Wednesday’s Words/Nonfiction: Am I My Mother’s Daughter, and How Much Does It Finally Matter?

I think of all we are experiencing now, then of my parents. Specifically, I have thought more of my mother. The charming Edna Kelly (later marrying Lawrence Guenther), likely 19 or so, is on the left. I am on the right. Do we even look related? I once more wondered about her life after my niece, Lila, posted her photo. And thought of my own. I am now at the age she was when I was just 30. She was born in 1909 in Blackwater, Missouri, and died in Michigan, 2001–where I was raised. (Her heart and the rest gave out; a few months later I had a heart attack while hiking.)

At times when studying my mother’s more youthful photos, I often wished I looked like my oldest sister, as she looked much like our mother. I felt I had come into our family not quite akin to Mom, nor quite Dad. It may have been untrue, but it felt like that a long while. I don’t often look at old photos, though they are gone; the family is fixed vividly in my memory. Lila has become our unofficial family historian since my mother and aforementioned sister passed, also has features more reflective of theirs.

I once more considered how much of who we become is inherited–or not. And how much we can understand of our relatives and heritage, beyond bare facts.

Perhaps this is especially of interest since my daughter had twins last year. My mother had twin baby sisters who died in the flu pandemic; she would have been so pleased to welcome twins again into our family. They are not identical. One seems to take after her father; the other, her mother. And their personalities are already coming to the fore with strong intimations of their future selves. We will see who they become, week by month by year. It is exciting to be a part of it as their grandmother.

It’s a big question, of course, that folks have well debated: nature v. nurture, genetics v. external experience. I gather social scientists and other experts agree it is both. Each of us enters the world with complex brain chemistry and other physiological mapping regarding health tendencies, personality markers and potential, strengths and deficits, talents or lack thereof. And this reaches back into genetic banks of ancestry–most of whom we never knew or heard of. Yet they remain present within us in many subtle or exaggerated manifestations. A mind expanding thought–with so much conjecture.

There are definitely physical traits that came through my mother, though I more resemble my father’s side with large blue eyes (her’s: smaller, grey -toned– and often mischievous), a much less “patrician” nose and fuller lips. My mother, of hearty farm stock, had a perfect straight and near-pointy nose, thin (often smiling) lips and ivory skin. She was of Irish/English/Scottish decent. Thus, so am I. And German, via both of my father’s parents.

I inherited my mother’s shape of hands, even her fingers; her hair, as mine until a few years ago, was a plentiful auburn brown and it’s become more more wavy; and perhaps–if I might say this– her nice figure, though I am slimmer (like Dad) than she was most of her life (I like food less than she did). I think we share eyebrows and for certain our foot shape and size–she lent me beautiful high heels for years when I dressed up. That made those shoes were doubly worth the money she spent, she once said. She enjoyed fine clothes and good accessories for bargain prices– but wasn’t too shy about paying what was required, either.

Edna Kelly was athletic, playing basketball in school and roaming and working on her parents’ farm. She appreciated the world of nature (she loved botany, geology, ornithology and etymology and studied these a bit in in college) and shared her knowledge, went camping many times with Dad and me. I also love sporty activities and have enjoyed figure skating, hiking, any water sports, volleyball (and baseball with our kids when younger) basketball for fun, and so on. Give me a gym for pleasure and exercise, sure (I was a body builder for a couple years), but the outdoors calls to me more. She used to say she was a bit of a “tomboy” and I appreciated that–she had excellent physical endurance and stamina, was known for her energy almost till the end.

I found her naturally beautiful–she rarely wore more than a dash of pale coral lipstick and only when going out. I was born (last of 5) when she was 40, so only had pictures of her younger self. No matter: with shorter graying hair and glasses she still radiated loveliness, a sparkling essence. And when she dressed in jewel-toned, long gowns for concerts my father conducted or played in (or other events), she seemed breathtakingly so, that wavy white hair a-shimmer as she aged. Her skin? Smooth and unblemished. Yes, Dad often hugged her, saying she was “quite the catch”–though he was, as well.

