Beginnings & Endings

Chapter 7 

 Portraits of My Mother

There is a hierarchy among the portraits of friends, lovers,  mentors, knaves, and thieves. And yes there were several of the latter. The good outweigh the bad. But oh, so many  characters!

My mother presides over this grand banquette of faces, though I should be more specific. The two portraits that represent my  mother are distinctly different. Painted a year apart, they mark her physical extremes during the cruelest period of her life.

The one that sits in state is the austere regal first portrait “Woman with Red Hands” painted in late 1963 with its Gothic background pattern added in the  autumn of 1966.  It is she who reigns over this assembly in my mind’s eye  just as she would in life reside in quiet dignity as my  accumulating paintings surrounded  her on walls and in every  closet and cupboard. She was their guardian.

It had annoyed my father while he was alive, this encroachment, and he kept it in bounds. But afterwards, my mother hosted a circulating display on every  conceivable wall; though to be sure, she would voice her objections to what was not to her liking, as she would her sorrow, when from time to time I  would give  away a work taken from her walls that she had  bonded with.

She was a real sport as most of the works were portraits.  When in the early nineties I hung over her sofa a seven foot wide painting of dried flowers from a  funeral bouquet  treated like the Santa Maria on a wind swept ocean that she got some relief from these faces; then reluctantly and gratefully allowed it sent to a  woman in L.A. who had cared  for my brother Bob after his triple bypass.

It wasn’t until then, when she had moved to her retirement  condo, and her new neighbors voiced objections to my  treating her home as an art gallery, that she  announced to me enthusiastically with new informed pride that: “This is like an art gallery!’

 That was when she was alive, but even then her image took center stage in my mind: both in this severely thin stately portrait and in the 1965 version in three -quarter profile,  painfully fleshy and introspective during the events of domestic disputes that led to a three year separation from  my father. This second portrait  was part of a much larger  painting that included my younger brother Ron with two views  and myself, a family portrait missing two members.

I  had seen the pain. After all, the whole family had to take  sides when my father threw my brother Bob out of the house. Bob was wild, undirected. My mother  defended her son against my father’s puritanical demands. But I was totally ignorant of hot flashes and other hormonal torments that ravage women of fifty or  so. I felt like a non-combatant caught in  crossfire. I suffered through her outbursts of hysteria  alternating with anger and paranoia.

 When I painted the second portrait, Bob was out of the  house, and my father retreated into silence as the family dissolved with only my mother, younger brother,  and I  remaining as a unit when we moved out of the house to an  apartment; hence, why there came to be a partial family  portrait.

 Then with my parents’ reconciliation and their move to a new  place, my father banished that painting to the basement.  Just missing a flood, the painting got taken  to New York  only to be returned after my father’s death to become the centerpiece of my mother’s home once again. It was placed  above the buffet and right behind where my mother sat at  table.

 Now, seven years after dismantling her apartment, what do I do with the painting? No one in the family has a place for it, and it cannot be rolled without disastrous  consequences to the fault line fracture down my mother’s face.

 Driving back in 1966 on the way to an unsuccessful Fulbright  submission, the rope holding it, “The burial of Christ”, and “The Jewess Accused” snapped. The  paintings sailed across  the FDR Drive like a small fleet on their way to intercept  the enemy. But miraculously they bypassed the oncoming cars.

 Aside from the chance of their being destroyed, how many  riders might have been maimed or worse in that possible debacle. Can you imagine three paintings, six  and eight feet sliding through the air silently by your car as if in slow motion! I watched the impending rout like a mother seeing  her children about to be attacked  by a bear. But the FDR Drive was astonishingly wide open during that moment of the  New York Transit strike of Christmas 1966. Everything slowed  including the traffic arriving from the distance.

 The paintings, like planes loosing control in approaching the deck of a carrier, crashed to the ground, bent in two and folded onto themselves. We slowed the car  down. I was  with Linda. I jumped out and scrambled after my mutilated paintings that looked like a blown down wash of bed sheets after a storm. It was not so  easy as they were still being  blown along the roadway. I gathered them awkwardly as best I  could, exposed as they were to another wave of light traffic  whose  passengers looked incredulously from their windows as  they passed by.

