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  • Mj Pettengill

Marya's Mother: A Box of Stuff


A Girl Named Flossie
A Girl Named Flossie

They called her Flossie. I vaguely remember that photo, looking into her sparkling, clear eyes, detecting an air of innocence. Before I figured it out, or her out, I wasn’t able to comprehend the source. I was so young and foolish. I didn’t know back then—when I was the same age that she was in the photo—that we are all innocent. At least, that is how we are born. Through the distorted lens of our individual and collective experiences, the spark follows a particular course, dimming or raging in a healthy or harmful direction.

I believe it to be rare for one’s spark to be wholly extinguished. Via self-awareness, and the assistance of trusted guides or mentors, we may be afforded the tools to protect and reignite the burning ember into our creative fire—Duende—leading to infinite possibilities.

As a rule, in my family system, I stay out of things. I don't do well with messes, and when things get tangled, I feel trapped. I am the middle daughter of five, and I could not separate myself any more than I did. It was expected of me, and I eagerly complied. This was not limited to the immediate family, but extended relatives as well. I could barely handle get-togethers. The chatter and competition were over the top. As it still holds true, I have no desire to compete.

It seems strange to me now, as a mother, a mature woman with a treasure chest overflowing with experiences, both miraculous and dreadful, that I was so far removed. I thrive on the observer’s perch. In fact, I often give thanks for my insistence to remain separate. This is not in judgment, but a preference for maintaining peace and solitude. Sometimes it works. It was not, nor is it now, intended to be out of anger or snobbery. I have a rich inner life that is greatly diminished in large crowds.

Of course, I am quite comfortable as a speaker and have enjoyed a lifetime of music performance. But there is no room for small talk and being tangled in long outgrown family dynamics. I have often mentioned the importance of renegotiating our roles when we grow up. What used to be earlier versions of self—bully vs. the bullied, artist vs. jock, older vs. younger—no longer apply. Most families that fail to view their adult counterparts as equals, continuously locked in outdated roles, are usually dysfunctional. The key is to embrace one another as peers. Look upon yourself and each other with fresh eyes.

So many times, I stop. I try to push and pull everyone into their (adult) roles while in my head screaming, that doesn’t work anymore! What a waste of time. We are unique individuals, traveling at our own pace, learning lessons (or not) along the way.

When my father was on his death bed, I became very aware of us all plummeting into familiar childhood roles. This is because of our need to feel safe and do what we know when gathered together. A few moments following his departure, I found myself outside on the deck, overlooking the lake and mountains, listening to a cardinal for what I think was the first time.

At the time of my mother’s passing, I was in my usual place, apart from the whole. I tend to nestle in even deeper under these circumstances. As indicated earlier, I am best in retreat. And although I have spent a great deal of time studying and writing about burial grounds and sites from various eras, I rarely visit the graves of loved ones. This is not because of the denial of their deaths. It is the acceptance that their souls have left the earth plane. They are not at the cemetery. When I wish to remember them, they emerge within visions, dreams, and memories.

I did not rush into gathering things from my parents. It was the opposite. I trusted that whatever I had given them might find a way back to me. In time, I received a few odds and ends. Along with the pottery, I retrieved the oil paintings and various things that I had crafted over the years. There was comfort in knowing that my mother saved that which I gave from my heart.

I didn't recognize some photos passed on to me, such as a newborn baby and random kids at the lake. Yes, the baby looked familiar, but all babies look do, as a friend once said, like Winston Churchill. Rather than throw them away, I returned them to my sister. She is the matriarch and keeper of things.

I had to look through the box of my mother's stuff in small doses. Some items—a cassette tape of Barbara Mandrell and a package of flower seeds that I sent over ten years ago that were never planted—were amusing. Anything to do with music came my way. (Luckily, my kids know that I would never listen to Barbara Mandrell on purpose, no offense intended.)

I gave the box of cassette tapes to someone who either appreciates stale country music, still plays cassette tapes, or was too polite to tell me to take a hike. I guess I am guilty of not wanting to toss my parents’ belongings in the garbage, even when that's what it is.

I enjoyed the many vintage photos of my family, some taken before I was born. As a historian, I know that these are of great value, as a family member, irreplaceable.

Mending Old Photos: Florence Pettengill

Then, there was the photo that, upon seeing it, tore into my heart, mostly because it had somehow been ripped in half and then taped. I knew that I had seen it before, but this time it was different. Not only because it was severely damaged, but this girl—my mother's—expression caused a deep stirring within.

Seeing it at this time, after I had done the work (ancestral healing), learning as much as I could about her, begged me to come to a halt. Had I not, in the earlier times, decided to get to know my mother as a child, tracing her path up to the present day, it would have been just another photo. It would have been about the rip, the wound, the dreaded brokenness of it. The symbolism haunted me.

Next, I started in with the questions. Why did I get this damaged photo? Did no one else want it? Were they afraid to throw it away? Did they even know that it was in the box?

Fortunately, I came to my senses and stopped. None of it mattered. From the start, my mother led a tough life, overcoming obstacles that would cripple most. It was a long time ago when I chose to heal our relationship. This was only possible if I learned as much about her as possible. I relied on shifting from the brain and coming from the heart to make it possible to love her. It was necessary to love her as a baby first, then as a child, and consider her experiences as a woman.

For obvious reasons, this photo ended up in my box of stuff because I would find a way to mend it. I would not throw it away. After editing, I was able to repair the tear. I am awaiting a new physical copy to do more editing. For now, here, frozen in time, she smiles again. Her beauty is whole and radiates. Love never dies.