Corners, Rooms & a Garden House of One’s Own

When I was barely old enough to construct a proper sentence, I declared that I wanted to be a writer. My mother treated my declaration with respect and gave me the grandest thing she could. She set up a workspace in the corner of the living room of our tiny apartment. I had pens, paper, dictionaries and notebooks of every variety. Eventually, when we had enough money, I used a typewriter.

My mother never knew who Virginia Woolf was. She never heard of A Room of One’s Own because my mother didn’t have space or time for the riches of education, contemplation and creation. My mother grew up on a Hawaiian sugar cane plantation in 1934. Her spaces were filled with fear, various levels of violence and scarcity. She didn’t get far in high school before she left to make money in the pineapple cannery.

The spaces she occupied in her life were cramped with children and sometimes violent men like her first husband who beat her for his pleasure and hospitalized her until she finally left him.

After my mother divorced her last husband,we moved in with my mom’s friend, Auntie Dee, in the two- bedroom, one-bathroom house she rented. My mom, me, and my niece, Jasmyne (who my mother had adopted after my sister’s death), along with Dee, her daughter Tina, and her son Joe lived in 726 square feet in San Pablo, California.

Back then it wasn’t trendy. It wasn’t called tiny living. It was called being poor. Dee slept on a saggy couch in the living room that wrecked her back and caused every part of her 5’9 body to hurt. Tina and Joe shared a bedroom and I slept in a queen size bed with my mom and Jasmyne in the second bedroom. I don’t know that anyone ever slept well in that house.

There was barely enough space to imagine a more expansive future.

In the last 20 years of her life, my mother lived in a modest cottage behind my home. It’s the first space she ever occupied that she didn’t have to share. She gave me a precious corner and I gave her a 320-square-foot cottage. There is no question that she gave me the grander gift.

She spent her days gardening and speaking to strangers who walked by our front yard and admired her garden. When they told her she had a beautiful home, she always corrected them. “This is my daughter’s home.” I told my mom a thousand times that this was her home too. She always said, “I know that, I know. I just want people to know that my daughter owns this all on her own. You did this all on your own. A small girl like you!”

Of course nothing could be further from the truth. I did it because she made my entire life possible.

Just before my 50th birthday, I was having fantasies about turning my garage into an art studio. I had only painted a few paintings in my life but this desire crawled up inside of me and refused to leave. I told my mother who said, “Do it. You deserve it. You’ve worked hard your whole life. You’ve raised your children and done everything for other people.”

This was a speech she could have easily given herself.

I built that studio even though it felt extravagant because I came from poverty and struggled to feel worthy of such things and even though I wasn’t sure I had any business making art. I built that studio because my mother gave me confidence she didn’t always have for herself. And what better way to honor her than to honor myself.

My mother discovered reading late in life. I gave her books and she devoured them as if she had been starving. I would find her early in the morning outside reading with our dog and a cup of black coffee.

“Reading all these books takes me to places I never got to see and makes me think that if someone had cared to give me books sooner maybe I could have been somebody,” she would say. Of course she was somebody to me. She was everything.

Months before we knew my mother was dying we sat on the patio drinking coffee. We were both early risers. She said, “There are some things I want to make sure I tell you. I’ve never felt more safe or free than I have living here. I just want you to know that. Every day I’m grateful for that.” At the time my mother was an 86-year old healthy woman who worked in the garden for 6–8 hours a day. I had no reason to believe the end was coming, but the marrow of my bones told me otherwise.

At the time my mother was dying, I was in the process of building a garden house made of reclaimed windows. My mother would sit with her oxygen tank and watch the builders pour concrete and frame out the structure. She sat in the garden 10 days before she died in my living room surrounded by her family who sang her out of this world and into the next. It was a glorious end in the safest place in the world for her. She was in the room when my first son took his first breath and he was right next to her with his younger brother when she took her last breath.

Much to my heart break, she didn’t see the garden house completed. It has since become a place we gather to celebrate birthdays, graduations and the company of dear friends. It is where I sat many mornings with coffee, alone, yearning for my mother’s company.

We eat by candle light, play music and wipe our faces with old linen napkins. I have letters and cards of everyone who has graced the garden house, thanking me for the “enchanted,” “magical,” or “other worldly” evening. Every dinner, I place a tiny framed scrap of paper I found in my mother’s things. It’s a Robert Frost line written in my mother’s hand that says, “I had promises to keep and miles to go before I fall asleep.”

No one knows it’s there among the fresh cut flowers and wine, but I know. I see the version of my mother who was holding on to scraps of poems on found paper. She would have loved the way the candle light dances on everyone’s face and we all “talk story,” as they say in Hawaii.

Ann marie Houghtailing is the co founder of Story Imprinting, a communications firm that teaches clients the art and science of storytelling.