"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Webs of Memory



As I sort through the box of old pictures and papers in preparation for Mom's burial service on Saturday, my history takes shape like glorious and intricate spiders' webs revealed in bright sunlight. New images surface. Pictures appear that I would swear were not there before.  Or I'll see something in a familiar picture that weaves an entirely new connection.

There are contradictions and confusions. A last name spelled three different ways. Two different wedding books with two different dates and locations for one marriage. Evidence that the stories heard in childhood might not have been completely true.

Mom's mom, always more legend than human, reveals little of herself, even after a thorough focused search through the box.

Velma LaJene Conley Cain Williams. Mom used to tell us she'd died when Mom was eighteen months old, of alcoholism. In the childhood stories my grandmother Velma was half Cherokee, the daughter of royalty, a princess. Mysterious. Wild. Romantic. She and my grandfather Mahlon had loved each other deeply and he was devastated by her death. I used to stand and stare at her picture, hoping beyond hope that I might grow up to be that beautiful. Wishing beyond reason that she had lived, certain she would have been the one person who truly understood and loved me.

There is no information about Velma's family. No way to know for certain about her Cherokee heritage. No explanation for the fact that her last name has a number of different spellings, or why she had a second last name before she was married to my grandfather. No explanation for the two different wedding dates. And of course everyone who might be able to answer those questions is gone.

The fact that Velma was twenty-two when she died really hit me for the first time this week. Married at seventeen, mother to Mark at eighteen, mother to Joyce at twenty, and gone less than two years later. Twenty-two is so young, and seems too young to me for alcohol to have been the primary cause of her death.

I also noticed that there are many pictures of Velma with her first-born, her son, and I only have one of her with Mom. It's a haunting picture—she had to have died not too long after it was taken. What stands out even more is the gleeful grin on my mother's baby face. A smile none of us ever saw from the adult version of her, and that isn't evident in any of the pictures taken as she grew into womanhood.

I wonder at the webs of memory Mom wove to create a mother for herself. She wouldn't have remembered much beyond what her body held from a year and half of whatever love and attention Velma gave her. Any stories were told by her dad's family: the grandparents who raised her and the aunt who big-sistered her. A family who felt their son had married beneath his station. A family who did not approve of his half Indian wife.  It seems likely her best pictures of her mom would have been woven of imagination and longing.

I hope a circle has been fulfilled with Mom's death—that she's somehow with the mother she needed so badly and learned to live without. That she's bathed in the maternal love she spent her life convincing herself she didn't need. And maybe even that the two of them are caring for my daughter until it's my time to join them all.

32 comments:

Richard said...

I'm sure there's a good story in her history.

yaya said...

I can't believe she would have passed from alcoholism at that age either..unless an accident happened when she was intoxicated...young bodies are pretty resilient...but if a family wasn't thrilled about the match, they might have said nasty things just to be mean...no one will ever really know. I hope the service goes well on Saturday and some peace will be yours along with happier days.

Desiree said...

Beautifully expressed as always, Deb. I feel sad that the answers to all of those questions will never be revealed.

Teresa aka Journaling Woman said...

Very interesting these revelations of yours.

I also find it interesting how we weave truth and fantasy together to create a past and present that we would like to call our own.

We all do it in some way or another.

Donna said...

So many unanswered questions, so many conflicting documents. I found some too after my mother passed away. I learned that once she was gone, all the family questions I had would remain unanswered. In the end, I quess it doesn't really matter anyway.
The alcohol related death could have been alcohol poisoning. There are many young people in our ER's with this problem and for not being taken there, would die. So sad that your mother was not a happy person. You wonder if this was related.
So sorry about this...please know you have my sympathy. You seem to have weathered so much tragedy in the last couple of years! You are stong but how hard for you.

You write so beautifully.

Donna said...

So many unanswered questions, so many conflicting documents. I found some too after my mother passed away. I learned that once she was gone, all the family questions I had would remain unanswered. In the end, I quess it doesn't really matter anyway.
The alcohol related death could have been alcohol poisoning. There are many young people in our ER's with this problem and for not being taken there, would die. So sad that your mother was not a happy person. You wonder if this was related.
So sorry about this...please know you have my sympathy. You seem to have weathered so much tragedy in the last couple of years! You are stong but how hard for you.

You write so beautifully.

She Writes said...

Oh.... I hope your hopes come true.

Niki said...

if only pictures could speak!

DJan said...

My heart is full jut reading this, Deb. You must be wondering if you will ever know more than you do today. You have expressed it all so very well... thank you.

Anonymous said...

And this is why, with your amazing help. I now have a blog. Only wish I had more time to figure it out. I don't want to post as anonymous anymore. Love, Julie

Retired English Teacher said...

The webs of memory for you are beautifully expressed in this post. There is a great deal of mystery and loss that surrounded your mother. I do hope that someday the answers that need to be answered are.

I will keep you in my thoughts as you prepare for the service for your mother.

kario said...

When I see your mother in that photo, her baby face so close to the photo of you on your sidebar, I am struck at the smile and the cheeks on you both.

