"I noticed that the farther away I could get from my mother, the more my life was improving."
This poignant memoir features a woman escaping not only a narcissistic mother but generations-old toxic family dynamics. Sikorski begins her story by going back through the last 150 years of her maternal ancestry. Her family’s history is full of the titular artists and vagabonds. Most of her relatives have been self-styled “ecclesiastical artists.” They repainted and refinished church statuary, decor, and furniture. With only so many churches in any single area, the artists had to become itinerant. They would pack their families and belongings into trailers and travel around the country.
All of this travel and vagabonding led to a series of broken families, with children being reared by extended family, acquaintances, or strangers and even left in orphanages. Regular education was impossible with such a lifestyle, and no one in the family placed importance on learning anything except the family trade. With such an idiosyncratic way of life, the family became tight-knit and only let in outsiders if they were willing to conform to these ecclesiastical artists’ patterns and behaviors.
Sikorski uses this family history to explain some of her mother’s actions and motivations throughout her life. Her mother married a weak-willed man who would join the family business and not challenge his wife’s decision-making or parenting. They had Sikorski by accident—a fact Sikorski’s mother let her know about throughout her life. The author’s mother was abusive, and her passive father and lack of consistent education left Sikorski isolated and with little succor. Fortunately for her, she developed a passion for music, and no matter where and when her family traveled, she was able to practice and hone her skills in it. Sometimes she practiced on the church organs while her parents worked. Eventually, through music, she would find a way out of her terrible family situation.
Sikorski is open and honest in her writing, unafraid to shy away from painful family history. Her memoir includes her coming of age not only amidst an unusual and abusive family but also as a lesbian in a culture that condemned homosexuality. In the 1970s and 1980s, Sikorski was a music teacher and vividly describes living in fear of her religious mother’s threats of outing her to her school. She had already lost friends and community when her church suspected that she was gay, and she was afraid of losing her job as well.
But the author’s memoir is not only about fear and rejection. For example, despite her unfriendly environment, Sikorski found acceptance and love in the gay community, which she refers to as her “real family.” She went on to become an active and prominent member of that community. In subject matter, this memoir is not unlike Jennette McCurdy’s hit I’m Glad My Mom Died. Whereas Millennial McCurdy’s struggles are still unfolding, Sikorski is a member of the Baby Boomer generation, and she has had more time to make her own peace and find closure.
While Sikorski primarily tells her story through straightforward chronological accounts of events, several chapters comprise free-verse, stream-of-consciousness poetry. These poems allow readers to understand the emotions behind what Sikorski goes through. Readers can see moments of joy and freedom in Sikorski’s life as she writes of escaping her mother’s household: “Finally, I get my own place / And job / And lovers / And life." Ultimately, in the face of all of the adversity she encounters, Sikorski perseveres, heals, and eventually thrives, reminding readers that even from the most difficult of beginnings, a brighter future is possible.
- Sarah Poulette, US Review of Books