Haints in the Closet

Evelyn Patricia Terry, "The Very Nice Lady," 26” x 30,” Pastel, 1983.

An enigmatic presence in my life, my mother, Jessie Mae Terry, made her transition on April 9, 2011 at age 96. Longing for the mom prototype—June Cleaver in the TV program Leave it to Beaver—I released her. Over the years I had many questions, which Mom long ago avoided answering. Often, she responded to my inquiries by covering her ears, humming loudly to drown me out, or retreating behind closed doors. Then there was that closet. Though she allowed me to reorganize other storage areas in her home, the bedroom closet was off limits. “Wait until I am dead,” she adamantly said.  At the time I attached little significance to her attitude. Finally, I know “what” Mom needed to stay in the closet during her lifetime.

Evelyn Patricia Terry, "Jessie Mae Terry," reproduced on a plate, from the installation, "I Mind, Eye mind, I Mind," John Michael Kohler Art Center, 1994. Photo by Vernessa Richardson.

Evelyn Patricia Terry, "Jessie Mae Terry," reproduced on a plate, from the installation, "I Mind, Eye mind, I Mind," John Michael Kohler Art Center, 1994. Photo by Vernessa Weatherall.

Born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, her family moved to Charleston, Missouri. There, in her early 20s, she graduated from Lincoln High School, after it was finally built. Hardworking and resolute, she made her way to Milwaukee, married, and started a family. My unanswered questions started when I was about seven. Walking home from school, two “friends,” upset that I was chosen to erase the board, began stepping on my heels and taunting “teacher’s pet.” Although timid, I believed I would be “whipped” if I went running home defeated. Remembering Mom’s advice to “scratch out an attacker’s eyes” to limit their vision, I turned around and began scratching my offender’s eyes out. Surprised, the bully retreated. Later when the terribly injured child and her mother visited our home, my mother denied providing that instruction. My “June Cleaver” dreams vanished, leaving instead “our relationship”–one that I constantly sought to improve.

Evelyn Patricia Terry, "Eric Knight & Rochester Terry," reproduced on a plate, from the installation, "I Mind, Eye mind, I Mind," John Michael Kohler Art Center, 1994. Photo by Vernessa Weatherall.

Then there was the question of “will the real father please stand up?” Believing that Rochester and Jessie Terry could not possibly be my parents, I continually searched for my true identity whenever left home alone. One day, as a teenager named Evelyn Patricia Terry, I discovered my original birth certificate with an “Evelyn McMath” and my mother’s maiden name, “Jessie McMath.” When I confronted her, Mom gave me a photograph of Eric Knight, aka Evelyn Prescott, explaining him as my father from the Island of Barbados. Subsequently, Rochester Terry adopted me before they later divorced. I wondered about Knight, but never pursued it.

Hugs, emotional support, celebrations, and building self-esteem were absent as I was growing up. I wondered why in conversations with her. She responded, “Babies need hugs and kisses.” Instead of affection, my mother provided necessities.

Mom’s work history reflected steady growth–Star Gloves, American Motors, and finally retiring from Milwaukee County. She traveled in America and abroad to Hawaii, Haiti, and Jerusalem. Remarkably, at 80 years old and tiring of repeated hospital trips, she became a vegetarian after asking me how I stayed well. Juicing carrots and celery daily, for her remaining years, she was only sick once following a flu shot.

Finally clearing out that off-limits closet, I was privileged to discover another piece to my life’s puzzle: Mom’s divorce certificate from someone named Casey, over a year after my birth. I had heard her reference that marriage, but not in relationship to me. Before her transition, she recently claimed that the closet had “haints” in it. It appears, for her, it did.

Often, Mom bought artwork from my art exhibitions. That ‘closet’ discovery helps me to comprehend her purchase of my mixed media creation, If You Are Enslaved to A Secret Lie, The Truth Will Set You Free. Thankful that she provided channels of good in my life, I gradually began, after her transition, accepting whatever her situation was and our subsequent relationship. Financially, she was proud that she had my back, by supporting me when my sales waned. What I wanted from her, I learned to create. Discovering articles stressing communication as the key to affecting changed behavior; I eliminated spankings as discipline with my own children. After reading billboards questioning, “Did you hug your child today?” I began comforting by hugging and playing with them more.

Evelyn Patricia Terry, "If You Are Enslaved to a Secret Lie,” (front), 4 ½” x 4 ¼”, Paint, wood burning. Jessie Mae Terry’s art collection. Photo by Vernessa Weatherall.

Evelyn Patricia Terry, "The Truth will set you Free," (back). 4 ½” x 4 ¼”, Paint, wood burning. Jessie Mae Terry’s art collection. Photo by Vernessa Weatherall.

Now, my channels for nurturing expand, flowing to my grandchildren and my friends. I surround myself with nurturing people–many who hug automatically, almost the moment they see me. So. I hug more, have one more answer and keep those wretched “haints” at bay.

Contact: Evelyn Patricia Terry
I will be exhibiting at Lincoln Center of the Arts, 820 East Knapp, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with studio partners Ras `Ammar Nsoroma and Laura Easey-Jones, Friday, June 10, 12 noon–9 pm. The exhibition is organized by Laura Easey-Jones. Visit evelynpatriciaterry.com/news for additional information.

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