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ode to mom

Still Life (Childhood) - Self Portrait as an Expectant Bride (2021)

by: Eavan McNeil

about the artist:

I'm a full-time graduate student and part-time artist currently in Vancouver, British Columbia. I grew up in Southern California, later moving for an undergrad degree to Western Massachusetts. My family moved to Nebraska two years back and I've now been splitting my time there and now Vancouver. At the moment, I am at UBC’s iSchool pursuing a dual degree in Library and Archival studies. I love it! But it takes up most of my time, so I can't make art much anymore. One day I'll get back at it though.

My artistic story is that I found photography after PTSD left me unable to write. I found image to be the closest medium to understanding the illness and to express myself when words failed so supremely. I think my work usually expresses this sense of pain, discomfort, and urgency. In many ways, photography saved my life. Instead of going through a full attack, I’d put the camera up and perform for it, as actor rather than victim. Taking pictures of uncomfortable things helped me process the terror and anger I felt inside, both in nature and by own my hand. I’m much better now, but I know that these images will always be a testament to my strength.

about the artwork:

photography

My first work is a still life about my childhood. It uses three dried roses to symbolize a childhood cut short, imagery common in 18th and 19th century. They are balanced delicately on a full glass of sherry. The portrait of Mary and Jesus is a similarly old print, and was a very common sight at the turn of the last century (If you pay attention interior photographs from the period, you’ll probably find one or two). The religiosity I grew up under continues in the old prayer book, with cheerios dropped around to remind the viewer once more of the theme of childhood.

My second work is a self-portrait as a bride. I made it at a time of constant “phototherapy”—reenacting scenes of trauma in front of the camera to document the experience on my own terms. I was madly heartbroken, suffering daily with PTSD that would not let up until I eventually moved halfway across the United States. Looking back after significant healing, I’m struck that the image has changed meaning for me. It is no longer about playing bride to my once beloved but the deeper, more tangled and more ancient rite of womanhood. My mother went crazy and left when I was 8 years old; I never knew her as a functioning person. I sometimes ask my father and surrounding family members “what was she like?” because she must have been normal enough to marry and have two children with, right? And I don’t know who that is.

So the images of my mother at her wedding are hypnotic: she was prettiest at her wedding, wasn’t she? Every woman I know is. It is when we are the youngest and the thinnest we will ever be, before we let the men who bought us open our legs to make their children, to grow old and fat and used. The wedding photos are the ones our children (and grandchildren (like me) will cherish, the black and white chemicals we let ourselves be poisoned by. More than anything though, I suppose, is that in these images I can imagine a world where she is capable of taking care of me.

I raised my sister (and still do, to this day). I struggle with the decision to have children from the memory of that responsibility. I value family but fear the corruption of my body in the act. Puberty was traumatic for me, and the idea of my body growing another makes me physically sick. Getting married is the first part of that equation most of the time. I am tired of seeing couples marry only to have a kid a few years later. I can’t be that predictable. But these things are usually larger than yourself, and I grew up in a large Mexican-American family where these bonds are akin to God. I wish I didn’t want to be a mother, nor have the deep desire to raise a child in a large extended family like I did. In these moments I wish God had made me a man. Things would be so much easier, wouldn’t it?

***

My mother was very "motherly" until around the age of 7. There had always been signs of her being a bit off, but it ultimately culminated in her developing a deep alcohol dependency and all the horrible side effects of that. I watched several times what I believed was my mother's death from seizures, wishing desperately to be my younger sister who would have no memory of it, her being aged 2 at the time. She had always been a stay at home mom, which meant I knew her and depended on her very intimately. For around a year and half during this I took care of her (and my sister), believing I could fix her. Ultimately, my father divorced her. At the time I did not understand it fully. I only knew one day I came home from my grandparent's and she was not home. She never did return. I blamed my father for ousting her for many years, but I've come to realize he was protecting us from her. She was incredibly erratic and would not accept the help she needed. I remember her outbursts, physically and mentally, but was not aware of the full extent of danger she routinely but us in—while I remember her taking us out at night to lone parks, begging her to take us home, I did not realize she did so to drink from her hidden vodka bottles, nor did I understand that my baby sister's sunburns were from my mother drinking herself to sleep on the beach's benches while my sister roamed free. I have not lived with her since the age of 8, and it has been a very long (and in many ways infinite) journey of healing. A few years after she met and married a man in Canada, and has been living here on an expired visa for many years. In many ways her husband is horrible, but he keeps her stable. She's hasn't been allowed outside for years, but from his iron fist she also isn't able to get the drugs and alcohol nor spend her money like crazy as I saw growing up. It's difficult to pick apart the existence of the chronically abused woman who simply knows no other way of life. I used to joke my mother was the woman at the gas station who ended up dead in a ditch; that's not true anymore. I speak with her a handful of times a year and in the past year or so it has become much easier. After spending so much time with both my younger sister and my partner with autism, I realized that she most likely has autism as well. After coming to that conclusion, I can speak to her with more grace and tact. I used to get very mad and her "craziness" and blame the alcohol and traumatic brain injuries—but much of it can be explained with this new revelation. I will always be upset and hurt for the trauma she made me endure at such a young age, but I have come to find peace in realizing she is not my "mom." Looking back she never was, and the source of my pain was always looking for my "mom" when every other girl had such a bright and shining (and functioning) one. Getting older has been a blessing. I looked forward to it since I was that scared child of 7. Being an adult is liberating, and I would never change it for the world. My childhood was horrible, and continuously predicated on the whims of others. As an adult I am in charge. I can physically /leave/ people that terrify me. I didn't have that choice as a child. I always tell younger people it gets better, because it does. I hated childhood, and I don't reminisce seriously. Being an adult means having all the freedom in the world. I love it. I wish I could take care of little me in the past and tell her how awesome life gets, but that your past isn't always a curse either. I function quite normally (after a lot, but still) and I don't think about my childhood except when made to. I used to wish my childhood never happened, but I don't anymore. It made me unbelievable resilient and remarkably empathetic. I am my own mother and my own mom, and it honestly rocks.