Memorial for my mom
My mother was a complicated woman, and my relationship with her was not always easy. But I loved my mother, and I know she loved me and was proud of me.
One of the very few times, in fact, that I think I ever really disappointed her was back when I was in elementary school. My class - maybe it was third or fourth grade - had had a discussion about jobs, particularly about what jobs our parents had - and if our mothers worked. Some mothers, after all, were secretaries or nurses in those days. Not mine, though.I told my class that my mother didn’t work. And I remember her reaction when I told her the same thing.
“But I’m an artist,” she said, and even my eight-year-old ears heard how hurt she was. “I’m an artist.”
The confusion, as we both came to understand, was that my mother’s art wasn’t separate from her life, the way a job in an office or a nearby hospital would have been. It wasn’t even that separate from our home. For many years, my mother used two studios to paint and sculpt and create her etchings. One big studio in the basement under my father’s office, and a little one at home – and for me, her youngest child, these were both an extension of our home life.
Those studios – the places where my mother made art – were my playrooms. In those studios, I spent after-school hours fooling around with bits of rice paper, gluing together what she’d torn up for collages. Taking the colored beach glass or feathers that she used in her assemblages for my own toys, and coloring on scraps of the thick, textured blotters that she’d use over the plates in her etching press.
My mother’s studios were where I, too, learned to experiment, and they provided a full sensory experience: In those studios, I grew up as familiar with the scents of turpentine and carbon tet as with Shake-and-Bake chicken.
And the music! My mother’s friends know of her love for classical music, for opera. But to the last she was also a fan of Billie Holiday, and would tell me of seeing Lady Day at Cafe Society Downtown in the ‘40s. But she wasn’t stuck in a time warp. In her studios, she would often have Janis Joplin playing. Bob Dylan. I first heard the Band’s “Music from Big Pink” in those rooms, as well as the Great Society and its successor, Jefferson Airplane. Anything with Grace Slick.
This was the music that my mother loved but my father had less patience for – music I grew to love, too, and which helped shape my feelings about the interconnectedness of the arts. But that interaction – that these loud, often dissonant sounds were not to be played in the house proper – also taught me something about how easily the vitality of the arts, of the artist’s life could be shunted aside - how the act of creation, the expression of the spirit could be made secondary to more mundane concerns.
My father, I believe, adored my mother, but he did not always understand her. Nor did he always appreciate her, who she was, and what she did. To some extent, I initially accepted that without thinking – that day when I told my class that my mother did not work, I was voicing something I had picked up at home. I never made that mistake again, and I know she forgave me. But I believe this was a problem my mother struggled with all her life, and it has certainly shaped me – given me a determination and an ability to perservere, and also prompted me to chose a more supportive life, a more supportive mate.
My mother was not always successful as an artist. Which of us is? And there were times, many times, that she gave in and gave up. But as recently as three weeks before her death, when she barely had the hand-eye coordination to write a legible note, she asked me for a pad and some pastels. “I don’t know if I’ll do anything,” she said. “But just in case.”
So I’d like to thank her now, and remember her for that – for her art, and for showing me the work that makes it happen. Most particularly, I’d like to thank her for her perserverance, which I hope I have built on and extended. For her eye and for all her senses, which have sharpened mine and taught me to trust my own. And for teaching me that the creations of our minds and our fancies are as valid as any workaday job.
My friends know that I often quote one couplet of the Yeats’ poem, “Adam’s Curse.” I’d like to read the entire poem now. It isn’t entirely appropriate in a literal sense, but covers many of the issues that I associate with my mother, the artist, and that I deal with still.
"We sat together at one summer's end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, "A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world."
That beautiful mild woman for whose sake
There's many a one shall find out all heartache
On finding that her voice is sweet and low
Replied, "To be born woman is to know --
Although they do not talk of it at school --
That we must labour to be beautiful."
I said, "It's certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam's fall but needs much labouring.
There have been lovers who thought love should be
So much compounded of high courtesy
That they would sigh and quote with learned looks
precedents out of beautiful old books;
Yet now it seems an idle trade enough."
We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time's waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.
I had a thought for no one's but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we'd grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon."
Thank you, Mom.