Add to these external traits the fact that she was talented domestically and turned out handmade creations (with the discerning eye of an artist). And was also a fine elementary teacher. Little of which I can claim, though I adore art, have painted and drawn off and on. She had it all, I thought, and felt the lack.

In certain ways we are clearly mother and daughter, though our faces appear less alike. In others, our shared genes may appear unlikely. What of our personality traits and greater interests? Were those characteristics passed down or learned?

I felt from early on that my mother was near the pinnacle of success as a person and woman, and by the time I was 12 years old I saw I would never reach the standards set by either parent. Yet I had their examples to aspire to, and I tried hard off and on all my life– until I hit my forties. I knew who I was and that was that, with much room for improvements–and at heart I was not so different than I was at 12, I thought.

True enough, I had little skill regarding domestic chores and skills–and less interest. Food’s primary purpose, for me, was to provide fuel so never understood why it elicited such labor and excitement. Housekeeping–I did help more there–was a simple necessity so dust didn’t fur surfaces of furniture and rooms with their various possessions were orderly enough, in a pleasing way. (We had 7 people in a smaller house, at least as many musical instruments, frequent visitors for everyone.) I couldn’t sew well or happily, nor create my own dress pattern although there was much instruction from Mom as she stood at my shoulder. But I don’t think she worried about it much–our parents insisted we all secure a fine education, go into the world armed with degrees, honed talents– plus kind hearts. No difference if male or female: achieve, that was the byword. She would shoo me from the kitchen with a command to study or practice my cello or write (or maybe anything to get me out of her way). But I still felt the sting of having nothing decent to show for my (minimal) efforts, otherwise. I wanted to garner her approval in all things, have every good life skill. At least I did well in helping her entertain guests–greeting and chatting with people, carrying out food, cleaning up at the end and chatting with Mom.

In time, there were more serious ways I would let my mother down. If I did have abilities that brought me happy successes, there were also matters that took me farther from wholehearted acceptance. I grew into a rebel without truly intending to be one. I had big ideas of my own; I also had a lot pain; and dreams that began to diverge from a family legacy of either useful teaching or work in mighty realms of music. (Though why I left music is a harder story.)

In time, things came apart bit by bit. I maintained high grades and performed on stages and showed a face that was for awhile better than I felt: I stayed out too late; used illicit substances; wrote death-defying poetry of longing as I contemplated the specter of suicide; wrote folk songs that were often more bitter than hopeful; dated boys that lived on the thin edge while pining for the one I could likely not win because, as Mom told me: “You must be more the girl he wants.” Implying I needed to be…better. Not like me. It cut deep. I was who I was but desired to be more– yet, not an idealized, proper, rule-abiding- at-all-costs girl. (Though, I have to say, that boy did not truly want that–but his parents did.)

Maybe that is what she believed when she and my father were growing up together, then attending college, then finally marrying. SAtill, I find it hard to accept, as my mother was deeply engaged with life, opinionated, given to bossiness, multi-talented and smart (I often felt she was under-utilizing her intelligence) as all get out. But for me, what she suggested wasn’t even possible. I was afire with passions of many sorts–not just sensual but creative, spiritual, intellectual. I was hungry for more, more. As a teen I was reading Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (a Catholic!–we were Methodists) Herman Hesse and Anais Nin (scandalous), Gibran and Sylvia Plath and Muriel Rukeyser. I was listening to cool jazz, folk music and swing on the sly (we almost always heard only classical in our house). I longed to be a modern dancer despite working on ballet exercises in my room, a jazz singer despite my proscribed art songs polished. My cello? Could I play it electrified? But I did not.

