When I was three, my dad was in Strategic Air Command and we lived in a trailer park not far from Beale Air Force Base in Northern California. My mother was a 41 year old homemaker. But, apart from the presence of my two adult half-sisters, she had a life before me that I knew nothing about.

My bedroom in the trailer was a snug little nest. In retrospect, I think it was a walk-in closet. We lived in a single-wide of standard length for those years (meaning short) and my “room” was across the hall from the bathroom. Entering my door, there was a closet with sliding doors on the left and on the right was a wide built-in chest of drawers with a ladder to one side that gave me access to my bed on top which was just the right size for three-year-old me.

My mother sewed a bedspread, pillow sham, and curtains for my little nook. On it she drew freehand perfect replicas of Rocky and Bullwinkle and embroidered them. This set was my pride and joy. I loved Rocky and Bullwinkle and even at three years old I loved it that my mother was so creative – and all for me!

When I was five, my father got transferred to Travis AFB. We sold the trailer and moved into a real house with my own bedroom. When I found out that my mother had left my bedroom set in the trailer I was crushed. I felt deeply betrayed and eventually told her so just before she died 27 years later. It was a tearful moment for both of us.

Through the years I came to learn that my mother had been a seamstress before she met my father. She sewed not only my bedroom set, but virtually all of my clothes, and hers as well, until she went to work as a nurse when I was five. She could look at any article of clothing and recreate the pattern perfectly. But that wasn’t her secret.

One day I was telling my father about my bedside conversation with my mother about the lost bedroom set and his comment sent me reeling.

“When your mother was young, she was a very good artist, but when she married your sister’s father she stopped drawing and went to work at the drycleaners. I think she missed it terribly.”

Once again, the sense of betrayal rose in me like a hot tide.

I had inherited my mother’s artistic talent. In elementary school, the teachers always posted my work on the bulletin boards (this was before they started posting everybody’s work). Throughout my youth I won school and community competitions. I drew every matchbook cover I could find – and they were plenty since my folks were heavy smokers. I drew entire wardrobes for Veronica and Betty. I designed and landscaped houses.

My mother never acknowledged my talent. Her motto was, “Learn how to type. Secretaries don’t have to do any heavy lifting.” When approached directly with my work her standard commentary was, “Artists never make a living.” Being a child of the Depression, born in 1920, my mother never recovered from her survival mentality. Art was a luxury she could not afford – and neither could her children.

I moved out on my own when I was 17 and when I was 22, having never taken a drawing class other than two weeks in my 9th grade Beginning Art class, I applied at California College of Arts and Crafts and was accepted without having completed even any basic community college courses on the basis of a portfolio of nudes, anatomic studies, and portraits I had drawn and an interview with a member of the Fine Arts faculty. But I never attended. CCAC had only day classes. I would have to quit my job. I was young, couldn’t qualify for financing, my mother was poor, and my father’s wife refused to provide me their tax returns for financial aid to review. I felt totally alone and overwhelmed. I gave up and went back to being a secretary.

Tonight, approaching my 50th birthday, I saw a movie called August Rush, about a child music prodigy, born of talented musical parents and given up for adoption at birth, and it reminded me of the talent that my mother abandoned and that I abandoned. Granted, neither of us were prodigies like this boy, but what is it that allows (forces?) women in particular to cut out their hearts in order to carry their children?

I don’t even have that excuse. I am childless by choice because I never wanted to be the sole support of a child like my mother was after my parents divorced when I was nine. So what is the difference between me and this boy?

I believe that this boy could hold onto his passion specifically because his parents weren’t around to discourage him. He may not have had anyone to encourage him during his very dark early years, but he also did not have someone he loved and looked up to telling him to forget about it. He held on to his passion because that was all he had.

In contrast, I had a mother I loved and a father I adored. My mother actively discouraged me and my father let his wife be the passive-aggressive controller of my education. Their refusal to acknowledge my passion was a refusal to acknowledge me. My invisibility became a reflection of my self-worth until I was entrenched in the 9-5 office world and it was too late to do anything about it. I did not have enough faith in myself or in the world fight it out for my own cause.

I know my mother did what she thought was best and, frankly, I have done well for myself in the corporate world. I don’t have to do any physical heavy lifting and I haven’t been a secretary for many years. But it does not satisfy my heart. My soul is left wanting. I buy art supplies and they sit unused. I lay ceramic tile and vinyl flooring in strange and beautiful patterns. I design my own home and decorate it eccentrically. I draw one perfect piece every 5-10 years just to be sure I still can. But it hurts so deeply that I let it go and submerse myself in Work again.

My mother retired in her early 60’s but never did return to her art before lung cancer consumed her at 71. I work 60-hour weeks at a start-up company and think daily about Grandma Moses. In the meantime, every child I come in contact with I encourage them to do what they love. If they’re artists, I keep a stack of bargain basement supply boxes filled with markers, acrylics, crayons, pencils and brushes for gifting.

And I don’t tell anybody to give up their passion to become a secretary. Ever.

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