An Altered Book :: The Gift

From my notebook. June 13, 2005

It’s mother’s day. We’re sittng on the porch outside my parents’ home. There’s six of us, sitting, talking– my mom and dad, by sister and her husband, and my husband.

A house sparrow has made a nest in the painted metal sailboats that hang on the wall. She’s tucked it beneath one of the brightly painted sails. There’s a little rust here and there where the paint has worn away. I can’t see the eggs, but I know they’re in there. Small, pale blue, lightly speckled.

We’ve scared the mother off, and she sits anxiously in a nearby shrub, waiting for an opportunity to return to her nest. Sometimes she tries to make it– bravely swooping in, but then quickly darting away when someone moves an arm or speaks too loudly.

I feel sorry for this bird for her and her anxiousness. I almost want to move everyone inside so she can get back to her nest.

She tries to approach again, resting on the top of the metal mast, watching warily, but then my dad waves his arm for emphasis and she flies off again. I’m agitated, like her. I can’t follow the conversaton. I watch her watch us, waiting.

She swoops again. This time she lingers on the edge of the boat and stays, gaining confidence. She slowly works her way behind that sail and settles down into the nest. She feels safe, hidden, protected. I see her small brown eye looking towards me. But I feel better now, knowing she’s back in her nest.

Two weeks later I’m back to help take care of Mom and to look after Dad. I walk onto the porch again to check on the birds. But when I look behind the boat for the nest, I find that it’s gone.

Inside the boats are seven delicate eggs. Remnants of the nest are strewn about here and there. I wonder if an animal got to it. But then, the eggs would probably be gone.

I ask my dad if he knows what happened to the nest.

“No. I didn’t even realize it was gone. Sandie,” he says to my mom, “do you know what happend to the nest that was in among the boats?”

“Oh those messy birds! I just can’t stand it. I had to clean up that mess.”

“But honey, that was a bird’s nest,” my father says gently.

“I just don’t care. They just can’t come around and leave a mess like that!”

“Okay, mom,” I say. “It’s okay.”

This is my new mom talking– the one who’s on the edge of being a stranger to me, and I to her. She’s the one I’m trying to get to know. Old mom cherished birds. Old mom took care of three or four bird feeders hanging full of seed near every window where she could watch them. Old mom could name every bird she saw. Old mom filled hummingbird feeders with sugar water, and called her daughters over every time a hummer came near.

My old mom was heartbroken by every bird who lost its life against an unseen window. She had bird guides and binoculars always at the ready. When two house sparrows built their house foolishily and precarioulsy in the narrow porch rafters two summers ago, she didn’t even want us going outside so as not to disturb them.

This new mother is a stranger to me. I want my old mother back, the one who would have done just about anything to protect the bird’s nest in the boat.

It’s five months since that I wrote that entry. I have created an altered book and written a poem about that moment. You can find it on my web site at Found Object Assemblages :: The Gift.

32 thoughts on “An Altered Book :: The Gift

  1. karen this book is beautiful, so is the made me cry, and also gave me hope as to thinking..we always have our memories…keep all the good ones..your mom is obviously a good mother…thank you for sharing such a personal and special part of yourself and giving us a gift….you are a very special daughter…carol

  2. Karen, this was so sad but such a lovely gift you have made of this event. This happening before our very eyes, is very reminiscent of our family event currently being played out. My 33 yr. old niece Tammy, has MLD (Meta-Chromatic Leukodistrophy) she is missing Chromosome #21. She is slowly going away also.We’ve been watching this happen at a faster rate over the last two years. She is now in a nursing home with a feeding tube. So sad, and hell for my sister, her mother. We empathize with you and your family for what you are going through. But this book is wonderful to remind you not to take Life for granted. We need to treasure every day while we have them with these precious loved ones. May God Bless.


  3. Karen,

    Your blog entry is exquisite in it’s delicate handling of the altering the mind goes through with disease. The way you are able to tell the story, and the readers feel as if they are there with you, and somehow are able to insert the emotive elements as well. Well, it is just good as it gets!

