Sunday, May 14, 2017

Alice and Carl and Bob and Guy: Mother's Day 2017.

Word-winds are buffeting me -- my prose-urge grows daily. Thinking about my mother, for example, makes me think about her mystery: a poem won't get at it, at least not given my meager poetic gifts. She requires something approaching the clear suggestive sentences she herself spoke and wrote. I'll do my best.

I liked to believe - and I still really do believe - that the last year and a half of her life I was able and privileged to share with her -- on balance share very deeply with her -- let me in on much I hadn't registered before. I think the same thing happened for her about me. We'd sometimes sort of cock our heads at each other the way dogs do when they're trying to divine what's going on in their stewards' faces & behavior. So unexpected, so entertaining, so interesting! What is she/he thinking? We discovered we had the power to make each other sit up & notice. She told me stories I'd never heard before - not, I think, because they'd been withheld for any dark painful reasons: it was more because we'd never had this unbroken a stretch of being with each other as adults - we hadn't invited the occasion for this kind of rambling rumination, this sort of opening the side doors to memory.

One account of/in her life I'd never known until this time with her was the outcome of a story I did know. The story I knew happened when Alice Virginia Blake was a girl, not sure how 'little', somewhere between 9 and 12 maybe?, living in Brooklyn Heights - in the home of her maternal relatives (her mother had died of a combo of TB possibly brought on by the 1918 Spanish flu when my mother was about 1 1/2 and her father had abandoned her and brother Mike in a household probably somewhat reluctant to take on their care), she sledded down a hill, rammed face-first into one of Brooklyn Heights' elegant 19th century wrought iron fences and knocked a tooth out.

The story I didn't know was that she went all through high school with a gap in the front of her mouth declaring the absence of that tooth. One presumes she rarely smiled largely. There were ways in 1930 (she was born on Christmas Eve 1917 so I'm guessing that was about the year it happened) of replacing it, but the family (at the onset of the Depression which probably more than partly accounts for it) couldn't/didn't muster up the funds for the necessary dental work. When my mother's father (who had remarried in the period after he'd abandoned Mike and Alice) was induced shortly thereafter by his older and much more successful brothers (one was the head of Cunard; my grandfather had a mostly clerical insurance job at Met Life) to resume responsibility as a father and take his kids back (they moved when she was about  12 or 13 to live with him and his wife Dorothy - who was a witty fun woman but oh was she not a mother!) in Forest Hills, no move to restore my mother's smile was ever made. She had it fixed only when she was able herself to save money from her first jobs to do so - shortly after she was 18.

Anyone who knew my mother remembers her as beautiful. She was one of the great beauties I've known - the kind of bred-into-the-cheekbones-&-jaw beauty that never faded as she grew older. The 'architecture' of her face was so fine. The idea that her father didn't move paradise and purgatory to make sure his beautiful daughter had that tooth replaced is - bewildering. She never spoke of dating in high school. This beautiful girl may never have had a date until that gap in her mouth was filled: after which point she was surrounded by suitors. She became, by 21, one of the most beautiful young women at the Art Students League (and probably in New York): witness the portraits of her drawn & painted then which I posted recently (she worked as a model among other jobs at the League to support herself) -- and there are a lot of wonderful pics of her, full of joy.

She had the temperament for joy. Quieter than my father, but it ran deep. She's one of three human instances (if you'll pardon that abstraction) I know - Quentin Crisp and Connie Clausen are the others - who most amply suggest the unstoppable power of inborn temperament. My mother was going to do what she wanted to do. Remaining a  good Catholic schoolgirl (her mother was Catholic, so she'd been brought up as one in her mother's family household: then shoved into the tonier Episcopal Church when her father took over), she followed her heart - deciding from the earliest age she would make her living as an artist, which against many odds she managed to do - always of course behaving very well. But she was driven by a force which in some ways maybe belied her outward gentleness. She embodied life very powerfully, I realize now, even if largely quietly. It took the full measure of my year and a half with her, the last 18 months of her life, to realize something of the depth of that force. But the mystery remains. Well, the mystery remains in all of us of course. But she was and is a more radiant being than many - and radiance hides as well as reveals. I remember she had me read H. Rider Haggard's "She" - a great saga about a goddess found in the depths of the Amazon by explorers - which was a book her father gave her (instead of a dentist appointment): something in the gleaming mysterious largeness of "She" illuminated my mother. She was also uncomplicatedly kind.

The first pic here is the earliest I have (in an era when studio portraits of babies were all but de rigueur even in middle-class American families, there's not a single extant baby picture of her or her brother Mike) - I'm guessing about 1932; she looks about 15: her lips sealed over that gap in her mouth - tempted to say gap in her heart, but that might be too easily sentimental: gaps in her heart there surely were, but she wasn't going to be put under by them. The second pic is the beautiful young Alice standing in the wind & sun of Rockport, to which she repaired with other League Students for the school's summer 'camp'/workshops - she and my father returned there all throughout their lives, although eventually staying mostly in Gloucester. (Quieter Cape Ann, not Provincetown, for them.) The third pic is my mother and brother Bob and me at the Amityville Public Beach, probably 1953. Then there's a pic or her with my father and me in December 1997: her 80th birthday. My father was fast vanishing into the abyss of Alzheimers. And finally my fave pic of her, I think: sitting with me in the sand at the beach again when she was 40 (I'd guess) and I was about 7: ca.1958 on a windy fall day at the beach. She loved being near the sea. Especially in autumn.

Mother's Day 2017. She'd have reached 100 years of life by December 24 if she were still here.

I will never not wonder if she knows I've just written this.


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