Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Kingdom of Yurts


The Lesser of Two Evils

This week I'm back with scriptic.org, writing from a prompt that you'll find at the end of this post.

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If I’m to believe everything my aunt says, and I've never had any reason not to, I was born of insanity. Real honest to goodness, bugs crawling, Bible verses screaming, painting the walls with shit, insanity. My mother insisted she’d never been with a man - a falsehood according to my aunt who, at some wild early 70’s party, watched her drop acid and her gypsy skirt, and spread her legs for an equally stoned guy. To this day we have no idea if my mother’s notion that she got knocked up by an alien was born of the acid trip or of her brand of paranoid schizophrenia. It doesn't matter. Certain that she was carrying an alien baby, she made all sorts of gruesome attempts to harm the fetus, yours truly. Finally someone decided that it was in everyone’s best interest to institutionalize her and strap her down for the duration of her pregnancy.

Seven months into her pregnancy, my mother quit eating and began paraphrasing Bible verses  (according to old therapy footage). Her favorite verses to obfuscate were the beatitudes. You’ll probably think I’m a heartless douche, but I laugh at that old footage. I laugh a lot. How can you not laugh at a woman crying out, in a come-to-Jesus voice, “Blessed are the freak babies, for theirs is the kingdom of yurts!“ Another favorite of mine is, “Blessed are the chicharrones! Yabba dabba doo!“ My excuse for laughing is that it’s like whistling past the graveyard. I mean, if I can laugh at my own mother’s pathetic psychosis, then deep down I’m probably okay, right? If I can be amused at the shear far-fetchedness of it, then I’m not swimming too dangerously close to the deep end. That’s my theory anyway.

Where was I? Right. Seven months pregnant, my mother began to refuse food. Even in the most confused mind there’s a certain type of logic. She knew that if she stopped eating, the alien in her wouldn't have anything to feed off of and with any luck, it would die. What really happened is that my mother went dangerously anemic, both of our heart rates bottomed out, and they ended up taking me c-section just as we rounded into her eighth month. She didn't make it through the operation, which was considered by everyone to be a mercy.

My aunt adopted me the minute I was born. She had planned on raising me anyway from the moment she knew her sister was pregnant. She knew my mother would never be able to care for a child. I can’t imagine being raised by a finer woman. Even the most serious stuff was laced with her brilliant sense of humor. She gave me boundaries, but full reign to explore life within those boundaries. If I showed interest in something, she made sure I had all the right tools to take it as far as I wanted to. When she saw how rapt I was doodling on scraps of paper that she gave me, she insisted we go shopping for decent paper, colored pencils and crayons. At her insistence, any time I turned to a new creative medium, I had the right supplies. She never once suggested that I have a back-up plan in case I failed as an artist.

When I was about 16 years old I asked her, “Why is it I don’t call you Mom?” It’s the only time I can recall seeing her look troubled, angry almost. She leaned across the table, took both of my hands in hers, and looked me in the eyes. “Sweetheart, I love that I've been able to raise you, love you, have you in my life… but… I’m not your mother. I’m your mother’s very proud sister. You know your mom wasn't right in the head, right? That didn't ever make me love her less. If anything, it made me love her just a bit more. Life with her was always a strange, fascinating adventure. Growing up with someone whose reality was more often than not the land of make-believe? I think I had something valuable that other kids missed out on. Whenever we’d walk to the corner store together for candy, folks would see us skipping hand-in-hand and they’d always give me a look of sympathy. It’s as if they felt sorry for me for being saddled with her. But it wasn't like that. I loved her. I loved the messiness of her.

“So, no. You shouldn't be calling me mom. My sister was your mom. I’m just your adoring auntie. So many of the good things about you, you get from her. You have that envious way of looking at even the most repulsive things with curiosity. You can’t learn enough. And you take all that, chew it up, and spit it back out as some pretty damned terrific art. She did all that too. Before things got really bad for her and she tried self-medicating to stop some of the noise in her head, she used to draw all the time. Wondrous, fantastical things.

