When I was a kid, I adored going over to my grandmother's house and exploring her art room. To reach it, I wound past my grandmother's collections of things in the living room and hall, most in service of her art projects. There was always a collage or bead curtain in the making, often butting up against fruits, vegetables and flowers arranged before still life canvases in progress.
She was a wonderful painter, and her many still lives and urban landscapes with her signature, Solange, adorned the room and the house. Inspired by her and having supposedly "inherited" her talent, I attended art classes at the Art Students League of New York and at the School of Visual Arts when I was in middle and high school, and declared art as my major when I got to college.
I suppose many grandchildren believe that they are the favorite of a particular grandparent. But in my family, my maternal grandmother's legacy to me had long been established. She was an artist, and I was an artist. But, around the time of my mother's death from Alzheimer's disease, I discovered a family secret involving my grandmother that put a new spin on issues of legacy in my family.
When I was growing up, I always wondered why we didn't have more of my grandmother's paintings. There was just one, a view up the hill on cobblestoned Beacon Street in Boston with a bright red delivery van at the end. Aside from that, my mother owned only one three-inch by two-and-a-half inch canvas with an oil painted flower arrangement, which she kept leaned up against a row of books on a shelf above her desk. When my mother moved into assisted living, there was no question that I would take the two paintings.
The one with the van now hangs across from my bed. The smaller one is leaned against books in a nearby shelf. In the van painting, there is an almost primitivist use of color and altered perspective, the bright red popping from the dreary Boston background. The painting evokes the relief of early spring, with potted red geraniums on the sill of a window on the brick wall. The cobblestones of the aged street seem to almost shine, slicked with fresh rain.
When my grandmother died, my mother was already showing the signs of Alzheimer's. I had an opportunity to see the old Tudor again several months after when my mother and I came for a visit to my uncle, who had moved into the house. Our purpose for the visit was, in part, to unstick my uncle's reticence in settling the house and giving my mother her share of the inheritance. My mother would need this for her future care and move to assisted living. It did not go well. I asked my uncle if I could have some of the other paintings left behind by my grandmother. Specifically I asked for some the "things, like paintings," stored in her basement.
He said he'd go down and find some of my grandmother's "things," and came back up with knitting needles and yarn. He gave me a fierce look when I pressed for more. I went home without any paintings.
* * *
Over the next few years, I pored over my mother's files trying to find clues to my family mysteries. I wondered about my uncle's inexplicable rancor. Why would he bear such ill will when my mother was so obviously in poor condition? At the time I didn't realize that he was angry at my mother over issues connected to the family secret.
I wondered about my mother. Even when I was a child, she'd had amnesias about her past. I'd found her to be remote. Why so many long, empty stares, which I'd come to describe to myself as "outages." I often reflected that the quality of absence characterizing her Alzheimer's also seemed to characterize our family. If there was a conflict, people didn't talk to each other about it. My mother had had a disabled younger sister whose sad history, institutionalization and early death was hardly acknowledged.
Like amnesias, family secrets are about elisions, things one senses but never comprehends explicitly or in their entirety. Working through documents, photographs and interviews with family members, I pieced together the secret. It was complicated and damaging, but also ludicrous. My mother's younger sister Renée had suffered from epilepsy and an unnamed mental disability that caused her to never learn to speak or walk. Renée died of a seizure in the institution at age eleven. People said that Renée's disability, or her death, drove my grandmother to the bottle, but there was also plenty of evidence that my grandmother suffered from alcoholism long before.
The secret was not about the circumstances of Renée's birth or death, though. It involved a fall off of a bed and subsequent head injury suffered by infant Renée that was said to have caused the disability. It was rumored that my mother, who would have been two years old, had caused the accident or, even more heart-breakingly, to have pushed the baby off the bed out of spite. Most people hearing that story would think one of two things: my grandmother's alcoholism had caused a birth defect, or the alcoholism would have caused negligence leading to a two-year-old and an infant being left on a bed together and, thus, an accident. Clearly, my grandmother's alcoholism was to blame, not my then two-year-old mother. And yet all these many years later, an undercurrent of blame and shame surrounded my mother. This, to my amazement and horror, was the source of my uncle's anger toward her.
* * *
At many points in piecing together this story, I was struck by the theme of absence. The secret; the paintings abandoned in the dusty basement; my mother's memory. My mother was losing even her ability to speak. These were just some of the things hidden away.
The photo files included dozens of images from a period during the early 1960s when my mother was Boston's top fashion model. While scanning the images into my computer, I noticed something peculiar in one that I had looked at it at least a hundred times. My mother is arranged before an evocative Boston street scene wearing a triangle-shaped white waistcoat that she spins slightly while making a come-hither expression. Her hair is bobbed and her hands and lower arms gloved; on her feet are kittenish, pointy, low-stilettoed black pumps. It is a spectacularly mod shot, straight out of "Mad Men."
But something else about the photo caught my gaze while I was performing the more utilitarian task of feeding it into the scanner. I had a Eureka! moment. It was the Beacon Street painting, the one hanging across from my bed. The same cobblestones. The view was the same—the same foreshortened perspective, the same wall to the right—the same van, even. My grandmother, whom I'd always imagined perched on a painter's stool in the middle of the city when she'd created her truck painting, had, on the contrary, copied it from this very photograph. While the original was black and white, my grandmother's rendering featured the bright red offsetting the muted colors of the urban streetscape. She'd also subtly compressed the perspective to give the scene a slightly topsy turvy feel.
I placed the painting and the photograph side by side. They were a near exact match. How fitting, I thought, that my grandmother would have literally painted my mother out of the picture. Of the many abuses my grandmother seems to have afflicted upon my mother, this aggression by erasure seemed especially significant. What exactly had my grandmother been thinking at the time, I wondered. Had jealousy caused her to replace my mother's accomplishment as a fashion model with her own as a painter? And did this history explain why this was the only painting my grandmother had given my mother? A back-handed gift, really.
Since the discovery, I've had to reconcile with the nature of my grandmother's legacy to me, symbolized in the painting and in my own love and practice of art. To me, discovering the family secret and speaking it, and recontextualizing the painting with its original source, gives me an opportunity to end the cycles of silence and shame in my family. In my imagination, I have painted my mother back into that street scene. Doing so feels like a way of starting anew, rejecting the old legacy and creating a new one that involves acknowledging presences and rejecting a culture of absence.
One can read a lot into an image. If one looks carefully enough, one just might discover the ghosts of things, the traces one has always suspected of a dormant family secret, the memory of a beautiful daughter twirling in her glee and power before a camera, painted out of a picture but still there to be coaxed from the shadows.