It was the 1960s, as well. The lure of loosening middle class mores shaped by heavy constrictions, the protesting of social injustices and archaic ideas regarding women versus men–it was powerful stuff to a 15-19 year old, dreamy-eyed, wounded by years of non-familial, hidden child abuse. I wanted to rise right up even as I was falling down. Feminism was a bright flag waving high above a movement of empowering women like never before. I thought: we can be real potent trail blazers.

So it was: student-empowered politics mixed with substance abuse–and rebellions based in a desire for better times. But also a desire to do more, be more, contribute to society in a useful, compassionate way. And that took action, not just talk. The fact was, I reminded my parents, I was raised to be a critical thinker–despite the conformity that ultimately ruled at most dinner tables, schools, churches. My voice had tired of being quieter, so very civilized–which seemed then like being made blind, deaf and mute.

They did not accept my arguments. They had lived through wars and pandemics (flu, polio and more) and the great Depression. Why couldn’t I– along with my friends–be happy with what was so much better than what had come before us? I needed to settle down, stop agitating or challenging life.

I grew up faster than planned. Survived more severe trials than I had expected. Finally had children, dropped out of college many times to raise them and so my spouse could get his Masters degree, then we later divorced, and, ultimately, I married three times. A record in the family at the time…

Was this any of what my mother hoped for? Did it reflect her sorts of choices? Did it reflect on my heritage? No, no, and often likely not.

Still, I got stronger, learned to live better. I could look her in the eye more often. I finally built my career in human services–it was God who guided me there, I feel–and spent my adult life counseling folks who lived fast and hard and paid for it and needed a renovation; or wandered precariously near the edge of the world and needed acceptance and hope. They gained new coping skills as had I. And I cared deeply for every person who walked through my office doors. I had learned to do what mattered most, felt proud to join the ranks of countless others who do this work every day in the wide world: serve others.

What, if any of this, is like my mother’s life, her beliefs and actions? What did she teach me about being a person, a woman? She offered a lot, and I have, finally, carried a good portion of it with me.

Edna Kelly Guenther was a woman with backbone, one who did not give up when she believed in something or someone. She made her opinions known, at times in ways that seemed minor but were major with a raised eyebrow, a turn of the head, a gasp or quick laugh, a gentle touch on one’s arm, a forefinger tapping her lips. She was expressive with hands and voice, was a natural storyteller. She could share anything that happened in an ordinary day, elevating the moments in the very emotive telling. Entertainment was living life, sharing it a part of that. She appreciated all kinds of people even if she didn’t always understand or even approve; she found people enriching and puzzling and generally good.

In her mind, there was no problem that didn’t have a solution; it was often the simplest. There was no such thing as boredom, only a lack of intention and action. If you witnessed a dispute, don’t let anyone damage another–yet don’t keep anger too quiet if it needs to be the alarm. And one should mend what was broken, even if it hurts some in the process. Forgiveness, then, is paramount: compassion is the thread, the glue that binds together the pieces.

My mother wanted to be a writer, she said once, looking out the kitchen window with dish towel in her hands. She kept journals of her travels to foreign countries and whenever crisscrossing our country; she was a frequent letter writer. She watched me type away on the old Remington for years, knew I wrote by longhand deep into the night. She read what was offered to her; she approved, cared to note glitches, upheld my burning passion that still courses through my blood and fills my soul. And after she died and I despaired and longed to have her close, her spirit came to me with this: You must write. And my whole self trembled, then was calm.

She read a third draft of a long-developed novel a few years before she died. It doesn’t anymore matter that it is so far pushed aside. it matters that she said it was “a page turner, I loved it.” So if I am like my mother in any way–and most of all in this way, always telling stories–I am honored. But what I think is that I became somehow more the person, the woman she knew I was so long working to reclaim. Not all that much similar to her, perhaps. Nor quite like my sisters, beloved aunts, grandmothers.

And yet, we are one for the other and all of one, in the end. And my toddler girls, the twin grandchildren, will carry on a legacy of vibrancy, inventiveness and perseverance underscored with hope if they can. And, too, our imperfections, our quirkiness, our weak points–and add to their repertoire their own uniqueness.

