php1zHUbFExcerpt from Riding Shotgun: Women Write About Their Mothers

One day about ten years ago, my mother called me with an announcement. “I realized something last night,” she said happily. “My mother and my older sister were intellectuals, and all of my life I’ve felt that I was a failed intellectual. But I’m not a failed intellectual. I’m an artist!”

It would have been difficult to be an artist in that family. My grandparents, Alice and Willard Willis, were quiet, undemonstrative people, and Grandma particularly lived her life in books. She was descended from Mennonites and always seemed constrained. You didn’t see them expressing a lot of warmth for each other or for the worldit always seemed locked behind these carefully preserved upstate New York façades. My mother, in contrast, is one of the warmest people you’ll ever meet. When I was young she was more reserved, but over the years, perhaps realizing that she didn’t have to be her parents, she became more and more open to the world. I never knew that she fancied herself a failed intellectualshe is, after all, a PhD in psychology and very smartor that she felt bad she did not spend her life immersed in books like her own mother. But when she said she was an artist, I knew instantly she was right.

It all began one Christmas when Mom used her computer to make my brother a gift certificate for a subscription to the New Yorker. She wanted it to look like a New Yorker cover, and I offhandedly mentioned that you could buy a font that looked like their typeface. She was at a computer store within the hour buying font collections, and that year everyone got intricately-designed, professional-looking gift certificates that Mom had spent hours on.

When I got married couple of years later, she put together a bookAnne and John: A Love Storyas a wedding present. She scanned in photos and documents and told the story of our lives and our courtship. She then made another for my brother and his wife, and a book about my dad for his retirement, and two big scrapbooks for him for a retirement present. “I like to lay things out,” she announced cheerfully.

Then she had her epiphany, and suddenly she was not content merely to lay things out anymore. My mother wanted to paint. She immediately signed herself up for classes, turned the attic into a studio, and began to devote her days to art.

“What do you think of Mom being an artist?” I asked my father one day.

“Well,” he said slowly, “the other night I woke up because your mother was making noises. I looked over and realized she was singing in her sleep. I thought if you’re so happy you’re singing in your sleep, something’s going right.”

Off and on for the next couple of years, my mother painted still lifes. I have one hanging in my living room and no one can believe my mother did it. My brother has another, of a book and a candle so haunting and lovely that I am planning to break into his house and steal it.

As time wore on and she kept doing still lifes, we started trying to convince her to paint something else: “A cat,” I would propose. “A portrait,” my brother would offer. “A lonely man in a train station,” my father would say.

But she wouldn’t budge. “This is all I know how to do.”

“But why don’t you try?”

“This is what I can do.”

It was strange to watch my mother set limits on herself, given that she and my father raised us to believe we could do anything we wanted. But, of course, my mother didn’t have that; she always felt her mother’s critical eye, a steady maternal Superego watching over her.

About a year ago, my mother announced she wanted to make a Ken Burns-style documentary about her parents’ experiences during World War II as a family keepsake. My brother and I eyed this prospect with some trepidation; when Mom gets into a project she tends to become rather consumed by it. (We refer to the time she threw the retirement party for my father as “The Year There Was No Christmas.”) And indeed she threw herself into it entirely. Suddenly, her office was filled with piles of books and videos. The sound of gunfire and air battles frequently emanated through the house, and we lived our lives to a constant Top Hits of World War II soundtrack, whether coming from the stereo or from my mother herself, unconsciously humming “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”

Staying there one night while my husband was out of town, I woke up at 3:00 AM to hear music from the room below. I went downstairs, and Mom was sitting at her desk downloading music from iTunes.

“I couldn’t sleep,” she breathed, wide-eyed. “I had the best idea!” She had been looking for a way to make a transition into the start of the war-she was going to go from some idyllic pictures of my grandparents’ home life right into Pearl Harbor, but didn’t know quite how to get there. Until that moment. “I’ll play ‘Beyond the Blue Horizon,’ under these pictures, see?”

I stared at her, uncomprehending.

“How does it end?” she prompted.

This, I knew. “Beyond the Blue Horizon” was one of the lullabies Mom sang most when I was a child. I ran quickly through the lyrics. “My life has only begun. . . . beyond the blue horizon lies a rising sun.”

“Rising sun!” she repeated, staring meaningfully at me. “I have footage of sky and then a Japanese fighter coming out of it. Isn’t it cool?”

I had to admit it was. “Um, Mom . . . maybe you should go to bed? You can do this in the morning.”

“I can’t!” she whispered mischievously. “I’m too excited!”

My father called a few months into this project. “Your mother’s movie . . .” he said. “I’ve seen a little bit of it. It’s really . . . good.”

“It is?”

“Yes. Really, really good.”

