An Ode to Imperfect Mothers

performed by Sarah Berndhardt as imagined by Mucha.

As parent days approach, that same old feeling of ambivalence and regret returns. Having just finished D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, realizing once again that the relationship between boys and their Mater is frequently fraught. For while I have no contact with Pater, I have an ambiguous relationship with my mother. While searching for a Mother’s Day card, this annual ritual, resulted once again in frustration. The many shiny offerings extolled maternal devotion and unflagging support- are there really so many stellar Mamas? All the effusive sentiments seemed fulsome to me, at least pertaining to my own situation. I settled on a blank card.

Navigating a complex, frequently emotionally challenging relationship with one’s parents is familiar ground to many. I needn’t delve into sordid details, simply in my situation, a volatile father prone to violent unpredictable outbursts and a woman susceptible to mental depression and emotional retreat. It was complicated.

Yet throughout the chaos, I developed as a fey little boy, indulging in theatrical productions, dolls and hyperbole. 

This annoyed my usually permissive (vacant) mother a great deal, her own internalized homophobia alarmed by my swishy ways.  Boys in the suburbs of working class New Jersey had clearly defined gender roles, and I inadvertently broke them all. She had three complaints against me , which she would lash out to me in her impotent fury:

First, I had as many worries as Carter’s had Little Liver Pills:

That I had a vulgar inclination to Gild the Lily; I do, I appreciate her noticing.

Sunflowers here, but you get my point.

And lastly, I was as dramatic as Sarah Berndhardt. 

Now, as a boy, I didn’t have a clue as to who this Sarah Bernhardt was, but I did note it seemed a bad thing…and that she was a girl, and that wasn’t meant as a compliment. I also knew my father usually clobbered me after my mother mocked me as “Sarah”- her nickname for me. For if my mother was an unconscious homophobe, my father was a raging one, one who delighted in gay bashing. He bragged about putting the “faggots” he encountered ( why was he encountering gay men so frequently I dare not imagine) , how he put these fags in their place, I imagine with muscle. So it is an irony that Sarah Bernhardt has become a bit of a patron saint for me, Divine Sarah indeed.

So a little tribute here to unresolved relationships, to mad mothers and to those who played them.

French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) and her son Maurice, c. 1880, Paris

One of Sarah’s roles was indeed a mother, but how such a powerhouse balanced maternal duties I wonder at. Again, I imagine it was fraught. 

Sarah as sculptress, more than admirable as a studio artist, both sculpture and painting. And of course, posing.

As a boy, I was very good at this eye roll, perhaps the nickname was warranted.



Happy Mother’s Day!

Thanks to my thoughtful friend Dwora.

Post Script: today, the day after Mother’s Day, May 14th 2018, would have been my Nana’s 100th birthday (Nana was my mother’s mother). This is a little tribute to this most imperfect mother.

Sun City AZ, mid 1980’s

This is Arizona, in the mid-80’s and this is my Nana, Katherine Whittenborn-Murphy-Lake-Draper-Lynn (there is one more, she married five times but I can’t remember his name) : today May 14th she would have been 100 years old. At this moment in time she was at the height of her power and full delight in life. She golfed everyday with her fifth husband Syd, Angel, her poodle (their hair matched) was her frequent caddy. She ran for mayor on the GOP ticket (did not win) and was acclaimed for her work in silver craft (in which she rightly shone).
My grandmother was an antiques dealer specializing in 18th and 19th century Anglo-American decorative arts and a gifted self taught artist with a broad spectrum of interests: studio painting, sculptural stained glass, fine jewelry design and lapidary arts, French cuisine, sculpture, choral work, and later golf, she was a tremendous influence.
Her impact was enormous yet in reality, in boyhood , I saw her perhaps a dozen or so times. She was truth be told a terrible grandmother in the traditional sense. Indifferent to children, preferring dogs and cats ( she raised Alsatians and Persians) and gave priority to her own desires. Born outcast to a fading semi-patrician family, she was raised as an orphan in the family home, a rambling, now disgraced Victorian called Castle Corner. Handsome home, miserable memories : christmas gifts were repackaged castoffs from her step siblings . Nana was determined to rise above that and in many ways she did.
But as a grandmother she was ill suited, save to one drama prone little gay grandson who she doted upon. Nana wasn’t a cookie-baking sort, but once whipped up escargot just in order to demonstrate how best to use her pretty abalone silver tongs. She painted her bedroom in gold leaf , raised raucous peacocks ( that drove my Puritan mother mad), wore fur in the summer, and thought five diamonds better than one (she designed a showy cocktail ring with castoff engagement gems).
With her fifth and final husband she moved West to be closer to her beloved Native Americans, there she felt happiest. But we saw her even less.
All that said, I adored her from afar, and I suppose I still do.
Happy Birthday Nana.




Author: babylonbaroque

I am a painter and printmaker working towards creating a body of work that reflects my own developing aesthetic. New work ,first link. The second link is an on-line portfolio.

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