A few weeks ago I hung up the phone after a brief chat with my stepmother and burst into tears. “Why so sad?” I wondered.
About to enter her 89th year, and plagued by Parkinson’s disease, it makes sense that I would be sad after hearing her faint voice leak across the wires. But I sensed that this feeling of loss went much, much deeper.
Edith married my father two years after my mother died. I was nineteen years old, a college sophomore. Although I have grown fond of her as the years have passed, I greeted her arrival in my life with ambivalence.
She was in her early fifties when she met my father, and had never been married. As a result, she was completely clueless when it came to dealing with an angry, grieving teenager. We now get along just fine, and she has been a good grandmother to my children, but the deep well of loss I felt that day was not just for her.
Then, on a wet, snowy Thursday, a new friend and I visited Elizabeth Cohen’s pottery studio. Art was everywhere, beginning with her front steps.
Her studio was small, but held a multitude of porcelain objects in varying shades of cream, while just outside the window the falling snow whitened the air, the trees, and the ground,
Her mugs mold themselves right into your hands. I now own four of them.
But the piece that struck me the most was a set of carved nesting bowls. It looked so fragile that I was afraid to touch it, even through my camera lens. Here’s a photo of it taken by Elizabeth.
The three of us paused over the piece while Elizabeth explained that her mother had died in the past year, and that these carved porcelain nesting bowls had been inspired by her aging bones. My friend, who is something of an expert when it comes to beautiful objects, seemed particularly taken by them.
As the snow ended, and the weekend came and went, I rolled the image of those bony bowls over and over in my mind. Eventually, it all came together, the sadness, the delicately carved porcelain — the smaller, more solid pieces nestled into the larger more porous ones.
It occurred to me, as it did when I married my husband, and birthed my children, that here was yet another event that I wouldn’t share with my mother. I’d never witness her body’s natural aging process — her bones becoming brittle, her hair turning white. She would again be absent, not there to show me the way. Indeed, I am already seven years older than she was when she died.
That’s one reason why watching my stepmother’s decline has awakened an old, old sadness. And yet, thinking back to my afternoon in that cozy studio, surrounded by white both inside and out, I know something else too.
I am not so alone. I was happy as I explored that creative nest, getting to know two other women: One my age, the other a bit younger, one who whips up confections with words, the other who does the same with clay.
I will miss my mother until the day I die, just as I’ll never stop looking for her in my family, friends, and in the new people I meet. She will be forever gone and gone too soon. But each layer of connection I make is like those bowls: I will cradle some, and others will cradle me.
Together, we will all find our way.