Mama Matroyshka

My Mom’s birthday is this week. I sent her a card shaped like a Matroyshka, otherwise known as a nesting doll. We had a small one in the house when I was a kid. It smelled faintly of varnish and wood.  It was something to be careful with. Pieces could get lost.

Nothing looks more broken than a Matroyshka without one of her halves. I loved the doll so much, when I went to Poland as a teenager, I bought a bigger one for myself. I always thought of the Matroyshka as a Mama and her babies. They are all connected. The same but different.

I loved opening up the Mama in anticipation of unearthing the tiniest baby, not much larger than the size of a bean. How could something be so small, so delicately painted, a tiny replica of all those other shapes before it? It was both satisfying and frustrating to get to the last one.  Surely it could get even smaller.

With that kind of Mother/daughter connection, it was the perfect card to send. But I came to look at the doll a little differently as I was trying to write a new chapter for my book.

Last week, I opened Word and stared at the blinking cursor. In about three seconds I knew; it was going to be hard to write about Mom. Words belly flopped on the page just as quickly as they sprung from my mind. No, that isn’t right.  Backspace. Backspace. Backspace. I deleted them as quickly as I wrote them.

I had no previous homework nuggets to arrange. I had no perfect scene with tendrils of possibility waving me in. This time, I had to dive into a stark white page and produce new pages.

Of course, I’ve written about my Mom before—many times. But I knew I wanted to dig for something deeper.  In other words, I needed to think of her as a human being and not just my mother. It occurred to me—aside from a spouse, mothers might be one of the most significant people we will have a complex relationship with.  Dead or Alive.  Involved or adrift.  Our connections and conflicts are deep as they might be silent. To understand any of that, I had to stop thinking of how I related to my mother and ask instead, who is my mother independent of me? I had to get to the source.

But what is it exactly that I wanted to say about her? Yes, she’s funny and lovable and yet there is no one I can get into a row with quite like her. When she disapproves of something, it’s like a stink eye hovers above me. Despite it, I accomplish and fail. When I fail, it feels worse. On the flip side, her blessings are a magic swath of miracle light. With it, I accomplish and fail. When I fail, it feels better.

But where does all that love, expectation and disappointment come from?

I gave myself writing prompt: In order to understand my mother you would need to know…..

My mind dove easily into the page and the words started their long striding laps. Easy to see the ripple effect.

I started writing about her growing up in Poland during World War II.  Germany invaded Poland just three weeks shy of her 1st birthday. No Barbie Doll themed party plates for her. No smashing her face into a sheet cake. There weren’t such things. There weren’t such things to even imagine.

She grew up poor in a small gray clapboard house. Sometimes they had money for shoes, sometimes not. When I was young she told me that my grandmother took the kids and hid in the woods when they knew Russian and Polish military factions were raiding houses for food and supplies. She stood in cow pee to warm her freezing feet. I’m pretty sure the first time Mom told me, I was fixated on the grossness of cow pee. With three meals on the table in our duplex house, I rode around on my banana seat bike in circles in the driveway not really understanding the concept of survival. I just wanted to shop at the Gap. Eat at McDonalds. Spray perfume.

I heard a million stories growing up. But hearing about the past from your parent is like hearing some forgotten children’s tale. Other worldly, filled with text book morals and values and filled with ancient methods and machinery. So removed from the life I lived, it’s almost as if it happened to an old facsimile version of my mother. In a way, it did.

My Mom has grown and changed with the times. But while current events keep changing her, there is no denying the past she came from. I wrote about how she liked to save things, how it’s in her blood to help people. That she took care of things in such a way that we didn’t live among the broken.

She taught me to make things last.

The more I unearthed my mother’s character, the more our own connection and discords made sense. Like how I couldn’t tell how much I spent on a pair of Tango shoes.

I called her yesterday and asked, “Did you ever not tell your mom something? Did you ever try to keep secrets? Like, what I’m saying is do you think your mother understood you?”

She laughed and said, “She never understand me.”

“Yeah, how so?”

