My mother is strong, fierce—and fragile

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Outside the Box, a column by Cheryl Hatch/copyright 2016

I am not a mother.

I have not known the joy of bringing a life into this world or the pain of watching my child leave it.

As a photographer, I have witnessed a birth in a home on a farm in Ohio. I stood in that scared, translucent space where love and new life mingle, as a child slipped from his mother’s womb into his father’s waiting hands.

In a hospital in Somalia, I have been in that equally sacred space where life slips away on one last breath. In Iraq, I watched a Kurdish mother caress the dirt over her infant’s grave, running her fingers through the soil the way she might have one day run her fingers through her daughter’s curls.

My mother’s mother did not want her to marry my father. She feared she’d waste the college education purchased so dearly just a few decades after the Great Depression. My mother, usually the good girl, defied her mother and married my father. “I love him,” she said.

Dad graduated a year ahead of my mother with a commission in the U.S. Army. He flew back from overseas for their June wedding. There would be no honeymoon. Dad had to be at his station and the Army wouldn’t pay for Mom’s ticket. They saved their quarters, literally, so the bride could purchase a plane ticket and accompany her husband to their new home.

Mom got settled in a room above the barn in a German farmhouse and Dad promptly left for the field. At 21, my mother was alone; an ocean away from the small island where she’d lived her entire life. No friends. No family. And no German language skills.

Soon mom was pregnant with me.

There would be five children—one who did not survive. 26 moves. Twenty-six times my mother would pack and unpack an entire household, usually alone. Dad was either already at his next post, in the field or away at war.

When my father left for his second tour in Vietnam, my mother was still in her twenties, with four children, my youngest brother not yet 1 year old.

When I look back, I marvel at how my mother held it all together. I think sometimes she didn’t.

My mother did not have a home of her own again until she was nearly 50. But she made do and made a home each and every day for my often-absent soldier father and their four children.

Mom grew up at a time when women had two career choices: teacher or nurse. My mom wanted to be a physical education teacher. That course of studies would have cost more money, so my mother became an elementary school teacher.

My mom is athletic and as competitive as they come. She played basketball and volleyball in high school. She came of age before Title IX and the opportunities it offered girls and women, so she set sports aside in college.

She played tennis when she could, until her back had other plans. She took up golf at 50. She’s had a couple hole-in-ones. And even now, when she’s putting well, she can score in the mid-40s for nine holes.

She started piano lessons in her late 60s. She writes poems. She’ll wake up in the middle of the night and put pen to paper. Every once in a while, I’ll get an envelope in the mail with a poem my mom wrote for me.

My mother is smart and tough and gifted with languages. She’s athletic and adventurous. She has an artist’s soul. She’s thoughtful and kind—to a degree that can leave her wounded by the thoughtlessness of others.

I have discovered that I am my mother’s daughter.

I rowed crew at a Division I university and earned a Pac-10 championship. I am a writer and photographer. I have traveled the world.

It’s no accident that in my work I have quietly raged against the patriarchal systems that suppress, stifle and dismiss women. The military. Journalism. Now academia.

Early in my career, I focused my camera and energy on women and children who had been displaced, caught in the crossfire of the men who made war and made the decisions.

Like my mother, I have been too nice. Too polite. Unfailingly thoughtful and long-suffering. To the detriment of my spirit and health.

Like my mother, later in my life, I have found my voice. I have given myself permission to speak my mind and my truth. Now, as an educator, I encourage other women to find and use their voices and talents.

When someone asks me where I’m from, I’m always challenged to find an accurate answer. One of my brothers says planet earth.

I have no home in the traditional sense. There’s the place I was born. The place I live now. The place I’ve lived the longest.

There has been one constant in my peripatetic life, my mother. The one fixed point in my moving life. She has held it—and us—together these many years.

My mother is strong, fierce—and fragile. I suspect all mothers are.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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Let love anchor us to our lives

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Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch, copyright 2015

Theo Padnos stands center stage with stack of loose papers in his hand. Hundreds of journalists and students wait for him to begin his presentation. The seats in auditorium are nearly full. People line the aisles and the back wall.

I’ve probably written more here than I’ll have time to say, Padnos tells the audience, so I’ll start with what’s most important.

Padnos is the opening speaker for The Power of Narrative conference at Boston University. I attended the conference with three student journalists from The Campus newspaper staff.

He speaks in a soft voice. Audience members ask him to use a hand-held microphone. Padnos is a scholar and writer. He’s fluent in French, Arabic, German and Russian. He has a doctorate in comparative literature. He taught poetry to prisoners in Vermont. His interest in Islam led him to study in Yemen then Turkey, near the Syrian border.

Working as an independent journalist, Padnos was kidnapped in Syria in October 2012 and released in August 2014.

In the early days, Padnos said he was afraid of his captors. He was held in a dark room.

“This was a torture hospital,” he said of where he was held. The captors would take a victim to the boiler room. Within 10 minutes, he would hear a scream from “deep in the soul.” The soldiers called it the room of death, Padnos said.

“I dreaded everything. Every noise. Every footfall. Every turn of the key.”

He said he would put a blanket over his head and recall former girlfriends, his mother, the forest, a dog or two, poems. Padnos said he’d been pushed to the edge of life and feared that death might come at any moment.

In those dark days in that dark room, he realized what was important.

“I hadn’t loved enough,” Padnos said. “If only I’d cared, if only this love had anchored me to life.”

“I wish I’d loved other people more. I wish I’d loved myself more.”

On Sunday, I witnessed the marriage of two Allegheny colleagues at Christ Episcopal Church in Meadville.

Light illuminated the stained glass windows and poured onto the altar.

The pastor spoke of the sacrament of marriage, of the joy and deep thoughtfulness the couple brought to their relationship, the altar and their vows.

They had chosen several readings from the Bible for their ceremony, including a passage about raising Lazarus from the dead. In my experience, this story is not a staple at weddings. I was puzzled by the introduction of death and darkness.

The pastor said that each had gone through dark times. They found enough faith to keep going. They met, fell in love and found a new way forward.

Yes, it’s story of death and darkness. It’s also a testament to faith and a return to life and light.

“Cloak yourself in love,” the pastor said.

The days are longer now, offering light and a welcome warmth. The snows have melted and Ernst Trail is accessible again.

As I’ve walked the trail, I’ve noticed the signs of renewal and new life. The twisted green shoots of skunk cabbage as they push their way out of the black, damp muck and into the light and fresh air.

I’ve encountered several snakes that have left their dark winter habitats. They stretch out on the asphalt, absorbing the heat radiating from below and the warmth from the sun above. With a gentle nudge of a stick, I try to encourage them to leave the path. I’m concerned a passing cyclist’s tire might flatten them, rob them of life. They seem loath to leave the light. And I leave them alone.

On campus, daffodils have burst from the ground in what seems like the blink of an eye. When I head to my yoga class one morning, I notice their tight buds. When I leave an hour later, some have burst their bonds. Their bright flowers now face the sun.

I have known dark times, times of self-imposed seclusion and hibernation. I have kept company with despair and fear, lived with and through threats on my life.

Because I’ve traveled through darkness, I know I am blessed to be alive.

I stand at the altar of life and a simple moment of staggering beauty reminds me of what is holy and sacred—and important—in my life and this wide world.

I am with Padnos, the pastor and the newlyweds.

Let love anchor us to our lives. Let’s cloak ourselves in love. Let’s love one another and ourselves.

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/columns/outside-the-box-let-love-anchor-us-to-our-lives/article_eff46544-e3c5-11e4-a6b7-138af07835d0.html

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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