Life Study: My Mother, S. and Me

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brassai-theredlist

I am fascinated with the tall windows behind his large head. They are curved at the top. Arched is the correct adjective, my mother would have said after a barely discernible sniff, as if the wrong word carried a slight odor to it. But these are three in a row and more elegant than most, multi-paned. Trees are sectioned as if in stages of design. I like to study them as he studies me. But it is the light that finds me at last and then I am dazzled, unlocked.

I look at him then. His glasses have the barest of frames so appear to be windows, too, balanced before often unblinking eyes. I think of him as Captain Sorensen, but have never told him that. Since the name hails from Norway or Denmark, he may well have ancestors who sailed big ships. Instead of near water, though, we are landlocked in a small university town. He teaches psychology twice a week and otherwise does this–sorting out people’s lives–for a living. Listens to people like me.

“I took a walk, and ended up at the floral shop this morning,” I tell him. “To get flowers, as you suggested. I came away with dried lavender; that seemed enough. I don’t want to get in the habit of planting flowers in a vase on my dining table. It seems extravagant. You know I dislike extravagance for its own sake. I prefer the spareness of my rooms. I like the light to land on floor and walls as if on an empty stage.”

He tilts his head and a silvery mop of hair rustles out of place. I wonder why he doesn’t get regular haircuts, if his wife prefers it that way or he just doesn’t care. Perhaps both. I touch my own hair at the nape of my neck; it just curves over my shirt collar. I need a trim.

“You know by now that I love authentic beauty. But beauty tends to fade if you take it out of its natural environment. And I feel an absence of clutter in a human life renders the truth of beauty more vivid. In nature, more can be more and it all works well; I do study it. But a bundle lavender in a ceramic vase is good.”

I know he is waiting to hear more of what I managed over the week-end. Did I meet with a friend? Did I leave the apartment at all before Sunday night? Or did I try to paint, sitting there for hours on end? Feeling mad.

“Renders truth more vividly… ?”

He does that a lot, what I call parroting or parroting plus something else . It would be annoying in anyone but Captain –okay, Dr.– Sorensen is doing what he was taught in order to encourage me to spill my concerns. I would tell him things, anyway. It’s less forbidding in the coolness of his large, high-ceilinged office, his leather chair across from mine as if we are equals having a pleasant chat. Such a reasonable tableau, I think, though rather obvious. And he looks his part. Do I, I wonder?

“Well, renders more of beauty, is what I said but yes. Truth. It requires clarity, doesn’t it? How can I discover any thing when distracted by too much pressing around me? Painting is a miracle of light and color that seeks the canvas. I need little else. Well, it used to be that way until Mother died. Now the place can feel…too open. A surfeit of blankness.”

“Ah.”

“I’ve thought of it all more, finally. Her. The gaps in my memory and then sudden recollections. The hallway where we hung our coats, a low shelf for damp or dirty shoes with slippers handy if needed, and that brass umbrella stand. Then the room just to the right. It was a sitting room. It was too formal to be any else, really, but that is where she met people just as if it was still the nineteenth century, standing on formality as ever. The house, yes, but why did she cling to the past so? And it had such objects in it, all the porcelain bowls and showy flowers in heavy cut crystal, small statues and overwrought furniture. If a fire was lit it was finally suffocating, I don’t know how anyone could bear being there for long. Maybe that was the point. She kept most people at a distance, in their places.”

The good Captain is looking at me but it feels less like attention, more like probing.

“And you?”

“Yes, me, too, sometimes. I didn’t know differently, it was how things were. Father was gone most of the time. I think of him as a benign visitor, really.” I take in a sudden breath as his face floats into mind’s view. Face gaunt and lined, a slightly bulbous nose, eyes sharp and intelligent but so bleary from all work he did in too many countries. “A nice man who was full of small admonishments: remain studious, make him proud, get adequate exercise and rest.” I look toward the windows again as light illuminates dust. Fairy dust, Greta had called it with eyebrows raised. “He was an adviser more than a father, unlike Mother who not only oversaw things but tended us well in her fashion. Or perhaps that is what fathers are meant to do.”

