Remembering A Powerful Mother



By Clara B. Jones


My Mother Died While I Was Eating Pasta


I remember receiving the call to return immediately to my parents’ home. It was 6 p.m., or so, and I had ordered Clams in White Sauce at my favorite Italian restaurant. In the 1980s, I was a heavy drinker, socializing almost every evening at a buddy’s bar, “Lilly Greenleaves,” near Front Street and the YWCA, in a small New Jersey city. During daytime, I taught at a Catholic girls’ college, situated on the campus of a convent in Morristown, NJ. Coexisting as a professor-alcoholic did not seem strange to me at that time, a lifestyle persisting for several years of hangovers, serious car accidents, and short-term “affairs.” I drove in a tipsy fog to find my Mother’s body lying unclothed on a red carpet, shadowed by a policeman looking, at once, fearful, protective, and very young.


My performance during crises is generally stellar, and each detail of preliminaries, funeral, and aftermath were executed impeccably. Good at business, but poor at managing feelings or providing emotional support, I assumed and bore responsibilities, soothed by bottles of red wine, readily at hand. Flanked by my three children, a photograph of me after my mother’s burial exposed a drooping face, my eyes nearly shut. In those days, I lived from week to week. Home was a bed and a radio, life was an office and a barstool facing a mirror reflecting a changing, seemingly rotating, current of adults who were smoking, drinking, laughing, kissing, arguing louder than fans at Yankee Stadium.


I Re-invented Myself While Browsing In A Bookstore


A catalog search revealed dozens of self-help books for women, many written by female psychotherapists. By the late-1980s, it was no longer possible to deny that my life had reached a tipping-point demanding urgent care. My first corrective measures led to a safe space, searching mass market bookstores for reading matter about identity, about emotional healing, about alcoholism, about religion, about loss, about change, and, tentatively, about anger. Technical and popular articles on “negative emotions” were available, also, in magazines and academic journals. I considered my feelings shameful and disturbing since my mother was the primary focus of the will to blame another for my discomfort. I was certain that my life was cascading into a very dark and permanent space, and I obsessively recalled her words of dismissal.


“I always wanted a little girl; but, you weren’t the one I had in mind.” Surely, this betrayal of a bond had destroyed my capacity to trust, to care, to share. Not so. Resilience has generally been a signature of my personality, and my pathetic circumstance motivated me to heal. I was driven to locate a path of enlightenment, of self-discovery. During this period of time, the chair of my academic department assigned me to teach Abnormal Psychology. I had specialized in the biological basis of behavior in graduate school an had no clinical training. I feared that the new material would overwhelm my fragile emotional state, but, gratefully, my reading list contained a text that would propel me to a gentler space.


Harriet Lerner’s, The Dance of Anger (2005, NY, Perennial Currents), convinced me to expose my conflicts in a manner combined with selfcare. An article in a popular woman’s magazine provided inexpensive, manageable, efficient suggestions for treating myself well. I prefer to shower in the morning and evening, but I began to take a scented bath most days before dinner. I didn’t purchase soothing candles at that time, though I’ve begun to burn incense regularly. Pine is my favorite odor, and, several times each week, I re-live many days spent in forests, walking or observing or cooking over fires or sleeping on leaves. Minor decisions compound to create an intentional life, to minimize impulsivity, to maximize reflection, and to individualize behavior as well as thoughts. Personal agency, spoken and unspoken, conscious and automatic, represents one mechanism for asserting what Adrienne Rich termed, “the power to name.” What began as an opportunity to reinvent myself became a discovery of who I am, relative to self, to others, and to physical spaces.


