|The bookshelf in my quarters with photos and etchings of family.|
The portrait of my mother, dead for 11 years now to this very day, arrived by international express over two months ago.
I still haven’t unpacked the painting. The crate in which it arrived is propped up on a shelf and towers among framed photographs and etchings of family. My father, my three siblings, my mother’s grand-father, my daughter, nieces and nephews. And now, though still encased, my mother.
Why did I spend months and insane money to have the portrait shipped from my brother’s basement in Germany to my home here in Vermont only to leave her there on the shelf, delivered and signed for but still sealed? Here I sit, writing this, staring at that wooden box from which her tell-tale heart still beats loudly.
During the ascendency of my mother’s halcyon period -- her thirties -- about a decade before her incessant rage forever eroded the last headlands of her happiness, she had her portrait painted. It was an oil by the Russian artist Arbit Blatas who, back then in 1957 was, according to my father, so poor he had to settle his tab at The Russian Tea Room (where he practically lived) by painting a mural for the place.
That my mother’s portrait was painted by Blatas is true, but the rest of that story, a mural in exchange for biscuits, as with many stories by my father, may be more infused with apocryphal romanticism than truth. Was it truth that the portrait was a wedding gift to my mother and father? Knowing my mother’s charisma and her predilections, it is possible that Blatas painted the portrait more as a memento of moments passed.
I don’t remember the portrait. I have vague and time-fogged memories of reddish hues, but that’s all. I don’t remember where it hung in our apartment on Riverside Drive where we lived until I was six. I don’t remember where it hung in our four-story brownstone on East 61st Street where we lived until I was ten.
After the meltdown of my parents’ marriage, my mother returned to Germany by ocean liner with us four children in steerage. We lived in Wiesbaden, which was, back then, in West Germany. At first we lived in a house, but then economics moved us across town into an 1850s bleakly-grey, stucco apartment building which had been converted from its original design as a hospital. All of our rooms branched off a long corridor. The front door was at a right angle off the end of that endless corridor. Every time we walked our way to the front door, we walked toward the portrait of our mother. Like a sentry, the portrait commanded a view of all who came and went; of all movement from room to room.
Life in Germany became an unfiltered exposure to my mother. While Robert Frost had a “lover’s quarrel with the world,” my mother’s engagement with the world was tooth and claw. She would pendulum between drunken emotive slurring of poetry to violent outbursts of physical rage. Between the two extremes, she cooked us gourmet meals every day, orchestrated the most magical holidays, took us to every castle within a two-hour drive of Wiesbaden, wrote and performed plays with us, knitted us sweaters, and encouraged us to be the best at whatever we chose to do in life. As long as it was something noble. And worthy of our ancestry of famous artists and scientists, including the likes of Fanny Mendelssohn and Emil du Bois Reymond.
She made new friends in Germany. It wasn’t quite the same as back in New York when she threw cocktail parties to surround herself with chefs, musicians, artists, and her darling, intellectual ex-pat Jews. In Wiesbaden, with the skeletal structure of her pathos now showing through, the new friends didn’t stick around for too long. The compassionate stayed for a while. The curious, a bit longer. It was only the displaced and marginalized who seemed to cling to her with the passion of disciples.
During that time, she came to be friends with a couple of whom the wife was a painter of local renown, Lena Ulbricht Zirn. Lena’s name was as close to my mother’s name, Lona, as their two personalities were to each other. Both bold women. Both intelligent. Both vulnerable yet belligerent. For once, it seemed, my mother had found a companion.
In time, Lena talked my mother into having a new portrait done. And, most stunningly to all: that this portrait should be painted over the prior one.
How I wish I could travel back in time to follow how that happened. From what first snide remarks about the Blatas work did Lena proceed, over weeks or months, to convince my mother to have it obliterated? I can imagine Lena might have introduced the thought that holding on to the Blatas painting, which was, after all, a wedding gift, was a form of Lona’s refusal to accept the loss of her marriage. Perhaps she convinced her that a new portrait would be a symbolic new turning point in her life.
I can’t help but wonder to what extent ego was an imp in Lena’s mind. Was there some element of competitive conceit in wanting to paint over the work of a better-known artist?
What Lena produced was shocking. It was hard to look at and yet hard to turn away from. No one could deny that what Lena had painted had captured Lona so much more personally and accurately than the Blatas portrait.
