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Guestwords: The Mother You Get

Thu, 05/09/2024 - 09:22

I wanted Dick and Jane’s mother, but I got mine. I wanted someone who baked cookies. My mother painted pictures.

In my neighborhood most kids went to church or synagogue. I worshiped at the altar of Dick and Jane, the fictional characters who introduced baby boomers to reading. They lived the American Dream, in a white suburban house, surrounded by a picket fence, with a cat and a dog. I was a latchkey kid in a deteriorating apartment building in the Bronx. I ached for that dream, as I looked from our living room window at underwear flapping in the breeze, hung on lines strung across the courtyard.

Their mom, Mrs. Dick and Jane, was always baking cakes swirled with thick chocolate frosting. My mom’s idea of birthday cake frosting involved cream cheese doctored with cocoa powder, not a big hit with 8-year-olds.

Standing behind the picket fence in her crisp white apron, Mrs. Dick and Jane was the heroine of postwar America, in a country that wasn’t yet ready for feminists like Betty Friedan. Standing on my side of the fence was my mother, Frances, an artist who made her living painting pictures. Having a working mom, especially an artist, was unheard of in the 1950s. Mom painted landscapes in Highbridge, the picturesque Bronx setting where tree-lined hills abutted the Harlem River. Art was her first child.

My mom moved to Highbridge for two reasons. First, the scenery provided a great landscape for her to paint. Second, the apartment was cheap and my parents were poor — the perfect storm. Despite the antiquated building with old pipes, a failing boiler, and constantly broken elevator, the landscape never failed her.

That was then, before Robert Moses, New York City’s architect of destruction, built an expressway right through the neighborhood. My mom’s paintings capture the beautiful before, before dynamite blasted rock that had lined the Harlem River for millions of years, rock that cradled trees before they were uprooted.    

Her paintings evolved from those scenes, their rich oil paint now recalling a landscape that no longer exists. As a child, the beauty of the landscape escaped me. My childhood memories are cobblestone streets, ice cream trucks at the park, jump rope and stoop ball and digging in a sand pit shaded by a leafy oak tree.

Now my adult mind sees beyond the stuff of childhood; I see the beauty of the riverbank. In my mind I imagine her, a lone woman standing, brush in hand, at an easel, near the river’s edge, bundled up in the fall, sweltering in the summer. She has no fear of river rats or strangers along the shoreline. The work consumed her.

The work was always there, pulling her, drawing her into a vortex of hues and forms. On canvas it became the stuff of history, the window dressing that now adorns the walls of my home. Weather permitting she painted out of doors. I found a photo taken of us when I was a baby. My mom wore a big rimmed hat to protect her face from the sun, and had tied a canvas onto my carriage. She was going to wheel me down to the river to paint, her palette and brushes in tow.

As her brush met the canvas she brought the pungent smell of fishy water from the river onto the white linen. She carved the rocks that lined the shore into the fabric with palette knives. With brushes and paint she blended the sounds, the smells, and the terrain that was the river onto canvas. The soft sounds of lapping at the shore, the music as the birds flew overhead embedded into pictures of another time. Such talent that enabled her eyes and hands to put on canvas what her soul saw is not necessarily passed along to a child, even when that child rides in the carriage while it is happening. I could never do such stuff.

Grown-ups see things through a different lens than children. Now I treasure those paintings, which have lasted far longer than Mrs. Dick and Jane’s chocolate-frosted birthday cakes and creamy swirled iced cupcakes. Sometimes you are better off when you don’t get what you wish for. I think of that often, surrounded by oil paintings of the Bronx. I can bake my own cookies.

Jackie Friedman, a part-time resident of East Hampton, has been published in The Darien News, The Scarsdale Inquirer, and previously in The Star.

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