Crawling Out Of The Moving Picture


I was a brown-skinned child, and my siblings were colored light beige. There was an undisguised preference for “fair” children in my family. Fortunately, my hair was not “kinky.” I had “good hair”, equivalent, it sometimes seemed, to personal worth, value, and power. Unlike my mother, brother, and sister, my father, also, was brown. This colored marker created a special bond between us, one that had implicit overtones of the perverse, the unspoken. I was my father’s companion, his confidante. As if a couple, we went to sports events throughout northeastern states and to exclusive restaurants in Cherry Hill, in Richmond in Manhattan, in Quebec. Father spliced ugly, imperfect frames of my face from home movies, cutting the film and revising reality for future reference. Did this conditioning during Sigmund Freud’s “anal stage” cause my future need for psychoanalysis? Is the biochemical root of my problems a web of traumas framed in neurons forming a hard-wired tapestry?


I Married Instead Of Taking The Bus To Manhattan


My relationship with my Mother was baroque. On the one hand, I was disposed to worship her brilliance and stunning beauty; on the other, to fear her uncontrolled, uncontrollable outbursts, combined with maternal neglect. At a young age, I developed a fierce capacity for concentration and work, resulting from many hours of solitary play and an unmitigated need to escape maternal neurosis, manipulation, and regimentation. My early conditioning, combined with later experience, may have predisposed me to consider others from a distance and with caution, reflecting before acting, or before retreating to familiar spaces.


While in high school, I imagined only three options for my life: pursue an academic career translating documents from their original Latin, marry, or sever family ties by escaping ambitions altogether, working anonymously in the Manhattan wilderness. While two of my dreams seemed inconsistent with a centered and independent life of scholarship, their disadvantages decreased rapidly when I flunked Greek at an exclusive girls’ college in Connecticut. As the only student of color on a campus of one thousand girls, I was emotionally and intellectually unprepared to “pave the way” for future brown students. Thus, at the age of 17, I was destined to accept an offer of marriage. This good fortune proved to be an “ideal” solution from my Mother’s point of view.


“Don’t be sorry, just be right.” Clara J.K. Brown, late chemist


My Mother’s mantra warned me not to fail. I knew why I was driven to demand the best. To lose face with my parents was unthinkable, and when I quit college to marry a man who abruptly changed career plans, my Mother refused to speak to me for six months. Power is a central component of intimacy, and Ellen Pinderhughes has argued that power underlies all inter-individual relations, defining status, agency, achievement, and competition. According to this Developmental Psychologist, power is a signature factor framing the realities of female lives and the spaces in which they reside. Some scientists view power as a mode of communication constituting the “glue” bonding casual and intimate partners.


The powerful need for a female to please her Mother becomes a lifetime of mindfulness, floating in an ether of forgiveness within a radical spiritual context.


My Mother Is A Living Tree


“The power to name” and to define words, things, events, concepts, are the fundamentals of power, often reserved for spaces dominated by males. I recall strolling hand in hand with my Mother who stopped suddenly, exclaiming, “That’s an Osage Orange!” “How do you know?” “Every species of tree bears its own type of leaf.” This woman’s spirit seemed unreachable to me, but, with two sentences, she changed forever my view of the world. This experience, academic yet intimate, influenced every major decision I would later make. A search for patterns amid apparent chaos, infinite diversity, and, sometimes, awe, has become my passion. I try to counter Louise Bogan’s claim that, “Women have no wilderness in them.” No wilderness means no complexity or subtlety, no vision, no personal development, no future different from the past. The “wilderness” of my upbringing was a source of confusion to be unpacked rather than an antiwilderness of ordered relationships to be embraced. Nevertheless, enriching my childhood, the leaves of a tree were a totem of the sort of wilderness representing constancy in a turbid, emotional world.


Selected Readings


Bateson, M.C. (2001). Composing a life. New York, Grove Press


Hrdy, S.B. (2000). Mother nature: maternal instincts and how they shape the human species. New York, Ballantine Books


Paulson, D. (1996). Feminist-informed therapy with mothers of young children. Social Work Monographs, Norwich University of East Anglia.



PHOTO: Liz Williams

PHOTO: Liz Williams

Clara B. Jones is an academic. She can be contacted via e-mail,, to arrange short-term, problem-focused coaching. She is a nontraditional mother, grandmother, friend, and acquaintance whose grounding philosophy is Intentional Living.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker