Although she considers herself one of the luckiest people alive, Bertie Stroup Marah has experienced her share of strife. Her childhood was marked by poverty as her alcoholic parents moved from town to town in search of employment.
In her adult years she battled breast cancer and severe clinical depression. The physical pain from a neck operation, a “hellish” marriage and “a job that smothered her creativity” fueled her depression until, at the age of 42, she attempted to take her own life.
Through the turmoils of life, Bertie has been sustained by a sense of humor which buoys up every member of her family. When she and her siblings get together, they enjoy recounting the funniest stories from their lives. After one such get-together, Bertie realized that their story had to be told — it was that funny.
So the talented Cedaredge artist put down her paintbrush and began typing her memoirs. “Born With A Rusty Spoon: An Artist’s Memoir” was recently published by Plain View Press of Austin, Texas. “I think my book is sort of the lesson in how to use humor to face the difficulties of life,” Bertie said.
By reading about her experiences, Bertie also hopes that readers who are dealing with depression will realize how insidious the disease can be, how it can “get hold of your mind” until you think the only solution is suicide.
“Depression shouldn’t be tucked away in a closet and never talked about,” she says. “It’s nothing to be ashamed about. The shame is when a person doesn’t get the help they need and their family is left heartbroken. That’s the shame.
“I also hope my story helps people realize it doesn’t matter where you come from. Work hard, get off your butt, and don’t expect the government to provide for you.”
She continued, “Everyone has a gift, we’re just gifted in different ways. Cultivate the talent you’ve been born with and don’t stand around whining. Being poor is no excuse.”
And poor she was. In many of the houses and shacks her family inhabited, there was no electricity or indoor plumbing. Her father worked as a trapper, so they moved where the ranchers were paying bounties for the coyotes and bobcats that preyed on their livestock. Sometimes that meant they lived in tents. Later he got a job trapping for the government, and the moves increased in frequency.
After that marriage ended in divorce, Bertie’s mama, Bee, remarried. “Times were hard during the war,” Bertie recalls in her book. “P.G. [her stepdad] sought whatever odd jobs he could find and that meant we were always on the move.” One time the entire family picked cotton to earn some extra bucks. When they camped on the banks of the Rio Grande River they caught fish to supplement their food supply. Although money was in short supply, Bertie’s parents seemed to spend what little they had on alcohol. At times, Bertie and her siblings felt like their parents behaved “like rebellious teenagers” and they were the “anxious parents.”
“People reading the book might immediately dislike my parents because they seemed neglectful, but by the time you finish the book you know they were good people who did the best they could. I can’t see people blaming their parents for whatever they turn out to be. I choose to look at the very best traits my parents had and give them accolades for that. They didn’t allow thieving and lying; they weren’t greedy. They were just decent people who drank too much, but that didn’t mean they didn’t love us — far from that.”
Indeed, the closeness of Bertie’s family is evident throughout the book — even when they got in some rollicking fights which are guaranteed to prompt a chuckle or two. Childhood antics which have become the stuff of family legend are humorously detailed, even though they’re not always flattering to the author herself. In the opening chapter, for example, 3-year-old Bertie pees on herself deliberately in a bid for her mother’s attention.
She knew that only someone who had actually experienced the humor and the heartaches as she had could write her memoir. The result is one of the “most honest” books anyone will ever read, she says. She did check with her siblings to make sure she didn’t include anything they would find offensive, adding, “My mom is dead so I didn’t have to worry about her killing me.”
Bertie drew on her artistic talent to recreate family portraits to give readers a better sense of the many “characters” who come to life in the pages of her memoir. Most are based on black-and-white photos that Bertie came across in old family albums.
Because of a lack of supplies and instruction, Bertie didn’t seriously pursue her artistic talent until her two children were in school. “My advice to anyone who can’t afford a formal education is to take some workshops from people you really admire, then combine that with your natural talent — and don’t be afraid to take an empty sheet or an empty canvas and start filling it. That’s the most intimidating part. Heaven knows I used to throw away a lot of paintings, before I got to where I could fix them or didn’t have as many bad results.”
Bertie specializes in watercolor, usually working with a dry brush. At the peak of her career, she worked in the studio five hours a day and taught numerous workshops. Now back pain prevents her from standing over an easel for long stretches at a time . . . that plus the fact she decided to take time out to write her memoir. Now she’s into the marketing phase of publishing — doing book signings and readings at local libraries and area bookstores. Promoting the book has been a new and exciting challenge for Bertie, who overcame another challenge to learn how to use the computer so she could get her words down on paper. She employed a writing coach to help her understand how to create a story that flows in an engaging manner. But like many members of her family, she’s a great storyteller and she has an amazing memory.
She concludes her memoir with these words: “I find joy in painting all subject matter. To me, an elderly person’s wrinkles, age spots, and sagging eyelids reveal a life filled with unique experiences. Understanding this helps me feel connected to them as I try to create a truthful image that I hope will be viewed as beautiful — warts and all. I try to capture what has taken years to produce. Sort of like painting a beautiful old tree with gnarls and knots. When painting a cottonwood tree, in particular, the tiny hanging-down white branches bring to mind the beard of an old man. I paint the tree with the same respect and pleasure that I paint an old person and think of how much time it takes to produce such aged beauty.
“When I paint a child or baby, I especially love to paint their hands and feet. I can just imagine washing their tiny limbs and feeling how soft they are. It is a pleasure to reproduce on paper God’s greatest creation . . .
“When I paint water, I try to make the rocks look wet and try to imagine the sound of the water as it gurgles along. I make my brush strokes dance to the images of the noise of the rushing water. I move the brush in the same way the water swirls. Amazingly, the swirling motion works to make real looking water. The gift God gave me has enabled me to take that rusty spoon I was born with and replace it with a silver spoon of happiness, success and an appreciation for everything that has happened in my life.”
“Born With A Rusty Spoon: An Artist’s Memoir” retails for $22.95 and is available online through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Plain View Publishing, or Bertie’s website, bertiestroupmarah.com.
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