jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

On Aging, In Honor of the Seven Women Who Live Inside Me

It happened slowly… and all at once. Last week I was 29 with a rounded, peach-skinned face that I disliked for its pudginess, and BAM! It’s fifteen years later and the collagen has left the building.

The kids’ pediatrician, in describing the origins of their collective eczema, referred to my skin as “crepie” skin which sounded like something between crappy and creepy, but which was supposed to reference “crepe”, the wrinkled polyester-ish fabric that makes for bad Betty White mother-of-the-bride dresses. (And for the record, I’d give anything for Betty White’s skin.)

My mother was beautiful in her 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s. I remember looking at her and thinking she was like an angel. She’d paint her toenails red and give us each a nickel to rub cream in her smooth, thin legs each night. She’d dress up for hospital visits and doctors’ appointments, much the same way I dress up now for date night. She’d wear a fitted wool suit, ribbed turtleneck, red lipstick, and when we were old enough, we’d blow-dry her hair and style it into two perfectly flipped wings that met at the back of her head. Beautiful.

July, 1976

Sister, Jennie and Mom
July, 1976

And now I begin to wonder, when did the guys at the gas station pump her gas last instead of first? When did she stop wearing her polka dot bikini by the pool? At what point did jeggings take on a whole different meaning on her stick thin legs?

In graduate school fifteen long years ago I made navel-gazing art about family, identity, fertility, my relationship with my mother, what it meant for me to be a woman in that time and place. (Sounds a lot like a blog you may have heard of?) The images were all so heavy though, even the hastily scribbled stuff. You just can’t put a headless doll, a pair of scissors and a right-wing anti-abortion newsletter from the 70’s  in the same piece of art without seeming like a pretty angry woman.

And so I developed this group of characters I called white girl Jersey anime. They’d race through the paintings and flip you off, climb up across the frame of an awkward family portrait and scribble mustaches on people. They were like little yellow-haired gremlins. There were seven, and their personalities were distinctive.

Little Red Dress Girl was a skipper, twirler, underpants forgetter who was fearless (although she probably should have been a bit more fearful of the creepy teenager up the street, but perhaps that goes without saying.)

photo (8)

Graduate school sketchbook
c. 2000

Skinny High School Girl was all big hair and short skirt. She didn’t go very far or do much, because she was hungry most of the time and weighted down by hairspray.

photo (10)

Graduate school sketchbook
c. 2000

Pissed Off Artist  wore overalls and a tank top with crazy cat’s eye glasses. She was Queen of the one finger salute, painting over, under and through anything.

photo (6)

Graduate school sketchbook
c. 2000

Runner would mostly just run away, away, until she collapsed, only to stagger to her feet and run again.

photo (9)

Graduate school sketchbook
c. 2000

Pregnant Mama was nude, with tiny limbs and a gigantic belly. She always seemed to be trying to regain her balance, struggling against the pendulous breasts and distended belly, beyond caring that every bit of her business was exposed.

photo (11)

Graduate school sketchbook
c. 2000

Middle Age was ineffectual, apple-shaped, slumped shoulders, with jeggings and an unattractive bun.

photo (7)

Graduate school sketchbook
c. 2000

And then there was Old Woman, a ghostly figure in white, shuffling barefoot with a walker. She moved steadily, with surprising grace, gesturing wisely.

photo (5)

Graduate school sketchbook
c. 2000

And if you haven’t guessed it, these characters were me, painted by an art student who hadn’t really met the last four versions of me to come. If pressed to verbalize who these characters were, I would have said I thought they were the stages of a life, a woman’s life, my life.

But now I realize that they were all me, all the time.

I picture them like Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, a way of describing the diversity of intelligence: kinetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal and so on. Strong here, but not there, but likely we have some measure of each intelligence at any given time.  Or maybe they were like the geeked out graphic equalizer on my father’s old stereo. Red lights blinking, more bass, less treble, dial this frequency up and that one down.

Today, March 14, 2014,  I am so much Little Red Dress Girl and Runner, striving for the more aged wisdom of Old Woman, relying on Angry Artist to communicate, and Skinny High School Girl to get dressed in the morning and brush my hair. Pregnant Mama, all selfless motherhood, she crops up, too. But Middle Age is a vision I shamefully based on my mother after my father died and we’d mostly moved away, no one to feather her hair or put moisturizer on her legs. I am trying to avoid that version of myself. I avoid the woman who won’t wear the polka dot bikini ever again, who believes that she shouldn’t.

Now though, with the realization that time in our lives is more than linear, I need to embrace the multitudes of me that exist… or at least the seven I’ve discovered. And maybe my imagined version of Middle Age is the place where I’ve heaped a pile of demons: disorder, awkwardness, neediness, emptiness, weakness, weakness, weakness. She’s always been there, fumbling around unable to do anything but hide inside her own slumped shoulders at the party, ineffectual, the one person who is no longer needed by anyone. Poor Middle Age.

