An Artist Writes Memoir: Joan Z. Rough’s “Scattering Ashes”

Introducing Joan

I met Joan Z. Rough on Chincoteague Island in February 2015, having become blog buddies months earlier. When we met on this writers’ retreat, Joan was using the Scrivener tool to revise and edit the manuscript for a memoir of the 7-year slice of her life taking care of a terminally ill mother she had both loved and hated: a narcissistic, alcoholic woman.


Let me introduce you to Joan properly from her website “About” page:

Besides writing poetry and nonfiction, I am an artist, passionate about painting with oils and wax, collage, mixed media, photography, and sculpting French beaded flowers.  My work in photography has been exhibited throughout the nation and has found homes in numerous collections. Though retired from actively showing my work, I still take great joy in creating large, colorful works on canvas and paper and smaller encaustic paintings on wood.

When near-collapse from care-taking was imminent, Joan retreated to making colláges, furiously painting in oils, writing poetry and frantically beading, beading, beading, lovely jewelry pieces.



Click here for a poem with an autumn palette.

Her memoir Scattering Ashes launched just yesterday on September 20, 2016. This memoir resonates with healing and hope for adult children caring for burdensome parents.


My Review

Joan Zabski Rough, author of Scattering Ashes, is a painter, a poet, and photographer. She is also a memoirist who summons her artistic talent in order to lay bare her life story, particularly her complex relationship with a narcissistic, alcoholic mother suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In this memoir of letting go, the author paints a picture of the violence of her childhood and the search for solace through art, taming the dragon lady within, using bold strokes of black, yellow, and red, evident in a colláge she recalls constructing in her journey toward peace.

In Scattering Ashes, the reader observes writer Rough fighting to let go of guilt, shame, and self-doubt as she says a long goodbye to her elderly mother during seven years of caring for her in her own home, becoming a mother to her own mother. Face to face with the woman who birthed her, she is forced to confront scars of childhood that have left her feeling victimized with low self-esteem, a demon she has grappled with her entire life. As a reader in thrall to the unfolding tale of the dutiful care-taker daughter shackled to an ungrateful mother, I wanted to shout, “Stop, you’ve done enough. You are good enough. You are enough!”

Through metaphor, the artistic author vividly describes her muse: her ideal, stable family carved of marble. Then she deciphers the dilemma of her journey with travel imagery:

The crossroads I’m at is not your usual four-corners kind of deal. It’s a hub of sorts, with innumerable roads shooting off in all directions. I’m afraid I’ll choose the wrong road. I know I can’t stay where I am for long, and I certainly don’t want to go back the way I came. But where do I go? And what does it mean to be free of the burdens I’ve spent these last years carrying?

Joan Rough’s memoir begins like Picasso’s Guernica with images of violence and animosity, her home a war zone. It ends as its author promises in the book’s dedication “ . . . to all mothers and daughters who are seeking to love and forgive each other.”

I highly recommend this memoir to all who struggle to make sense of a complicated mother-daughter relationship. This true story lights the way to self-acceptance, forgiveness – and eventually, to healing.

Meet Joan on her Facebook author page

Buy her book here!   scatteringashes

Do you know Joan or someone like her? Can you relate to her struggles? her triumph?


Coming next: Aunt Ruthie Longenecker – Her Life in Pictures


What Will You Be Doing At 72?

Now you are probably thinking . . . age 72 is a long way off, or it’s just around the corner. Either way, it’s a question worth pondering.

In 1700 the average life expectancy was 37. In fact, 40 would be pushing it. Yet, in that very year Mary Granville Pendarves Delany was born and lived to be 88. More impressive is the fact that at age 72 she invented mixed media collage and eventually created “an astonishing 985 botanically correct, breathtaking cut-paper flowers, now housed in the British Museum and referred to as the Botanica Delanica.”

Image: Courtesy of Good Reads
Image: Courtesy of Good Reads

Poet Molly Peacock, author of The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany begins her life work at 72, recreates the “Aha!” moment for Mary Delany early in the book:

One afternoon in 1772 [the recently widowed Mary Delany] noticed how a piece of colored paper matched the dropped petal of a geranium. After making that vital . . . connection between paper and petal, she lifted the eighteenth-century equivalent of an X-Acto blade . . . and began to maneuver, carefully cutting the exact geranium petal shape from the scarlet paper.

Then she snipped another and another, beginning the most remarkable work of her entire life.

". . . if a rose had a round watch face" (65)
“. . . if a rose had a round watch face” (65)

Her most famous and popular image is the Damask Rose, appearing on postcards, place-mats, tea towels, and canisters. The main flower includes about 71 pieces of carefully cut papers, covering the gamut of pinks from slivers of red to blush and “under-the-finger-nail pink.”


Nodding thistle, a cousin of the dandelion, with swirling foliage

Operatic Opium Poppy
Operatic Opium Poppy

The theatrical-looking opium poppy is cut from a single green piece of paper. “The whole effect is of a kimono-like gown billowed by a breeze, like the robe of a star soloist falling down from her shoulders” upside down (118).

" . . . lines swoop and swoon with freckled energy" (141)
” . . . lines swoop and swoon with freckled energy” (141)

Mary Delany’s output was phenomenal. In 1777, the year she constructed the passion flower, she cut out her collage/mosaics at the rate of one per day, and between the ages of 77-87 creating one every four days (185).


For the passion flower, Mary Delany cut out 230 petals scissored “like little grass skirts, where the strands of grass are attached to a belt” (169). She made up her colored papers . . .  washing whole sheets of paper in varying hues. In the case of the passion flower, olive, loden, beige ivory for the leaves, and the flower rust, red, purples, deep and pale pinks, lavender. To the pigments she added gum arabic, honey, ox gall to prepare and preserve the papers. All done on a matte black background, always on dramatic black.

Mrs. Delany was born into the aristocracy with a wide circle of friends which included composer George Frederic Handel and the satirist Jonathan Swift. John Wesley even courted her. Yet her posh outer life was checkered with challenge: an arranged teen-age marriage to an aging drunken sot, problems with cash flow, at mid-life the loss of her soul-mate, Patrick Delany, a man who knew her worth, then deaths of close relatives, and finally her own illness.

Yet like her flowers, cut with a blade, not outlined by a brush, Mary Delany blazed a path for herself with a scissors, scalpel, tweezers, and needle. Combined with her imagination and gutsy determination, she made art that endures.

Age is the sum of all we do.

Charles Bulkowski, quoted by Molly Peacock (343)

The root of the word inspiration is “breath.” What activity do you do that inspires you, gives you energy?

Or takes your breath away – maybe even give you a second wind?

What will you be [still] doing at age 72?

The career of flowers differs from ours only in audibleness.

Emily Dickinson, Letters

Our conversation together is just a click away. You know I’ll always chime in!