I hate the notion that the questions we want answered so badly won't be answered, no matter how much we want it. I hope that you all find peace in what you have and what you do know.

Love.

Wanda said...

Perhaps it was alcohol allergy--not uncommon in Native Americans. I hope these three women are enjoying each other--but I hope it is a long time before you join them.

Hugs.

Midlife Jobhunter said...

"her best pictures of her mom would have been woven of imagination and longing."

Oh, Deb. I'm so sorry for your losses this year. I am thankful for your gift of writing - a channel for your pain. Such passion conveyed. Healing passion, I pray. Take good care of yourself.

#1Nana said...

As always, you've got me thinking! I love the concept of webs of memory. I have boxes of my mother's photos and many of them are memories and stories that are lost to her passing. I regret not getting the stories before she died, but there's also a part of me that is willing to let it go. Maybe I'm better off living in the here and now and letting the past fade to black.

deborahjbarker said...

Such a beautiful photo and so sad a story Deb. As I say in my own blog this week, photographs can mean so much especially when they are such rare finds.
I always hope that those who have gone before me will somehow be reunited and be waiting for me. Or perhaps there is something beyond anything our minds can comprehend, which will explain everything and make us complete when the time comes.
I am supposed to be at my cousin's funeral today. A man only ten years younger than my late father who was brought up as his brother. He was the image of my father and I shall miss seeing him and seeing my father's face again. Why am I not at the funeral? Well, my husband had a mild heart attack last week and our lives have been a bit topsy-turvey. Thankfully, he is home and our wonderful NHS made him well, inserting three more stents into minor arteries (he had one in a major artery some 16 years ago)_. Golly, a long comment and all I meant to say was what a beautiful photo, a poignant memory and sorry I haven't commented much this past week or so. I am also very sorry to hear about your mother passing. Take care.

Arti said...

So very well written post, it must have been really difficult for you... It is best that somethings are left as they are...
God Bless.

Jessica Nelson said...

All those mysteries would intrigue me, but what a sad, sad story. :-( This is a beautiful post, once again.
I hope the service goes smoothly. *hugs*

Ellie Great said...

A great photo and so sad a story. I like it.

Barb said...

You're lucky to have the photos, Deb - through you, they tell the story of a family. I think many of us have unanswered questions about our own families - we can only surmise what might have been.

Fresh Garden said...

Hi, Deb!
The webs of memory for you are beautifully expressed in this post.
I hope your hopes come to pass!

Sandi said...

I hadn't realized that you mom was a mother-less daughter at so young an age. Perhaps that helps give insight into the difficulty she had being your mom. I'm glad you had the incentive to revisit the photographs. I'm hoping for answers to your questions. I'm thinking of you this weekend, and looking forward to seeing you next week!

Terri Tiffany said...

It seems like her life began so sad and of course shaped her into who she was. I love how you share your thoughts.It's like stepping right in and you make me think about my own life.

LauraX said...

Oh sweet friend, so much sadness and beauty spun into this web...the cradle so fragile and strong that you have rocked in all your life. I pray that your beloveds are all together, somewhere giving one another what they could not in this life.

blessings to you

Amber said...

It feels so hard to have loose strings from our own family history. I can relate. On one had the history, the true story we don't know, seems like a missing part. On the other, we are here. Simply here now.

I have a feeling you have all your mysterious grandmothers beauty. And you have what she didn't have, which is the beautiful spirit to keep pushing on in this life. Taking each day as the gift it is, sober and face turned to the sun.

I adore your spirit. I send you so much love to sustain you, should you need it. But you won't... you have always held everything you need right inside of you.

:) oxoxox

Linda Myers said...

I've been exploring my mother's history since she passed away in 2008. I have more understanding now of why she was unable to be accepting and nurturing. I was angry and hurt for many years, and friends encouraged me to forgive her. With my new knowledge, there's nothing to forgive.

Out of My Mind said...

Deb, you write so well and I was caught up in the story.

All of probably have family stories that will never be completely told. At least we have stories. Can you imagine the stories that those born in the last few years will never have. Family and the history forged by that family is becoming less and less important. Such a shame. kt

Cheryl said...

Hi Deb, what a beautiful photo and a very intriguing story to follow through on. I hope Saturday went well, with a celebration of good memories. Life passes so quickly, another lesson to us all to enjoy every moment. I hope you are able to find out more. Love and hugs to you.

colbymarshall said...

Maybe one day, we'll have all the answers to things like this. *hugs*

Julia said...

I'm so glad the funeral is over and you all have some peace. Love you!

Julia said...

See ~ I do have a blog. What the hell is up with that??

deb colarossi said...

Deb... I am probably not the only one to say that our stories are similar in a way. It's so incredibly sad . I , too , am finding half truths, odd bits, questions. Some of it has been very unsettling and I am trying to "use" it to understand, to be compassionate and aware, and also to let it go... to be mindful of what I bring up to others who might be hurt. I don't know.

You are remarkable. Remarkable. I hope you know that.
And I wish I could give you an in real life hug.