I  had no time to be in shock; that would come later. In retrospect, I was extremely lucky. The paintings though  creased, survived, thus the fracture down my mother’s face.

mabel calander copy 30
ronald at thirteen copy 17
Ma sketch  circa 1952 copy

Above sketch ca. 1952, below 2 lithos 1965

Ma litho unhappy
Ma litho brooding


linda close garden 20
Linda drawing top half


We are moved about by an invisible hand. One begins to make distinctions. There are those whose connections to us are  conspired by circumstances fulfilling a  design: call them  players. Then, there are those whose bonds with us seem made  for a deeper playfulness curving beyond our vision.  Call  that love.

 Some are meetings that bespeak of threads spun over time; sometimes only briefly passing through this life. So who was  that stranger looking at you so intently,  hesitating as if to speak, then reluctantly passing out the subway door never to be seen again. Yet you can’t quite shake off the memory:  an angel blessing you.

 About a year ago Linda Klein finally tracked me down. She found my telephone number on my website; I had been doing my  best to be unavailable. For forty years I had kept her at  arms length.

 Visiting New York in the summer of 1966, she came down to my  West 74th Street studio to see how I had painted her in “Ship of Fools” and “Rose of  Washington Square”. By then we had completed our brake, and Linda, having moved to Boston, was already dating her first husband. Ten years  later I visited them in Saint Paul. That was the last time we met.

 Back in 1966 I was left adrift. Linda, in squirrel fashion, had stuck me away, though she really didn’t plan on anything  specifically. She probably would be doing  this same tucking  away of other guys down the road. In the meantime, I needed to ripen, mature. Half-consciously, she was already waiting on the future: “You’ll look terrific when you’re forty.”

 There had never been animosity between us, though we did  softly push and prod the other, for our relationship was  based on friendship. Linda was just a seeker of  mysteries, she burrowed for souls the way thieves robbed amulets from tombs. We were to be her muse.

A  Libra, Linda was naturally flirtatious. She was both  beautiful and intelligent. She reminded me of Picasso’s last  wife, only much, much slimmer, for she had that  Spanish, low-axle body with long midriff and great toshy. Dark eyes,  dark hair, pale skin, and dark arched eyebrows completed  her. You can understand my  natural attraction to late Picasso icons of Jacqueline that borrowed images off thousand year old Byzantium sarcophaguses.

 Linda had told me to read Lawrence Durrell’s “Justine” right  before she entered a cab to go further uptown to her  mother’s. Reading that forlorn, introspective story  of unrequited love, whose jaded namesake was a dark version of  Linda, only prolonged an obsessive period that simultaneously fed my painting. So when I  needed a gentle  Mary for an annunciation in “The Oratory Mural”, it was Linda’s face once again making an appearance.

I  had forgotten how she made one accomplice to her thoughts now that we speak on the phone. On that first call, she had  off-the-cuff proposed my coming to  Brooklyn or her visiting me in Pittsburgh. I squashed that; she was not to be trusted. She pleaded only chaste intensions, and we dropped  the idea of meeting.  She’s been married to her last husband now for twenty years. His name is Rick. Both he and I said that that was just a little too close.

In any case she’s a grandmother. That completely astounds her career artist girlfriends in Brooklyn who are childless by choice. They call her an earth mother,  and I can imagine  that. But I prefer to remember her as a childlike goddess who’s pictured dancing around Shiva. How wondrously intense  were our conversations,  and how tender we were. I would just repeat to her over and over: “You’re so beautiful. You’re so beautiful.”

 Reading Durrell’s “Alexandria Quartet”, of which “Justine”  is the first of four books, was a nostalgic revelry in  vicarious clinging to the love object, a substitution  of the lost love for an even more exotic persona and story of Justine. One illusion transposed onto another- a juvenile  swamp of morose exultation. Even now in writing about it brings back an embarrassment of riches.

 Through these books Durrell becomes my mentor, and I have carried his stories about for all these years. It has become Linda’s legacy to me, though long ago it  ceased to function as the link to her, for the story of Justine’s insipid neurosis tarnished my seeing Linda in ideal light. Rather,  the whole parade of involvements  with players in different  strata of society like those of Durrell’s narrator, Darley, becomes my own story unfolding in Paris and New York.

 As the years come and go Linda recedes into the images that I made of her. These images themselves become historic icons  of my early life, like looking at  photographs from childhood in a family album with its fading memories.

Linda multiple skeches
Linda sketch 45
Linda calander copy 20

Previous Chapter    Table of Contents     Next Chapter