On my 39th birthday in 20016, Tim got an early morning call that his mother Sherry had died. I gave him a hug and he shuddered. I was not surprised to learn later that these were not tears of sadness or grief, but tears of relief.
After Tim’s father Rodger passed away last November we began the process of surveying the details of their house, the old photos and trinkets that they kept around. We decided to do a still life representing Sherry’s life through her objects. Some of her favorite sayings were "beggars can't be choosers", "you make a better door than window," and the title of this photographic piece, "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride".
Creating this piece was aesthetically satisfying and emotionally unsettling for both Tim and me. Tim and I have collaborated on many still life photo illustrations at this point in our relationship. We love the creative process of working together and marveling at the end result. Tim comes from a “real artist” background, studying oil painting and sculpture in college, whereas I dabbled in the safe periphery of Art History, not satisfying my creative juices until taking up digital photography over a decade after my first college career.
Tim brought home a box of Sherry’s objects from his second to last trip to the Woodlands and I began to build a set to display them and tell her story. What looked like an altar to Sherry in our kitchen disconcerted both of us while it was waiting to be photographed. The photographic study I worked on above was intentionally drab and monotone. I also wanted to include a framed photo of sweet Tim as a boy, obscured by Sherry’s drinking addiction, and a picture of Sherry’s mother, Elaine, in the background. One glance at Elaine and the viewer can guess what kind of mother she had, which may explain how Sherry suffered. Both of Sherry's parents were alcoholics and her mother was known to be cruel and cantankerous, while demanding absolute loyalty from Sherry. The overall tone and color scheme of the piece changed dramatically with the addition of Rosé wine, Sherry’s favorite, and a brightly colored Turquoise ashtray.
The objects that make up the central theme of the photo are a cigarette in an ashtray and Rosé wine. Sherry smoked for more than forty years and drank for about as long. Due to the difficulty getting the truth out of Rodger about Sherry's death, we can only speculate how much Sherry's alcoholism contributed to her stroke and death at the age of 69.
The Precious Moments figurine is praying and wearing a pair of reindeer horns. Tim hastily selected this figurine from Sherry's large collection, but I think it perfectly captures Sherry's superficial religiosity. Although she never talked about God or Jesus, nor attended church with her family, sometimes around Christmas she would get drunk and then complain that the boys didn't know the "true meaning of Christmas".
Sherry's Precious Moments collection amassed over the years when Rodger would take Tim and his older brother Scott out to the store to "pick out" the figurine that Sherry had pre-selected for her birthday. Rodger carefully constructed a world aiming to please, or at least not anger Sherry. Her wrath could mean the difference between walking on eggshells or being cruelly abused. Tim learned to avoid her and give her just enough of whatever she demanded to get her to leave him alone.
We included a clock as a memento mori. A sliver amphora cup spills over with jewelry and acts as a mirror, symbolizing vanity and materialism.
A photo of Sherry and Rodger is tacked to the wall, falling out of its paper booklet frame. This is one of the only photos I've seen in which both of them are smiling.
Tim replaced the solo portrait of himself with a snapshot of he and his brother. There were few happy times in their childhood. Many alcoholic parents present the outward appearance of a “normal” family. I did not grow up in an Alcoholic family unit, although thanks to my religious upbringing, I am familiar with putting on a good show for the world. Tim always felt like something was deeply wrong in his childhood. He started suffering from depression and anxiety early in his life, and by the time he was a young teenager he asked Sherry if he could get help. She sneered at him, “head shrinks are for crazy people!”, successfully shutting him down and preventing any chance that an outside party would discover Rodger’s and her secret life of neglect and abuse.
Finally, the flowers in the bouquet were carefully selected to include the pungent Narcissus, blackberry sprigs (symbols of religious neglect and carelessness), and thistle which punished me as I arranged the flowers with my bare fingers.
There is a part of me that hesitates to write so uncharitably about Sherry, a part that is scared to speak ill of the dead, and afraid of looking spiteful. Thanks to Sherry and Rodger, Tim and I have dedicated our lives to healing and growing together. We have a second chance with our son Jack to heal the family secrets and lies, and as is age-appropriate share the truth with him. The family legacy of cover-ups, caretaking, enabling, mental illness and addiction have been burned to ashes and the physical remains will be cast to the winds and ocean when our family moves to Portland to be close to Scott, his wife and his kind, sensitive and beautiful daughters.
Sherry loved her grandchildren. She downloaded all the photos of Jack I posted on Facebook to her personal computer, but she never met him. The only framed photos in their house were of their four grandchildren.
Tim remembers Sherry reading the Velveteen Rabbit to him as a child.
She used to call him "mouse" as a term of endearment.
I never got to see the loving, nurturing side of Sherry. Her loving side came out pretty rarely for Tim, and unfortunately was often alcohol-induced which was terrifying to him as a child. These three sweet anecdotes I know about Sherry are a testament that within everybody is a loving presence that can become obscured. My life's mission has become removing these obstacles.
Rest in peace Sherry and Rodger.
Melissa Brisko, March 29, 2018