[From 1976-1983, I taught English and directed plays at Holland Hall Upper School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was twenty-four and had negligible experience. I didn’t know up from down about teaching, but during those years, a handful of students changed me irrevocably. Over three decades, one way or the other, they’ve found me. I recently invited them to become guest bloggers, reflecting on something about their high school selves.
Kathryn never had an ugly duckling moment in her life. She was breathlessly graceful and drop-dead competent. As Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, she was mesmerizing, effortlessly reciting pages of iambic pentameter. In Look Homeward, Angel, as the forgotten sister and with few lines, I asked her to move silently through the scenes of our six-level set, performing her housekeeping tasks. Accepting the challenge, she turned her endless chores into artfully expressive movement. Only a powerhouse intelligence like hers could accomplish staging perfection. That’s how I remember her–in dim light, leaning into that broom, brushing her hair back, staring into the distance.]
I am my father’s daughter. I have always heard this. I have always been closest to him. Compared to him. In writing this piece, however, I have discovered a new wrinkle in the relationship–part of the very complicated relationship–I share with my mother. It has been a revelation.
The boxes arrived this morning. Twelve of them.
My sister has been busy moving our mother out of her Tulsa condo and into a one-room apartment in an assisted living facility. Mom has Alzheimer’s and the move is necessary, though sad. And in its wake come to Los Angeles boxes and boxes of stuff, family trinkets, odds and ends, the detritus of a family life lived well, though maybe a bit carelessly at times. I unpack boxes with my twelve-year-old son, and my childhood memories invade our living room. The irony is not lost on me that Alzheimer’s is the catalyst.
From an early age, I wanted more. I had to get “out there.” And I dreamed. I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with a mother who grew up in Washington D.C., and had her own dreams. In Washington D.C., she and her sister, my namesake, were The Fletcher Sisters, beautiful, smart, funny, magical. My grandfather owned hotels and was successful, and in my imagination, her young adulthood must have swirled with late night dinners in fancy restaurants, intellectual conversations, and, as she dreamed of being a concert pianist, classical music.
My mom fell in love with and married my dad, who was from Minnesota, who she met when he was in medical school in Washington D.C. After they married, they moved to Minnesota. I can only assume that Mayo’s, where he did his residency, was prestigious enough that she could overlook the fact that they were not in New York or Washington. Plus it was a residency, so not a permanent commitment. Dad was drafted and served as a doctor in Wiesbaden, Germany. I have memories of Germany. I spoke German maybe as well as English. (OK, I was a toddler–how well did I even speak English?) Coming back from Germany, Dad looked for a clinic he would like to join. After looking at La Jolla and Santa Barbara, he chose Tulsa. (Seriously?!) In those days, I suppose, a wife didn’t say, “No, not Tulsa. Santa Barbara.” At least my mom didn’t. And my dad was stubborn and from the Midwest. He liked Tulsa. It was familiar. So, maybe she might have spoken up, but did not draw a line. And found herself in Tulsa.
She did not fit in in Tulsa, I think. (Though, I will add that she made great friends and many were interesting, creative, fascinating, and fun, and she still lives there, though my father passed away over five years ago.) But in the beginning, she did not fit in.
I think she was proud of this.
Mom made madeleine cookies for a birthday party for Marcel Proust. I am sure she expected some sort of collective epiphany for everyone invited once they bit into their madeleine. Proust lives!
My recollection was the cookies fell flat (Literally, they did not rise.) and those invited did not know who Proust was. (Certainly they had not read every volume, and in French, as my mother had.) In my memory, she was devastated.
I still remember her throwing the cookies out in disgust.
That very well might not have been true.
I don’t know.
Memory is a funny thing, right? Proust certainly thought so.
