Story by Natalie Karnik, Artwork by Deanna Persson
That date never meant anything in particular to me. It happens to be eleven days after my parents wedding anniversary and five days prior to a dear friend’s birthday. Then I discovered you, tucked delicately away into a sturdy photo album with pages of your brief story with my mother that officially began on June 14, 1975.
Seán Patrick, my name is Natalie Anne. We’ve never met, but we have in common one beautiful, exceptional woman. She brought three of us into this world – you came first, then me and finally my brother Brendan Dilip. That accent mark on the ‘a’ of your first name was carefully put there by your mother; she was fervently proud of being Irish, and made sure your birth certificate reflected your identity and her roots.
Your mother created a photo album of her short time with you. The album cover is red canvas, designed to stand the test of time and curiously non-indicative of its life-altering contents. Although you would always be far away from her, her memory of you would only be at an arm length’s reach. There are legal documents from the court of Ramsey County, Minnesota, citing Mary Therese Fraher as your mother and mention of an alleged father (the alleged part is on account of the court, not your mother). There is a receipt for your one month stay in foster care, a quick stay, because your mother had put her whole heart and soul into selecting the couple that would be your parents. There is a list to attest to this, in your mother’s careful cursive handwriting, on steno pad sheets of paper taped into the album. The first requirement was that they love you. Your parents would need to be financially well off, enough so to send you to college. They would need to develop the artistic and musical talents inherited from your mother and the athletic nature inherited from you father. And they must always keep their priorities straight, never letting their professional lives interfere with your well-being. Your mother received a warm thank you note from the director of Catholic Charities, praising her for speaking up in a room full of mothers about to embark on the same decision she made. She saved her hospital bracelet and your birth announcement with all of your stats and your small infant footprints. In one of the photographs, you are cradled in her arms, the recipient of a gaze only a mother can give.
Your mother received support from her mother during this time, but not as much from her father. Your mother would remember her father’s unfavorable reaction to her pregnancy, and this hurt would follow her into the next unfolding chapters of her life.
Your mother had an admirer while you were growing in her womb. This admirer knew he must give your mother time to gather herself after you were born and then united with your adoptive parents. He was a wise and compassionate man, so he chose the right moment to ask your mother “are you ready for me now?” Her answer would give way to the creation of my family.
Well before you were born, your mother won Miss Congeniality in 1971 in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her wavy red hair and soft green eyes attracted many. Her smile and immediate interest in the inherent value of every person kept people flocking to her side. She was a secretary at a local government office, but yearned to have a bigger impact. She pursued her education in St. Paul, and later in Missouri and Illinois, all the while having to balance newlywed-hood with her studies, and later motherhood. 3:00 a.m. feedings, 20-page term papers and two children: a three-year-old daughter with a temper of her own and a one-year-old son who slept standing up with his eyes open. These two darlings would attend their mother’s graduation from Elmhurst College.
My mother preferred the name Teri, and identified her herself that way since early adulthood. She continued an ongoing battle with depression, unbeknownst to her children, whose childhood memories consisted of birthday parties and bike rides through the neighborhood and dance recitals and t-ball games, all the memories that should occupy a young child’s mind.
My mother began her career in Human Resources at a job that involved a long daily commute and many hours on the road. Logging these many hours led to multiple car accidents, whiplash, herniated discs, and surgery. Her bosses were unkind and unfair, providing her with only more pain to endure.
My mother began showing signs of her battle with depression that were visible to me when I was 14. Her bed was her refuge. Her tears flowed without signs of ceasing. There was an untouchable pain that I could not heal, and guilt that perhaps I had done something to provoke it.
My mother suffered an intense manic episode in July of 2002. It was the first time either Brendan or I witnessed this type of unfolding of her illness. I had just turned 20, and Brendan would soon turn 18. My father was also a witness, but had the all-knowing look of having seen something like this before. They shielded us as long as they both could. My mother said many things amidst her constant anxious movements around our house. She revealed your existence, though it was so fast and so many things were confessed that, I didn’t catch it right away. My father Dilip, your mother’s admirer, would later confirm the truth of her revelation.
My mother spent a little under a week at Cypress Creek Psychiatric Hospital following the manic episode. The three of us visited her, brought her clothes and approved toiletries and sat with her in the common living area. Her depression was now accompanied by an official diagnosis of bipolar disorder. She progressed rapidly, and one day I received a call from the hospital informing me she was ready to come home. I picked her up in the same vehicle that we had brought her in. I sliced strawberries to go with our sandwiches and we sat at the kitchen table for lunch.
My mother transcribed the words of a song for me before I left for a year abroad in Spain. It was her mantra for me, a soundtrack that would encourage me to explore beyond what I knew. If you get the chance / to sit it out or dance / I hope you dance.
My mother took care of her own, ailing mother for a few months. She gave her a room in her home, monitored her daily insulin injections and was not harsh when my grandmother binged on a forbidden sweet treat. My mother bathed my grandmother and washed her fine, fading short hair. She must have seen a fleeting glimpse of a familiar melancholy in her own mother’s eyes, and encouraged my grandmother to get dressed and take a walk around the block under the warm Texas sun.
My mother worked part-time at Ann Taylor and later as a full-time substitute teacher from Kindergarten through high school. She would bring home colorful drawings that students had made for her, after having only known her for a day. At restaurants, she would engage our waiters and waitresses in conversation, applauding their college pursuits and encouraging them to chase their dreams. She would know and remember them by name.
My mother’s depression turned to anxiety, and leaving the house became a daunting and eventually non-existent task. On one December evening in 2011, my father became acutely ill and needed to be rushed to the emergency room. After having not driven a car for almost a year, there was no question what had to be done. My mother slipped into the driver’s seat of the family sedan with my father beside her and drove decisively to the emergency room.
The last conversation I had with my mother was over the phone, and she and my father were celebrating Brendan’s birthday. She raised us to anticipate and celebrate our birthdays with great joy. We were special to her on all days, but birthdays were extra important. I told Brendan his birthday gift from me would be arriving a little late because I had to special order it. The phone was passed to her, and she then slipped away into another room and asked me what I had gotten Brendan for his birthday. It was our little secret, our little last moment.
I hope that I turn out to be even half the mother that my mother was to me, to my brother, and to you, Seán Patrick.
Author Natalie Karnik, Chicago IL
Natalie Karnik was born in Illinois and grew up in both Illinois and Texas. She works in the Legal Department at the Consulate General of Mexico in Chicago. She has one brother, Brendan, who she adores with all of her heart. Natalie enjoys writing nonfiction pieces about her family’s life and participates in the Memoir Workshop offered by the Irish American Heritage Center. Her mother was Irish, so it is quite fitting. She lives in Chicago with her husband Jaime.
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