“And your mother…”

“You know–she was important, as well. She oversaw committees, on various boards. She was a docent of the art museum. The last being a good thing; I got to go any time for free. Mother made things happen in town. And my brother and I entertained ourselves. Greta and Mary were running things in the crucial sense.”

“The nanny and cook.”

“Yes. Long gone, as well, who knows where.” I glance back at him as I consider my next words. “Look, there is something I have to say for once that is important.”

“What you say is always important.”

I put up my hand. “We both know I spend a lot of time intellectualizing about things, nice tidy boxes. Her death is not yet easily approached. So I waste a lot of time while you are obligated–paid–to steer me in right directions, so here we are again on a Monday morning. My mother is the point at which we ever return. She died. I am left numb, perhaps stunned. But today I need to tell you about the picture.”

Dr. Sorensen’s eyes widen in curiosity despite his skill at remaining mostly unreadable.

“My brother, Ernst, sent me a photograph. A few, actually. Only one interests me right now. He’s cleaning out things he got from her house, and is moving to Ecuador soon–did I tell you that?” I study a few branches of deciduous trees beyond the windows, imagining sunshine warming bark despite chilled winds that still swept over all. I often paint tree-like forms– always natural forms, rarely humanoid.” But this particular photograph…”

“It means something.”

“Yes.” I anchor myself in the moment and know he’ll appreciate what I offer. “It is taken perhaps in the forties, at the end of the war. I’m guessing… but it’s my mother standing at the end of an alley, in a foreign city–it simply appears foreign, how can I know? And there’s a man, in suit and hat. His hand is at her back.”

“Your father? Or was that before they met?”

I lean back into the smooth mold of the caramel colored chair. “I’m not sure. They didn’t reminisce. But it isn’t our father, no. There is this bold light above–it seems nearly evening. strangely hard to be certain– and behind, outlining their bodies, profiles.”

“Ah. And what do you interpret from it all?”

“They’re…kind of smiling.” I plow my hand though short bangs. over the top and back of my head. I am starting to get a headache, need air. “They look pleased to be there; she looks, I would say, happy…lovely. The photographer, Brassai, became famous; he was mostly around and about Paris. So it was likely France–or elsewhere. She studied abroad, traveled a great deal as a young woman. And yet I do wonder when and where it was.”

Captain Sorensen of my psychological fate seems suitably taken aback. He has waited for weeks for me to speak of something that can unlock more, that will turn the tide of my mindless melancholy. I have felt swamped by life yet at a loss for what usefulness. I am an artist, that is the one thing I know, but have stared at a blank canvas every day for three months.

He leans forward, hands folded between his knees.

“So, your mother had a somewhat curious past.”

I nod, then lower my head, press fingertips to eyelids and stave off a sweep of dizziness. It passes quickly.

“But my mother and that man–seeming so…cozy? Not at all like her.”

I shake my head to clear it. The sun has come out strongly now, billows in the room, and dark expensive furniture seems to lighten in both hue and heft. “I’m going to go home now. I need to look at my paints and smell the lavender.”

“Time’s up, in any case. Are you feeling well enough to walk home?”

“Yes, I’m quite alright, just tired. Until next week.” I rise with a fluid and careful movement, pick up my backpack, nod at him, exit.

He is watching me depart, I know. He told me once I appear and leave rather abruptly. Not the first time that’s been said. But this time I feel as if too much is left in that room, as if the information has divided and now part of it is owned by Dr. Captain Sorensen. As if who I am along with my feelings left a residue. I am not much at ease with this. I want the photograph and what it means to open carefully, entirely in my particular reality. Alone.

******

The canvas, four by four, mocks me at first.  Paint tubes and palettes are on the drawing table to my right. Brushes in the large blue jar on a black lacquer tray atop the ancient brocade ottoman. I am perched on a paint-dripped wooden stool, toes caught behind the second rung. There is a steak of white that barely registers on the stretched and primed surface. I have mixed a greyish-purplish tint; my brush in hand hovers in the air. I have for some time preferred black and white and ivory with gradations of same. The paintings have sold well enough for me. I have a solo show in two months, little to put in it.

These velvety shadow shapes take over yet they also resist being painted. Or I resist. I know the painting will somehow yield to my mother’s gauzy, hidden life, the unexpected part trying to make itself known. The one I never expected and that Ernst insists he always suspected.

