Santa Barbara poet Mary Freericks paints poignant picture of growing up in Iran
On the wall of poet and artist Mary Freericks’ Santa Barbara apartment there is a painting she calls “Cheer for Freedom.” The pastel watercolor depicts six female figures, one atop the other, each with raised hands supporting the feet of the person above — similar to cheerleaders forming a human pyramid.
The painting depicts successive generations of women from her family and not only tells a story of interconnectedness but of transition. It also serves as a poignant metaphor for Mrs. Freericks’ recently released poetry book, “Cheer for Freedom.”
“The painting is of my relatives,” Mrs. Freericks told the News-Press during a recent visit to her home. “I was born in Iran to a Russian mother and Armenian father. I came to the United States as a child and my sons and their children were born here in America.”
“My Armenian great-grandmother is at the bottom and my granddaughter, Rachel Marie, is at the top. The painting is in the book and is next to the poem “Cheer for Freedom,” which is the story of my family and my ancestors and our journey.”
“Cheer for Freedom” is Mrs. Freericks’ second book of poetry, following her 2018 release “Blue Watermelon,” and was self-published earlier this year. The 97-page book features 65 poems that are accompanied by nine reproductions of her watercolor paintings. The words and images combine to tell a vivid story of one family’s journey from the Middle East to America.
“I started painting my family about 10 years ago, but I have been writing poetry since the 1980s when I attended Columbia University for my MFA,” Mrs. Freericks said. “I tried oil painting years ago when my kids were little, but that didn’t really work because I would have to stop when they woke up. When I moved to Santa Barbara after my husband died in 1989, I started studying watercolor at Adult Ed.
“I started doing watercolors of my family and thought I would like to combine them in a book of poetry and art since they are so connected. There are stories about my family in Iran, but it then goes through my life as it developed in America to what’s happening in this country now.”
Mrs. Freericks was born in Tabriz, Iran, and lived at various times in Tabriz and Tehran, where her mother was an artist and her father worked in the Persian rug business. When her father died not long after the end of World War II, her mother decided to take Mrs. Freericks, who was 11 years old at the time, and her brothers to the United States.
“It would have been rough for my mother to have stayed in Iran,” said Mrs. Freericks. “The uncles on my father’s side — the Armenians — were already here. They were in Westchester (County) and New York City, so they divided us between the families. My brothers went to Westchester and I went to Manhattan with my mother and became a New Yorker. My mother would take me to all the art museums; it was so wonderful.”
Mrs. Freericks went to school in Manhattan before attending Beaver College in Jenkintown, Pa., where she graduated in the late 1950s with a degree in English and history. After establishing a career in teaching, Mrs. Freericks began writing children’s books once she got married and started a family in New Jersey. While attending a local writing group, Mrs. Freericks was reintroduced to poetry.
“I wrote a piece about summer at a writing group and the people there said that it was actually a poem,” Mrs. Freericks recalled. “I thought, ?Really?,’ because when I wrote my first poem in Beaver College it was a sonnet and had to rhyme, which was very tough for me because English was my fourth language. But after writing the poem, I started attending poetry groups and took workshops on Martha’s Vineyard with people like Galway Kinnell.”
In the 1980s, with her children in graduate school and her husband working, Mrs. Freericks decided to study poetry through Columbia College. She graduated in 1989 with a Master of Fine Arts degree. Not long after her husband’s death that same year, Mrs. Freericks moved to Santa Barbara, where one of her sons was residing while attending UCSB.
“Cheer for Freedom” is a collection of powerful vignettes of Mrs. Freericks’ remarkable journey from a childhood spent in Iran to her immigration and life in America.
“People ask me about what it was like in Iran all the time, especially with what’s going on now,” Mrs. Freericks said. “I was pretty young, so my experiences there were through the eyes of a child. We had a big house with a garden and fish pond and servants. Life was really pretty cozy there, but then my father became ill and they didn’t really know what it was. We went to Babolsar, which is on the sea, in the hope that he would get better. But he got worse and they took him to Tehran and he died soon after.”
There are stories about everything from living in Tabriz during the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran and the bombing of the city and staying in a Babolsar pension, or guest house, on the edge of the Caspian Sea to her foggy arrival by ship in Boston Harbor and the life she created in America. “Cheer for Freedom” takes the reader through a world of wonder and resilience, all the while striving for a better future while honoring the past.
“People who have read the book have said to me that they don’t value freedom the way I do,” said Mrs. Freericks, who is working on a third work of poetry. “I have been through not being free, but here we are again with freedom around the world being threatened more and more. It’s important to value things so you don’t lose them.”