|“Woman Reading in a Boat”
by Arthur Becher, ca. 1910.
I just awoke from a dream, or series of dreamlike images, in which I stood on my familiar shore at a dock. There at the side of the dock was a small boat, a row boat, with a passenger waiting for someone to join her. The woman in the boat was not necessarily beautiful but certainly young, perhaps 30, and mysterious. She was dressed warmly and in a very old style. Her smile was familiar and seemed to beckon: “Come join me for a ride. You row, and I’ll show you how different your shore looks from the middle of the lake where I live. What is big to you now will seem small. And you’ll also see where I live. It’s on the island, in a secluded building behind a wall. It’s called a sanitarium.”
The term “sanitarium” was part of the dreamlike experience and recalled my days in China were I was surprised to see buildings with titles like “City of Shanghai Workers’ Sanitarium.” To me, “sanitarium” often means a residence for the treatment of the severely mentally ill, but it can also mean a place or institution concerned with promoting health. Rather than an institution for those society shuns as insane, it might be simply a place for healing of many kinds.
But why would I set foot on the boat and begin the hard work of rowing just to see a new perspective offered by a stranger? This is the challenge readers have when confronted with the invitation from any author. Why should I bother? Why should I care about seeing my world from afar or getting up close to you and your island and especially your sanitarium? That just sounds a little crazy.
It took several glances for me to understand the familiarity of the dark-haired woman and her smile. She was quiet, she was patient, and she simply sat there, waiting, as if she knew eventually I would take the frightening step of shifting my weight away from what is firm and safe for the rocky, insecure boat, to pick up the oars and begin what could be a difficult journey to unknown regions.
The woman, I suddenly realized after the dream sequence, was my mother. Not quite the same eighty-nine-year-old dementia patient I now call Mom, who doesn’t remember my name and who, when not in cheerful mood, will yell or scream with an operatic voice to command me and others to whatever has suddenly become urgent, but the woman in the boat was my mother when she was much younger, perhaps when she was a young mother quite busy in caring for her firstborn and soon five more siblings to follow me. Much of her mind today is trapped in times when she was still young and active, and her mind was keen. Sharp-witted, well read on a number of topics, humorous, sometimes cynical or angry, she has left many writings in journals and letters that can entertain but also trouble or perplex. I feel something about her is inviting me to pick up the oars and row to join her in seeing a different horizon and understanding that deep down, she is not the dementia patient that her decaying mind presents, but a young woman inviting me to see her in another way, on her island, in a sanitarium, or sanatorium, a place of nurturing and healing where the healing may be mine.
In my next visit, I see it’s time I take her documents more seriously and begin rowing.
The invitation to step into a boat and row to a new place can be frightening, but I think many of our ancestors are inviting us to take this journey. Such journeys I think are part of the spirit of family history work, connecting the hearts of the children to the fathers and certainly to the mothers. It may be as simple as learning their names, their birthplace, and a few details about their lives, while for others there are mysterious clues wrapped up in just a few pages of writing and perhaps a damaged photograph or two. For some there are worlds of exploration open to us now through their writings or other compilations of information and stories that can lead us to see details of their islands and let us view our own comfortable world with new respect, understanding how some things we think are big may be quite small, and how some of the biggest things don’t even come into view until we’ve rowed for quite a while.
How odd that some random dreams and images could move me to arise at 3 AM to write about a new resolution for this year. I look forward to learning more about that mysterious woman in the boat, the familiar woman I’ve known as “Mother” all my life.