I wonder if a sculpture remembers the hands that formed it. Does it remember whether they were smooth or rough, gentle or harsh? Does it remember, or does it feel the lines of itself, the finished product, and hypothesize how its gentle sloping curves and dangerous jutting edges were carved? Does it yearn to know the history behind the hands that brought it into creation?
My mother is an artist. She creates her works with paint, clay, pencils, ink, and love. I remember watching her paint when I was a child. In my memories her hands are young and smooth, much like mine are today. She would sit outside in the summer wearing a hat to shield her face from the sun, and put the world around her onto paper before my eyes. She amazed me, and still does, with the enormity of her talent. I remember marveling at the patience she had with her creations, carefully layering color after color on her canvas to create the perfect hue.
It must be this same patience which has allowed her to survive in her profession. Teaching anything to a group of small children is not a small achievement, but getting them to listen to you, while inches from their noses lay the instruments of art -- paint, paper, markers, crayons, or clay -- is a feat that can only be mastered by a true artist. I can only imagine the pairs of tiny hands, covered in paint, searching her classroom for things to touch.
Although they would have driven me to insanity, nothing about her young students seemed to faze my mother. She would come home wearing clothing stained beyond repair and laugh as she told me the story of the child who had made her into his canvas. Since I was a child myself, I didn't know I was my mother's art as well as her student. Looking back I can see that every day I spent with her I learned from her, and it was wonderful.
Being taught by my mother showed me what a good teacher should be. But more than teaching me, my mother created me. She added touches of color to my personality, which would never have been there without her. My personality is much brighter and bolder because of my mother.
Being a teacher, my mother had her summers free. During those times she was my favorite companion. The time we spent alone together is the happiest part of my childhood. We would walk the city streets together, listening to the sounds of small-town summer: dogs barking at shrieking children as they pedaled past on bicycles, the distant splashing of young people cooling themselves in a pool. Everywhere she looked I knew she was creating art in her mind. I loved to watch her see the world.
But children are shaped by more than one hand, molded by more than one influence. From my father I received the quick and sharp edge of impatience, very unlike the long, arching patience of my mother. When I was small, my father would often take me fishing. I could see in his eyes that he wanted to teach me all he knew and pass on to me a love of the sport. He began with good intentions; however, at my first mistake his patience would be gone. He would criticize and blame until I refused to participate any longer. He would tell me, "You are too much like your mother."
As much as he failed at being my teacher, he excelled as an artist. Every day I see pieces of myself that were created by him. Although they are not usually pieces I am proud of, they are pieces of me and I acknowledge them.
As an adult I can think of no greater compliment than being told I am like my mother. Even as a child I thought it was a silly thing for my father to tell me I was like her as if it was an insult, in a disapproving voice while wearing a frown. If I am a teacher, parent, or person like my mother I will consider myself a true success.
As days pass and I grow ever nearer my own family and career, I hope I am able to share times like these with my own children. Like my mother, I will be a teacher, but I will be teaching about a different kind of art. As an English teacher I will make my own art, art from words, and even this art I learned from my mother.
I first fell in love with language because of her. Every night, before I went to sleep, my mother would read to me. She used her hands to guide me through the stories, and made the words on the pages into art with her voice. I remember the way it sounded, so fluid and flawless, like a river flowing over rocks that had been worn smooth. I would fight the current of sleep as it tried to pull me away. I wanted to stay awake and hear the end of the story, but her voice washed over me until I was pulled into a land of dreams.
My childhood was not devoid of shadows, however. I also remember my parents'arguments. They were not arguments, really. The word argument implies two people involved with the battle of words, but in truth my mother rarely raised her voice. I don't recall the words or actions of any specific disagreement today, but I can vividly bring back the sick, up-side-down feeling in my stomach they created. These were the times that the darkness crept into my youth. My bright, shining, happy mother would disappear into a dismal haze and leave a woman I did not know. After every disagreement I would follow her into the bathroom, the place where she would always flee, and run my fingers through her graying hair as she sat on the closed toilet seat and wept.
It was during these times I began to notice her hands were beginning to look older, tired and creased, not young and agile as they did while she painted. I remember wishing she would stop crying. I wanted her to fight back and show him she was an amazing woman with amazing gifts. I was too young to understand that she wasn't even aware these things were true. She believed what he said about her, not what she saw in her daughter's eyes.
I don't remember the final time she cried, but I do remember that one day she stopped and never started again. I'd like to flatter myself and say it was I who changed her life, helped her find the strength inside herself that stopped the sorrow. I'd like to say that looking into my eyes, the tiny woman she was molding and shaping every day, gave her the courage to be strong, but I don't know if it is true. She was not a strong woman in those early days, but today she is has as much strength as any person I've ever met.
My mother never left my father, and I think that is the ultimate exhibition of her newfound strength. She chose to reinforce herself, rather than destroy her marriage. She discovered that her only source of value wasn't my father, and formed a circle of friends who supported her. My mother discovered how to support herself.
One of many things my mother produced in me is the knowledge of how, and why, to love. She showed me that every person has bad qualities, and that it is my decision which qualities I choose to look for. She revealed to me that loving myself is the most important thing, and that the only truth comes from inside me. I am only good, strong, beautiful and talented if I believe I am; and if I believe it, it doesn't matter who tries to convince me I am wrong. I hold the truth, like a lump of clay to be shaped, in my own hands.
When I look in the mirror I know the contours and creases I see are those of my grandparents. I can look at the round curves of my nose and know it was my father's before it was mine. And when I stand up, courageous, against the world because I know I am strong enough to do what needs to be done, I know my strength is a gift from my mother, the artist, who shaped me into the woman I am today. She taught me how to sketch my own future and paint my own horizon, and whenever I need to be reminded of my own strength I look at my hands and know that when they were my mother's they were strong enough to overcome anything.
Laura Defenbaugh is currently a sophomore at Missouri Western State College in Saint Joseph, Missouri. She is seeking a degree in Secondary Education of English. She is very active in the theater department and is engaged to a Theater Education major. They plan to marry in August of 2001..
E-mail Laura at: email@example.com
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