“We once saw a dandelion growing up through the rotted carcass of a squirrel. She was enthralled by it. I thought it was gross and wanted to walk away from it as fast as I could. But, she sat right down on the sidewalk, pulled out her sketchpad, and within minutes had sketched this ridiculously cute zombie squirrel complete with a tux and a bouquet of flowers. She was a master at seeing art in the every day.

“I know you've heard all the stories and there’s a lot there that was sad and probably frightening, but celebrate her being your mom. What was it the wise man once said? Unless you know where you've come from, how can you know where you’re headed? Something like that.”

As she drifted into silence, I asked, “What if I end up like her?”

“Oh, darlin’ girl. Maybe she was two tickets short of a carnival ride, but that doesn't have to be you. Besides, do you think you’d be asking questions like that if you were just like her? She never questioned her sanity, or insanity. Everything she experienced was reality for her. Up to and including the alien baby she gave birth to.” Here my aunt favored me one of her famous Joanne Woodward style grins.

I tossed a very similar grin right back at her. “That’s me. Blessed are the freak babies!”

“You bet your sweet yurt!”

Fast forward to 2012, just two weeks shy of my 40th birthday. I was about as glammed up as I’ll ever get in my plain black dress, sensible black pumps, silver earrings and an artsy silver broche resembling one of Dali’s melted clocks. Also, wonder of wonders, my hair was recently brushed and pinned back into something smacking of style. Normally I wouldn't put that much effort into my appearance, but I was the honoree at the Caldecott awards. I was to receive a medal for outstanding illustration of a children’s book. The book was about a critter by the name of Jabbers the Zombie Squirrel. Jabbers, always resplendent in a black tuxedo jacket, carried a bouquet of magic dandelions as he made his way from one outlandish adventure to another in the Kingdom of Yurts.

I stood and made my way across the stage to the podium when my name was announced. The applause was overwhelming and my vision almost went a little swimmy until I saw her. There she was, my elegantly plain, sharp-eyed old auntie, sitting six rows back from center stage. As I waited for the applause to die down so I could give my well-practiced speech, I saw her mouth the words, “Freak baby!” It was my burst of laughter that finally got the crowd to quiet down.

I cleared my throat and began. “Thank you. This story actually began many years before I was born, with two sisters. One sister was much like the rest of us - I refuse to use the word normal. The other sister couldn't differentiate between her reality and ours. My mother was the latter of the two. My mother had a severe mental disorder. In the vernacular of the streets, she was crazy. But maybe she was crazy in the best possible way. It’s because of her that the idea for Jabbers was born at all. I have several old tapes that were filmed during her time in a psych ward, while she was pregnant with me. I will share with you a favorite bit of wisdom taken from my mother during one of those sessions. It is: Blessed are the dandelions. They will never be dismissed as nuts.”

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For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Kurt gave me this prompt: "And the stories they told you were true, babe: your mom really went crazy. But that doesn't have to be you." -The Elected, "Greetings in Braille". 

I gave Chelle this prompt: reconsidering

11 comments:

  1. Brenda A Elliott, MSWJanuary 30, 2013 at 9:54 AM

    Barb your life story is an amazing one. I am just in awe of you and your accomplishments and thankful for the loving guiding hand of your aunt. You have touched my heart deeply you beautiful soul you.

    I worked in psych ward for a few years but I left because I would feel so deeply the needs of the patients that I let that effect my life. That and I always thought that the "normal" way of "helping" the patients was not always the best but I couldn't buck the system.

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    1. Thanks, Brenda! It is mere fiction. My life (and my saintly 85 year old mother) do not mirror the characters in the story. :-)

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  2. The writer's voice in this was quiet and brutally honest. As a reader I was captivated and right with the writer from the beginning. I loved it!! Mohr pleeze

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  3. Excellent. Brought tears to my eyes. Not enough to leak, but they were there.

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  4. This is one of the most amazing love letters I have read this Valentine's Day. Thank You!

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  5. I love your writing. Your life story is also the most enthralling amazing story to me. Thank you for sharing something so deeply personal! Your creativity is awesome and your aunt is one awesome lady!

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    1. Thank you! This was purely fiction, although I do have a pretty awesome aunt.

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