The biggest question for me remains: who actually was the person of Edna as a youngster, a college student, then wife with babies, a woman with a career, then a woman growing older? Who else might she have been, what more could she have explored? Was she as happy, ultimately, as she seemed, even amid weepiness that came and went, remnants of losses creeping in…? She gave of herself here and there all along the way. But I knew her so little. After leaving home we were close only when we talked on the phone or wrote, or enjoyed quick visits at different meeting points in the country. Only a small part of what we shared was fully presented and treasured more than any gold; the rest was a delicate, tentative search for more. We know our mothers too little, even if we think we know more. We may be unwilling to blur boundaries in fear of…what? What can be lost in knowing more fully the one who gave us birth?

I wager Mom was feisty, diplomatic, dramatic, and deeply intuitive long before any of us took hold of her. There was more, I could feel it when we talked or didn’t talk, when she shared her vivid dream-infused nightly adventures and then listened to my own; showed me how to make good poached eggs and Waldorf salad; stood watching out the kitchen window as I ascended to the top of the maple tree to sing, to write, to cry, to plan. There was a pressure of diverse energy in her, even at rest; there was much left unsaid as she spoke voluminously. So most of her story remains a mystery.

As for me, I may once have thought I risked more, dared more, took my knocks and got back up but, honestly, I knew her life was harder than what she told. It was in the depths of her gaze, in the response to others: she knew about great love, about piercing sorrows; she knew about pain and healing and faith. About just going on. I suspect she even knew I would manage alright, too.

Her own complicated tales were carried home with her when passing into what and where she believed was a more liberating, illuminating experience than all she’d experienced on earth. And that is another thing we had in common. But when I consider all the aspects of our lives, I do realize that we each were on our own life journeys. I still am making my particular way through this grand and strange experience.

Mom and me after she was given my novel draft a couple of years before she died.

Monday’s Meanders: Never Too Much Beach Time

Horsewoman pausing after maneuvers at Cannon Beach; Haystack Rock looms behind them. (All photos Cynthia Guenther Richardson copyright 2020)

I know, I posted on the Pacific Ocean not long ago. But it was Marc’s birthday last week and that is where he wanted to be–so off we went, about a 2 hour drive. We ended up at spots we often enjoy: Manzanita, Hug Point, and Cannon Beach.

Manzanita is a favorite place with 7 miles of beach (and the home of a fine bookstore, Cloud & Leaf). It is the area that inspired past Governor Oswald West to determine that Oregon beaches should be free and public–thankfully! We’ve had many overnight visits at the comfortable Inn at Manzanita, and recommend it. We tend to cook simple meals when we vacation (or order pizza) but I hear there are excellent eateries, also; cute shops line the one main street–now only a few are open with limited hours.

Since this was a day trip, we got out there to avail ourselves of windswept sands, walking much of it. The wind across the beach created fantastic patterns. From some of my viewpoints it seemed an near-alien landscape.

View after leaving Manzanita.

Our next stop was Hug Point State Park, a wayside with short beach many well enjoy once discovered. The rock formations are interesting, there are caves in the sandstone headlands/cliffs and tide pools, as well as a small waterfall. The tide was coming in when we arrived so didn’t explore as much as we hoped. I also will admit I was slowed some after foolishly stepping right into a hole while clicking the camera; this was on a paved path so landed hard, though I rolled to avoid cracking bones, on a thigh and hip. No harm done but was pretty sore!)

The view from the path before I fell over.

Though we began in Cannon Beach, I am ending this post there. A much more touristy spot, it has always had that beautiful long beach with Haystack Rock–and many attractive shops and good restaurants (none of which we visited last wk.).

