Story by Roberta Allen, Artwork by Deanna Persson
My story is inevitably intertwined with that of my mother’s. As a child I felt much like a ball in a pinball machine as my mother and father played out their tragic marriage and I bounced back and forth between Dubuque, Iowa, where my mother took refuge with her mother, and Hyattsville, Maryland, where my father lived. At the time of my birth and then after my brother’s birth four years later, my mother suffered what would now be diagnosed as, but was not then, post-partum psychosis. This was something my father was ill equipped to handle and in an attempt to save her marriage, my mother had a lobotomy. As she still showed signs of psychosis, her mother eventually had her declared insane and committed to a state mental institution. My father never visited her and although my mother recovered and never had a relapse, he divorced her and took custody of my brother and myself. He did, however, make sure that we regularly visited and wrote her and my grandmother. So this was the mother I came to know as I grew up, someone different after the lobotomy than she had been before, someone who didn’t seem all that interesting and whom I did not feel was at all like me.
I was a gritty, independent kid able to hold my own in fights with boys (until age 9). I was good at sports and academics and seemingly survived my childhood with minimal scars, in part because of the wonderful understanding and love given me by my aunt, my father’s sister, who had come to live with us. But a time came in adulthood when my life seemed to spin out of control. I was again a ball in the pinball machine, this time ricocheting from a troubled marriage, to children being difficult teenagers, to financial worries, to health issues, including a form of skin cancer and irritable bowel syndrome. I sank into a deep depression, crying uncontrollably and unable to sleep. I thought, as I learned later wrongly as I was never psychotic, that I was experiencing what my mother had experienced. Part of me said if you are going to cry, find something to cry about and I pictured that little vulnerable girl who had lost a mother figuratively if not in actuality. I saw a psychiatrist, took and then was able to go off medications and eventually my marriage improved, my children grew up, our financial picture got better and so did my IBS, (I obviously had not died from skin cancer.) I was back to my competent, active, optimistic self with a good job as a curriculum writer and editor.
My story, however, does not end there. Fast forward to the year after my husband’s death. Sometimes our strengths can also be our weaknesses. Independent and self-sufficient as I was, I wrongly decided to spend Christmas alone on the rural farm where I had moved. My IBS was paining me so badly I felt like ending it all and envisioned myself sitting in a chair at the top of my driveway and letting the cold slowly take my life.
Fortunately I pulled myself together and called my brother, who contacted friends closer to me who took me to a hospital where I signed myself in. Psychiatric wards are hardly cheery places and as I kept trying to look to the future I walked up and down the hall, saying to myself two poems I had written years before: Tough as a weed, /Scraggily limbed and lifed, /Through the wilting winds of change, / I have survived, / I have survived. And, I would live my life in unmeasured units, / No teacups full of time and chance, / But holding striding into chaos, / Amid the broken china, / To forever dance.
These poems, my family and many friends gave me much needed comfort then and when I left the hospital and began analysis once again. I wanted to try to make sense of the confused fragments of memories I had, give them some order and sense. In this I was helped immensely by the fact that there were many family letters kept and never thrown out and that my mother kept a diary and scrapbooks as a young girl and women.
These came into my and my brother’s hands on my father’s and mother’s deaths. Here is where my mother’s story and mine intertwined again. The process of going through all the family material, as well as doing the research on my parents’ divorce (I had never known when it took place) and my mother’s operation and subsequent institutionalization was, in turn, searing, bitter, touching, funny and healing. I learned hard truths, but I also encountered a mother I had never known.
She was someone who devoured life: she wrote poetry and handwrote poetry that she liked in special books, including poems by Sara Teasdale, Edna St.Vincent Milay and Dorothy Parker.
She loved to tap dance; she was artistic and took classes in art, including fashion illustration; she attended the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago where her mother took her to a speakeasy and she “fell in love” with a movie attendant; she played basketball and ice skated. When she came on her 21st birthday to Chicago, the first thing she and her friends did was take a boat ride on the Chicago River and the next day she was waitressing at a party for the prize fighter Jack Dempsey.
She worked her way up in the restaurant business, meeting fascinating people like Charlie Chaplin’s wife on the way and ended up as Room Captain at the Camellia Room in the Drake Hotel where the likes of Greta Garbo ate. She attended plays and nightclubs all over town and one evening stole a baby carriage and was pushed down Rush Street by a male admirer. She ended up with a smaller life than she deserved, but she never expressed bitterness towards my father and found enjoyment in an astronomy club and teaching handicapped children to swim.
Most of all she became someone in whom I could recognize the better parts of myself: Sometimes I look in the mirror/And catch by surprise/My mother’s eyes/Smiling at me.
Author Roberta Allen, Chicago IL
Born in New York City in 1943, Roberta Allen spent her childhood in diverse places: Dubuque, Iowa; Hyattsville, Maryland; Beirut, Lebanon (where her father was a diplomat); Rome, Italy; and New Rochelle, New York. She subsequently received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in history from the University of Chicago. The main focus of her career has been education, specifically nontraditional education. She has served as Guidance Counselor and subsequently Curriculum Director for the American School, which for over 100 years has offered distance learning opportunities to individuals needing an alternative means of completing high school. She also was the Coordinator of Study Unlimited at the City Colleges of Chicago. This program provided college-level courses via videocassette to students at various Chicago Public Libraries and campuses of CCC. Her avocation has been art and she has had numerous group and solo exhibits around the country. Currently retired, she runs a small lavender and flower farm in southwest Michigan.
Artist Deanna Persson, Hayward WI
I approach my artwork with excitement. Each piece of work offers new challenges for problem solving and exploration. As an abstract artist, I do not have a preconceived image or know exactly where my journey will take me. I look at the clean white surface, choose a paint for the under color and the experience begins. Being a chronologically mature artist, allows me to bring many life experiences to the easel. I find that I become personally involved with each of the works and smile to myself as I see the influences that have shaped what I do – whether it is because of living in the north woods, having lived in and loved Chicago or because of the many wonderful artists I have studied with and known that have expanded by skills and problem solving approaches or just having survived life in general and learned along the way. Much of my work is done on deep square surfaces ranging in size from 5” X 5” to 36” X 36”. I find the square shape to be nurturing and representational of a ‘soul’ – confined but complex. Many of my pieces of art include found objects and the mixture of many media to accomplish the completion of the painting.
I have been blessed to have art in my life, to have it be a part of my personal and professional life and to have a studio filled with ‘too much stuff’ – you never know when you are going to need that one specific piece of paper or piece of rust from the driveway. My artwork is represented by Art Beat of Hayward at 15845 W Second Street, Hayward, WI and may also be seen on my website. www.deannapersson.com