Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.
In her 34th post, she remembers her mother and reflects on the lifelong work of understanding a lost parent.
My mother’s looks
She could be angry with me, and was, before she left the world, on her forty-second wedding anniversary, me still in a kind of adolescence at 26. That’s when I thought she was immortal, though my father, who I’d thought immortal too, had died a year and a half before. It’s stunning from here to contemplate such inexperience of life, such innocence, such poignant ignorance, in myself.
I loved the way she looked. When I think of my mother now, I see the photographs, taken before I was born, before my sister was born, before she met my father. A dark beauty. Black hair. Built. She was not afraid of the camera, the way I am. She came out of herself for the lens—not like the introvert I experienced growing up, 20 and 30 years later, when she seemed out of reach. Even then, there was nothing frowsy about my mother.
In those photos in the ’20’s, she’s dressed to the nines. Her arms flung behind her, her hips thrown into an S curve, one high-heeled pointed shoe behind the other, hooked to her ankle, flaunting, flirting. Maybe the times were that way, innocent, too. Out of touch with danger. Depravity hidden so well, so far from view in Jewish Brooklyn, certainly hidden from her view. She was full of fun, had to have known judging from the toss of her head that she was charismatic, gorgeous. Her face is seductive and joyful in those pictures, nothing like the strange, thin, wan and bizarre-expressioned, corpse-like modal image of today’s fashion magazines. My mother was bursting with life. Her generation was free, optimistic. Maybe her parents couldn’t help but communicate that to their children, relief so large beside the fear after the hell of that particular European persecution.
She had my grandfather’s brown eyes, like all her siblings, Aunt Rose, Aunt Dot, Uncle Ben. They didn’t burn like my grandfather’s, seethe with the things he must have witnessed in Lithuania before he managed to get my grandmother and her sister onto a boat sailing from Odessa to America to save their lives. Her brother took the only boat he could get, sailing for South Africa. There are family there who I have never known. My grandmother was pregnant with Aunt Dot. I don’t know who was here to receive them. Then my grandfather disappeared into St. Petersburg, where he worked until he could follow. It took him a year.
I am thinking of another picture, my grandparents’ marriage, the name “Vilna” written in pencil on the back. The town where my grandmother lived. My grandmother is small, light-haired. Her waist is tiny, corseted; she doesn’t reach my grandfather’s shoulder. His eyes are burning out of that photograph. Hers are light, the blue I came to know, looking into the future at me, at my sister, at my children and all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren, their great-great-grandchildren that flourished here, having descended from those two people, who left their home and parents, for that. My grandparents gave all of us life.
Still, my mother didn’t have it easy. She left grade school to support her parents. All the siblings did, swimming against the poverty and squalor of Lower East Side Manhattan. But the pictures I’m remembering, sitting upstairs in a cookie tin, are from the ’20’s—her early twenties—and she was hot.
My mother’s face was Bailenson, high cheekbones, that dark curly hair, not brown but black—down from the Caucasus, Central Asia—the Steppes. When, with whom, did that enter the family bloodline? Russian Jewish. But she is exotic, mysterious, looks like Lena Horne.
My mother had an instinct for beauty, in art and music, as all my family did. I became the artist she wasn’t. My father was the one who had facility in his hands. Mine are like his. Not hers—her hands were delicate, graceful. She never had the arthritis I have in the hands that have been my tools. But she didn’t live the years I’ve lived. She was a young woman, 59 when she died the August I was away in Canada.
When my sister and I were growing up, my mother’s clothes’ closet was hung with dresses and coats. A caddy for shoes sat neatly on the floor. The upper shelf was lined with boxes of hats she wore through the ’50’s and ’60’s, into the ’70’s. Clothes were important to my mother. My parents always dressed well. They were a stylish couple.
My mother’s hair was well on its way to gray when she had my sister and then me. I remember her softness, the good smell of her underneath the fresh cotton of her dress, holding me, before I had words. There’s another picture I love, the two of us. Maybe I’m four when my parents took my sister and me to the Statue of Liberty. I’m curved into her. She’s wearing perforated buckle sandals and so am I. Hers are dark, maybe brown, I can’t remember. But I remember mine—they were red. She’d put on 40 pounds by then, dropped them later when I was 12, and never put them back. Even with those pounds, I saw her as beautiful.
My mother’s looks feel sharpest to me. Everything else about her was far away. Her feelings hidden. Difficult for a feeling child. I couldn’t get hold of her, and she didn’t come out, to either of us, not me, not to my sister, Jo. But Jo had an equivalent distance. Not my father. I’d guess he felt that gap.
Now I say, my mother was introverted. My father was extraverted. My sister and I, we were both, and we were moving off into the world.
Knowing and remembering
Fifty-three years is a long time to contemplate who my mother was. And I see something else now, now that I bring my need for connection to life itself, without a parent to mediate. I see the way she cared for me when I was running a fever. The way she took me to the dentist. The way she made sure I had clothes, and that they were washed and ironed. She changed my bedsheets once a week. She cooked my meals, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There were always desserts.
There is another picture, taken when I was 13. We went to Wisconsin that summer, my mother, my father, and me. My sister was already in college and working. My father was studying that summer. My parents sat at one table and I sat with the children of the other students who had come to Ripon that year. My mother and I are seated at separate tables, but the backs of our chairs meet. My mother has turned and so have I. The meal is finished; the waiters are clearing the tables. My mother and I are talking to each other, talking and laughing. The look on each of our faces is so full of recognition, sweetness, lit with smiles, connected to the other, an observer could only conclude we are mother and daughter. I have spent hours looking at that picture, digesting what is recorded there.
I must have been 11 or 12 when I asked my mother if she loved me. I was just leaving our apartment, heading for the elevator, to find my friends. I remember myself clearly, my head turned, looking back at her, waiting, that question having made its way up out of me, into my voice—putting it to her. Why at that moment? I can’t say. I remember the silence, her pause.
“When you’re sleeping,” she answered. Of course, such a moment isn’t one a child forgets. It was enigmatic, because I intuited that she loved me, with her own language, not mine. That moment hung in me for a long time. I couldn’t afford to be horrified; that would have undone me. And it also wouldn’t have been the truth. I think my mother was sincere in her answer. She couldn’t come out of herself. It just wasn’t the way she was made. But she could experience her love for me when I was asleep, safely distant, too, not asking for anything from her, that she well may have felt guilty, even confused, knowing she couldn’t give it.
We were not an easy match, my mother and me. And the work I’ve done in all these years, to understand her, to close that gap, for both our sakes, pried that door to her mystery open. Now I feel her love pouring out into me.
Who ever said love exists in time?
What memories about your mother do you cherish most? What did you think of Helena’s latest column? Share with us in the comments.
Related reading: Helena Writes
Want to receive tips and inspiration like this in your inbox every Sunday morning? Join our email list community! You will receive weekly advice, a year’s worth of weekly writing prompts as a FREE download, and be eligible to participate in our monthly photo prompt contest for a chance to share an original piece of writing with our community of nearly 1,600 writers.