The Woman on the Mantel: #Artifacts&Memory

Carved in clay but never fired, she raises more questions than her presence might answer.

I know the artist, the name scratched into the base: Betti jo–my mother. I know the studio where the woman came into being: 4101 York Street, the attic space turned art room. I know her approximate year: 1980.

What I don’t know:

Self-portrait or face of a stranger?
Left unfired by intention or by resignation?
A woman content or resolute? Perhaps both.

What I imagine:

A Sunday afternoon, bright and temperate–outside and in. Kids preoccupied in the yard; husband drawn into football downstairs. She’s been to church, served roast at lunch, cleared the dishes. Usually, it is now that she would nap, but today she slips into the art room and unwraps a cool piece of clay.

She throws it against the table once, twice–pauses, listens. A third time quick, then she readies her hands and the water. With her thumbs she massages the forehead into shape, slow and meticulous. As she smoothes out that space just above the eyebrows, the creases between her own release, her thoughts loosen. She breathes in, breathes out, the scent of clay like a balm. She forms the nose and the nostrils and scratches her own. The nose is too big, she is sure, but the way it turns up at the end makes her grin. The lips, she crafts smaller than her own and more relaxed in a way, and here she stops to consider. Laughter from her girls outside lifts like the wind, and their voices slip in under the sash, curl up and around her shoulders, tickle the back of her neck. Happy.

~

Patty Dann (The Butterfly Hours) says, “All good writing is a blend of memory and imagination,” and as I study the woman on my mantel, I know Dann is right. Artifacts form the base of our memories, but we are often left to fill in the gaps. We do this out of curiosity, out of necessity, out of love. Family Stories from the Attic (Hidden Timber Books, April 1, 2017) is an anthology full of such writing. Co-edited by Lisa Rivero and myself, these stories of exploration by twenty-two authors will inspire you to uncover your own family letters, diaries, photographs, and more, if only to reflect on the real and the imagined and–as always–the loved. Watch for information on pre-ordering and the book launch soon.

About Christi Craig

Christi Craig is a native Texan living in Wisconsin, working by day as a sign language interpreter and moonlighting as a writer, teacher, and editor. Her stories and essays have appeared online and in print, and she received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train's Family Matters Contest, 2010. You can send comments or questions via her contact page.
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