Memoir: Helena Writes 38--On O'Keefe, and becoming angelic

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
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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 38th post, Helena writes beautiful memoir exploring the rich interior of her family life and her love of art. Enjoy!

Georgia O’Keefe

I once saw a Georgia O’Keefe, a flower painting, at someone’s apartment in New York City—somewhere on the upper East Side. He was a doctor, head of psychiatry, as I recall, at Beth Israel Hospital. He was, I thought, eccentric, and a close friend of my cousin, who took me to a party there.

The doctor had heard that I was a painter. We were introduced. He resembled Basil Rathbone, in Rathbone’s early role as Sherlock Holmes, the only believable Sherlock to my psyche. His eccentricity, though, was of a different species than Holmes’. He had a strange naiveté. And his apartment, where he lived with his wife, was painted entirely black. Black walls, black leather upholstery, with chrome—retro. The apartment had been designed by his daughter who also was at the party. I could see that sensibility in her, an eccentricity that matched her father’s and, for that matter, her mother’s, also a doctor, but not a psychiatrist. In any case, the resemblance to Holmes stopped at the physical. 

That my cousin Stanley had taken me with him was all the credential I needed; his wife, Rene, couldn’t go for some reason I can’t recall. Stanley was a prince of a man. We were deeply bonded. He was what I call alive, real, not eccentric. But he walked every morning with the doctor. They had a warm connection.

As the doctor and I shook hands, his gaze seemed fixed to mine. “You are a painter!” he declared—or some other acknowledgement very like that. Of course, I assented.

He beckoned me to follow him to the other end of the room, filled with his guests sitting on various black leather couches and chairs, to a hallway and a closet. He opened the closet and took a small package from a shelf, wrapped in some kind of paper, perhaps even a brown paper bag. He unwrapped it carefully and held the painting out toward me. His mouth was set in a half smile, lips turned up at the corners. His eyes were anxious, expectant. 

It was done on a small, stretched canvas, a still life, a lovely little flower in a glass of water. It was signed, a Georgia O’Keefe. I was amazed by the painting, by him, by the situation. “Georgia O’Keefe!” I exclaimed. His eyebrows raised and his head tilted, inclined toward me. “You know of ‘the artist?’”

Of course I’ve never forgotten the incident. And the two things that passed through me in that moment: First, I’d read, by then, that O’Keefe had said she’d realized no one would notice her flower paintings unless she painted them large. The second thing was this: I was consoled. I painted, then, as I do now, small still lifes. It may sound prideful to say, her painting was simply a good painting of a flower in a glass. An honest painting. I knew my own paintings were such.

Impossible to compare oneself, I know. But I am drawn away from the spotlight, tend to be reclusive. I’d learned to push out, via telephone and computer, to get my books notice. In the field of publishing, that and persistence, the refusal to take no for an answer, is enough. Publishing is full of introverted writers. Cocktail parties were not then, and aren’t now, my natural habitat. But O’Keefe was on a different frequency than I—that’s the way I see it now. Private and inscrutable though she was, she had a star, perhaps, or a preternatural presence that moved naturally to the center, where the other upcoming artists were. Toward the painters at the avant garde, a mix of metaphors, I know. The already great and well-known photographer Alfred Steiglitz, later to become O’Keefe’s husband, opened a gallery for his work and the work of other photographers. It was Steiglitz who established photography as art. And in his gallery hung the work of Edward Steichen, Picasso, Matisse, Max Weber, Arthur Dove, John Marin, the drawings of Rodin, and Georgia’s paintings. That scene was on lower Fifth Avenue, on the East Side of Manhattan.

I am still painting flowers in glasses. Different destinies. Different kinds of artists, people. Maybe stars. But it was a privilege to see, in a kind of secret act, that lovely little painting. I wonder where it is now?

My blessed cousin, Stanley, left the world a long time ago. So did his doctor friend. The doctor’s family must have inherited the little O’Keefe. 

And where are the other small still lifes of flowers O’Keefe painted before those amazing color compositions of shape that are the oils and pastels we know—those enormous flowers her vision led her to?     

Or maybe there was only that one. The one I saw at that unusual party, on that memorable night.


I hardly knew my cousin, Stanley, only by sepia-toned pictures in the photograph album, and the big Macy’s box my parents kept in our hall closet. Stanley in his uniform, World War II. Was it during the war or after? I don’t know. He’s  extraordinarily handsome. Standing, weight on one foot, one hand in a pocket, a sweet and roguish smile. He seemed distant. I may never have met him in childhood. But I liked him from his pictures. It would have been impossible not to like him. I could feel my parents’ love for him. And, there it was, emanating from the photos—a good, a somewhat mysterious person. Or maybe it is more accurate to call it charisma, rather than mystery. Because, after I knew him, he held nothing back. He was thoroughly honest, self-giving.

He was my father’s nephew. In that way a child does, by emanation, absorption, I knew my father loved his nephews, Stanley and his brother Lenny. They were his sister’s boys. And I knew that he also loved Dave Richter, their father. 

“Dave Richter,” my parents would murmur when the two boys and their father, sometimes both of their parents—my Aunt Laulie, Laulie for Lillian—stood together in one of those sepia images, mounted with black glued corners to the black pages of that photo album. Dave Richter, spoken softly, with reverence, and with sorrow. Dave was loved. A whispered legend. He had died before I was born.

I loved Lenny, the younger of the brothers, but Stanley was 25 years older than I. He was never at my Aunt Laulie’s when my sister, mother, father, and I visited. He was married, two children, but I didn’t then know anything about them or his life. That, I realize now, was the element of mystery about Stanley. There was a shadow that had long ago receded, from the surface of life, anyway, by the time I knew him.

