Spring Issue Articles
By Holly Holt
The Sacramento sky is scattered with fluff. The trees, covered in pink and white blooms reminiscent of the bedspread my mother chose for my childhood bedroom, are on a mission to make me sneeze. As I hold a tissue to my nose and behold the beauty around me, I wonder:
Do flowers ever get tired of blossoming? Does it start feeling like the same old thing year after year until there are no surprises left?
At a workshop I hosted on New Year’s Day, one of my participants reflected on this idea. I had prompted the group with the question, “What did you start or begin again in 2018?” She had been retired for six years and realized she might have become a little . . . comfortable. She shared:
“I couldn’t think of one thing I started last year. Not one! So, this year, I’ve decided to embrace the word blossoming. It’s never too late.”
I come from a long line of women who embody it’s-never-too-late. I have spent my life in amazement, watching them blossom over and over again.
My grandmother, who had been a writer, a poet and a “letters to the editor” contributor her whole life, took up painting in her sixties. Her folk art became locally celebrated for its vision of turn-of-the-century rural life. Grandma spent her early childhood on a Montana sheep ranch across the river from a people she defiantly called “Indians” until her dying day. As a girl, she sat on the banks of the river tracing the outlines of teepees against the vast sky and watching wild horses kick up dust in the distance until, decades later, she transformed these memories into art.
If we allow it, this is what each one of us does with our life. We transform it into art. If we allow it, we continue to blossom year after year after year.
My mother, who used our home as her personal canvas and made art with everything she touched, never wanted credit or accolades. Instead, she became my grandma’s greatest champion. I remember her schlepping grandma’s paintings to the shop to get prints made for art fairs and hauling the whole lot to a swanky gallery in Carmel, California for “the big show.”
By the time I was at the edge of adolescence, it was far easier to see my grandma as the cool one. The artist.
The queen. She lived a thousand miles away in Idaho, sitting on her red velvet throne flitting her paintbrush in the air and ordering people around. It was like magic. My mother’s art was a little too close to home. As she repeated again and again, my sister and I were her greatest masterpieces.
I was fourteen-years-old at this point and certainly couldn’t see beyond my own unruly emotions and unpredictable skin.
I didn’t want to be her masterpiece anymore.
I wanted to be my own work of art, so I made a decision. My canvas would be my own body.
I can see myself, primed and ready to rebel, in the bathroom with the door locked. The white noise of the bathroom fan mimicked the static buzzing in my brain as I stood in front of the mirror glaring defiantly at my reflection, needle in hand.
I was going to pierce my ears.
When I had asked her to take me to get my ears professionally done on my thirteenth birthday like any reasonable mother should, she winced. It was as if I had asked her if I could marry some drug-addled, fifty-year- old biker boyfriend.
“Why would you want to put holes in your ears?” She demanded. She was having none of my nonsense.
Sometimes, all a child wants is her parent’s blessing, but my mother just couldn’t do it. What I learned that day is that we cannot wait for permission to bloom. We must orchestrate our own transformation.
Just as my mother was orchestrating hers.
What my youthful blindness couldn’t see at the time was that my mother, who stood firmly in the center of her forties, was also becoming a new version of herself. She had begun to take personal growth classes in healing and meditation from the local metaphysical center. If I had given her another few months, she may have come around about the ear piercing because all this “new agey” stuff was actually helping her release fear.
After a few years, she started writing letters to her own family-of-origin to heal from deep wounds caused by alcoholism and abuse from extended family.
Like so many daughters, I did not know my mother’s history. Her role in my life was simple. As I said, she was the helper. She helped grandma. She helped dad, me, my sister. She lived safely in the background, protected and protecting. This is how I thought it would stay forever.
I suppose this is why her growth made me so uncomfortable. I did not want to know that her fear about our young lives might actually have come from a real place and real-life experience. I wanted to believe her fear was small, containable, and controllable. Yet, nothing is containable or controllable. Just as I am witnessing again this spring, life is relentless and, sometimes if we’re lucky, bursts with color and light.
You see, just as I was blossoming into a young woman and my grandmother was blossoming into a visual artist, my mother was blossoming into a warrior. After initial discomfort on both our parts, she accepted my pierced ears and I began to see her as more than the lady with a comfortable lap who liked to redecorate. She was a strong presence. She was real.
She became even more real a few months ago. I have learned over time that it is a mother’s job to surprise her daughter. And she did it again on her 80th birthday this past November. It was a moment I never expected which, of course, is what made it miraculous.
My mother asked to get her ears pierced.
The woman who said she would never let someone poke holes in her skin had started making jewelry to keep her creative juices flowing and to help with the arthritis plaguing her hands. “It doesn’t seem right,” she said, “that I can’t wear my own earrings.”
Here’s the best part. Since my DIY bathroom rebellion, the whole piercing enterprise has come such a long way. No longer is it customary to go to the mall to get your ears pierced with a piercing gun (the way I did for my second holes). Now, people get their ears pierced at tattoo parlors by professionals – guys with extensive training and more ink than skin peeking out beneath their black t-shirts.
My sister asked me to be in charge of “booking mom’s appointment” for ear piercing because that’s what people like my sister do, make appointments. I found the most highly-rated body modification salon (aka tattoo/piercing parlor) in the area. They said, “Just come in. It’s first come, first served.” All the online reviews said the piercing guy was a pro, that he really knew his stuff, highly recommend even for little kids and old ladies.
When I gave my sister the details about the “where” of mom’s upcoming transformation, I heard glee in her voice, too (one must remember that the two of us did grow up in the same household). Honestly, neither of us believed she would go through with it. When someone changes unexpectedly, blooming yet again at the age of 80, it can be hard to adjust.
As usual, mom chattered away on the drive to our “appointment.” When we pulled up to the building covered in tattoo-inspired graffiti, my 80-year- old mother’s voice began to waver.
“Oooohhhh, where are you taking me?” She had not changed so much after all.
At least, that’s how it felt. But the truth was that, in spite of any story my sister and I might still have in our heads, our mother had changed. She was not afraid. She told the man what she wanted, marched into the room with her cane, sat in that chair without a wince, and smiled as the needle pushed through her tender skin.
You see, the pain and uncertainty of old age had strengthened her in ways we, the younger generation so busy with our important adult lives, had been blind to. . . again. The amazing thing is that we’re never too old to birth a new version of ourselves. We are never too old to make our life into art. And that day, my mother was the masterpiece. The tiny cubic zirconia gems in her earlobes made her face shine. She had earned her sparkle.
When I pierced my own ears all those years ago, it was an attempt to both claim independence and to mark myself as belonging to a new tribe, the tribe of adolescence and eventual adulthood. The earrings served as both shining armour and daggers for the battles to come.
My mother, who is softening into her crone years with a deep surrender to life and inevitable death, is marking herself in another way. Her sparkling earrings seem, to me, a symbol of the light. She is hobbling toward it with more courage than I ever gave her credit for.
She, like her mother before her, is becoming a surprise.
Holly Holt is a writer/ storyteller with a deep devotion to practices that heal the body and wake up the mind. For most of the early 2000s, she was a performing singer/songwriter who recorded a well received CD of original music. Currently, she is working on a novel, teaches yoga, blogs, and leads Word Gathering Writing Circles in Sacramento, CA.