    What a joy to read! And the artwork and poem that mirror the essay are equally as stunning. Thank you so much.

    Karen Shelnutt

  4. Karen,

    I loved this piece! The art, the poem and the blog touched me so much! I too miss our old mom who cherished everything about nature! You do amazing work and I am always in awe of it. Thank you for giving us something so special to treasure and cherish about Mom!



  5. Karen,

    Thank you for coming to my blog and leaving your sweet note – and for introducing me to your blog and beautiful altered books. I will spend a lot of time here, learning and enjoying.

    Your story of your mother and the birds is heart breakingly poignant. What you must be going through – I cannot imagine. After reading, I called my own daughter just to say a special I Love You, even though I had just said it an hour ago. Time is precious and so fleeting for you. God bless you.

    I’ll definitely be back!

  6. Thank you for this, Karen! My friend, Karen Shelnutt recommended it to me. I am 67 and my mother died when I was 37, but I still miss her, particularly at this season. It must be so difficult for you to absorb the changes your mother is undergoing. Your words are poignant and loving.Your mother has a wonderful daughter! Isn’t it a miracle and a blessing we have our creativity to guide us through these valleys? Your mother, as you knew her, lives on in your beautiful altered book and your poem.

  7. The Gift is a gift for all who will consider it. Beautiful beautiful words, expressions, and the illustrations… I can almost feel the same things as my dad slips away to be replaced by a stranger, and leaves me wondering- is the real dad I knew still in there? Precious memories are treasures of the heart.
    Thank you for sharing art from your heart with us.

  8. I started my first altered book last night. I was just surfing for inspiration but got more than I bargained for here. Your words touched me deeply and the book is beautiful. Thank you.

  9. What a delightful way to record your special memories of the people dearest to you especially with your mum in mind. It conveys the some of the character that your mum was as a unique person in her own right… I lost my mum when I was 33yrs old quite suddenly and although that was some years ago… I am now 46yrs old my memories of her are fond and warming. I never knew my dad until my mum died as he was always in the background, quietly supporting us all but now I do and just thinking about him as I am writing this makes me smile. I would never have known him had my mum been still around as we all chattered to her and seemed to leave my poor dad out! Now I will have memories of them both and will make an effort to have a go at a book myself as you have truly inspired me. Thanks Val xx

  10. I just wept. I was so touched by your story.

    My mom has dementia and has had it for a long while. My brother tells me that she probably won’t know me when I come home again. I think the shock of her not ‘knowing me’ will likely just kill me………I dread it.

  11. Thank you!
    I know what my next altered work will be about.
    Reading your wonderful words took me back in time.
    My mom loved and cared for all wildlife too.Especially watching the birds in her yard.
    She is now is the final stages of Alzheimers.
    I also want my mom back.I miss her so much.
    Best of luck to you and God bless.

  12. I lost my Mom after a brief, but violent and rare form of dementia just over a year ago. Your story brings back such memories. What a wonderful tribute you’ve made already to your mother. I’m sure she would be honored and proud to know that you think of her the way you do. I pray you and your family can cope and stick together through all that is to come. My best friend is also at the beginning of this with her grandmother that raised her and I know it will be a long road. May God bless you all!

  13. karen
    i read your beautiful poem and it makes me feel great that i have a wonderful aunt that can do theses amazing things i really am happy that you do these things and any time i see something new i would say i cant wait to see the next one. you really inspire me
    love you

  14. Mandie,
    Thank you so much for taking the time to write in my blog. It makes me happy to know my art inspires you, because you inspire ME! Your sweetness, strength, perseverence, and positive attitude about life are qualities I very much admire. I’m happy that you are my niece and that we can have fun together.. Love you lots, your aunt Karen.