But then he told me about it himself. It was a dark chapter, and by the time he called me, much later, in my own adulthood, he had remarried—Rene, all light. I had met Rene and Stanley one afternoon at my mother’s, in my 20’s, after my father had died. They were paying a visit. I never forgot it. I was riveted by their decency, by Stanley’s sincerity, by Rene’s goodness, her sophistication. She had a Pierre Cardin, leather purse. I’d never seen one before. They lived in Manhattan, on the Upper East Side. By then my parents had moved to Queens, and so had I. And that day I was visiting my mother, too.

He, was one of the most wonderful people I have ever known. I was fortunate he contacted me, years after all four of our parents and Lenny had died. 

I lived on Long Island by then. The kitchen phone rang. I picked it up and there he was.

"This is your cousin, Stanley. I just had a quadruple bypass and it feels like time to contact my family." He sounded sheepish, apologetic. I don’t know how he found my number. We made a time to get together. Stanley and Rene, with their daughter, my cousin, Nancy, drove out to see me and my son, Galen. It was a click from the moment we met. I loved them all. Stanley’s good looks were still striking. Blue eyes, the kind of space between his two front teeth I loved, sharpened his beauty. I think that when beauty isn’t superficial, everything serves to deepen it.

We all talked, catching up. I can’t remember what we said, just how good the time was. At last, I had a family who celebrated the holidays. Rene’s father had been a rabbi. Galen and I went to the city on the high holy days. This was Judaism, observed by serious people.

We talked on the phone regularly after we met. It was easy—a natural flow of mutual admiration and interest. We were kindred. Was it a family mind? It was as if our souls joined when we spoke.  He was unselfconscious about his love for my son, his first cousin once removed. There was something parental in Stanley’s feeling for him, and toward me. I trusted him. Adored him. We had nine good years. Visits back and forth. Rene and I grew close. Nancy was away at school much of that time. Then Stanley got sick, again. He retired from his law practice, spent time with us, and with good friends.

We spoke more frequently on the telephone in those last months. Our phone calls took on a kind of urgency.  Sometimes he cried. We talked of death. And he revealed the things that had pained him. He had his share. At the end I visited him in the hospital. He asked me for $20. I’d been with dying people. I knew they often talk in symbols. He was scared, looking to ground himself. I was grateful I had it to give. I said the Twenty-Third Psalm, for both of us. “The Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want....” Stanley told Rene, “We have an angel in the family.” He had seen white light. Do any of us have the capacity to sense the profundity of life?

When my cousin Stanley died, we gathered for his funeral. I saw my son standing alone by the coffin. He may have been 16; I am often at a loss to locate things in linear time. On the car ride back to the apartment, he told us, me, Rene and Nancy, that he had seen Stanley—inside himself. And that Stanley had spoken to him. It was an apology. He told my son that he’d tried not to die, but that his body couldn’t take any more. I think we all accepted it as true. It was in character, both for Stanley and for my son, both people of such good faith.

For a while, Rene experienced him visiting her. She’d feel the weight of him sit on the bed that had been both of theirs, after she’d turned off the light. After a few months she spoke to him, told him that he had to stop. I think now it must have been too intense, and disconcerting. And he did stop, at least as far as I ever knew.

Sometime in the year following his death, I had a dream. My cousin was at a big, noisy, happy party, much bigger than the party he had taken me to the night of the Georgia O’Keefe still life at his friend’s apartment. Stanley had stepped outside the door of a room where the party was, maybe a celebration, in the basement of some very spacious building. He crossed the empty concrete distance beyond that door to a public phone. He called me to say that he was very happy. I could feel his happiness—a cup running over. I have always understood the dream as true. I have had a number of such extraordinary encounters, as I think everyone has, judging by my conversations with people over the years of my life. 

Those nine years with Stanley, and both those parties were memorable. The latter a gift, a sustaining event. When I awoke from the dream, I was filled with gratitude, and still am, for that last phone call.


Inspired by a friend’s request, I am working on a series of paintings. It’s based on an enormous watercolor print of poppies. My friend was a florist and loves Georgia O’Keefe. He’d gotten the print at an auction. He calls it Georgia. He wanted to commission me to reproduce it in oil. That wasn’t out of the question. I’d use oils to cast the effect of watercolor in the mural I painted for the library here, an installation depicting the work of children’s illustrators and their characters. 

We met in town and John put the print in my car. It just fit. When I got it home and studied it, I realized it would take a long time, too long, first, to be the Christmas present John said he wanted to give himself. And second, I couldn’t imagine what to charge. We talked it over. I proposed the idea of doing a section of it. I could picture it; it could be beautiful. John seemed disappointed and decided against it. I said I’d bring back the print the next week. He brushed it off, said there was no rush. John is a good friend. He knew I was at that moment struggling with my work. My painting felt blocked. His loss of interest in the print confirmed my suspicion. The work was more for me than for him.

So I made it my project to do the piece in small sections, just to explore the idea, and to give one of the paintings to John for Christmas. I wasn’t sure he would like it, though. He’d wanted something entirely different. 

“I’d love it!” he said when I told him my plan. “I just want you to paint!”

There are angels in this world. Those are stories of just two that have touched my life, Stanley and John. Maybe there are angels that we can’t see, ordinarily anyway. So many cultures have depicted them. 

And maybe we become angelic when we are moved to give to each other in such life-giving ways. 

Who is your favorite artist? Who is your favorite relative? Who are the “angels” in your life? What did you think of Helena’s latest post? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

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