Thinking of My Mother, Greek Myths and Rebirth

20 years ago today, in 1997, my dear mother died. Her Toronto hospital room overlooked a ravine filled with trees in their autumn glory. In her last days, I sat holding her hand, looking out the window, thinking, waiting and wondering if the end of this journey would lead to an existence after this one. That’s a tough one for a non-believer like me. On the day she died, it snowed. I’ll never forget the brilliance of the autumn colours behind that screen of falling white flakes.

When I was a young girl, my mother read to me at bedtime. I can still see the illustrations in the books she read – Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking glass, Heidi,  and the Blue, Red and Yellow fairy tale books. My mother, Sandy, also invented fantastic, serialized bedtime stories where I was the central character.

Sandy McConnell Doehler 1922 – 1997
But my favorite story was one she told every year. It was the ancient Greek myth about Persephone’s abduction by Hades and her mother Demeter’s grief. It is the classic mother – daughter separation story. Through it, the ancient Greeks explained the life-death-rebirth cycle of the garden. I never tired of the story because her telling was wrapped up in our close relationship as well as her own separation experiences.
And as the story involved a very significant pomegranate, every year in October, my mother would buy one and I would search for the chambers of tarts seeds while she told the story.
That story is one I return to in my paintings.
Proserpine’s Folly. Paintings by Flora Doehler, 2002.
I miss the most our long conversations about everything under the sun. My art genes come from her. She constantly had a notepad with her to write down and sketch her ideas and thoughts. She was one of the smartest women I ever knew and was decades ahead of her contemporaries in her views about life. She regretted that she was born too late to be a full participant in the 60’s. I know she would have fit in well with the radical shift in thinking that made people challenge the conservatism, racism and sexism that permeated public and private life in North America.
The Unmade Bed. Pastel detail by Sandy McConnell Doehler, 1944?
Our relationship wasn’t perfect. Our mother-daughter conflicts were spectacular and heated. Between the two of us, there were so many slammed doors that the paint chipped around the door frames. But do you ever wish you could have been a contemporary of one of your parents? I do. I wish she was here to share this life with me. We could paint together. We could have wonderful conversations. I know she would have embraced the internet and it’s publishing and researching possibilities. And I have so many questions for her — there was never really enough time to say everything.

At work two weeks after mom’s death I heard a song about loss on the radio. (And believe me, when you are fresh with grief, you’ll find that most songs deal with separation.) I cried in front of my coworkers and felt overwhelmed that evening with loss and with the realization that I would never talk with my mother again or experience her love.  I am very fortunate to have a treasure trove of letters from her, written to me while I was an art student in the German Democratic Republic in the 1970’s. I pulled one out at random and it began:

“Dear Flora – yes, I do love you.”

The letter was dated only with the month and day – Oct.23 …. what would become her death day! I was quite astonished — how fitting, it seemed, that my mother the writer would choose just the right words to comfort me.

Sandy in her twenties.

Today I’ll think about my dear mother and miss her as I have every day for 15 years. I’ll read some of her poems and I’ll paint. And for sure, I’ll eat a pomegranate.  I am so thankful to her for exposing me to art and books and ideas and for being the free spirit she was. I know it was her wish for me that I could paint full-time. Well, I can now and I do. And thankfully I do this in a beautiful valley, much like the one she imagined in this poem she wrote when she was 38.


To Be in Country Warp Again

To be in country warp again, in fields
who, sleeping, stir and rustle of the past;
in hills, from whose veiled summits are downcast
night shades, still showing glistening shields;
where footed cattle strike the ground
unseen, in pastures, beaded in the night
by incensed air that with night cries resound,
as one by one, stars thread the dark with light.
– Sandy McConnell Doehler, 1960.

The loss of a parent is profound.  Parents are extraordinarily significant in all our lives. If you are interested in reading more about the various impacts on adults losing their parents, there is an excellent article here.

Flora, Sandy and nephew Ben, 1972

11 thoughts on “Thinking of My Mother, Greek Myths and Rebirth

  1. I had to scroll back up to check the year on this Flora when I saw that I had commented already but didn’t recall … lol

    Your mom gave you a wonderful gift and it’s super that you are able to be a full time artist. Hugs.

  2. Great Post Flora – I am just catching up on “stuff”. I absolutely love the painting your mother did of a room. Those are the type of photos/prints/paintings that inspire me to search through and peek into what possessed the artist to make it. Hope your issues with your web providers are solved. We, on the other hand, have no satellite this year in Florida, as Bell, in its infinite wisdom put up a new satellite and it does NOT cover US………..oh well, more books to read.

