My mother is strong, fierce—and fragile


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.








Welcome back, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day

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Outside the Box

a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

On Mother’s Day last year, my mom was missing.

In January 2013, I’d gone home before the start of spring semester. My dad met me at the airport. Mom wasn’t with him. Odd.

Dad told me that I’d have to stay at a hotel. He would take me by the house first. On the ride, Dad tried to explain what had happened.

I got to the house. Dad opened the door and my mother shrieked and ran into the farthest corner.

“Don’t come in, Cheryl.”

Her face was gaunt and pale—a dull gray really. She had her arms pulled in tight. In her tiny, T-Rex hands, she clutched a disinfectant wipe and a white tissue. She literally wrung her hands, pleading with me to leave.

Mom was afraid. She thought she was carrying an infection, that she was toxic, a health hazard. She was trying to protect those she loved, as she had done for as long as I’d known her.

No one had an explanation for her altered state.

One night, I went to bed with my wife and I woke up with a different woman, Dad said. My wife was gone.

Around Christmas, Mom had been ill and an emergency room doctor prescribed a combination of antibiotics. Days into the medication, my mom said that she felt like she was going nuts.

No one listened. She followed the doctor’s orders and stayed on the meds.

My father is an engineer. He searched for answers on the Web and from a variety of doctors and specialists. He wanted to rule out physical causes.

I am a photographer. I took a visual, storytelling approach to my mom’s disappearance. Holistic. Metaphoric. Less literal. And a less practical or realistic approach, according to some.

Mom had a voice. She wasn’t being heard. In spinning “out of control,” my mom was actually in control.

She was losing weight, vanishing physically as well as mentally, before our eyes

My mother and father grew up on an island, a mile apart from one another. She followed my father throughout his military service, shelving her own career as a teacher to be an officer’s wife and mother of four.

It’s been years since either has traveled anywhere without the other. My dad was not going to leave my mother. He just wasn’t sure how to bring her back.

I told my dad that my mom was still in there. Her intellect. Her humor. Her powerful will. I told him that she was trying to find her way back. He wasn’t convinced. He was frustrated and frightened.

I thought of the ocean my mother loves so dearly.

It’s like we’re in the ocean, I told my mom on a subsequent visit. We’re treading water. I’m right here with you. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll tread water with you as long as it takes. And when you get tired, reach out your arm and I’ll hold onto you.

I looked into my mom’s eyes and made a promise. I will never leave you and I will not lie to you. Call me any time, Mom.

She called often—sometimes a dozen times in a row—and I listened to her frantic, fragmented sentences and thoughts. Sometimes I’d call and hear her former voice on the answering machine, chirping, light, happy. Have a good day. I missed that voice.

It was a long, terrifying journey for our family and for mom. It was staggering how quickly she’d left and how far she’d gone from us.

I flew home for a long weekend nearly every month. With each visit, mom and I would make a goal for the next visit. Next time I’d get to stay at the house.

Dad admitted he wasn’t a patient man and Mom’s relentless and often completely contradictory barrage of worries and pleas were wearing on him. Her deteriorating health weighed on him. His helplessness in the face of her suffering crushed him. His nerves were shredded, his emotions raw.

We didn’t always agree on what was happening or what was best for mom. I’d argue. Shout. He’d growl. Shout.

When Dad took me to the airport after one visit, he hugged me tightly. Never stop defending your mother, Cheryl. Count on it, Dad.

As the months passed, Mom made slow progress. We celebrated small events like the epic accomplishments they were. Mom started eating more. She left the house for short walks if Dad would follow in the car.

She fought her fears each day and through her sleepless nights.

I took her for a pedicure, a favorite ritual before she’d gone M.I.A. She wanted to bolt that day, but she stayed the course and left with painted toes. She deserved an Olympic medal for the strength she showed.

She tried on the new clothes we’d bought her. That July, she made it to their favorite restaurant for dinner. She nearly turned back several times. The owners had prepared a private table in a corner, far from other patrons. Not for romance but to assuage Mom’s fears of contaminating others. When they raised a glass that night, they had more than Dad’s birthday to celebrate.

One fall day in October 2013, my mom walked out of her bedroom.

I’m back, she announced. And she was. The cause of her departure remains a mystery.

In November 2013, I was walking the beach on the island where my parents grew up. Mom called. She was walking, too. In Texas. A time zone away from where I was and light years away from where she’d been.

“I love the sound of the leaves under my feet.”

Welcome back, Mom. My strong, brave, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day

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