I have a calendar on my writing desk with prints of Alex Colville paintings — 12 prints, but the calendar keeps falling open to April. Family and Rainstorm is the name of April’s painting, and there are just three figures in the scene. In April — the month I got ready this year to move with my two children, just the three of us, to the 1950s bungalow in central Edmonton where we now live — I often stared at this print hanging on the wall of my old house and drew fortitude from Colville’s vision of the mother. I could see in her what was required of me. A certain posture, a way of being inside of motherhood and its storms.
Her back is turned to us. She wears a white dress. She is holding open the door of a car.
It is one of those big grey 1950s sedans with a rounded roof. The door is large and appears heavy.
A young girl, wearing a smaller version of the mother’s white dress, climbs into the front passenger seat, while her brother, a skinny boy in dark blue swimming trunks, stands behind his sister, waiting his turn. On the horizon, terse and ominous clouds have formed, but the light is still warm and residually pleasant in the foreground. Thick grey patches of rain fall in the distance.
The mother is the focus of the painting, even though she is not at its centre.
How like motherhood to occupy the margins, even while the image depends on you, depends on the hand you firmly hold against the force of a door that wants to close.
Any one of us could draw the obvious yet invisible line that stretches implicitly from the head of the young girl clambering up into the car, over the head of her older brother waiting his turn as he has been taught to do, to the mother — who is larger than she should be. Of mythical proportions.
The mother was once a girl at the front of the line, just as the girl will, we might assume, become the woman at the back of it. The boy will grow up, too, but differently.
Many things will be lost. Much of what is lost will be embodied. The mother embodies all.
She holds something behind her back — we don’t know for sure what it is — and patiently waits for her children to climb aboard.
Patiently waiting is motherhood’s idealized state. But what does it take — what does it cost? — for any of us to get there? In Colville’s painting, we see motherhood from the outside, not from within. There is so much that isn’t in the scene. None of the tension or happiness the mother might feel is explicitly visible. The mother’s posture is, in fact, relaxed. Yet her body must contain the energy of the children while managing the threat of the storm; she must determine when to open the door, and exactly when to close it, safely, after. Ever after. Happily.
She must be the one to judge the safety of the moment, to keep the scene in balance.
Though implied in this painting from 1955 is a certain kind of family structure of which the mother is a part — a father beyond the edge of the immediate scene is assumed — here at my yellow writing desk, in 2019, Colville’s painting captures for me my own family structure, just me and two children. Yet, as a single parent co-parenting with my ex-husband and his partner, I might have more in common than I tend to think I do with a married, middle-class housewife parenting in the summer of 1955. Becoming a single mother has asked me to see more sharply how mothers — not only single mothers like me but also those resisting the normative pressures of the patriarchal family, and especially those with disabilities or chronic illnesses, as well as queer and BIPOC mothers — continue to face systemic barriers (and often multiple, intersecting barriers) to our own and our children’s flourishing.
Nevertheless, mothers so often do the work to nurture the children, to meet their needs, to make community, to hold the scene together anyway. How do we do it?
From what sources does the mother in Colville’s painting derive her calm strength?
In the new house, I’ve put my writing desk under a window, where I have a good view of the elms that line my street. The desk has a cedar top, canary-yellow spindle legs, and porcelain knobs. I found it on Kijiji when I was six months pregnant with my second child and intuited the need to claim some writerly ground for myself before the shape of my life, once again, changed.
For some time, my writing desk became a placeholder — a physical thing that marked a spot I wanted to return to, even when I couldn’t get there yet.
We need these markers, these embassies of our selves.
In the presence of her children’s needs, the mother in the rainstorm stands still — attuned to the moment, awaiting motion. But — look more closely. She carries something behind her.
There are in fact many things she holds — and that uphold her — that we do not see.
But Colville has painted one of them. It seems to be only an item of clothing she has picked up on behalf of one of her children — maybe a jacket, it is hard to tell.
Nevertheless, she carries it — Colville gives it to her — like a secret.
Her arm is angled behind her back the way someone — perhaps the mother herself as a young child — might hold her hand out of sight to cross her fingers, refusing contrition.
But the mother’s fingers are not crossed.
She simply holds the door open for her children with one hand, while also holding onto something else. Perhaps it is only a child’s jacket.
But she holds it like it might be something more.
She holds it like it’s something of her own.
Lisa Martin is a mother of two and co-editor of How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting: Stories of Pregnancy, Parenthood, and Loss . Her second collection of poetry was a finalist for the City of Edmonton Book Prize in 2018.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019