“The older people could never understand the younger. No. Because they grow up difference than we are. That’s why.”

Babcia mowila,wy terez porwiecie, zepsujecie a jak zgubilismy igla to Mama kręcila za mięso . Your grandmother used to say to me, you kids rip things and break things but if I lost a sewing needle (when I was young), my mother used to “twist at the meat”.

At first I misunderstood my mother, I said what about the meat grinder?

“No. No. No meat grinder. Pinch.” My great-grandmother would twist the skin on top of my grandmother’s hands for losing a sewing needle.

Mom continued: “We used to laugh. Do you think a needle, you could just go buy one? No way! Needles were like Gold.  Co to jest igła dzisiaj? What’s a needle today? Nothing.”

“Do you think you understood her more later?” I asked.

“Oh yes. Just like you. Now you understand me more than before.”

It’s true.

The metaphor of mother and child works pretty well with the Matroyshka.  How we pass on things on to our children, yet still maintain our own sense of self. But after writing about Mom’s life I saw the Matroyshka as a symbol of just my Mom, filled with growing layers that started from a kernel.


Road Trip to Santa Fe Part 4: Just photos

graffiti at the Railyard


My favorite contemporary gallery in Santa Fe. Saw a fabulous Eve Sussman video installation here- 89 Seconds at Alcazar. It recreates the scene from Diego Valezquez’s 17th Century painting Las Meninas. Incredibly lush.


bell from 1356 in the Mission- the oldest church in Santa Fe.


It takes a lot of strength to hold up a bell.




milagros. offerings left when a specific healing prayer was answered



confessional. The tour guide joked that only the lightest of sins were disclosed.



I got to ding the bell with a hammer three times.


The outside of the mission


from inside the oldest house in Santa Fe.


Another honkin’ necklace. It was so huge, I could barely get it in the frame.

Worth seeing the two 20 minute videos…narrated by Gene Hackman.


the first picture.

The second picture. Maybe I should have stopped??


My favorite favorite: the International Folk Art Museum. Worth the trip!


Amulets and Votive Offerings…Folk Art Museum




Itay, Amulet (detail)

Amulets, Ethiopia



Amulet and Votive Offering Wall from around the world


Peruvian Dance Cape

dance cape, detail



heaven and hell

inside the folk museum



Polish Szopka



Polish figurine aka…                                      I want that coat and hat!


Road Trip comes to a close….I was happy I got to snap photos in the Internatioanl Folk Art Museum, unlike the Arts and Culture museum where it was not allowed. (I didn’t see any signs anyway! gulp.)…. Both are fantastic museums, not to be missed if you visit Santa Fe.

 Thanks for coming along with me.

Road Trip to Santa Fe Part 3: Excuse me, Ma’am?


The basket and pottery rooms at the Arts and Culture Museum were dimly lit. It was a welcome relief from Santa Fe’s open landscape and hot sun. It’s the kind of place that could bring you to a whisper just by walking in. Light can do that, or lack of it.  At least, that’s what I thought. Not so much for the group of high school students in hoodies who were horsing around. They were probably enjoying each other’s flirty company more than beholding 100 year old ceramics on a forced field trip.

Who could blame them? Observing old baskets in a dark room when you’re 16 sounds like a snoozer. Still, at times I saw them staring through the glass cases, writing things in their notebooks.

Maybe they were amazed, like I was, at baskets dating back to 1856 but looked as if they were recently made. The structures remained remarkably sturdy. They somehow looked more well-used than old. The layers of weaving were smooth. With no faults perceptible to my scanning eye, it was hard believe they weren’t spun by a machine.

The white index cards beside these works of art contained, dates, tribes, location. What struck me most was seeing this.

Artist: unknown


Artist: Little Bobby’s Wife


Artist: Mary

Even if we don’t always know the artist’s name, scholars can “read a basket” by design, form, utility. It speaks without the artist.  It made me consider the word identity and source, a humble place, where things were built to last.

