Sunday, February 2, 2014

George and Martha: Reflections on my Mother's Storytelling

Martha loved to look into the mirror
Today the blogger and extraordinarly talented therapist Martha Crawford wrote about the perils and gifts of mirrors. You should spend some time reading and sitting with her writing. Each post slowly reveals itself to you over time and becomes a little jewel of thought.

When I was young, my mother would endlessly read (complete with theatrical voices) to satisfy my voracious appetite for stories. It's hard to tell who had more fun.

Among my favorites were James Marshall's books about George and Martha, two hippopotami with a complicated relationship. Each story came complete with a lesson of how to deal with the vicissitudes of friendships. Hippopotami, you see, often come into conflict when they don't meet each others needs or have trouble seeing the same situation eye-to-eye.

In one particular story, The Mirror, Martha was shown to be a hippo who was entranced with her own image in her mirror. In fact, she would wake up in the middle of the night and gaze at her beautiful reflection. She'd giggle about how fun it was to see and appreciate herself.

I can totally understand why Martha liked looking at her reflection. Look at that soft gray skin, those pearly white button teeth, and how that tasteful matching bow and tulip brings out the shape of her nostrils. She's down right adorable. Why shouldn't she appreciate her own reflection?

Perhaps Martha was having a vanity crisis and needed a little extra validation? I'm not sure. If she was my friend I would have been sure to tell her how much I appreciated her.

Anyway, George got a little annoyed with all this mirror gazing (perhaps he wanted to be seen too, we'll never know as that action took place off the page). He devised himself a clever little plan to teach Martha a lesson.

George snuck into Martha's room during a rare moment she wasn't gazing at herself and tapped a grotesque picture over her mirror. Martha gasped when she saw the reflection.

How could Martha not have been horrified at such an image? She cried out over her grotesque image wanting to know what has happened to her. George, being the rascal that he was, said this is what happens to us when we spend too much time looking at our reflection in the mirror. Having learned her lesson, Martha made the vow never to look at herself in the mirror again.

As an adult I've learned that mirrors are much more complicated technology. Sometimes I look into them and see imperfections, other times I see distortions, and still other times I see a self-aggrandized view of my own handsome good looks.

Crawford writes in her blog that "the first literal and metaphorical mirror we encounter is the gleam in the mother's eye." My mother likes to tell the story that when I was young I was always sit backward in my stroller to look at her. I couldn't begin to imagine what my experience was. Perhaps I saw her, or found comfort in seeing a familiar and reassuring face, or maybe it was that I saw myself reflected back and was comforted by my own image?

I suspect Martha the hippopotamus was lost in her own funhouse mirror of reflections. I'd like to think that through George's practical joke, Martha was able to shake herself loose from those distortions and help her see something more important: how she could see herself through her impact on those around her.

Mirrors aren't so bad. It's just they are complicated and we are never really sure what is looking back at us. The mirror is a great place to start looking if you are looking for change.


  1. You've managed to write a post that has evoked an avalanche of wonderful memories of your long ago childhood & my equally long ago young motherhood. You may or may not recall that the George and Martha stories were MY favorite books & I never tired of reading them. There was not the plethora of good children's books that are available today back when you were little, so I loved the George & Martha stories because they had something important to say about friendship--& life--in a most delightful way. I was beyond pleased that both you & your sister enjoyed the stories almost as much as I did. If the truth be told, I was probably the one who had the most fun reading them!
    The image of you turned around in your stroller is probably my favorite memory of you as a little one. Strollers back in that day faced forward, there were "leg holes" as well as a belt that went across the child's waist & there was little wiggle room so it required a considerable amount of ingenuity & determination to turn around. As I recall, you would slide one of your little legs under the other & sit sideways which couldn't have been very comfortable. Most often our walks took place when you were a year old when we walked to school to pick your sister up from kindergarten. It was about a 20 minute walk & we would carry on a "conversation" all the way there. I would do all the actual talking but you carried on what can only be described as a primarily wordless conversation with your eyes fixed on me & your extremely expressive & responsive facial expressions. You would interject a single word utterance here & there to keep the conversation going & we remained engaged in a very interactive, non-stop conversation during the entire duration of the walk. Perhaps this is when & how you learned the fine art of true presence & active listening that makes you such a skillful psychologist now. I'd like to think so.

    1. I have read this interaction through good tears, the ones that fill my eyes when it is safe to be in touch with the vulnerable. Thank you <3