The eminent art writer, critic, and political commentator Lucy Lippard, exploits the detritus of her life, the inconsequential things that would not be considered “art” by any stretch of the imagination, in her newest book, Stuff, to create a memoir that she claims is not a memoir. The meaning she imparts to that “stuff” is ephemeral, unique, and as transient as her life. What remains is the writing those things inspired. I have often followed that route in my own writing. This is an example.
It is the soft golden-brown color of a good scotch. Designed for fashion, not for warmth, my mom had the ¾ length mink coat with the bracelet length sleeves and cape-like shawl collar custom made for her petite frame around 1960, the same year my dad got caught in an affair with one of his female cousins. The coat appeared briefly, an apparition that was distinctly out of place among the vestiges of our middleclass post WWII life in suburban New Jersey. I caught a glimpse of it before mom zippered up the garment bag protecting the glossy sheen that previously had protected the living critters who had given their lives for this symbol of luxury. She pushed aside the wool coat and sweaters she often wore, hanging the bulky garment bag far back in the darkest corner of her bedroom closet.
The mink coat was long forgotten when I discovered two diamond rings in my mother’s jewelry box. I was sorting through her tangle of immitation pearl necklaces and clip-on earrings looking for something I could wear to accompany my costume for my high school play. The rings stood out from the rest. Each unique design was a balance of intricately cut stones of varying sizes. They sparkled like they had just come from the jewelers showcase and were carefully tucked into separate velvet lined ring boxes along with the original receipt of authentication, stating the provenance of the stones, the number of carats, with an eye-popping purchase price. My mother’s hands were hardworking hands that remained unadorned during her life, save for the plain, thin gold band she wore that declared her as belonging to someone “until death do us part.” I replaced the ring boxes, exactly where I’d found them. Feeling like a detective, catching whiffs of whispered intimate conversations, and comparing dates on the receipts with family moments of acute stress, it appears these purchases were possibly mom’s way of striking back, taking revenge on their bank account each time dad got caught in another illicit encounter. I don’t know if they had joint bank accounts, or if she secretly ferreted away some grocery money every week, or if dad just gave her money when she asked for it. Economics, who controlled the money, were as secretive as sex in my family.
Mom was an only child raised in a loving, conservative, well maintained, New York City home. She married the man of her dreams, a dashing B17 bomber pilot she met at a friend’s wedding when he was home on leave from WWII in late 1944. At least that’s the story old letters and sepia tinged photos tell that I discovered rummaging around in a musty trunk stored in my grandparent’s attic in Queens. I was born in 1945, the year the war ended, and the war hero returned home for good. Things were not rosy from the start. Dad couldn’t transition his daredevil love of flying planes in wartime to a job as a civilian aircraft pilot due to the case of spinal meningitis he contracted during the war. I’m not sure why that counted as a disability since he appeared to have no observable affliction. If he was devasted, or at least embittered that his heroic contributions during battle became meaningless once the smoke and fire and threats from our nations distant enemies subsided, those feelings were shrouded, wrapped up in the red stripes and white stars of patriotism that he displayed throughout his life.
Dad bounced around, trying a few jobs, one he held briefly as a haberdasher in NYC. The pressure to reintegrate, to put the deprivation of war behind you, to live the American Dream that winning this war promised must’ve been intense. He ultimately found work as an automobile mechanic. It was a job he was good at but was brutal on the debonair image this former high school valedictorian, voted most likely to succeed with a ticket to attend Dartmouth, always maintained in public. The work of an automobile mechanic in mid 20th century America was grueling; physically, and psychologically, particularly when lying on your back on the concrete floor of an unheated garage in winter. Being responsible, at least being perceived as responsible, was a point of pride. He had a young wife and child to support. He may have regretted his impetuous decision to marry a woman he had known for a total of seven days before tying the knot. When war looms, when life and death are equally possible in your immediate future, there is no such thing as long-term planning. There is only now.
With the aid of alcohol and clandestine sexual encounters, dad persevered. He ultimately bought his boss’s controlling interest in the garage and expanded the auto-repair business to include lucrative city and state contracts to maintain buses and fire department equipment, becoming financially comfortable enough to buy himself the flashy Cadillacs–he liked to refer to himself as ‘a Cadillac kinda guy’–and lavish motorboats he craved. In retrospect, I think these flamboyant material goods were likely the outward facing manifestations of the success and admiration he felt he deserved. They were his reward for the labor he invested to earn the money he spent largely on himself. I’m just speculating how he may have rationalized these expenditures. As I mentioned before, discussions about money in my family were as taboo as talk of sex.