I thought about the 89 cent blue Lucite bowl that I have in my kitchen at home. Durable but totally disposable, a Wal-Mart special. Somehow I don’t think my chip bowl will ever end up in a dimly lit room. Most likely, a landfill when I tire of its color. God bless the crafts people who wake up every morning and do their thing or else the museums of our future might look like a cheap aisle of Target relics. Made me appreciate the baskets I brought back from Eritrea when I was in the Peace Corps even more.

Opened my cabinet and realized they were on the same shelf.

I walked by every case, steadying my hand for a no-flash photo. The curves and shadows of these clay and woven vessel shapes in that light was… well, sensual. earthy. full.  If the sound of that doesn’t make you strut a little taller in a pair of cowboy boots, than I don’t know what will.

I was almost stepping out of the museum when I stopped one last time in a room that highlighted contemporary Native American arts: Abstract painting. What a contrast! I was reading the wall text about an elder who felt stifled by traditional crafts. He encouraged artists to break out of traditional molds. I thought wow, that’s so brave and fascinating- coming up against all that tradition. Grappling with honoring it and changing the face of what is expected of a Native American artist.

Right next to the text was an incredibly intricate portrait of him woven from tiny beads. It looked as distinct as a photograph. There must have been over a dozen of colors to shade and create this portrait.  I raised my camera and took a picture. It was blurry, so I took another and that’s when I heard the voice.

“Excuse me, Ma’am.”

I looked up, delighted to see an exceptionally handsome young docent coming toward me.

“No photographs please. (beat)  You know, Native American.” He flashed me a smile as he stressed the last two words.

I turned exactly the color of my shirt: pink.

I gasped. I slapped my hand against my chest.

“OH MY GOD! I am so sorry.” I exclaimed

“No problem.” His demeanor was easy going, friendly.

“I usually pay attention to those kinds of things.” I said as I walked back with him toward his desk. “But I didn’t see any signs– oh would you look at that, here’s an 8 ½ by 11 yellow sign right here on your desk.”

He laughed. I laughed. I was now pinker than my shirt and an instant armpit sweat machine.

“I am really so sorry.”  What a faux pas. It wasn’t so much “no photos” as it was, “you know, Native American.” But of course.

Two things immediately flashed through my mind. 1) I tried to recall the first time I learned that Native Americans believed photos stole their souls. I swear I learned that when I was five years old watching a Grizzly Adams episode. Maybe Nakoma didn’t want his picture taken? I can’t remember for sure. I could be wrong that it was that show, but somewhere in my TV childhood I learned that there is something spiritual to consider.  Something that should be appreciated not captured. It would make sense that a photo has the power to diminish a moment as much as it can capture one.

I did see a Native American craft store in downtown Santa Fe that had a polite sign in the window. It asked tourists not to take photos of the crafts. It was phrased in such a way as if the spirits of the objects were asking for some privacy. I think culturally this is an old custom that has changed with the times. But still, walk away with photos I wasn’t supposed to take from a Native American museum? Bad. Bad. Bad.

Because this was the second thing that had flashed into my mind.

The dreaded Tiki from The Brady Brunch

Remember Bobby and Peter found a native Tiki at a construction site and started having bad luck? Yep. First a heavy wall hanging fell and nearly missed Bobby’s head in bed. Then Greg wore it and had a near fatal wipe out on his surf board. Finally Peter ended up with a giant spider on his chest. The bad luck could only be undone by bringing the idol back to an ancient burial ground which they did in their awesome bell bottom 70s pants.

I walked outside. With bright sunshine overhead, I sat on the wall of the garden and deleted 15 photographs from that museum. Bye-bye vessels and baskets.  I guess you are only ours to see in person.

The docent didn’t ask me to do that. In fact, I’m pretty sure I could have just kept them, he seemed so friendly. No doubt, I was not the first tourist to get some photos given their lo-fi signs.

Television wilderness and Polynesian moral-dramas aside, I felt obligated to get these photos off my camera. It just didn’t seem right to keep them. My brother John and I often joke about questionable bad luck vibes around an object, referring to it as, “Ooo Tiki.”

I didn’t want to walk around with that feeling. There are somethings in life that are not ours to hold on to.