  3. Sybil…thanks for this. The amount of comments and emails I’ve received about this post remind me of the significance for all of us of our parents. I want to think there is a chance to reunite someday too. xo

  4. What a touching, honest post Flora. As an adult I was very close to my parents. They were a huge part of my life. I vested so much of my life in them and they in me. Dad died — I was going to type “left” — in 2004, and Mom in ’07. Isn’t it odd that the exact dates of their passing don’t come to mind. In the fall, in autumn for both of them. I want there to be an after life, or another life, or a next life, or a mingling of our beings … I miss them, though mom is starting back at me, more often than I’d like when I look in the mirror. 🙂 I was very lucky to have two wonderful parents.

    Thank you for inspiring some lovely memories.

  5. A really lovely post about your mother, Flora. My, but you could be her twin sister! This post has come at a time when I am thinking even more than usual about my mother, in Scotland. She is 94 and had a stroke this year which has made her housebound – something she finds difficult to accept. I speak to her on the telephone and we talk a lot about the past, but every ‘Good-bye’ is difficult. I don’t know if I can bear to return to Scotland to see her, as we would both be heartbroken at the farewell. Old age is not fun once you cannot read, see or get out and about.

    1. Jackie, they say that ‘old age ain’t for sissies”. But, with luck, we are all headed there. My parents were both very ill at the end and mentally agitated, memory loss, confusion. It was very difficult to see them this way. Like an ice-cold shower. However, some of my most tender memories are about being with them at their worst. I’m thinking in particular of my father who was passionate about world politics, but emotionally unavailable to his children. During his last months in hospital, I became the parent and had a chance to show him my loving-kindness and that opened me to a closeness and that was appreciated and reciprocated. For the first time in my life, we formed a close relationship for which I will be forever grateful. But none of it is easy. Good luck with you and your mama. xo

  6. A beautiful, touching post, Flora, thank you.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about my own mother lately. Well, she’s never really out of my thoughts for long. I don’t imagine I’ll ever stop missing her. I, too, have many questions that I wish I had asked while there was still time, while we could still talk. I’m glad you mentioned slammed doors; there were a few of those in our house, too, usually slammed by me, punctuation in our battles of wills when I was a teenager. 🙂 My poor mother.. But thankfully that was one of the shorter chapters in our story.

    You’ve obviously gotten many gifts from your mother and you use them well; I’m sure that she would be well pleased.


    1. Hi Faye. This is one experience that is almost universal because sometimes the world is turned upsidedown and the parent outlives the child. I thought that a time would come when I would stop missing my parents, but I realize that it never will happen. What has happened is an acceptance and a sense of finally arriving at adulthood because I had to make decisions myself without bouncing them off on the ‘elders’. Not that I always listened to the advice…….
      Everyone in our family slammed doors. I remember in my teens after a heated argument with my mother (and often my father would continue reading his newspaper in the living room!!) that I had slammed the door in my room. She stood on the other side, pushing hard to get in. “Open this door AT ONCE!” I suddenly threw the door open and caught her in my arms as the momentum pushed her forwards. We both burst into laughter and the war was over. We made reference to that for many years.
      Thanks for your comment Faye. xo

  7. Great post Flora, your mother sounds amazing. My mother is still alive and I talk to
    her every day. But my father is gone, and I know that feeling of profound loss. I learned
    so much from both my parents, but from my father by osmosis more than direct education I
    learned about the artist’s eye. He had it. In the portrait exhibit at McMichael yesterday I
    saw a striking portrait by Karsh, and thought my father took that type of portrait.

    You inherited your mother’s talent and her gift for stories, and have no doubt passed these
    gifts on to your wonderful children. If the most important thing is love, you have it,
    and your mother gave it. So all is well.

    XO Barbara

    1. Barbara, thank you for sharing this and for your kind comments.It is interesting to see elements from our parents and grandparents in ourselves AND in our children. It is like a river that keeps flowing, discarding a few leaves and picking up new ones on the way. I’ve seen a few photos of your father’s and they are Karsh-like. It’s interesting that you also work on portraits, but in paint, although I know you also paint luscious flowers and landscapes. What is it, I wonder, that comes through with the DNA? Is that what ‘osmosis’ is? xo

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