfly Soup, and in other places.
The painting is an oil, by my mother Helen Ottaway, done when my sister was 14. This painting seems especially creepy to me, the oranges and blues. I love the painting but it is frightening as well. My sister could write terrifying stories. Here is my poem about one of her stories. The title of her story is “We don’t make good wives”.
They are papering over your memory They want the clean version The inhuman perfect version I remember the violent sea serpent Related to Aunt Nessie: me, I think
He stole your skin, you say
But you lure him to, posing
On the shore naked
And let him take you home
And impregnate you
And then you have six daughters
What did he expect? you say
Cold blooded and beautiful
White skin and greenish hair
Who all can swim like fish
and all seven search
Until you find the skin
and then away
You say, he took my skin
Now I have taken his
Let them paper over your memory Let them pretend you were sweet I hold your words in my mind And I love you wholly
Today is my sister’s birthday, Christine Robbins Ottaway. She died of breast cancer in 2012 at age 49. She had gotten stage IIIB breast cancer at age 41. She went through mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation and was clear for two years. Then it recurred and she returned to treatment, rounds of chemotherapy, a gamma knife radiation, another gamma knife and whole brain radiation. She was very very strong and tough and fought the cancer right up until the end.
This photograph was taken at my father’s 70th birthday party, in 2008. My friend Maline took the photograph. She and other old friends gathered and we sang the family folk songs.
Here is a drawing that my mother Helen Burling Ottaway did in 1978 of Chris. My mother always had a sketchbook. This is one she sent to me, because I was an exchange student in Denmark that year. At Christmas I received the wonderful sketchbook with my mother’s comments. My sister was 14 when I went to Denmark and I was 17.
I am raised by a family of triangulating enablers and enablees.
The enablers are my mother and two uncles. They are very very smart. Let me qualify that: they are very very smart intellectually. Emotionally, not so much.
The two uncles have PhDs and are professors. They marry wives that are lessor in their view. One tells my mother that he wants a woman who is not as bright as he is. I don’t know if she is less bright, but she is a hella better athlete. I also have the impression that she had a time where she drank too much.
The other uncle marries a woman who tends to be a hypochondriac. He takes her to India, where she gets polio while pregnant. She is then a sick hypochondriac, which is very difficult. The ill can control their families by planning things and then getting sick at the last moment. On the other hand, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia are very real and we are on the edge of figuring them out. That uncle divorces his wife and I instantly like both of them better. They stop being a weird unit and are suddenly individuals.
My mother tells me, when I am in college, “I wondered if your father was an alcoholic when I married him.” I want to hit her. She won’t leave him, she won’t stop enabling him, they scream at each other at 2 am often. Now I wonder about that and conclude that either screaming at someone was something she needed or she was an alchoholic too.
After my mother dies, I ask my uncle, what about his parents? After all, the three of them learned enabling somewhere and it pretty much has to be at home.
My uncle tells me his parents had a PERFECT marriage and that my grandmother LOVED being the wife of a physician and professor.
Um, so, then, why did she pay my tuition to medical school, uncle?
And I think about my mother’s stories. Once, she says, your Uncle Jim bet his friend Dick that Dick was too chicken to shoot a cigarette out of Jim’s mother’s mouth. Ooooo. With a rubber band shooter. Yes, my grandmother. Bob took the bet and succeeded. My grandmother roared with anger and the two boys ran like hell and hid.
And someone in the family tells me: your grandfather helped your grandmother control her temper.
There it is. The enabler/enablee.
The enablers die first. My grandfather of cancer at 79, my mother of cancer at 62. The cousins are all angry at me because I won’t follow the family rules and triangulate in a satisfactory manner, and I don’t care any more. I am ignoring them. I got my father’s banjo back and I am done. The two cousins I own land with jointly are not the worst triangulators.
I have to remind myself: for them, this is love. For some people, controlling or being controlled is what functions as love and intimacy. Fighting and tears when person A talks to person C about person B and person C then lets person B know, that is how they feel close. It is not only families, but communities. Clay Shirky’s description of a group being it’s own worst enemy describes the same patterns: identify an enemy inside or outside the group and then everyone comes together against the enemy. The enemy says the wrong thing, doesn’t worship the right god/desses, wears different clothes, looks different. And the group feels safer once the scapegoat has been killed, the guy has been burned. It would be nice if we could burn a ritual guy instead of torching each other.
