In My Mother’s Closet
Here I am, 10 years old in a Sunday photo, my blouse turned out across my skirt, my barrettes spilling my wispy blonde hair over my eyes. Looking elsewhere. I am a dreamer, with a lot on my mind and a careless detachment from the physical world.
The one tasked with my upbringing, my mother, in her nylons, hair spray and shiny black heels, stands beside me, smiling ahead at the camera. Perhaps she is wondering even at the moment how she will raise me to be a good wife and mother in the world around her there, a world that is so tucked in.
Of course my parents always wanted me to be a good student, to learn to read, to go to college. But there was other training needed – homemaking, personal attire, grace and poise. Mother tried. I had a china tea set with pink rosebuds, the same flowers she had wallpapered across my room. She bought me an Easy Bake Light oven in which I prepared one disappointing pudding. She signed me up for dance classes. She took me to Camp Fire Girl meetings. There we sewed crafts while dressed in navy skirts & vests adorned with wooden beads indicating achievements. They were our uniforms of preparation.
But it wasn’t sinking in. I was flighty. I was the wave upon the shore. I was Maria in the convent, rattling all the walls. (As a matter of fact I had informed my Dutch Reformed minister that I wanted to be a nun, not realizing only Catholics could be nuns.) Worst of all, I loved books much more than work. Standing next to Mother in the kitchen, drying dishes, baking cookies, folding laundry, dusting the furniture surfaces. No, no, no. There were worlds waiting — adventure, romance, overgrown ancient castles just beyond the wood. I was lost in the world of books. It wasn’t that Mother didn’t understand. She was an avid reader herself. But she read romance novels and in the end of her books, the wedding completed the story. Who would have me? Was there to be a prince who walked out of a book onto Heather Drive seeking my company? Mother doubted it.
One of my aunts had worked for a publisher in Boston, Massachusetts. This could hardly be imagined, much less understood in my small Midwest town. She had a bookshelf just beside the window to her garden and there were children’s books shining in the sunlight. Many a long adventure came to me from this shelf but the most important of all was the world of Narnia. It spanned across nine books. It featured four normal children who would become kings and queens inside another world, one that could be entered through a passage in a wardrobe.
This story was perfect for me. I needed to be a queen. I couldn’t see any other use for my limited talents. With the exception of pleasing those I loved I couldn’t see any appeal to being a bride in Holland, Michigan, planet Earth. And especially not a housewife. That seemed so obvious. I simply needed to get into a story where I could be safely crowned. I felt that I had been born with an extra dose of justice and humility and therefore was highly qualified. I could rule a kingdom, hold audiences and reign mercy on all those who deserved it. I also felt I would be happy to be the youngest queen. My sister would make a wonderful queen too and the company would be good. I didn’t care for my taunting brother, but I thought it would be unjust to leave him behind, and a queen is always just. I mean, that was the main thing (that and castles, horses, gowns, magic potions, and trains of creamy gauze trailing off your clothes and hat).
I merely had to find a way in. That’s what brought me to my mother’s closet. We didn’t have a drafty old house where a forgotten wardrobe could stand in an empty room filled with echoes. We had my mother’s closet, with powder blue slat doors, a shiny brass doorknob, and plush carpet. Sadly it was rather shallow. Inside there was a long shoe rack with dozens of shoes and hatboxes on the top shelf. There were no fur coats there. Still, there were lines of carefully hung skirts and dresses that I could push up against, bury my face in, and attempt to crawl beyond.
I went through the clothes and touched the wall on the other side, trying to experience it as impermanent, as something I could pass my body through. I closed my eyes and thought only of the truth of imagination. I desperately needed to believe. I was not a fast runner. I was rebellious in dance class. I did not play the violin. But I was determined to believe that I could fall through my mother’s closet and find myself in enchantment and adventure. With the will of a true heart I knocked on the back of the closet, exploring the realm of faith.
Eventually, I had to give up and climb out, fitting my wounded imagination into a heart box deep inside. From there I grew up. My far shore became a college campus, with bookshelves all the way to the sky. Beyond college, without the benefit of a crown, I galloped out to work for justice. I started in Indian print skirts that twirled around me and advanced into navy jackets with pin stripe shirts. When I came back to the home hearth as a mother in loose skirts, I created a space of magic like Narnia. It is a small world of writing workshops, a safe harbor where young writers can weave their own tales. It was my own way of penetrating the closet wall.
Still today, decades beyond, I can see that girl, my younger self, sticking part of the way out of the blue closet, in amongst the shoes. I cannot remember when my mother came in, or the expression she wore. Perhaps she was angry with the mess and the invasion of the wardrobe. Perhaps she was sad, afraid she would fall short of raising me according to plan with so much at stake. Maybe she was amused at the inevitable fancies of her fluffy hearted daughter. Any of these reactions seem real to me now. As mothers we eventually play all parts in the complex theater of the parent.
But I hope for her sake that my explorations brought her pleasure. She had done her best, and there would be more to do. In the end, it was my own world of magic I had to find, and I would need to write my storybook alone.
Lynn Bowmaster is a writer, a mother, a keeper of chickens. She is the director of Woven Word Young Writers, a workshop program for creative writers that meets at her home, on her houseboat, and in school classrooms. She has been published in Calyx: A Journal of Art and Literature By Women, A Northampton Gallery of Readers, and The Equinox. She believes in the power of beauty, music, nature and love.