  15. Hi Karen,
    Wow! “The Gift” touched my heart and brought tears to my eyes. My mama, too, became a “changeling” before her death four years ago yesterday. One of the last things she told me was that I looked a lot like her oldest daughter……which I am. Two months before my mother’s death, I lost my 13 year old grandson to an accidental death and desperately needed my mama’s touch. I remember laying my head on my mother’s breast, taking her hand and patting my face with it while I sobbed. I grew up on the bay in Sausalito and she, too, taught me to love and respect nature & all God’s creatures. I distinctly remember the wild birds pecking at her windows when she was late feeding them and every stray cat in town knew where she lived. I wore her cremation tag on my key chain for several years. I figured it was the last thing to touch her so I kept it near. She loved to beachcomb and collected buckets and buckets of sea glass and pottery shards over the years. I covered her metal ashes box with these shards and with symbolic ceramic tiles I made. Inside the box I’ve placed pictures of my mother and me and our “stories”. I plan to give the box to my only granddaughter when she’s older so she’ll know some of the history of the women in her family. I never had that luxury and have had to piece together my family history as best I could which I’m sure has involved a bit of confabulation, wishful thinking and gapping holes. To help deal with my grandson’s death I named a star for him in the constellation Orion the first Christmas he went missing. Then I mosaiced a memorial bench made with my handmade tiles that his classmates helped me install in front of the school library in Guerneville the day before their 8th grade graduation. These acts of creation helped me greatly in dealing with the loss of two of the people I loved most in this world. Thanks again for sharing your love and loss with us.
    Katie “Princess Papoola”

  16. Karen,

    I loved reading all of the lovely comments! I am deeply touched by your willingness to share your mom’s story and how your relationship changed and evolved through her disease.

    You created a perfect tribute to her and to your LOVE FOR HER!

    I know in my heart that, like my own father, she is now whole again both physically & mentally and cherishes this “gift” just as if you’d given it to her.

    Your GORGEOUS book has inspired me to begin again. Two years ago, after my dad died (parkinson’s & dementia with leweybodies), I bought a vintage brass (cigarette case?) box and toyed with the idea of making an accordian book to fit inside. I needed a push from this “fresh approach” to finally honor my precious dad! Thank you! – vicki xo

  17. I agree with you, Vicki, the comments here are amazing. Isn’t it wonderful that we can share our experiences, sadnesses and joys with one another this way.

  18. Karen,

    I am very impressed with your website and blog. I am into Victorian art and would like to develop and use some on my website.

    I assume you must be an artist.


  19. I too lost my Mom to Alzheimer’s, in 2004. My brother and I took care of her for 5 and a half years. I wrote about it all along. I was telling a friend about wanting to put the writings in some form … a book, a play, a movie, what? She mentioned an altered book. What’s that, I asked. I googled it and found you! You with the same experience. Feel free to visit my blog “Helen’s Girl” that you can find by following a sort of “rabbit hole” on my website – a brain icon. It’s about my Mom’s decline. I’m inspired to create an altered book. As a writer and artist it feels like the perfect form for this story. I look forward to exploring this medium. I am grateful to have found your beautiful work and a kindred spirit who knows the experience of losing a precious mother bit by bit.

  20. Karen, When I first glanced at the photo of your mother I somehow knew or felt your connection to her and that she had left you with a heartful of memories, that you were meant to share. As I read of your experience, I could feel the warm tears roll down my cheeks, my heart was with you as you mourned for your mother.Rest assured, she lives on… within the hearts of all who cherish the soul of us all. My mother is with us still and I am so aware of the difficulty, and prayers that are so deep within us when we feel so helpless to make things better for those we love. Thank You for sharing so much with us all. Sincerely, Sharon

  21. I know how you felt at the sight of the strange new mother. I too, lost my precious mother to the ages. She suffered a great deal of pain and was so much in pain that it was never relieved until the hospice Compassionate Hands came in with their morphine. After months of dementia and illness, surgery and neglect by the medical community, she passed away to Heaven. Her belief in Christ that she gave me, kept us through it. The hospice nurses medicated her into a coma and then they didn’t give her IV or Lasiks. She was gone in a very short time and I still feel as if I allowed them to euthanize her… what a nightmare. She was dying yes, but I still feel as if they hastend it… I know I did my best, but it seems so wrong the way they treated her. I know that there are many more and much worse stories of hospice. I feel as if the most beautiful, harmless person on earth was just quenched in her helplessness. Good that I have Christ. He promises that I will be with her again. He is our mediator, and the one with all authority. He conquered death and the grave.

