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Stephanie Gertler Headshot

Painting the Dream

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My grandfather died in 1986. I remember him as a strong and strapping man. I believe that he was brilliant and passionate, and yet others have told me that he had a tendency towards arrogance: That was a side of him I never saw -- or didn't notice. Maybe it was the mere presence of my mother that allowed the image of my maternal grandfather to remain. Despite my grandfather's stay in a nursing home until he died of pneumonia after years of Alzheimer's ... despite his declining mental state and increasing physical frailty, I managed to see through and past his deterioration. Until now, I wondered why my mother didn't visit him with the frequency that I did -- going to his nursing home every Sunday with my two older children (the third was born after he died), bringing treats and offering company, letting him play the silly games with me that we played when I was small. Poke me on the belly so I would look down and then chuck me under the chin. I pretended to fall for it every time. Often, my mother sent me with food she'd cooked, and later jars of baby food when his capacity to chew became more difficult. It is only now that I realize it wasn't that she wouldn't go with the frequency that I did, but rather the pain of seeing him that way was too great for her. I had that generational degree of separation, coupled with the innocence and ignorance of youth that allowed for easier visits. He was the grandparent. He was supposed to be "old." For my mother, she was the generation who was losing the shield of her parents (her mother died in 1979) -- becoming the "old" one as he declined, and the oldest generation once he was gone.

I have come to realize we are not new as a "sandwich" generation. We just talk about it more.

Sometimes it feels as though I am being handed clues to a riddle. Solve this one, something taunts me. Or maybe I am just a storyteller at heart, trying to create a tale - one that provides explanations to so many unasked questions. Perhaps both elements are valid.

Several months ago, before she died, I found a picture of my mother and myself: She was 50 and I was 20. If you ask my siblings, they will tell you she was 52: I choose to believe she was the age she claimed to be. Why rob her of that small secret now? The picture was taken at a dinner party in my parents' home. She was always photogenic. I was, and am, not. But in this picture, the camera loved us both. If I take a piece of paper (which I did) and cover parts of our faces, I see that I have her mouth (something I always knew and saw) -- lately, something I recognize in more ways than one. I see the similarity in our musculature, and the way we carry ourselves. Most importantly, we both just look so happy. She, in particular, is beaming; I am shyer. I had the photo blown up to an 8x10, and it sits prominently now on the shelf in our living room. It is painful and comforting at once. All I know is that, for sure, it erases the last five years of her life when she barely resembled herself. In the photo, my mother remains.

And so I look at home movies and photographs, read letters from my mother, remember vignettes from the past, phrases she used, battles and conversations we had, and I realize that so many of the memories are from what were my mother's own middle years - the place where I am now. I ask myself if I am projecting as I come up with answers to the riddles, or is it that suddenly I am my mother's peer as she is frozen in time in that photograph. I like to think that I have come to know her in a different -- and more sympathetic -- way.

Did my mother feel the way I do in her fifties? Where does she leave off and where do I begin in this quest for truth about her and myself as women? How strange it has been to witness my father/her husband in the last five years without her there to "run interference." Perhaps the duality of the situation rests in both my mother's absence and my father's overwhelming solo presence: It's been odd to see him more prominently as a man and less like a father as I deal with him without her cautions, her advice on how to "handle" him with her as my ally. Illuminating? Hardly. I could forego the perspective. Rather, it feels voyeuristic -- a nearly forbidden glimpse into what life with this man was like for my mother as I often walk in some of her shoes. Although the terrain is not entirely unfamiliar, it is unsettling and odd as I see the woman/my mother roughly the same age as myself now in the photograph.
How much of all this is subject to my own interpretation as her daughter? My husband's wife? My children's mother? Myself? What did my mother think/feel/want/eschew as my father's wife? A woman? Sometimes it feels like she and I bleed into one another, challenging the most competent forensic scientist - or perhaps forensic psychologist - to differentiate the two personae.

And then there are my own twenty-something children. Once, I was the woman -- the mother -- who nurtured them and the neighborhood. Ours was the house with the overstocked refrigerator, everything in place, extras of pillows, toothbrushes, and bed linens. The woman/mother who knew the answer to "where's that shirt I wore last Thursday?" The one who had a cabinet filled with school supplies, a Halloween costume basket, a menagerie of dogs, hamsters, ducks, frogs and rabbits and still said it was fine if the "team" came for dinner.

Yesterday, my oldest son went for a run and ended up at our apartment in the middle of the day. He has a key. I was in the kitchen when I heard the door open. I was caught off guard. Didn't have my "face" on. Hadn't showered yet or made the bed. He stayed for a bit, and we talked. I gave him some left-overs -- hardly on the grand scale of years before. A part of me was self-conscious. Did he pause to think that I wasn't that woman I used to be -- the one who could care for the neighborhood? Did he see me as "old" or simply as a woman with grown children who now lives alone with her husband? I wasn't sure.

Last night I dreamed my mother came to me and kept murmuring the word "solipsism." Is this because for me she finally exists both as a woman and a mother with the "woman" part becoming more of what I embrace? Or is this because finally, upon her death and in the photograph, she exists in ways she couldn't when once upon a time she was a wife and a mother and her world was not entirely her own? I have searched her name on websites and credit reports, and except for her obituary, she didn't "exist." Is that why she came to me in a dream and whispered solipsism?
She and I are suspended in time in the photograph. We are a continuum, ageless and connected with a touch of innocence. I look back at what neither of us knew then - before she lost her parents, before I lost her. I make up a story as our arms touch one another, as she beams and I look shyly at the camera. It occurred to me this morning that I now own the dress she wore in that photo. She gave it to me about 20 years ago, deciding it was "too young" for her.

Even in my dream, I neglected to ask about her reality. And yet if I had, even as we sleep, how much would a mother reveal to her daughter? Do dreams come true only in dreams? Van Gogh said, "I dream of painting and then I paint my dream." Perhaps, in some ways, I am trying to do the same.

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