What Lena had captured, and what was so horrifyingly brilliant to see so starkly displayed, was Lona’s pathos. Her sadness. Her fatigue with the world which was supposed to be her lover. The portrait was Lona at her most tragic self. She sits with her elbow propped, her hand supporting a weary head with an expression that is somewhere between resignation and her first drink of the day. The colors of her skin are greys, ash, yellows, and hints of orange. Her face is gaunt. Only the kaftan my mother is wearing has colors, though even they are muted. They are the reddish hues of the Blatas, Lena said. She had wanted to pay some tribute to him.
|Lona du Bois Reymond. A photo of the portrait taken before shipping.|
This was not a portrait. This was a statement. This was a brutal biography. There wasn’t a single brushstroke of flattery.
The painting became Topic A. Why had Lena done such a thing? What was she trying to say? Was this one-upmanship in who could be a bolder person: the portrayed or the painter?
In a way, Lena had indeed outdone Blatas. His portrait had never garnered anything more than just a curious tilt of the head. But perhaps Lena had more to work with than he had. Perhaps all he had to work with then was hope. And hope is so much harder to portray than defeat.
The piece was so provocative that rumors began to fill the vacuum created by so many questions about Lena’s mindset. It was said that the painting might be tinged with revenge. Perhaps Lena sensed my mother’s appetite for flirtation and the shunning of convention. And perhaps Lena felt my mother’s doting on Lena’s husband was more than just innocent indulgence.
It will tell you a lot about who my mother was that us four kids heard this speculation from my mother herself. It will tell you a lot about her that she smiled when she revealed this speculation to us.
And so, while we thought that perhaps the portrait would find its place on the wall in some dark corner of the apartment, we were surprised to see it hung in a place of prominence as a sentinel to all who came and went. Greeting Lena and her husband every time they came to visit. Bidding them goodnight when they left.
The most unnerving stories about my mother are those she instigated herself. Most people keep their most questionable selves veiled. My mother reveled in being an emotional exhibitionist.
That tooth and claw relationship with the world is the same way she had relationships with everyone. She wanted and forced no less than full engagement. When it came to us, her children, it exhibited itself in wanting us to give ourselves fully to her, and for us to absorb her fully, nakedly, in all her brilliance and in all her brutality.
Each of us four kids had our own way of dealing with her. My sister escaped. In the early years to the bathroom. As soon as she was 18, to a city as far away as she should get in Germany.
My older brother tried to cope by playing emotional possum. Perhaps he felt if he could endure her long enough, she would wear herself out.
My younger brother tried to appeal to her. He was the baby, and while he certainly endured his share of her wrath, he was somehow able to find a forgiving relationship to her.
I was the rebel. I resisted her. And the more I resisted, the more it would enrage her. My resistance tore our family apart. She set my siblings against me. When I was 17, she capitulated. “Go! Go live with your father! I give up!”
I moved back to America and for the next ten years, I barely spoke with either my mother or my siblings. In time, us siblings have gotten close again. Very close. We have that bond that only survivors know.
My mother and I eventually corresponded by letters somewhat regularly though cautiously. We visited every now and then. We even acknowledged deep affection for each other in ways only those of you who have mortal enemies can understand.
The sad fact is that we shared something. I wanted to love her. Everyone who knew her wanted to love her. She and I shared a passion for poetry and literature. I am a writer today because of her. She was the first person in my life to whom I could write letters with turns of wit and freedom of convoluted thought that she always got and volleyed back. We had a repartee of minds that is so rare and for which I hunger.
I don’t miss my mother. But I think about her often. I have just finished writing my first novel. In the middle of that process, I realized how challenging it was to portray the complexity of characters. I so much enjoyed that challenge. I am fascinated by people and characters whose inner most desires are in conflict with each other and yet continue to struggle for simultaneous existence. In the middle of writing my novel I realized this is because of my mother. She was the ultimate character. Bigger than life. More complex than any fictional character I could ever conceive of.
Urged on by a loved one to write about her, I have embarked on a memoir. As I have begun to sketch out scenes from her life, I have come across an unexpected element of my relationship to my mother: compassion. My mother never got to live out her life with a person who loved her and could accept her as she was.
In circling around the story of my mother’s life, I have decided to have her story be tethered by three significant loves: The young Jewish man her family hid in Berlin and who was executed in her backyard in the final days of the war, my father, and me.
I will write about the thrice-abandoned woman depicted in the twice-painted portrait.
I will open the crate in time, but right now her heart still beats a bit too loudly for me. I know what scars she left on me, but which innards of her soul did I wound?