Ecola Creek’s fresh water mixes it up in sea water at the north end of beach.
This athletic youngster was honing his skills, no doubt hoping to some day try big waves like the wet-suited surfer…
Several headland climbers–something I’d do if not inexperienced at 70…
An easy way to fly a kite.
A pelican getting a meal…I think!
Leaving groups of people and Haystack Rock behind–until next time.

Friday’s Passing Fancy/Poem: What Is a Dream or Not

Image: NASA

They sleep as the noise of life mutes

and who knows how they lie down

or company they keep, or

what borderless countries nest inside the jumbled brain.

They each gather secrets like

food for the famished, markers for mapping.

They stir a netherworld with gasps,

fingers clutching sheets, mouths innocent.

I have gotten close to them

out there where we meet. Dream passersby.

Masses that crowd nebulous snowy back roads.

By a lapis sea circling crystalline mountains.

In the markets, tiny stalls billowing

with beauty and oddities, our hands happy.

Streets like puzzles. The night a hologram.

But fights happen there, too:

the free and cunning grab power

while unfree bloodied give it up as

human agency runs out of steam.

Even the brave sometimes cannot find

a door to an ancient portal to newer worlds

and fall, rise, fall. No one is always heroic.

Still, we sleep on and float and wrestle,

half-wake with stories unraveling.

And yet there remain beyond the blue deep

a trillion unknown pulsars,

magnetized, radiating, spinning.

And so why not angels keeping guard,

a glowing personage for everyone? or more?

Inside the opalescence I search is a beacon

like a pulsar-guardian

and fear drops away with gravity

so life which is love is not forsaken

or blasted or misread or forgotten.

It lives. It acts. It liberates as

I travel without thinking, with less pain,

and minus remembrance of every loss.

So it may be for all other sleepers,

though some do forget upon rising,

knowledge like a flaming flower gone to ash.

Still, the open passage of dawn to day

takes us back into soft and jagged silences,

into whorls of talk, a measure of longing.

We walk. We talk.

Our eyes frame one another,

we nod and wonder:

who was that, what did I recognize?

An eternal memory of the

aging and young, well and lame,

lost and found, those who cannot bear

or bother to look up– yet sense kinship like

the telling energy of the animate.

And this: we each are one more link to God,

our lives a chalice for sacredness.

You doubt? I believe doubly.

Is it, you say, a dream that carries me off…

or is it a necessary truth recalled?

The universe is made of such potent things.

We may reclaim them here, now.

Wednesday’s Words/Flash Fiction: Dangerous Life

“You’ll break your neck!”

That’s what she said when informed he was taking windsurfing lessons for his 59th birthday.

She nearly wept; his legs, badly injured in the war. She got him cargo shorts, a fly fishing guide. Neither was what he needed: a major jolt. The old ways no longer satisfied. He’d watched the windsurfers; they inspired him as nothing else in years. It was his turn out there.

“What do you know of that river, its winds?”

He knew some things and wanted more. Trouble was, her adrenaline had been waylaid, passions dampened by defeatist views.

Still, friends cautioned him: age, dangers.

His strength and resolve grew.

When he at last hit water, then sailed, freedom from years of her worry and his subterranean fear arrived. Not easy; not disappointing. He fully awakened.

Finally, he turned back.

Only then did he see her with fists raised in victory.

Monday’s Meander: Elk Rock Garden of Bishop’s Close

Once or twice a year I post about this graceful, fully accessible garden spread over 13 acres. It changes wonderfully over seasons and displays a fascinating mix of botanical life. The house was built in 1914 by a Scottish businessman, Peter Kerr, to resemble a Scottish manor. It was built along the Willamette River to also give a good view of Mt. Hood in the distance. At his death in 1957, his daughters decided to give it to the Episcopal Bishop of Oregon, with a provisory clause that the garden be open to visitors.

Wandering there gives rise to deep peace. Join Marc and me as we stroll about on a recent visit.

Outdoor altar for the Holy Eucharist, for staff at the Diocese ; it is covered in kiwi vine.