So picture my dear mama (emphasis on the second syllable - as elocuted in Downton Abbey) Sylvia Myers Willoughby, age around 88, sitting comfortably in a corner of this settee, crime novel in hand.
It’s cocktail time at the Lake, which invariably involves gin and tonics and a tray of sharp, sweating Vermont cheddar perched atop Triscuits. Over generations, the spread has diversified with roasted garlic Triscuits. “Makes it zippy,” my dear mama likes to say. Same with the sourcream horseradish dip. “Zippy!”
So there she is, sitting peacefully on the porch she insisted was built, in the “wing” she planned and financed, as the caretaker of our family treasure, the Lake Cottage. Our modest piece of paradise on the shores of an obscure lake, named JoSylvia after my mother’s great-great Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Joe, who were the pillars of Cloughville, the village tucked in the hills across from us.
My mama’s mum was a Clough. We have a cloudy photo of Gladys as a young girl climbing into a row boat. All her life, Gladys loved to take the boat over to the swampy side of the Lake at twilight and drop a wormy hook.
My mother lost her mother to cancer in 1950, soon after her first child was born. “At least she got a chance to hold Chikk,” I heard her say about that time of loss. “She took care of him for a whole afternoon.” The fact that Gladys was terminal was withheld from my mom; of course they wanted to protect her pregnancy. Sadly, she’s never forgiven them for making that decision for her. If she’d known she’d never see her mother again...
Now our dear mama is in the final days or weeks (if we are lucky) of her earthly journey, and likely as you read this, she will be out of assisted living, where she has the kind, intermittent help of the facility staff in masks and gloves, and back at her Lake, in her corner of the sofa, seeing her family at a safe distance, tended by Hospice and her Family. As you know from the final pages of It’s Too Late to Quit, Sylvia has painted this lake through all the seasons, all the changes in it’s beauty, in exquisite watercolor.
So, this question of believing in ourselves... we return to the summer scene with the Triscuits.
Our dear mama is on the settee, family has yet to stream in from the other cottages, each carrying some assigned dish. (This is pre-Covid!) Right now, it is not just Golden Hour, it is On Golden Pond hour. Our lake is afire with the setting rays, and winning Oscars.
So, there I am, ricocheting between the porch and the kitchen, ever the dutiful hostess and server, a role I took on since I could reach the table top and put the spoon in the right place. I place my mother’s drink in front of her, she looks up from her Charles Ludlum novel, smiles, and chirps. “Honey, I’m so proud of you!”
“Oh my God, mom! Is it the movie - the way we’re still hanging in there and rolling with the punches? Or, is it my podcast with Angel people all over the world? Or maybe it’s the new Alexa skill, My Angel Prayer, we were showing you. Yeah, that was really hard to do.”
All that pinging with glee about my brain before I straighten up and chirp back,
“Really? Mom? Thanks!”
She nods, the lake glints in her glasses. She tastes her drink.
“You’ve managed to keep your figure, after all these years.”
For nearly my entire life I imagined my mother’s withholding of approval was something only I suffered with. It was a great relief when, last March, I showed her the now-repaired framed photo of her second husband, Vic. Her head tilted a little as she offered, admiringly, “He was so handsome.” Pause. “I never told him.”
Hmmmm. To see something beyond my personal hurt, always helps. I really think so. Add to that, the letter from her mother Gladys I found with my Grandfather’s collection of personal correspondence. It is written in pencil in schoolteacher’s cursive on both sides of a single sheet of her stationary. It is my grandmother’s final wishes; most of it devoted to making sure her daughters retained what inheritance there might be, with instructions not to spend it on car repairs, for some reason. What struck me was her final paragraph: “I love you all so much and no matter what God sees fit to do - it’s for the best. I don’t worry for you, Dad - or Ruthie, but please both of you - see that Syl sits in the front row - generally.”
