Jefferson’s “Poplar Forest.” Its “disarming and dramatic” architecture triggered a mother’s surprising revelation.

I needed to move my mother. Independent living was no longer an option for her. She said goodbye to Buffalo, her home for 80 years, and we began the long drive to mine.

We made a leisurely progress southward to Savannah along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains. She enjoyed the passing landscape, the nightly destinations, the changing menus, and, most of all, the postponement of arrival in a place that was not where she wanted to live.

The journey allowed us visits to out-of-the-way destinations, including a stop at Thomas Jefferson’s country retreat, Poplar Forest.  It had recently opened for public tours, although the restoration of both dwelling and garden was still in early stages. I expected that we would enjoy a brief house tour.

Jefferson planned this miniature Monticello around one great room, to which he attached all the required smaller spaces, with their specific functions, like lifeboats around the mother ship. I wonder—did he know, could he have anticipated, how the central space might move minds and emotions?

800px-Poplar_ForestPoplar Forest, an octagon with a side wing for cooking and maintenance.

The central room is a perfect cube, 20 by 20 by 20 feet. Its dimensions are disarming, dramatic, even heroic. Stepping into this skylighted room was passing into brilliant light. Standing in it was an intense experience of volume, both liberating and demanding. Ideas skittered across my mind; energy raced about my body; I wanted to move, make noise, whirl like a dervish.

My mother examined the room intently, looking into the corners, up at the ceiling, down at the floor. “I wanted to be an architect,” she said. She was in her eighties, and I had never heard this from her or about her.

What I knew about her was that she had been was a good wife, a good mother, a good volunteer and a good friend to many people. If any of them knew of her aspirations, would it not have been mentioned? Not even by my father?

I asked, “Well then, why didn’t you do that?” Reflecting on this reaction somewhat later, I regretted the question. It closed down the discussion, and led to one inevitable reply. She answered, simply, “I asked my father, and he said it was no job for a woman.” The conversation was over, but the missed opportunity, which I continued to miss for the rest of her life, became a reproach for my habit of dismissing her without really seeing her.

In an instant, it seemed, the woman who bore me, the woman who raised me, had become another person, a person I hardly knew. I certainly knew who my mother was: she was a woman who lived by, and insisted on, so many silly rules. I was embarrassed by her: she drove a car badly, her clothes were too fussy, she told really stupid jokes. Yet I must have noticed, as a background to my own life, how busy she was at things of little importance to me.

How she painted our walls with hearts and flowers in leafy scrolls; how she picked wild strawberries and twined the stems to make nosegays—even though we were going to eat them almost immediately. When her church group made drab blue dresses from surplus military fabric for girls in postwar refugee camps, she wouldn’t send them off until she had embroidered flowers on the bodice of each dress because “even refugees need something pretty to wear.” I had asked, “Why bother?”

I remember that she wintered the goldfish from our pond in the agitator tub of an old washing machine, making a habitat for them out of rocks and ferns. I made jokes about that, but the fish flourished until they had grown so large that they were moved to the fishtank in the lobby of the Hotel Statler. And when she redesigned our 1920s kitchen into an efficient 1950s showplace, I thought of it primarily as an improvement in my family’s status. When she hand-painted our favorite recipes onto ceramic tiles and had them set into the cupboard doors, I thought that rather quaint—even corny. The fact that she had the builders install a wall-mounted refrigerator above the counter, and had managed to have it painted yellow in a friend’s auto repair shop, was, I don’t know, just expected.

It is only now that I see her as someone who spent life as creatively, if not as monumentally, as in her original intent. Was she satisfied? I wish I knew. Did she think that she had achieved something like her original purpose? I wish I had observed more closely. No. I wish I had had a conversation with her. But I wouldn’t have known where to begin.

And now I am her age, the age that she was when I discovered that she was another person. I have achieved quite tangibly what I intended, and mean to keep on doing so.

What I have begun to consider is who I am. My academic self is appreciated by my daughters; they consult me on intellectual matters, and they claim a genetic inheritance to my modest success in visual arts. Still, they are frank about my shortcomings as a mother. But motherhood, to me, is more an accident of nature than a well-crafted persona. I seem to be living in the same distance—between what it means to be a mother and what it means to be oneself—that separated me from the woman I barely knew. I see no remedy.

Except blind good fortune. Because, in one rare moment, in one extraordinary place, I was shocked out of an assumption that I could define my mother. There had been this other person whose interior life I can only sense through tangible evidence, half-remembered. I have not learned to love my mother more, but in my search for this other person who my mother may have been, I have found more of myself than can be accounted for in all her parenting, all her intentions for me.

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  • Toni Myers August 25, 2014 at 10:49 pm

    Barbara, your beautiful and brave essay deserves to be widely read. So many of us lacked the perfect relationship with our mothers we may have expected as our due. We, meaning ME of course, look at our mothers through the prism of our own needs, never theirs. I especially love the detail about her picking wild strawberries to make nosegays, transitory beauty. I flash on intricate sand paintings created by monks.
    I rue that your mother and so many women have had their aspirations and dreams devalued by their spouses and others. Your honesty and perceptiveness helps us readers gain more insight into our relationships with our mothers and daughters. Keep up the non-academic writing. This is brilliant.

  • Diane Dettmann August 21, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    Thank you, Barbara, for sharing this wonderful essay. It triggered memories of my own mother and her creative talents that were driven by financial necessity. Once, in order to save money, she hand painted flowers on fabric and made curtains for the kitchen windows. At the time, the curtains were just curtains to me. Now I see them as an extension of who she was.

  • Barbara Neville August 21, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    Thank you for writing this. It is very thought provoking. I shared my mother with 4 siblings – in 2 phases ( 3 & 2 with a gap.) I think the youngest, my dear sister, got more time and understanding of who my mother was. I was gone from home a year after high school and always lived somewhere else – mostly 2,000 miles away. I always wished I could just stop by for dinner or some other small town family ritual, but my choice to not live in the small town where she was. She has been gone for 4 years and so many times I wish I knew more about her life. Too bad we are so self-consumed when we are younger and miss out on this. Love the Poplar Forest pix and info on the house. Visited there years back and always loved T.J. and his spatial ideas.

  • B. Elliott August 21, 2014 at 8:44 am

    Exceptional and thought-provoking essay. Thank you for these beautifully written words.