My mother once said that one of Martha Graham’s dancers was awful to her husband and little boy, but when one saw her on stage none of that mattered any more. My teenage psyche salted that one away as ammunition for the future.
Originally this was going to be a plaintive piece about my mother, life with a parent whose art was in many ways more important to her than her children, something like the childhood she herself had experienced as the daughter of the composer Mary Howe. Years on the memories don’t have the power they used to, because along with having a fairly self-absorbed modern dancer mother, I’ve come to appreciate an artist mother who painted zoo animals, including a never-forgotten giraffe, all over our Colorado Springs bathroom walls.
I had a mother who continued to learn and grow and create well into her eighties, who regained a love life in her sixties after a long drought, meeting a wonderful man who was her partner for almost twenty years, who took photos while she sketched, and was her personal “sag wagon” driver on the many Cross Minnesota Bike Rides she did. I had a mother who morphed from a modern dance teacher and choreographer into a fitness visionary and advocate for home-bound seniors in the Twin Cities. I had a mother who loved me, but couldn’t always show it.
No turnaround happens all at once. My friend Susan was a magazine culture writer in Washington, whose perk was tickets to everything, and she loved to take friends along on their birthdays. One year she took me to the Trocks, aka Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo.
We watched this all male dance troupe perform technically brilliant and hilarious parodies of ballet and modern dance. Re-imagining Pavlova’s “dying Swan” with molting feathers. A hysterical Dance of The Little Swans. Side-splitting send ups of Balanchine, Martha Graham, and Doris Humphrey.
Enjoying dance without resentment for the first time in years, I knew exactly what I was watching, understood the finer points of the parody, appreciated the incredible technique and elegance of those men en pointe, all of it a gift from my mother. That night proved to be a small but steady turning point.
I’ve come to terms with my mother’s humanity and limitations, acknowledging her often ill-expressed love, and eventually moving on, setting aside things I now understood better and for the most part no longer mourned.
With emotional dreck hoovered away, my brain cleaner and tidier, it began to imagine again, eventually leading to a creative bender of sorts that shows no sign of slowing down.
A few years ago life took a powerful turn. I joined a virtual creative group, and cannonballed into the deep end with little idea of what direction to take. I still find myself zooming about, trying things that look interesting or challenging. At first it was easy to hang back. Now I know the answer is to acknowledge whatever shows up, look it straight in the eye — and give it a shot. The way she used to.