We talked earlier. Ernst had called me.

“She was rather too amenable regarding Father. It didn’t make much sense but perhaps it was their way, the culture. He must have been difficult to live with; he was rarely there and when he was, forever thinking of diplomatic work, of colleagues, of minute health concerns. He seemed to forget her more often than not. Us, for that matter. How could she not care more about that? It didn’t fit together, add up, her unruffled surface and such success despite cracks that must have appeared in such a facade, even if unknown to most.”

Being older, being a mathematician, he always weighed things better than I although we end up talking in similar ways–perhaps because we had just one another for playmates for so long. But it wasn’t a jolt to him to find the photograph, to turn it over and see our mother’s handwriting: With S. while visiting Eva and Ott.

“But did she even know Father then?”

“Must have.” He cleared his throat delicately.” I think I know who he is.”

“What? Who?”

“I knew Stefan, of course. Didn’t you? The man who met them when Dad was at the Sorbonne?”

“Sorbonne?” My head swam again. “Oh, he studied there a very short time, way before we were around. I had forgotten that. They later lived in the U.S, of course, and I forget all the places they were before that. But what about this Stefan?”

“Maybe you weren’t born…well, I would have been seven or eight. You would’ve been two. He stayed awhile when he came, I recall. They played cards, talked interminably…liked drinking wine til late.”

“How on earth would you recall all that–you were so young.”

Ernst was silent, as if reliving a moment. “Because I have a good memory and I snooped about. And he was the first to try to teach me chess. Uncle Stefan, I called him.”

“Oh, I thought Father taught you.”

“Father did teach me after he realized I was capable of learning. But Uncle Stefan encouraged me enthusiastically. And then it seems he wasn’t around much, by the time I was perhaps ten, when I was getting a good at the game.”

“I didn’t have the fortitude to compete with you.”

He laughed his quiet laugh. “True. You were also too busy crafting pretty books or set designs for your funny plays, anyway. We each had our own passions even then.”

I smiled though he couldn’t see me. He had long lived in San Francisco; I, an hour out from Chicago. “Oh–was I funny then or are you mocking childish creative impulses?”

“Sometimes you were, Isabel, you still show a glimmer when you emerge from that notorious self-absorption.”

I said nothing to that, then asked that he email me anything else he recalled from those days.

“I mean, what if it wasn’t Stefan but someone else? Do you recall what he looked like?”

“Not so much, maybe, but time had passed, ten years or more. Well, something was there, however it happened or who it was…”

Now I take the paints and place the confoundment of her life and death, this ache onto the white space, smear it this way and that with fast strokes upward, outward. I think of Mother with her dourness the last ten years, how hard it was for her to see less well, then to hear smatterings of sounds. She told me she had lived longer than she’d hoped. Died at eighty-five and not too slowly. Father had preceded her by six years, a mountain car accident. She’d say Why was I left with so little to do when I never have been able to abide boredom?

She–the woman Marlene, who was my mother–was the sort of person whose presence required getting used tot: her subtle haughtiness off-putting, careful diction and measured manner of speaking formal even when she didn’t mean it to be. It was her upbringing, all that damned breeding, she complained, which circumvented efforts to be fully welcoming and welcomed more as friend than society matron. I could see her light eyes, how icy they appeared until she laughed, a glorious rush of sudden delight. She had a light, careful manner, was big-boned and yet softened by surprising padding as she aged. I have heard I resemble her.

“But you weren’t hard to know  once, everyone loved you, Marlene,” Father half-muttered under his breath.

My hand wavers in the air. I put down the brush. When did he say that, or did he say it? Was it the last year he was alive, when we gathered for Christmas? And what had been her response? I couldn’t recall. She may have laughed it off or asked if anyone needed anything else as she left to get dessert.

I continue working, a line, ripple, daub here and there, following the dancing drift of my hand. Shadows and revelations, a primordial sludge with emerging forms. All the slippery, shape-shifting paint tackling a vertical surface, at my command. The bottomless emptiness I’d felt becomes more of that slow sense of fullness I am used to feeling when painting. It has been so missed that I dare not think of it except at the periphery.