The real anger is in the enabler. They control it by having the enablee express it. Then it is not “theirs”. They can feel superior to the enablee who is out of control. Sadly, the problem is only fixed temporarily and they will need their anger expressed again and again and again.
written 12/26/17. I wrote this about another writing site. It is falling to bits, like a old building not maintained. It makes me sad, because it is where my sister used to write.She died in 2012and I still often miss her.
Damaged because it has put me out six times? Four times with pneumonia, once with preterm labor, and once with mononucleosis. Plus getting really sick with strep A as a kid, an earache that had me crying with pain at age 8, coughs in medical school that would hang on for six weeks and not respond to albuterol. Only rest would help. A year this time and not better yet, 6 months out last time and then seven years working half time. In 2012 out two months. 2005 out two months. Preterm labor out 6 months. Mononucleosis: dropped ten pounds and did not feel better or gain it back for two months. How much income have I lost? A lot. Am I damaged?
Blessed because I am not dead? My sister dies of cancer at 49, my mother at 61, my mother’s father at 79. All three married people who had “anger issues”. And all three got cancer.
I think that they had anger that they could not reach.
I do not think that ALL cancer is buried, unexamined, unresolved anger. But I am starting to see a medical pathway that could lead from buried anger or other buried emotions to illness and death. The buried emotions are stressful. The body tries to hold the stress. The body works very hard at it. The conscious mind is not aware. This is the realm of the unconscious. The stress, the unresolved trauma, anger, grief, whatever, triggers antibodies. Heightened sympathetic nervous system, higher adrenaline and higher cortisol. Cortisol is the steroid system. Steroids help to lower inflammation but they also impair the immune system. The immune system is chronically suppressed, trashed, and then it can’t do its job. Anti lysoganglioside antibodies form and block the lysogangliosides. The lysogangliosides are supposed to clean house in the brain. They can’t clean house, they are paralyzed. And the brain forms plaques: dementia. Or some other antibody forms that blocks cancer removing cells in the immune system: and there it is. Cancer.
We all have cancer all the time, that our immune system is removing. That’s a little weird to think about, isn’t it? So we need healthy immune systems, we need the parasympathetic nervous system, we need to relax, we need to play, we need to laugh ourselves silly at stupid cat videos, we need to make ridiculous memes go viral on TikTok, we need to use the power of the internet to drive the cost of a share up just to fuck with the rich Bosses, because we are tired of them fucking us over.
So, says my sig other, or he who used to be. You need to avoid stress, in order to not get sick again.
Well. I stopped eating on Saturday a week ago and ate minimal calories and mostly high protein and fat. Because I was pretty sure he was breaking up with me. He felt the same about me. I was terrified when we walked two days ago, so I wore the dragon shirt. Most of all I wanted not to yell.
Neither of us yelled. We both listened. He doesn’t know why he has shut me out of three areas of his life, and the three most important ones. It isn’t me. He is aware that it is him. He was not really aware that he was doing it. I am trained to hide emotions, from childhood in my crazy family and then physicians are trained as well. I cry with patients sometimes, when we find that their cancer is back, or other things like that. The child dying. But I can hold a calm expression even when a person tells me that they are hearing voices telling them to kill themselves and would I please take out the antenna in their tooth. So I sat hard on my emotions for ten months. Until I thought the right time had come.
Even then, I did my best and screwed up. We’d opened up one thing and I thought the rest would be ok. I sent an email. Whoa, boy, it was NOT ok, and I got yelled at. I burst into tears. I didn’t feel like yelling at all, I was crushed. But it is ok, it had to come out. The Year of the Ox is almost over. I hope the Year of the Tiger is less horrible. But at the same time, I would not trade the time with him for anything.
Damaged or blessed? Cursed or blessed?
Both, I think. All of us.
I am submitting this to today’s Ragtag Daily Prompt, though it is not a hawk.
Refugees welcome - Flüchtlinge willkommen I am teaching German to refugees. Ich unterrichte geflüchtete Menschen in der deutschen Sprache. I am writing this blog in English and German because my friends speak English and German. Ich schreibe auf Deutsch und Englisch, weil meine Freunde Deutsch und Englisch sprechen.