shalimar – a story of forgiveness
February 23, 2013 § 3 Comments
This is a story of forgiveness and love. It is a true narrative and one I have been reluctant to tell.
But a good friend recently said, “It is important as a writer that you not only share the beauty and serenity of your life, but also the grit.”
So, here is a story about my mother and me.
My Mother Helene
My mother killed herself on St. Valentine’s Day, 1973. She swallowed a fifth of cheap scotch with a bottle of tranquilizers. She was fifty-three years old and died alone in the upper West Side apartment in New York City that we had once shared during my performing arts career.
She was exotically beautiful: tall and slender with a smooth satin olive complexion that deepened to rich sienna by simply sitting in the summer shade. Her eyes were large, dark brown and seductive, especially when she laughed and tossed her auburn hair, which cascaded in waves to her shoulders. My father said he married her for her laugh. It was deep and sexy, but only when she wanted it to be. This is the only remaining photograph I have of her and my father took it when they were in love. She was twenty-three and pregnant with my twin sister and me.
When my mother was nineteen years old, she acquired a one-ounce bottle of Shalimar perfume. How or under what circumstances I do not know. What I do know is that she was in no financial position to buy a one-ounce bottle of perfume. Certainly not Shalimar. She married her first husband at sixteen, divorced at nineteen and in those years gave birth to a son who, when I was born, became my half-brother.
During my childhood she recounted many times the story of that favorite bottle of perfume, perhaps because she treasured it so and what happened to it destroyed forever an aspiration and deep longing within her. It seems that my brother at four years of age, walked to her bedroom vanity, reached for the Shalimar, unplugged the stopper, and poured the sweet smelling essence over the rug, bed, and curtains. Clearly this was not a malicious act on my brother’s part, but merely the result of a curious, Puckish four-year old. However, she truly never forgave him.
One of my most vivid memories of my mother was when she turned her back on me after a kindergarten play because I misspoke one of my lines. It was 1948, and we were in the middle of a heavy December snowstorm, the kind that slammed northeast Ohio with great regularity. Our house was within walking distance of the school and even though it snowed and I wore a leg brace on my left leg for the polio I contracted earlier that year, I still walked, or rather limped, to school. I was always slightly behind my schoolmates, of course, but I hobbled to-and-fro nevertheless.
After our kindergarten performance was over, I looked into the audience for a wave or some acknowledgement from my mother. She simply glared at me, turned on her heel and left me there. Not a word or gesture. Nothing. With a child’s wonderment, confusion and a growing awareness that I must have done something very wrong, I followed her but couldn’t maintain her pace as she resolutely continued her indignant march towards home.
My trek following her through the unremitting, battering storm seemed to last forever. I only saw her rigid back and hunched shoulders wrapped in a blood red woolen coat. Her head, covered and tied at her chin with the hood of the coat, was held down slightly and to the left to avoid the heavy pelting of the snow. She never turned to look for me. Her only comment when I finally reached our house and took my seat at the kitchen table was that I was never, ever to humiliate her again by making a mistake, especially in public. And, so began my performing arts career. There were many events for twenty odd years with my mother like the kindergarten play, but that particular memory still stands out the most for it was hotly branded into my heart.
The Bad and the Beautiful
My mother hated the world and I will never know why. She beat my brother regularly, threw him down the basement steps and banged his head repeatedly against the kitchen wall. She tried to abort me but only succeeded in aborting my twin sister. She did not love her family. She hated her father and she hated my father. She belittled her mother unmercifully.
These events remain mystery for there is no one left in my world that can shed light on her darkness. My father, now gone, and my brother, still living, locked their memories concerning my mother in fortresses deep within themselves. My father was unable to bear a reopening of his wounds and my dear brother to this day cannot claim our mother as his own.
Yet, through her depressions and rages she was capable of much creativity. I watched her create beauty in her home, develop her own innate sense of style in clothes, and surround herself with exquisite use of color and form. She was bold in her imagination and intellectual curiosity. But her talents were feared, ignored, and laughed at, by my father, her parents, and everyone else who knew her except for one person: me.
I understand today her madness as well as her grace but to do so I had to reach deep into shadowy folds of my memories. The fabric and texture of my existence were, for the most part, created through my polio and my mother’s willingness to embrace her little girl’s idea. Even then, I was a contrarian and resisted the accepted form of physical therapy for polio and, instead, decided to study dance. I sensed that I needed to heal myself through my own movement and not that of a physical therapist doing it for me, no matter how skilled. With my unwavering insistence and my mother’s faith in my adamancy for this atypical form of therapy, I restored the muscles in my left arm and leg and my polio not only healed within two years but also changed the path of my life. I became a performing artist at a very young age, which continued for twenty plus years followed by an immersion into the visual arts as a photographer, painter, and, now, writer. My creativity would have languished without my mother’s desire and inspiration to help me actualize it and my mother would not have continued to exist without my creativity. They were entwined and interdependent — two energies flowing from one to the other.
