I have crossed paths with so many amazing parents who have, in one way or another, been mentors who helped me to see possibilities for my life as a mother beyond the traditional model. Poet and performer Tamara Madison is one of those people. Many moons ago and shortly after moving to Atlanta, a mutual friend introduced me to Tamara. Probably because of the fact that this first meeting happened at the reception after one of Tamara’s plays at a local community theatre where her first-born son and daughter romped about as comfortably as they might in their own living room and because she is always (always) busy creating something, I will forever see art and motherhood as an inseparable pair in Tamara’s life. Please enjoy “Art-at-Work,” her guest post below. ~Brown Girl
At age 4, my oldest son was a fan of Batman and Bruce Lee. He smeared his face with lines of peanut butter pretending it was war paint keeping stashes of sticks, stones, and ribbons as weaponry. By fourth grade, Oldest Son had become class comedian and had taught himself how to steal the show from his teacher. Ironically during high school, this tall, handsome, caramel-skinned son of mine was in continual conflict with his drama teacher. Why? Because he was his own person and according to reports “not well disciplined.” Now, at the age of twenty-four, he prefers books on mind science and quantum theory to club hopping. He is a scribe and filmmaker who, as a side hustle, helps his peers master the art of essay writing. No matter the place or occasion, Oldest Son brings life and energy to any space he occupies.
My daughter has always been the reigning princess of the family. Having watched me perform poetry and act in theatre
productions since she was a toddler, her home stage was the cobblestone porch of the two-building apartment complex where we once lived in southwest Atlanta. Adorned with wigs, feathered boa and with the help of assorted household props, Baby Girl would put on solo shows to the delight of our family and close-as-kin neighbors. Shortly after her toddler years, she began reading voraciously and making up her own adventurous stories, too. By high school, she became a JROTC cadet and proudly sported their uniform. A little while later, she turned in her garrison hat in favor of a more creative way of expressing her fashion taste. Her regalia began to include mini-skirts and thigh high boots as well as hair that she might dye jet black one week and shocking red the next. Yet by the time her senior prom came around, Baby Girl was the picture of elegance. My daughter is twenty now. While many of her friends are obsessed with relationships and the latest happenings on the block, she works two jobs, saves her money, and keeps her mind trained with laser-like precision on becoming a high school English teacher and entrepreneur.
My last-born son is a builder. He is learning Chinese, sketches, draws, is a fan of rock music, Japanese anime, and Legos. His room is filled with intricately-designed cardboard mansions– many of them two and three stories tall and outfitted with landscapes, waterfalls, and secret passageways for his “action people.” He has taken time to document his architectural masterpieces in the form of still photography. And like his older brother, Last Born has captured various episodes of their adventures on video. This is all at the tender age of 11, so who knows what he will be up to by the age of 21.
I am a writer, poet, performing artist, whose life journey with my children has been everything but traditional. Art and the people who make it were cornerstones that played a critical role in our development. For about ten years, First Born, Baby Girl and I were a single parent family. Art was our therapy, personal development, entertainment, and fulfillment on those days when no other support was offered. The art in our lives challenged us to be creative in other areas whether it was in our interactions with family, school or community. Through art we have always bonded, built, experimented and crafted something meaningful, functional, and beautiful with whatever and whoever we had at the time and in the moment.
When I remarried, our family instantly expanded. My husband had children from his prior relationship, and after we married, Last Born Son came along. With six children to care for, things like summer camp became an extravagance that we could not afford. One of our creative solutions was to organize neighborhood talent shows complete with dance and music performances, comedy sketches. Between rigorous rehearsals, sibling squabbles, and adolescent angst, our first summer as a blended family was one of the hardest and best ever. The neighborhood had never seen anything like our show, and many still talk about it. We even created a family newsletter that remains a permanent part of our family scrapbook.
While there were many successes like our family talent show, often my children and I did not fit in. For instance, we did not have cable or satellite television in our home until the oldest was about ten years old. Prior to that, it had always been PBS and independent films on VHS with in-depth discussions and bowls of popcorn between scenes. When holidays like Halloween came around, my squad of kids dressed up in DIY costumes and makeup from my cosmetic case instead of from Party City. And on top of that, I insisted that they share their candy with the adults who lived in the other units of the brown stone apartment we lived in in New Jersey. (They still complain to this day about having to give candy away to adults, of all things, while “normal” children were free to binge on it!)
Earning my living as a teaching artist has meant moving from place to place, school to school. Sometimes, I took my children out of school and out of state for weeks at a time to travel along with me. There were also times where I left the country and worked and the children were in someone else’s care. Whose mom does that? Whose mom speaks French to strange people from strange places and rehearses poems and plays in the middle of the living room floor? Whose mom hosts family parties with storytelling and card games and dominoes and three aunties simultaneously cooking in the kitchen while live sax and congas play on the front porch and…
Yes. That was and is our life. And even though there were more aggravating calls from teachers and awkward conferences with school principals than I prefer to remember, the payoff of living artfully was and remains worth every challenge and sacrifice. For me, the glory is in watching my children all grow into becoming their own individual, compassionate, expressive people. More than anything, it amazes me what critical thinkers they are, whether it is discussing the after-dinner movie or a crucial family issue. I live among a bunch of “tribal chiefs.” No one is a follower at all. They have interesting ways of yielding to one another, but no one does things simply to please or be accepted by peers. In this world-wide-web age that has taken “keeping up with the Jones’” to astonishing new levels, I take satisfaction in having raised young people who honor and value themselves while compassionately respecting the differences in others. It is a real accomplishment.
Even with most of the children now living on their own, the ripple effect that art has had in their lives is endless. I no longer have to lead. I watch as they build their own independent relationships, shape their careers, and build their homes. I see them argue over the latest movie and discuss what the director could have done better, huddle over the recipe book to make homemade banana pudding from scratch, gather together for a dance recital, stage play, or a Scrabble championship. I see my older children encourage Last Born to be himself, use his mind, and be fearless. I see them and delight in knowing that far beyond their poems, paintings and dances, they are making their lives their finest compositions.