B is for Busy and Burling

My mother, Helen Burling Ottaway, was a very busy and prolific artist.

Every New Year’s, she would resolve to paint a water color a day. By March she would complain that she had only painted 25 or 30. However, she would also be doing birthday presents for me and my sister and our father, all in March, and crafts and etchings and pastels and a life drawing class and the sketchbook that she constantly carried.

B is also for baby. The etching is of my sister, Christine Robbins Ottaway, as a baby. The title is Chris I and she did this in 1968.

I have described the process for etchings here: Four Seasons.

My mother was a very busy artist.

#ATOZBLOGGINGCHALLENGE2022 # art # Women artists # Helen Burling Ottaway

first impressions

I am taking a writing class and our next book is on cultural appropriation.

This interests me. I tend to be a little gender blind and race blind when I meet people. I am using my super skill instead. My skill is developed from a really scary childhood: I read the stuffed emotions. The stuff people are hiding.

No way, you say. Oh, yes, I say.

My sister described coming home from high school and stopping when she walked into the house. She was trying to sense what was going on. Were our parents fighting? Was our father drunk? Yes, he was drunk, but which stage?

We talked about the stages and which we hated most.

Stage goofy/silly was annoying but not toxic. We said we had homework.

Stage asleep in a fetal ball in the upstairs hallway. My sister said she would step over him to get to her room.

Stage maudlin. We both agreed this was the worst. He would cry and say, “You can tell me anything.” Once he caught me in that stage and I was in tears by the time my mother got home. I left the room. The next morning mother said, “He said you two were discussing the cat’s disappearance.” I didn’t answer. We never said a word about the cat. I didn’t know if he was lying or was too drunk to remember it the next day, so made it up. Don’t care. Avoid.

He was never physically abusive. He and my mother would scream at each other at 1 or 2 am through most of high school. Reading her diaries, she writes that she drinks too much. I think they were both alcoholics, thought the family story is that he was the bad one. But I can’t imagine yelling with a drunk at 1 or 2 am for an hour. What is the point? They are drunk. So either she was drunk too or needed to fight.

Emotionally abusive, yes, both parents. My mother would take any show of fear or grief and tell it as a very very funny story to every person she ran into. Is it any surprise that I had to go into therapy after she died to learn to feel fear or grief? My sister would say, “She’s got her stone face on,” about me. Um, yeah, I am NOT going to let my family see my emotions…

Anyhow, that is what I read in people when I first meet them. It’s not the suit, the clothes, the make up, the race, the gender. I pretty much ignore those. I was fashion blind in junior high, a girl geek, could not read the code and did not care. I had given up on socializing with my fellow students. I was hopelessly bad at it. I did a lot better with the adults around my parents. I could have actual conversations with them.

I had one patient who was transgender where I couldn’t remember which direction. I didn’t care, either. That was a really angry person. Anger is always covering other emotions, so I avoided pronouns and tried to be as gentle as possible.

I complained to a counselor once that I can’t turn this “off”. And that it’s fine in clinic with patients, but it screws with my relationships with my peer doctors. They do not like it if I “read” them.

It took me years, but I finally realized that I have to use my clinic skills with everyone. I can’t turn off “reading” any more than you turn off your eyes when you meet a new person. But I can be as gentle with everyone as I am in clinic. I realized that as I started on a trip and the trip was amazing, everyone was so nice.

This reading is a product of a high ACE Score: Adverse Childhood Experiences. I score about a 5. One of my patients set off my ACE alarms on the first visit. I asked if he had had a rough childhood and gave a very short explanation of ACE scores. “Oh, I am a ten out of ten,” he said. He was, too. Ran away from home at age 6 or 8.

The ACE scores of all the children are rising from the last two years. The war will raise them even more, worse for the children there and the kids trying not to starve in Afganistan and Syria and world wide.

It will be interesting to read about cultural appropriation. But I don’t care much: I don’t “see” those things when I meet someone.

Hugs and blessings.

The photograph is me and my sister Chris in 1987, before my wedding. We were dancing before the wedding. She died in 2012 after 7 years of breast cancer.

