My mother has constructed a giant dragon in her backyard. She’s carted yards of dirt in her wheelbarrow to build up the body that stretches the width of her house. With a pickaxe and shovel, she’s chopped chunks of crusty clay from her property and arranged the pieces in a scaly spine running the length of the dragon’s back. The dragon wears a skin planted in creeping and wooly thyme. She sleeps peacefully, no need for vigilance, no need to guard against attack by errant knights and armies who misunderstand a dragon’s true nature.
My mother who left me alone overnight when I was ten to stay at her bachelor boyfriend’s apartment after the divorce; my mother who worked at a job she hated for thirty years until her chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia made it impossible for her to spend the day with a phone cradled to her ear scheduling appointments in a medical clinic—my mother built a dragon from inspiration and sweat.
My mother who sewed her clothes and mine until she got her first job after the divorce; my mother who so hated to cook that when I got married and moved out ate only popcorn for dinner for nearly a year; my mother who covered the walls of the doublewide trailer she bought after the second divorce with upholstery fabric and braid; my mother who was always creative, but always had other things to attend to—like survival—is now a woman gone wild, ideas rampant as weeds she pulls from the body of her dragon.
My mother who didn’t know how to drive a car until my father bought her an old Corvair and paid for lessons and after he left, now takes permanent marker and an X-Acto knife to x-ray film, tracing and cutting the patterns she’s drafted. Her patterns in place, my mother marks sheets of metal. In her shop she dons a leather apron and falconer gloves, clear acrylic helmet, and slices intricate patterns, guiding the flames of her plasma cutter as they lick through sheets of metal. Many of her creations are dragons.
I recognize, and I don’t, my mother, this woman who birthed me six days before her nineteenth birthday, this girl-mother, an only child raised by a single mother from the age of three, moving from one studio apartment to the next as a girl, wanting to be nothing more, or less, than the fairytale of wife and mother when she married in 1960. But my father, her prince, galloped off into sunset solo, leaving her tucked into an 800-square-foot castle with two little girls and tears that worked no magic; my mother’s grief a moat that threatened to drown us, but never did.
Today my mother lives in a house she designed and built with her third husband—a man who like her, has gone artistic-rogue after retiring—surrounded by handcrafted waterfalls and a garden she has planted for faeries, boasting miniature cottages, flowers, and shrubs that shine even in the dark.
Years ago, I was afraid I’d be like her, too frightened and fragile for this hard-scrabbled world. But she is sturdy, this crone-mother of mine, though the cartilage has evaporated from her knees and her thumbs throb with arthritis. I am following her path painting houses and drafting essays, gathering wisdom like breadcrumbs on this journey, trailing her footsteps too closely to become anything other than like her. Each day more of the essential self emerges from our hands, our pens, our torches—expression let loose in the world bright and flaming like fire from a dragon’s mouth.
Cathy Warner serves as Good Letters literary editor. Author of Burnt Offerings, she leads writing workshops, renovates homes, and sells real estate in Western Puget Sound. Cathy has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays. Her fiction, short memoir, and essays have appeared in dozens of print and online journals and several anthologies. Find her at cathywarner.com.