THERE’S SOMETHING IN THE EXPRESSION on my mother’s face here that, if I’m not misinterpreting completely, I totally recognize. She may be fifteen or sixteen, but even looking back decades in time, I think I know that look.
To me that expression captures something of her philosophy of life. It’s how she coped. It’s as if she was saying, “I’ll just play along with all this for now. I’ll bide my time.”
That coping mechanism is, in my opinion, how she dealt with a very challenging life, one overshadowed during its first decade by the Great Depression, the clouds of smoke and soot that poured from Crucible Steel, and a scrappy German mother who might, from time to time, take out on little Joanie her own, more grievous indignities.
She Was Winging It
But I believe it became a habit, a way my mother learned to hide from those around her all that was going on inside her head–perhaps hiding it even from herself. When she could no longer bite her lip harder, nor keep her mouth shut any longer, she would mount up with wings like a butterfly; she would run and not weary, walk and not faint.
My mother’s escapist tendencies began around the end of the second world war when, to escape Crucible Steel, Midland, Pennsylvania, the Depression and a troubled home life, she crossed state lines, married my father, James Frank Starr, and settled in East Liverpool, Ohio. Then, when I was eleven, we all ran: my father, my sister, and me, all the way from Ohio to Texas. My father was running from the collapse of the American steel industry, my mother from her second marriage, to a man who already had another family–the mob. My sister and I were just along for the ride.
The Return Flight
Only a few weeks after our arrival in Dallas, she ran back, she claimed under threat of having acid thrown in her face and my sister and I harmed in some unspeakable way. The next time I saw her I was married myself, and so many years had passed, trying to recapture a mother-son relationship was impossible. But then, I was the only one trying. Plus my net seemed to have a humongous hole in it.
Three years ago she died, and up until then I’d never realized how much I’d played along with all the biting of one’s lip, the biting of one’s tongue, and when necessary, the flying-away, escapist M.O. I’m unlearning that now, and if you think you can take it, I invite you along as I unravel a snarled yarn.
Collage: When She Got Her Wings (detail), 1995
(James Michael Starr)
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