Doctors and nurses and hospital staff are the last caregivers for the elderly alcoholics and addicts who are alone, whose families have finally cut them off. I think this song illustrates their pain. We try to take care of them.

Mitochondrial envy

Just think if Dr. Freud were alive today.

He’d be studying mitochondrial envy.

After all, the sperm have no mitochondria. Only the egg has mitochondria, so the mitochondria are matrilineal, from the mother only. And it is from mother to daughter to daughter that they are handed down.

I have a photograph of my mother’s mother’s mother. Mary Robbins White. She is looking straight at the camera, no smile, serious. Her thoughts are contained, her eyes give nothing away. I have photographs of my mother’s mother, my mother, me and my daughter, all with the same expression. On guard.

The mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cells as well. They may have been a separate cell that moved in and made a deal with a larger cell: you take care of me and I will power you. An exchange. A bargain. A treaty. Sounds like a sensible female move to me.

My son has my mitochondria. His children, if he has them, will have his wife’s mitochondria. I think he has chosen well. I like her very much. I hope to see grandchildren.

Perhaps mitochondria are the magic that early hominoids worship when they make the earth figurine, the stone figure with generous breasts and belly and hips. The nurturer, the fecund mother, the destroying hungry mother who swallows her children and will not let them go.

I am reading Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By, 1972. I wonder what he would say about the matrilineal mitochondria, the second set of genetic material in each cell, the part that comes from the mother only. I think he would be fascinated and he would be writing another book.

Adverse Childhood Experiences 13: unsense

As a child in an alcoholic/addict household where you can not trust adults, who do you trust?

You either trust yourself or you buy in the alcohol story.

If you buy in, you have a high probability of either becoming an addict or marrying one, depending if you prefer the enabler or the enablee role.

If you trust yourself, you develop certain senses. You pay attention to people’s emotions. You pay attention to what people FEEL, what people DO and not what people SAY. You do not care what they say: what matters is what they do. My sister said she used to walk my parent’s house during high school and try to feel the mood. Did she need to hide?

The enabler role is trying to control the other person. There are amazing variations on this. I cared for a person whose sister would not take care of herself. Every time the sister is hospitalized, the person goes and cleans tons of garbage and rotted food from the apartment.

“Stop doing that,” I say, “You are enabling her. Call Adult Protective Services to go look at it instead.”

It can be very difficult to stop and can take years. People can change.

I have noticed that the enabler role is lethal. The enablers seem to die before the enablee. Certainly in my immediate family and with many patients too.

Enablee is the person controlled. Alcohol, drugs, gambling, anger, emotions. It is very very interesting to watch. I have read parts of my mother’s diaries. She was the enabler, with my father as the enablee. However, the diaries document them fighting in the middle of the night when he is drunk. And I remember high school, putting the pillow over my ears, because they were screaming at each other.

But wait. Why would she argue with her drunk husband? Why would anyone argue with a drunk person? You have to wait until they are sober.

And slowly I realize that my mother too was an alcoholic. I remember her drinking. Best cover for an alcoholic is a worse alcoholic, right? It’s fairly horrid. But it explains some stories and my food insecurity. They would not get up in the morning to feed me. My mother told stories of me trying to feed myself: cheerios and laundry soap. If my father was hung over, ok, but, why wouldn’t my mother get up? I think they were both hung over. That or else she really did not want a child. Especially a nine month old with opinions while she was trying to get over tuberculosis. She never got to hold me after birth until 9 months. And then I did not want her. I wanted her mother.

Trusting yourself, life can be a bit complicated. You sense the emotions others are hiding. Being a physician allows me to ask about the hidden things, very gently. Sometimes they come out right away. Sometimes it takes months. Sometimes years and sometimes never. My sister and I discussed going to parties and thinking, oh, that person is the child of an addict/alcoholic. This person is in pain. This person is quite happy but hiding stuff.

I told a counselor I do not know how to turn it off. She replies, “Why do you think I am a counselor?”

I don’t see auras. I feel things: like a cloud. Like a tiger, like a bear, like a whale, singing.

I think I will go with the whale.

Baby doctor

I pick up a Steffi-baby doctor while I am in Michigan.

For whom, you say?

For ME. I collect mother/baby images and statues. I have photographs, statues and toys, of mothers and babies and of pregnant women. Some family ones too. I am a Family Practice doctor, after all.

The Steffi is in with a bunch of Barbies. I am glad to see Barbie Princesses that are ethnically diverse. Next I hope the Disney will decide that adult women who are not virgins are human too, but judging by the way the second Frozen was received, I am not holding my breath. The only good Disney Queen is a dead one. The ones who survive, well, sex apparently turns them evil. It is pretty consistent in the Disney animated movies.

So, Steffi. I was thinking of Skipper, Barbie’s friend, but I realize that Steffi is not Skipper. Note that the baby has a facial rash. This apparently resolves if a cool washcloth is used on the baby’s face. I wish all babies were that easy to treat.

I look up Steffi on the internet and she is German. The packaging confirms this, with an instruction sheet in German and multiple other languages. I like Steffi a lot better than the Disney Princesses. She has tools: a stethoscope and a bottle and an otoscope and a thermometer and a rather mysterious looking caliper set. She has a green version of the white coat and a dress with hearts to reassure the babies. And LOOK! Steffi is wearing a MASK!

I love it. Up with Steffi, who can do things. I am not totally against princesses, I am just against the whole princesses are waiting for some prince to arrive and then their life will… well, they will die in childbirth if they remain nice and they will turn evil if they live. It seems like a poor choice of careers, honestly. My favorite princess is the Dealing with Dragons series, because that princess decides not to follow the usual princess path. The first thing she does is follow a frog’s advice and runs away. And the dragons are wonderful too.

For the Ragtag Daily Prompt: worry. I worry about the message of the Disney Princesses.

The Introverted Thinker in New York

The Introverted Thinker is eight. Her mother takes her out of school for a week to go to New York City.

They leave her sister and her father behind.

Her mother complains about the school paperwork. “Never let school get in the way of your children’s education,” she says. “That’s what my father says.”

The IT is not sure what all this means. But she is excited.

They go on an airplane. She gets to sit by the window. She can see the ground and it is squares like a quilt with hills. It is so beautiful! She is amazed, magic!

In New York City they go to the house of an old friend of her mother’s. The old friend is old and wears dresses to the ground and a lot of jewelry. The house is dark and there are many things in it. The IT is told that the things are antiques and she must not touch anything. She walks around carefully in the dark places, looking at all of the strange things while her mother talks to the old friend. They talk about the past and people that she does not know.

Her mother takes her to museums on some days. Some are art museums. The IT is already used to art museums because her mother is an artist. The museum is like an art gallery only much bigger and the ceilings are very high. A lot of the art is very big too.

One museum is different. Natural History, says her mother. There are dinosaur bones. The IT can’t touch them either but they are wonderful. Huge animals from the past that are not here any more! She loves it.

They fly home. First she has to thank the old friend with the house like a museum, only darker. Then they go to the plane. This time there are some clouds so the IT can’t see as much, but she still gets to see the quilt of the land.

She decides that she likes museums and she likes natural history. Especially dinosaurs.

ring

I dream a night sky thick with stars

all the stars start falling

I think “That isn’t good.”
sore afraid

all the stars are angels falling

I think “That isn’t good.”
sore afraid

an angel falls close past me
in space
face at perfect peace

I think “Why do they fall?”
sore afraid

I am falling in space
head down
no earth beneath me
with the angels

crying, imperfect acceptance
sore afraid

I wake
I put the dream away

it comes back
in a decade

I write about wings
sore afraid

I try to understand
sore afraid

I am asked what my small self
my child self
wants

wings

I say yes
no longer
sore afraid

did you hear the bell?

yes

Advice to Michael

This poem is about a dream that helped me after my mother died and through a divorce. It was not an easy process, to look at my childhood and what happened. It can be a very frightening place to go. Good luck and health to everyone who tries.

resistance

Over and over
I resist
I stand at the edge
I stare at the torrent
The cliff
The falls
The abyss

Over and over
I resist

Over and over
I let go
I fall
Over the cliff
Down the falls
Into the abyss

Over and over
I am sure
I will drown
I will lose my way
I will not surface

Ecstasy is in the air
Between trapezes

I am elsewhere
I am other
No words
No thoughts
No body
No mind

The water is cold
As I expect
When I hit
I knew by the spray
Before I jumped

Submerged
Immersed
Subversive
Over and over

I am born
From the surf
I emerge
From the waves
I am delivered

Fear is my key
Grief is my key
In the places I do
not want to go
That’s where I must go

Over and over I resist
And then let go

practicing grandmother

My sister sends me a t-shirt years ago.

It said, “I don’t know if I am the good witch or the bad witch.”

I burst into tears and put it in the trunk of my car. I never wear it. I am the designated bad witch for half my family. We won’t go into that.

She gets a shirt too. Hers is the green one. Mine is black.

She is dead, in 2012, breast cancer. It’s hard to describe the fallout. Toxic and radioactive. But… I have decided not to be a witch.

Instead, I am a practicing grandmother.

Really I’ve been one for a while. There was a young couple who lived down the street with two children. This was in 2014. I was a Facebutt friend, so sometimes noted what was happening. The father has to travel for his job. The mother is trying to care for two kids and work and so on… been there.

In 2014 I am recovering from my third round of pneumonia. This third round it takes six months before I can return to work. Short of breath and coughed if I talked. The state medical watch doctors went to disable me but I fight them tooth and nail. I win.

I wander down to the neighbor and offer my services. She already knows me. She is instantly grateful and two year old T is introduced to me, again. He doesn’t really remember me. She explains that he is coming to my house for a little while and then back home.

T and I walk towards my house.

A nuthatch calls.

I stop and reply. In college I took ornithology and the teaching assistant could do a barn owl call so well that the barn owls would do a territorial fly over at night to see who had the weird accent. Marvelous.

The nuthatch and I went “enh” back and forth. T is amazed. This woman talks to birds. Then we see the nuthatch! I point out how nuthatches come down a tree head first. “If you hear that call, it’s a nuthatch. Look for it.” The nuthatch is very cooperative. Magic.

We get to my house. T is clutching a book. “He’s taking it everywhere,” sighs his mother. “I’m not sure why.”

So first we read the book. It is a board book about a farm. Each page has a central picture and then there are pictures around the edges with the word under each picture. On one page T says, “Haaaaay.”

“Oh!” I say, delighted. “You can read HAY!”

His face lights up. An adult who gets it! Yes! He can read HAY!

On another page he says HAY. “Oh,” I say, “That is straw. Straw is a lot like hay but it’s not exactly the same.”

He is very serious absorbing that information.

I show him my closet. There is a stick horse. Only it isn’t a horse: it’s a unicorn dragon, with a forehead horn and wings. When you press a button it’s eyes flash and it roars.

Ok, that’s pretty scary. He wants the closet door closed and he does NOT want to play with the dragon.

Next is pouring. I get out a towel and put it on the kitchen floor. I get out a rather nice expresso set. Bright colors. Orange and green and yellow and blue. I fill the coffee pot with water and invite him to sit on the towel. “You can pour the tea.”

He looks at me with surprise. He picks up the coffee pot. He looks at me again. “Go ahead. It’s ok.” He starts pouring into a cup. He pours until the cup overflows and the saucer overflows and he keeps pouring. The coffee pot is empty. He looks at me a little warily. This is technically spilling and he knows it.

“Would you like more in the teapot?”

He nods.

I refill the coffee pot with water and he starts again, with a different cup.

When I return him to mom, after two hours, he’s damp. “Sorry, he got a little wet, but it’s just water,” I say cheerfully. Mom is too harried to do much more than look resigned at a change of clothes.

Next time he comes with a change of clothes and his large stroller, in case he goes down for a nap.

And first off, he goes to the closet. Time to hear that dragon roar again.