I endured my mother’s ranting and raging against life, against the world, because my intuition, even as a young child, told me that her creative energy would become mine. And it did. I learned to accept her relentless criticism of me because there was always an important insight that inspired me as well whether it was about my performance, my choice of clothes and costumes, how and what I said and, of course, how I behaved. She clung to my creativity as if it was a lifeboat. I existed to serve her needs. But strangely enough, she served mine too.
My mother’s anguish and rage prevailed for the twenty-eight years I knew her before she killed herself. For years after her suicide, I thought often about my sad, beautiful mother with her dark bedroom eyes, sensual laugh and an anger that tore souls apart. What I discovered though, traveling into that particular abyss, eventually changed the size of my heart.
Twelve years after her death, I encountered her again. In meditation after yoga practice, I saw a perfectly shaped pulsating pink heart rimmed with an indigo blue light. Tiny drops of blood fell from the center of the heart with each beat. I felt it was my mother’s heart. I sensed her presence along with a faint scent of Shalimar. In one moment, almost suspended in time, I felt her deep and seemingly endless anguish too. I absorbed her pain and sadness not only from those years I knew her as her daughter but all the preceding years of her life. We walked arm in arm strolling under an azure sky into a field of tall, emerald green grass. The slender grasses swayed with a soft, warm breeze as she stood there with tears in her eyes and asked if I was all right. I replied, “Yes, mom, I am truly fine and my life is good.” I told her how much I missed her, that I did not blame her for what she did, and that I longed to have just one more conversation, a conversation in which we could crystallize the joys and absolve the sorrows of our life together. She said she had to go and then touched my hand and walked further into the tall grasses until I could no longer see her or sense her presence. I emerged from the meditation with a strong conviction that my mother had visited me.
Was this imagination or a true mystical experience? I don’t believe proving it, or not, is important. Whatever the occurrence, it was the catalyst for my releasing the past and opening my heart to understanding, compassion, forgiveness.
Again, Into the Abyss
A few years ago I was bound to a wheel chair due to a broken right ankle. I was, for the most part, immobile once again. I, who still moved like a dancer and filled my active days with cameras, tripod, lenses or easel, paintbrushes and oils to bring a canvas to life, was unable to do any of these things.
When the accident first occurred I unraveled emotionally and spiritually. I cried and raged at myself, at the world, at God most of all. The long since forgotten polio, its encumbrances, physical pain and entrapment of my body, rolled over me like a tsunami. The black hole of my mother’s madness asserted itself. My art studio stood fallow. I no longer smelled the oil paint while standing lovingly at the slop sink carefully cleaning my brushes after a long, productive painting session. I could not spontaneously grab my tripod and camera to capture an image that I knew would not pass my way again. All was lost. Forever. This was my mother’s darkness: her Shalimar, her absolute loss of spirit.
I was in this depressive state for two days. I watched and listened to the persistent rain and then felt a slight stirring within. The darkness slowly lifted as I began to see that God’s rain was a christening of the land as well as a cleansing of my spirit. I realized I was capable of releasing my anger and emotional pain. Sitting for hours in the wheel chair really seeing, truly hearing the steadfast rain, my artist’s eye eventually returned. Though I could not record through a photograph or painting what I saw, I could express the ‘innocent speech of rain’ in words:Burdened by soft, steady rain Viridian leaves hang low on long limbs. Some moisture clings — leaves glisten silver; Some moisture falls — a rain sonata. A lone bird (unknown) sings her Aria. In one ordinary moment, All flow to some changed place, Become some new thing Again.
The rain finally passed and in its stead flirtatious streaks of sunshine broke through light and dark clouds illuminating my wheel-chair-view of the world with a pair of white butterflies that never quite left one another in their pas de deux from flower to bush to tree limb. I thought of the elegant one-ounce Baccarat crystal bottle of Shalimar perfume sitting on my bathroom vanity. A bottle always resides with me now and every so often I dab the sweet essence behind my ears and on my wrists — a modest gesture as a tender bow of tribute to my mother’s life.
I am gently touched by my mother’s madness. Only today there are spiritual paths and therapies that enabled me to walk into the wounds of the past and emerge with gratitude for all that has happened in my life. I have a strong belief that the events of our lives create a tapestry of teachings, learning, and insights. And, if we are willing we can enter the darkest cave within ourselves and discover the illumination of our being.
I understand my mother’s teaching for teaching it was. I learned from her pain how to minimize mine. I learned from her anger how to channel mine. I learned from her hatred how to love. And, I learned from her repressed creativity how to nurture my own and allow it to fully bloom even though, from time-to-time, I lose my Shalimar, my footing. Unlike my mother though, I know that my spirit within is larger than a whole lifetime can hold and it will rekindle for the light is always there — whether a warm glowing ember or ablaze with the essence of creation and loving forgiveness.
For many years now on St. Valentine’s Day, I purchase a dozen roses to honor my mother’s life. I know no one else remembers her, or cares to, so my action is a ritual of love and honor. Here is one of the roses from this past Valentine’s Day.