But if Little Red Dress Girl can pull her out onto the dance floor and Old Woman can point out that no one in the room is actually watching, that being whole and wholly yourself wherever you are is like a virtual polka dot bikini, then maybe, just maybe she too can live a little.

Here’s to the multitude of people we each carry with us every single day. Here’s to loving them for who we are, wherever we are.

“As long as we believe in sequential time, we see becoming, instead of being. Beyond time, we’re all one.”

~Richard Bach, Bridge Across Forever

(This piece was written in celebration of the decrepitude of my 43rd birthday, in admiration of Betty White, and as a response to WordPress’s Weekly Writing Challenge, Golden Years.)

26 comments on “On Aging, In Honor of the Seven Women Who Live Inside Me

  1. giselacarmona
    March 14, 2014

    What a marvelous celebration of your youthful and happy multiple self – I agree with you in that we all carry a multitude of people within us -… I enjoy your posts so very much, but I think this is probably one of my favorites… Have a great weekend!

    • jgroeber
      March 18, 2014

      Too kind (but thanks.) I’m so glad you could relate. When I re-read the post I got to thinking, “This is a bit crazy… and confusing… seven people in one person…?!” Thank you for reading.

  2. talesfromthemotherland
    March 14, 2014

    Whoa. You just blow me away Jen. Your graduate school art books are just unbelievable! This entire post is so insightful and beautiful. Whoa.

    • Burns the Fire
      March 15, 2014

      Double whoa. Love your gorgeous voice.

      • talesfromthemotherland
        March 15, 2014

        Thanks, I think? Maybe you’re talking to Jen too. 😉 If so, I certainly agree! If me, thanks!

      • jgroeber
        March 18, 2014

        You have the loveliest comments. Even if this is for Dawn. 😉

    • jgroeber
      March 18, 2014

      Thank you for the constant inspiration, Dawn. Really and truly.
      So glad to have an excuse to blow the dust off those old sketchbooks, too. 😉

  3. Margie S
    March 14, 2014

    That graduate school artist had so much wisdom, appreciation and talent!! Cheers to all of our multiple personalities. Great post!
    P.S. Middle aged momma is a bit depressing, I refuse to look at myself like that, even if everyone else does.

    • jgroeber
      March 18, 2014

      I do think Middle Age is depressing, but maybe only if we let ourselves become that one dimensional. (And I assure you that no one could possibly see you that way!) I think I may always think that she’s just over the horizon for me, like I could grow into her in another fifteen years if I’m not careful. Even at 90 I will hopefully identify with all the other ones but not so much Middle Age. I’ll be thinking, “Oh, I’m headed there. Uh, oh. 105 is just around the corner… I probably ought to stop wearing those polka dots!”

  4. HBG
    March 15, 2014

    I really love this piece. It feels very much like you are living in the here and now, while nodding respectfully to the past, present and future selves. Mountain pose.

    • jgroeber
      March 18, 2014

      Mountain pose. It really is about accepting without judging (as if we’ve ever been any good at that when it comes to ourselves.) But what a lovely thought, right?

  5. mollytopia
    March 15, 2014

    Thank you for making it okay to have multiple personalities. I have five. Maybe I’ll get two more before I die. This terrifies me – I can barely keep up with the ones I have : ) Great post – I loved seeing your personalities in cartoon form. Awesome.

    • jgroeber
      March 18, 2014

      Oh, you definitely have more personalities than 5. I’d say 12. (Ha! Wouldn’t that be exhausting?)
      Thank you for reading and for getting it.

  6. jdavi339
    March 17, 2014

    Interesting post. I remember 29 🙂 Next month I will turn 50 oh how time flies! I realized I am my mother’s child I see her in my eyes my face, a bit bigger version of her … thanks for the post.

    • jgroeber
      March 18, 2014

      29 feels like it was both five minutes ago and an eternity, right? And I’ll be chasing you to 50 in a few short years!

  7. Pingback: The Elders of Us | Wired With Words

  8. drawandshoot
    March 19, 2014

    Jen, this is the first post of yours I have read, and it’s wonderful!
    Love your art and insights.

    • jgroeber
      March 24, 2014

      Oh, thank you. If my words could look like your photos though, well that would be amazing. So glad you stopped by! I’m loving seeing your photos pop up in my inbox.

  9. Tandi
    April 19, 2014

    This piece takes my breath away. Its just so right. If only I”d had such wisdom in 2000.

    • jgroeber
      April 20, 2014

      It’s always so hard to cut ourselves a break, all seven of our selves. And thank you.
      Headed over to your blog tonight to see if you reveal more about 2000 there… Hmmm.

  10. Sharon Rawlette
    May 21, 2014

    Love it!

    • jgroeber
      May 22, 2014

      Who doesn’t need a little old woman and a little girl battling it out in their psyche for supremacy? Thanks for the comment and for stopping by.

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