  22. Karen , I cannot begin to say how much this whole article moved me; with inner stillness and outer tears. The tears were of the complete beauty in the photo, in the book and the time taken , in your words but mostly in the love that this piece is so carefully wrapped it.
    There is so much to learn from this one page.
    I am sure I will visit it again…
    with respect

  23. I just happened on your altered book site. My eye caught the story of your mother. When I read about your mama, it was as though you were writing my story. Im so sorry about your mama, I know how different they become. Thanks for sharing, it makes this heaviness not so heavy knowing that someone else understands.

    God Bless You,

  24. I was touched by your story about your mum and how you felt as her health declined. Dementia is a horrible thing to experience in your family. I had the privilege of working with Dementia clients for nearly five years. It was the most rewarding job I have ever had. These are wonderful people and I always had the feeling that there was this part of them which was aware and never changed who they were as a person despite the loss of memory. I watch as families struggled with the changes…some better than others…some simply could not cope and it was not our place to judge if they could not face visiting this person who had in their eyes become someone else. It’s hard to loose someone that you love at the best of times let alone to something which erases their memory of you or tends to make them confuse you with another person/family member. It makes no difference that you know that there is no coming back from dementia….or how prepared you think you are for that final day…it is still a shock, it still breaks your heart. I felt privileged to sit with those who were passing. I felt for the families trying to come to grips with those final hours. We never let someone die on their own there was always a staff member there if family could not be present. We read to them, sang to them and held their hand…hearing is the last to go. Our facility had a no resusitation policy and families of clients coming in were made aware of that. I feel for reply’Feburary 2009′ who felt her mother was euthenised and not given a drip etc. I wonder if she realises how much longer her mother would have suffered despite the morphine which she feels hastened her death. I watched my sister die from Bowel cancer and how her pain was managed … left much to be desired. Surely it is better to have someone slip quietly away than prolong that life of agony because we ourselves are not ready to let go. Some years ago my sisters and I made the decision to turn of the life support of our wonderful mother…it was heart breaking but we knew her wishes. We knew that the quality of life the Doctors felt was ‘good’ enough….if she should survive after this was simply not good enough and not what she would have wanted. Much as we were distraught at having to make that decision I know now from the experiences I have with the dying elderly that it was the right thing. My mother was a christian too and I know she is at rest until christ returns for those who have loved him.

    I am an artist myself and have been exploring my own family history of ‘resemblence’ through drawing. I loved your book and just love drawing the elderly. I hope to make a difference with my art to the ignorance that is out there in society regarding dementia, altzeimers and aging in general.

  25. Thank you for sharing your most wonderful Mom!
    Know that your Mother’s spirit has affected me now in a beautiful way. I will be sharing Her with my grown children now.I just know they will be delighted!
    Both you and your Mother have inspired me.
    Peace be with you,
    Carl J. Humphreys Sr.
    P.S.My wife’Wanda’had a brain tumor removed about three years ago. She is not exactly the same girl as she was,but there is joy and satisfaction to be found in helping her with the things she has trouble with now.

  26. I was seeing how some women are making art journals using the altered books idea and thought I would type in Gesso so see if I could learn more about the process and if they actually used the gesso as the glue to adhere 3-4 pages together to have a substantial piece to paint and create on. This altered book of yours is leaving me speechless and an ache in my heart for you. There is something to be said about mothers, mothering. There is no one in my life that will ever love me or know me as my mother. In watching my children grow into adults and learning to mother in new ways I find I am learning about the woman she is and the woman I am…… its profound.

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