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Remembering Mom by Turning Grief Into Art (Guest Post)

Kitty Shea

Mother’s Day is coming up, and it’s a holiday that elicits a wide range of emotions. For some, it’s an opportunity to celebrate the joys of motherhood. But for others—those who have lost a mother or a child, those with complicated or strained family relationships, those who yearn to be mothers—it can be a painful reminder of what was, what wasn’t, or what might never be. As we approach this holiday, we’re grateful to be able to share a timely guest blog post from freelance writer and editor Kitty Shea, who lost her mother last year. She lovingly recounts how she turned her grief into a cherished piece of kitchen art that will forever remind her of her mom and the memories they shared.

By Kitty Shea

Empty plates are usually a mother’s to fill, which is why springing her from kitchen duty is time-honored Mother’s Day tradition. My mom had lots of plates: early 1950s wedding china, 1970s harvest gold and avocado green service for six, her mother’s Blue Willow and Delftware. I wish she’d have had another Mother’s Day.

Her days became decades, as all of ours do. Mom’s meals started coming on wheels and I began taking care of her instead of the other way around. Yet forever was she there the second Sunday of May.

Last year after she died, I found myself in her kitchen squaring off with the serving bowls and platters she used to pass around the table, the place settings she cleared, the cups into which she poured Folgers and the saucers that held them. There was too much stuff and, emotionally, it was too much. Shock allows for sentiment but only to a point, which is how good memories end up at Goodwill.

The “Chez Shea” mosaic apron that Kitty Shea commissioned using her mother’s dishes

I knew artist Judy Sell of Stillwater, Minnesota, back when she was a young mom and I had yet to become one. More recently, I came upon her Apron Strings exhibit in which she embeds hidden messages universal to moms—eat your vegetables, walk the dog, it gets better, say your prayers, ask your father—into intricate ceramic mosaics fashioned to look like fabric.

“Let’s have Judy make a mosaic apron with all those dishes you don’t use anymore!” Oh, how I tried to sell it to my mom, a Depression-era farm girl for whom commissioning a piece of artwork was a notion too fancy to comprehend. “We’ll hang it here in your apartment!” Could be my zeal overwhelmed her. More likely, being my mom, she knew that I would need the project later more than she needed it then.

Grief done well transforms the haze of loss into acceptance, ragged pain into remembered love. Boxing up Mom’s old dishes, I attached notes for Judy: “Deeply meaningful.” “Grandma’s mug.” “Dad in assisted living still eats off this pattern.” Judy’s design eye saw pansies and Dutch blues and pockets of whimsy. Her heart saw mine. I gave her sadness and she returned joy.

My “Chez Shea” (House of Shea) apron hangs within view of my kitchen. Its message from my mom is entirely hidden: I’m still here.

Follow Kitty Shea on Twitter @kittyshea and @thisdaythisway.

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