We never thought it would be. You just don’t expect your sixty-three-year-old mother to disappear into her office for six months with a Mac, boxes of photos and letters, and the entire Time-Life World War II video collection and come out with something that should be on PBS. And yet, it should be. It’s professional, engaging, and heart wrenching. Using photos, music, home movies, documents, and archival footage, Mom explores her parents’ own Love Story against the backdrop of the coming war. We watch as two young, improbably handsome students meet, fall in love, and marry, and in 1939, their daughter Anne, Mom’s older sister, is born.

But in the outside world, things are growing dark. War breaks out in Europe, and its shadow looms over America. In September 1940, the secretary of state signs the draft bill, and everything changes. “Dear Daddy, Mother, and Rachel,” my grandmother writes in December of that year. “Have I told you all the talk of the draft here? Everyone has a different story and one of them is that all medical men whose numbers come up will be drafted. Willard’s number is 581. He expects to get a letter soon. I guess they transfer medical men to the medical reserve as soon as they can, but that takes about six weeks and during the interim they are privates. Can’t you see Willard drilling?”

They are able to keep the war at a distance for another year. Willard gets a job at a small practice in Utica, New York, and the young family moves to a pretty white house on Sunnyside Lane. Home-movie footage shows Alice happily reading to a curly-haired, plump-cheeked Anne, and then Anne hurling herself onto her delighted father’s lapthe family is so happy, so serene.

And then comes Pearl Harbor.

“The war leaves a dull ache in one’s heart,” Alice writes in her journal on December 12, 1941. “And apprehension. Perhaps our lovely simple life is over now. How could such things be?” Willard signs up for service a few months later to stay one step ahead of the draft board. They don’t know when he’ll be called, but they know he’s going, and a pall is cast over the white house on Sunnyside Lane. My grandmother’s journal entries reflect growing dread:


March 15, 1942
Biggest news lately is that Willard is on the Procurement and Assignment List of first doctors to go to army in this district. It was a terrific blow. . . . If he only stays in this country I won’t care if he’s a private.

April 4, 1942
The things our people say sound as ferocious as the Axis countries. “Nice little show” a British pilot describes a raid on Germany. Sounds like Bruno Mussolini. I suppose you can’t wage war without hate. War is hate and murder. We won’t see the end of war in my lifetime.
Oh God, I pray Willard is not hurt in the war.

July 15, 1942
Oh, yes, I guess I am pregnant, beginning June 16. I feel fine, except for an empty feeling in the morning sometimes. Let’s hope I don’t have hemorrhoids and nosebleeds like last time.


That is how the world was introduced to my mother.

There’s a picture of the young family at Christmas, just a couple of weeks before Willard was to report to basic training. Three-year old Anne looks wistful, like she knows something is not right, while Willard is clutching her hands and staring at her as if trying to imprint her on his mind forever. A pregnant Alice looks off into space, her face fixed in an expression of loss and dread. Three weeks later, Willard puts his seven-months-pregnant wife and three-year-old daughter on a train bound toward her family while he heads off to basic training. While he’s there, my grandmother writes him long, adoring letters, adorned with a thin veneer of cheerfulness, “Do have a good time, my beloved,” she tells him, “and be happy. It won’t last long.”

Of course, it doesWillard will be in the army for twenty months, he will serve in Belgium, England, and France, and when he returns, he will be changed and so will his wife.

My mom was born two months after her father left. When Willard came back he did not know what to do with his spirited new daughter who threw food-a crime to him, after seeing children starve in France. And it may be that neither Alice nor Willard knew quite what to do with each other either.

“I read their letters and I don’t know who these people are,” my mother said to me once. “They’re so warm and loving with each other, I just don’t recognize them.”

My mother, who would only paint still lifes, who feels too strongly the weight of her limitations, taught herself to make a movie on the computer without a second thought, and it’s damn good.

Now, my mother is readying the next installment in the series-the war years. My aunt Jane, who was born in 1948, is transcribing the war letters and is now so involved she wants to go to Europe and see where her father was. Together, the sisters watch footage of soldiers doing basic training, and they weep. “Poor Daddy,” my aunt says, her voice cracking.

“The movie is for my grandkids,” Mom says, beaming proudly. “I want them to know where they came from. I want them to know my parents.”

Through this process, Mom has come to know her parents too. By making the movie, she has brought back the people my grandparents were before war made them shut down from the world, and she understands better who they were afterwards. By making the movie, she has undone some of the damage of war.

I wish I could record Mom making this movie, so my grandkids could get to know her. I would show them everything, the 3:00 AM work sessions because she was too excited to sleep, the office that looked like a World War II archive after a tornado, the strange sounds and lights that came from behind her closed door, the glee that spread across her face as she solved a storytelling problem, the pride she felt showing her product to the family. This is my mother, I would tell future generations. She is a storyteller, she is a memory-keeper, she is a documentarian, she conquers war, she is dear and loving, she embraces the world, and she is limitless. My mother is an artist, and this is the power of art.


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