Gladys knew her eldest daughter’s timidity. All her life, my beautiful, talented mother was plagued by a lack of confidence. So, it was impossible for her to cheer on her daughter. She tolerated my artistic passions and pursuits. I guess it reminded her of what she might have risked and accomplished in another lifetime. What’s important, is that it doesn’t matter any more. It did, and now it doesn’t. I do want to say, that in reaction to my mother’s lack of enthusiasm for my work, I became my own daughter’s biggest fan, from the time she was four. I realized there was an artist at work when I watched my redheaded, pony-tailed little tyke, sitting at a toddler table after preschool, drawing pictures on demand for her toddler buddies to take home. “What do you want? A horsie?” She’d get the general idea then poise her pencil above the paper and let her hand drift, allowing the muse time to whisper in her ear, before drawing. That moment was a revelation. And a call to action, as I plied Sophie with scads of paper, crayons, paint, playdough (not so much) and art classes. Here’s a photo of my Sophie, with her art plastered across the kitchen in the background.
Much to my daughter’s chagrin, I never not let up on my fierce support of her artistic efforts. It all came to a head when Sophie and Jenn Jordan were launching their online comic, “Darwn Carmichael is going to Hell” while they were students at NYU. Three times a week, they put up another episode, and I commented online, “BRILLIANT!” “HILARIOUS” “GROUNDBREAKING!” At that, Sophie asked me to let up on the gushing geyser of unfettered enthusiasm. I have tried. It ain’t easy. But truly, Sophie is now doing splendidly as an artist, with a number of celebrated graphic novels.
In that last chapter of It’s Too Late To Quit, I recount how we sprung into action to deliver that solo art show that was on my mother’s bucket list. She was already 92, she was losing ground to her pulmonary fibrosis, and we had uncovered a cache of over 50 gorgeous watercolors that she had stashed away in her closet. The wish was granted within a couple of months, thanks to our large, loving, cooperative family, who lent us the work she’d given to them. Thanks to my sister, Karen. Thanks to the generous and hard-working staff at Sunapee Cove, where we hosted the show. Thanks to Joy Jackson, a brilliant designer and artist, who wove the entire collection into an amazing book.
For my mother’s first solo show last December, we were able to snag a reporter from the local paper to cover the event. In a story that ran above the fold in the Claremont Eagle Times, my mother recalled how, at age 12, she had drawn a picture of a horse, and Gladys placed it on the mantle. And 80 years later, Sylvia remembered the pride she felt.
In our Mother’s Day interview, that coincided with the launch of It’s Too Late To Quit, my mother expressed the tremendous feeling of seeing all her work up on the wall. I’m sharing this joy, because you, too, might have work you’ve kept stored behind the summer hats, or, also in my mother’s case, under the bed at the Lake cottage, where mice could chew on the matting.
Why, oh why did my mother wait until she was 92 to voice her dream? In her interview with the Eagle Times, she confessed, “I thought everyone else was better.”
So, there it is - something I wish someone had helped my mother understand from the get-go. No one is better than you. Everyone is absolutely unique. I have a page in my book devoted to this issue of self-doubt:
Now, in her interview with me, my mother admits she was too self-critical, that she no longer heaps abuse on herself for doing something “wrong.” She uses love.
That, to me, is the cherry on the sundae. My dear mama has realized her worth as an artist. She knows she is leaving a legacy, and that has brought her great peace. It is worth mentioning that for the 40 some years she painted in private, or in workshop with the “more talented” folks, she loved the work. She poured her love into her watercolors. She gave those representations of her love to family and friends and hung her favorites on the walls of her “condo” at Sunapee Cove. To this day, she gazes at her art and basks in the re-creation.
Now, hopefully, she will live long enough to be able to take in the glistening waters of Lake JoSylvia, and bask in the perfection of a life well-lived and a deeply-held wish realized.
You can get there, too. And you’re probably not 92 yet.
Sylvia Myers Willoughby passed away on July 13th, 2020, at her Lake, surrounded by her loving family.