Myth Mother Invention: Empty Nest

hactenus annorum, comites, elementa meorum
et memini et meminisse iuvat: scit cetera mater.

That is all I remember, friends,
of the training I had when I was young, and I take joy
in the memories. My mother knows the rest.

These lines are the last of what remains of Statius’ Achilleid, the poem about the Greek hero’s time, hidden away on Skyros, and before fighting in the Trojan War.

Even though the text breaks off abruptly at this point, under 200 lines into the second book of the epic, ever since I read them, when I was eighteen years old, I appreciated how they enacted a more than appropriate ending. For the story of Achilles’ youth, before his heroic deeds, who knows more than his divine mother Thetis? I always wondered what the Iliad would have been like if it had been told from Thetis’ perspective. What details of her son’s triumphs would she tell? What of her own life, with him out there making mayhem on the battle-field? Did she suffer from the so-called ’empty nest syndrome’? If so, how would it color her account of her son’s life, without her, after her, beyond her?

I thought of this untold epic of the mother as I walked around the exhibition Repeat Pressure Until at the Angela Meleca Gallery earlier this week. Curated by Sheilah Restack, this group exhibition includes works by Moyra Davey, Stacy Fisher, Pati Hill, Dana Hoey, Vera Iliatova, Hein Koh, Dani & Sheilah Restack, Carolyn Salas, Suzanne Silver, Mickalene Thomas, Kim Waldron and Carmen Winant. The exhibition was also the context for the launch of Mother Mother Volume 2, edited by Sheilah Restack, as well as a performance Pressure Points. As I peered at the works, on the walls, the floor and the spaces in between, with Thetis’ untold story in mind, I fixated on two aspects of the exhibition. Firstly, some minor details of individual works and, secondly, the way the works seemed to lean against each other for support. It is hard to explain exactly what I mean by the latter, but I knew it had something to do with Thetis and Achilles, and more specifically, Thetis without Achilles. I looked for help in making sense of this feeling by turning to the text/screenplay of Moyra Davey’s Hemlock Forest.

I had read this text several months ago and it had inspired my devotion to the idea of witnessing motherhood that I have been exploring throughout this semester (in the Myth Mother Invention group, in my classes and in a forthcoming exhibition called Oh Mother Reader, I Can Feel). I was taken by how Davey described her own way of understanding the ’empty nest’ syndrome as her son, Barney, had recently started college. Here is a selection from Hemlock Forest in which Davey describes her relationship with Barney, as he has left and as he has remained, accompanied by a few photographs of the works of Repeat Pressure Until in their leaning, supportive relationships. 

In the frame, just above the TV, there’s a small paperback copy of Tillie Olsen’s Silences. I keep staring at it and eventually start to think of Käthe Kollwitz, whom Olsen includes in the collection, writing about working in her studio after her children have left home. I read the passage to J. over the phone: “I am gradually approaching the period in my life when work comes first….No longer diverted by other emotions, I work the way a cow grazes…

and yet formerly, in my so wretchedly limited working time, I was more productive, because I was more sensual.”

 

I start to cry at the word sensual. This passage, included in a book I edited eighteen years ago called Mother Reader, has stayed with me, a harbinger. And now Kollwitz’s reality is upon me…

Excepting the occasional rueful aside, my mother made a point not to speak about her children, and like her I’ve been circumspect.

But now the boy is suddenly a man with one foot out the door and plays his cards close to his chest. He relaxed and opened up once over a bottle of champagne; he sat and talked for an hour, and I could see the tension drain from his face. Then something a bit more innocent happened; he put his head in my lap like a living Pieta. He was slightly high. I’d been dying to hold him in my arms and squeeze his flesh like the chubby baby he’d once been. I said, “You’re a nice guy to let me hold you like this.”

 

Elisabeth asked, apropos of my book from 2001, “If you were doing Mother Reader now, what would you include?” Inevitably I’ve also been queried about “empty nest,” a tough one to consider because the advent of it is so cliched, the emotions strong and real.

I hear, echoing in the public hallway, the wail of a child pleading for its mother. This type of anguish goes straight to my nerve center, spiriting me back to childhood, my own and Barney’s. I remember my transgressions, the times when Barney was that unhappy child. But I’m pretty sure, as per Winnicott, that I was “good enough.”

You are riding your bike in the park at dusk, struck once again by the wild, jungle quality of the foliage on the other side of the train tracks. You are drenched in sweat from the courts, your hands are gray with dirt. The air is smoky and filled with the rise and fall of cicada sounds. From all that, I get the idea to do a traveling shot for Hemlock Forest. I hold your shoulder with one hand and the camera high with the other.

 

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