My mom was young, seriously smart and could be cruelly sarcastic. (My husband used to say he always wanted to sit next to her at dinner parties because she could say the most brilliant, sarcastic, wicked funny things about those out of earshot at the table. Seated next to her, he could appreciate her humor, free and clear of worrying if he were the target.) I remember clearly my mother’s sense of desperation and claustrophobia. But, who can say? One thing I have learned in adulthood, my memories are tremendously colored by my current situation, mood, humor, and even the weather. But follow me here…
Though it did not occur to me until writing this, my sense of determination came directly from my mother. Desperation to not be like her.
Although she might be trapped in Tulsa, she believed something burned in me. She told me I was special, that I was meant for something great.
So, of course, I decided I was meant to be a great actress.
True to being a young girl following a mother who baked madeleines to celebrate Proust, I was not going to be a “movie star,” but an Actress, with a capital A.
So I set out to do what any serious actor would do.
I read all of the plays. I read Shakespeare and Eugene O’Neill.
I read Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Thornton Wilder, Pinter, and Stoppard.
And Arthur Miller.
Death of a Salesman killed me. As a teenager, I was overwhelmed by the total tragic figure of Willy Loman, his sadness, desperation, endless pathetic hope. He became my greatest fear. I did not want to become Willy Loman.
Questions haunt me in the middle of the night. I find myself awake at 3:00 am, and after worrying about money for a while, I inevitably turn to bigger questions. Am I a good mother? A good wife? A good person? On late nights, after a couple of glasses of wine, Am I happy? And then I continue. Is my son happy? Is my husband? Is happiness actually that important? What is important? Inevitably, I look at my life through a lens colored by my son’s existence. Especially when I am thinking about my childhood.
When my son turned ten, I remember thinking, Oh! I remember ten. I remember what I cared about. What I dreamed about. I ‘get’ ten.” He is now on the brink of thirteen. As I write this, tomorrow he will become a teenager. He can’t wait. He thought yesterday that he could make out the barest of a shadow on his upper lip. I honestly told him I did not see it. I am just not ready.
I couldn’t wait either, as a teenager. I was restless.
I am my mother’s daughter. I longed to escape as she longed to escape. I applied to boarding school on the East coast and even in England when I was in tenth grade. I moved to New York literally the day after graduation from high school. At least that is how I remember it. Three months later I moved to Paris. And I was off.
It is not that I was unhappy.
I loved my high school classes.
I have fond memories of the Commons, Bill Webb’s chair in the library. I remember standing with my friend Sara out on the football field on a crazy, windy day, trying to jump over the shadows of the clouds racing across the grass. Teachers seemed to take me seriously. I got to act in plays, and I genuinely loved learning. But I was always one foot out the door.
I would not fall in love and find myself trapped in Tulsa forever.
I, like almost everyone else I know, had teenage angst. In between studying furiously so I could get into a great school on the East coast–again getting as far away as possible–I had the time and luxury of fearing failure and a Willy Loman existence. Of always dreaming and never seeing where I really was. I wanted to live a big life. In a big city. I wanted to be great. I wanted to be exceptional.
I am not a famous actress.
But, I am not Willy Loman.
If I am exceptional, it is because of my son. I am his mother, and I have the possibility of helping him be who he is. I am aware, so aware, of the role my mother has played in so many ways in my life. And I will learn from her. I will emulate her, and I will in some ways turn away from her to find my own way as a mother. I can only be myself with my son. My guess is that will be both a blessing and a curse, much in the same way my mother was with me.
I am happy (for the most part) where I am. But old habits die hard. I still get restless. I still feel, when the seasons start to change, when it starts to get dark earlier, when again clouds race across the sky, that something is about to happen.
And I can’t wait.
Kathryn Atwood modeled in New York City and Paris, appearing in the magazines Elle, Seventeen, and Vogue to name a few. She graduated with Honors from Cornell University and studied with Frank Conroy at the Iowa Writers Workshop just prior to his death. She has appeared in commercials, television shows, movies, and plays in Los Angeles, where she reprised Helena, her first role at Holland Hall. She retired from acting and is currently the Director of Communications at Pilgrim School, where her son is a seventh grader. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, and two cats who share her determination to escape.
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