Time passes. The day’s light changes from voluminous and sheer, then broadens to alter all with a precocious golden sheen. Finally there is comes a seeping of night into day, an eking of slate blue into the clear air. Gradually veils of glimmering fall away from my world. I turn on an overhead work light, keep painting the rise and fall of what comes to me: a small part of an abstract map I now recognize as littered with a tangible lostness and foundness. Big and small deaths, with faint eruptions of renewal. New territory.

It was a rare love that once captured me and love that left me clearer if also emptied, my dear. If not for you and Ernst, what would have been left?

A tingling at the nape of my neck and I swivel on the stool, sweep the room with eyes and mind but of course, nothing, no one. It is something she’d let slip or wanted to say, now making me recall.

I feel her voice again, the measures of a slow-building andante, then a rapid allegro of speech. Echoes of her living careen into my own, right there in the small spotlight as I stand shivering. And my painting blazes at me with her startling shows of good will amid the silence of unshed tears. I cry for myself some. About what I lost before I was able to more fully accept the company of my bright, difficult, mysterious mother. And for her, what she’d had and then did not have.No one knew what she had longed for, even at the end. Until now, as I realize S. was a saving moment of joy.

I can’t imagine what this did to my father, to their marriage. But that picture: it spoke part of the truth.

******

“I have started to get up at dawn to paint a little before teaching, then go back to it later as I can manage it,” I inform Sorensen, today just Dr.

He doesn’t look or seem so much like my good Captain, just a competent therapist. Oh, I can see him on a boat alright,  thick crown of hair streaming in the wind–and think a good painting may some time reveal such elements of water and wild wind in hair with some spot of utter stillness–but it was his life and entirely apart from mine.

“Painting again, how is that for you?”

“Good. I might be on to something. Either way, it’s wonderful after three months of nothing.”

The arched windows wink in a hint of early spring light. Perhaps someone has cleaned them. The trees look ready to show off a little.

“And I thought about the photograph. About who it might be.”

“You learned more?”

“It may have been Stefan, a friend of both my parents’. But somehow I think not. I suspect it was someone different. Ernst found the picture in an envelope, taped under an ancient Federalist secretary in her storage unit. He recalls Stefan–the man taught him chess at an early age; I barely recall his name and not his presence. Yet it could be Samuel, or Silas or Siegfried, couldn’t it? We don’t know. But he looks at her with sweetness and tenderness.”

I reach for my backpack, then ease out the photograph and offer it to Dr. Sorensen. He looks closely at it a few moments, turns it over, read the back, then hands it back to me with care.

“It does appear they mattered a lot to one another.”

Relief. Not misgiving or confusion or even a deep slice of grief that has threatened me day and night for some time. Just to know that even Dr. Sorensen sees it: my mother, beaming at a man who reached for her in a way my father rarely had. Her beauty in her feeling and response, different from what I knew her to be.

“Love happened at least once. Perhaps twice. That is quite enough to know.”

The light from the windows fades as gathering clouds scuttled by. I close my eyes and then I see my childhood bedroom. Two mammoth windows arched at top, the dove grey and white silk curtains pulled back so that the outdoors was just beyond my paint-stained fingertips, there beyond my balcony. I look around and it’s like being there, enveloped by those colors, shapes, that great familiarity, inside a calm whorl of time and space.

I can smell paint and fading roses and then the heady French perfume my mother always wore.

“Isabel, dear–are you finished with that marvelous little painting yet? I want to show your father before he flies to Madrid to visit his ill second cousin, Silvestre. You may meet him one day. I hope. Now, that picture?”

I turn around. She frowns at my messiness, then she changes with a wide smile, hands held out for my art.

I once more open my eyes to meet Dr. Sorensen’s, full of intense interest.

“It’s what matters in the end, I gather. That love can happen at all in this world.”

I stand up; he stands, too. We shake hands and I say I may call him again, then pivot and head for my studio which is my particular beloved, my own crafted life. Alone. Free, for now.

 

2 thoughts on “Life Study: My Mother, S. and Me

  1. I love the way you paint the scene as you tell the stories. Here it was also a clever device to enable the young lady to struggle to get the words out – focussing on the trees outside, or the texture of the chair. It was also very clever to reveal the name of S as you did,

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