What my mother's "selfish" writing retreat taught me about being an artist and a parent

At 15, I didn't understand that a mother must sometimes step away from the household to pursue other work she loves

Published August 1, 2021 1:00PM (EDT)

Vintage typewriter (Ken Redding/The Image Bank/Getty Images)
Vintage typewriter (Ken Redding/The Image Bank/Getty Images)

I spent the first three years of high school besotted with a boy in the grade above mine. He was tall and handsome and the star of the theater crowd. He was kind of nice to me, but not very — this was, I now realize, part of the appeal. I was the daughter of feminists, ambitious for a career in the arts, raised to believe I could do anything that anyone of any gender could. But I lived and breathed the notion that if this mildly interested, mildly interesting boy decided to make me his girlfriend, I would be the happiest person in the world.

The spring of my sophomore year, my mother was awarded a last-minute three-week residency at Hedgebrook, then a relatively new retreat for women-identifying writers on Whidbey Island, in the Puget Sound. "My mother is a writer" was a phrase that tripped off my tongue all the time. In my cohort, it was a badge of honor to have a working-artist parent — one of my friends had a mother who was a well-known painter; another, a father who was a renowned Native American story teller. But really, what I cared most about my mother was that she picked me up from school, went to the grocery store, and made sure I had clean underpants. My father, her husband, was the breadwinner; a college professor without tenure, which meant long, stressful hours on a campus 30 minutes from home. The gender parity in my parents' marriage surpassed that of most of the heterosexual couples we knew in crunchy Portland, Oregon in the early '90s; my father cooked, cleaned and spent more time with me than other dads spent with their kids. But that didn't mean I wanted my mother to, as I considered it, abandon me to my father's care for any period of time, let alone three weeks.

We were in the living room when she told me that she'd said yes. I remember that my face changed, and that her face, in turn, briefly mirrored my own, and that was how I knew that I didn't look happy. I mumbled a congratulations. She told me I wouldn't even notice she was gone. I didn't know how to explain that, even though I was 15, even though it was probably too old for me to feel this way, she was how I understood the world, the one who, in driving me home when I got a sore throat in the middle of the day, showed me I didn't have to be scared of sickness; who, in asking me about my math homework, reminded me that I didn't have to only love one thing. But I was, yes, 15, so instead of telling her I'd miss her, I narrowed my eyes and muttered that I couldn't believe she was being so selfish, leaving last minute for another state. What was Dad supposed to do? Who would take me where I needed to go? As far as I was concerned, it was horrific that that place didn't allow children to visit, let alone provide her with a telephone. She said she'd write letters. I stomped up the stairs, and slammed the door to my bedroom, and wept into my pillow.

She left a couple of weeks later. I went to school and stayed late at play rehearsal, laughing loudly with my friends so that the boy would notice me. My dad picked me up on time, but he didn't remember snacks, or to ask how my line memorization was going, and dinner was always just a little different, which seemed, at the time, like the same thing as wrong. Of course, I blamed my mother for all this. I received a letter in which she described a long walk alone on a windy, wet beach, and I crumpled it up, wounded that she'd rather get rained on on a stupid beach than mother me.

Then, the best, worst thing imaginable happened: The boy I worshipped asked me to prom. We went to a small school, where juniors and seniors were allowed to invite whomever they wanted, and he picked me. He picked me! But prom was only a week away. It didn't occur to me that my own last minute invitation might be a sign that I hadn't exactly been his first choice, because I was so focused on the fact that I now had only a week to transform myself from gawky theater geek to breathtaking siren in time for what would surely be the most important night of my life. Without my mother.

She made arrangements from afar. One of her friends would take me dress shopping. Another had a shawl I could borrow. Someone else had feet my size, and could lend me a pair of low heels I could probably walk in without breaking an ankle. Make-up and hair would be done by a friend of mine, whose mother actually wore make-up, so she knew what she was doing. But since none of my underclassmen friends had been invited to prom, I'd be sitting with my dad in my house until my date picked me up.

My mother's writer friend, the one tasked with finding me a dress, had a knack for vintage shopping. She was fun and sardonic, but I thought she'd fail at this, because it was the kind of thing a mother should do, and she wasn't one. Then, in the last store, we looked up on the wall, and there it was—a vintage crepe gown from the thirties, blush pink, with lace accents and a mermaid flare skirt. It was sixty dollars but my mother's friend assured me this was an acceptable amount to spend on a prom dress, and it fit my string bean body like a glove, only in a good way, making me feel both elegant and cool—two things I'd never felt before. When the straps turned out to be a little worn, another friend of my mother sewed new ones on for me, good as new.

At some point, I arranged with my father that if I felt as though the situation was safe, it would be OK if I spent the night "out." I remember, even as I explained this to him, feeling incredulous that he was buying what I was selling, something along the lines of the fact that my date lived far away, and a group of his friends and their dates were all planning to crash in his living room, so it might just make sense to stay over at his place, and nothing untoward would happen, promise. My dad thought for a moment, looking up at the ceiling, interlocking his fingers. Then he looked back at me, and said OK. No follow-up questions. This turn of events was simultaneously incredible and horrifying. I was sure my mother would have mortified me with at least one phone call to my date's parents, but my dad just … trusted me.

The night of, the boy picked me up in his father's car, a nice, quiet, smooth sedan — nothing like the rickety hatchback covered in bumper stickers that the boy usually drove, and which I'd come to covet the idea of sitting in. He took me to a seafood restaurant. I don't eat seafood, something I thought he would remember about me. We sat with a mutual friend and his girlfriend, and I remember thinking how strange it was, as I lay my cloth napkin across my lap, to suddenly be treated like an adult, when if I'd walked into that same restaurant with my parents, I'd have been able to order from the kids menu, no questions asked. The prom itself was at the concert hall downtown, and the boy took my hand as we walked down the steps into the heart of the party, and my heart flipped and I thought, ah, OK, it finally feels like it's supposed to feel.

We danced, a little. Turns out one of my friends was there with her upperclassman boyfriend, so I spent a lot of time at the edge of the dance floor with her. The women teachers kept telling me I looked so pretty, and I felt, acutely, how lovely and embarrassing this all was, to be witnessed in the damp fervency of my love for this boy. Surely all of these adult minds, now gathered together to watch over us, had been noticing, for months now, that I followed him around like a lost puppy, desperate for his attention. And now that I'd gotten it, what did they think of me? Did they think it was enough, what I'd finally gotten? Why didn't it feel like enough?

Then prom was over. It turned out none of the boy's friends were coming back to his place after all — everyone else had parties to go to. I was nervous to go to a party, but I said I'd be happy to go, but he yawned and said he was pretty tired. He offered to drive me home. Oh, I said, I thought I'd stay back at your place, like you said. He thought about that for a moment, then turned on the car and shrugged and said, yeah, that's fine, my mom said you could. We drove the 20 minutes home listening to his mix tape — "More than Words," some Boyz II Men. The house was dark when we drove up, and somehow the sight of it made me so sad, and then I panicked, there in the car next to him — what if he wanted to French kiss me, or put his fingers up my dress, what if he pressed himself against me and I had to feel his hard-on? What if he didn't?

We walked into his dark living room and he turned on one light and showed me to the downstairs bathroom, where I could wash up and change into my pajamas. When I came out in my sweat pants and T-shirt, regretting that I hadn't gotten one of my mother's friends to find me some cute pajamas, he was in the kitchen. I thought he'd offer me a piece of pie, maybe, or some ice cream, but he just said, Oh, goodnight. I went and lay down on the couch and a few minutes later he came in and turned off the light and came and knelt over me, lying there in the darkness, heart pounding. He kissed me on the forehead, one quick ka-thunk of cold lips, like he might with a little sister. He stood and went up to his room, footsteps creeping up the stairs. All I could think of was his mother up there, lying awake, listening to hear that her boy was home, and then I cried.

Just today, I was in the car with my mother, my kids in the backseat. We've been podded together, desperate as my husband and I are for childcare, desperate for our children and our parents to be safe and healthy. The children were quiet for a brief spell, distracted by devices. I asked my mother about these three weeks she spent at Hedgebrook, the prom, the boy, everything. What do you remember, I said, about that time?

It was a very rainy spring, she said, it just rained and rained.

There was an unexpected opening at Hedgebrook that they needed to fill, she said, and they thought of me because I'd just won that award for my novel, and you know, I felt that I was at the beginning of something, that to turn down the award would be to shut the door on that work I was doing.

But I knew it was a bad time, she said. I knew you needed me, my nerdy kid who'd finally gotten noticed by that little boy you were so obsessed with.

But then I thought, maybe my friends can do for you what I would do, most of it, at least, she said.

But I knew they wouldn't be able to do all of it, she said. And I thought, maybe I just shouldn't go. I need to go but maybe now isn't the right time.

My mother sighed. She was driving, and it had started to rain a little, and she kicked the wipers up a notch.

But I needed to go, she said. Not for my writing, even, not only for that. But because I was going to lose my mind if I didn't have a break.

Mama, came my daughter's voice from the back seat. Mama. Mama.

My mother glanced at me then, and I could tell she was about to say she was sorry, that she might even almost cry, and I couldn't bear the guilt I'd saddled her with — even now she still carries it around, 30 years on — when what she gave me in her example, by stepping away from our home and my father and the care of me so that she could take long, rainy walks by herself, and make her art, will always be a much more important, vital, necessary lesson, than anything I lost.

Mama Mama Mama, said my little girl.

Just a minute, I said to my daughter. To my mother I said, Thank you.

By Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore is the New York Times bestselling author of five novels, including "Fierce Little Thing," "Bittersweet" and "June." A recipient of the Crazyhorse Prize in Fiction, she lives and writes in Vermont.

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