In my memory, a pervading darkness hung over our home throughout my childhood. It was physical, visceral, and psychological. It was also uncomfortably quiet. We had a radio that occupied a shelf in the kitchen and a small TV monitor encased in an ornate wooden cabinet sitting in the living room. They mitigated the discomforting silence, the weight of words unspoken always somewhere in the background. If either of my parents had any interest in music, it was not evident. Satisfaction in the simple pleasures of day-to-day living was illusive. I was too young to understand the cause of this perpetual unease as emotions and thoughts were taught to be held close. Vulnerability was scorned. Toughing it out without complaint, whatever the “it” was, became the modus operandi of our family. Love was never mentioned nor openly expressed. Nothing seemed authentic. We were characters in a play moving robotically from day to day in prescribed roles. Life mirrored in black and white on screens of the new miracle of television found its way into the lives of every successful American family in 1950s America. A House. Mom. Dad. Children. And more stuff.
I was almost an only child, but when I was 10 years old, a baby brother appeared. The timing of his birth came as a surprise. My life was largely lived at school and on the street with my friends. Home was not a place of refuge. It was a place to escape. The fact that a new baby boy could now deflect attention previously focused on me provided freedom. It is only in the writing of this now, starting with the mink coat and running through the timing of the gifts my mother bought for herself throughout her long-suffering marriage that I realized the birth of this baby boy was not a gift. He was likely my mothers last-ditch effort to hold on to my father or perhaps punish him. In either case, this move worked. The family remained intact. At least from the outside looking in we fit the criteria of family. This baby boy grew to look like a softer, chubbier, less complicated version of his father. The poor kid spent his life trying to earn the love and respect of a dad who treated him like an afterthought, or worse, an albatross around his neck.
Why my mother and father remained together over 65+ years of marriage is an enigma shrouded in the dust of memory. I can only imagine. Human behavior is complex. We seek to understand, but often fail. We misread the clues. It is difficult enough to know my own motivations for the choices I’ve made. Art offered me a viable way to interpret the world, to imbue my own existence with meaning. I trusted in my creative ability to keep me clothed and housed. No need to show proof of my value through the display of extravagant material possessions. Dancing naked in the mud at Woodstock was emblematic of the mindset where I and everyone I knew found ourselves. My mother often wondered how I could live in my studio without real furniture, a couch, and all that.
A few years after my handsome, successful but wayward dad died from cancer, mom confronted the reality that she could no longer care for their sprawling white and mint green stucco Florida home with it’s sparkling turquoise tiled swimming pool. She began preparing herself for a downsized move to a small apartment at Brookside the nearby assisted living complex where she had some friends who preceded her. In the months between the initial listing of her house for sale and the eventual closing on the property I would periodically visit, flying down from my home in Boston to Sarasota/Bradenton airport with mostly empty suitcases which mom would fill with those items she most valued and wanted me to keep. Those items included the diamond rings, and the mink coat, which was like new. It’s beige satin lining bore her embroidered initials, GLE, in elegant script, an embodiment of an identity she attempted to create but that remained hidden in the back of her closet. The coat showed no signs it had been worn. I don’t remember ever once seeing my mother wearing it.
My two granddaughters have become the recipients of my mother’s largess. While the circumstances surrounding the acquisition of these ostentatious things tainted them in my mind, my granddaughters have no idea the psychological and emotional weight these items carry for me. They are extravagant, unnecessary but fun to have things to impress their friends or to invent new meanings unconnected to their actual history. The younger granddaughter is the teenage fashionista of the family. The mink coat went to her at Christmas when she was 17. She loved it and has worn it on occasions, taking selfies to share with her friends. It complements her theatrical leanings and her public persona as a ballet dancer. Being Canadian, wearing the fur of a dead animal does not have quite the same negative connotations as it does for most of us Americans. The mink coat has found a new life unencumbered by its past.
My mother died at the age of 92. I spent the last 24-hours of her life sitting by her bedside, watching her bird-like body sinking slowly into the oblivion of the unknown. Wrapped in a thin white sheet, the rosebuds and lace edge on her nightgown were the only material things she had left to indicate anything about the value of the life she led. The rest only exists in the imaginations of my granddaughters, perhaps triggered by the sparkling diamonds in the rings my mother never wore that are now freed from the grasp of her desperation and not tainted by my dark memories that were hidden, along with her mink coat, deep in her closet.
Armed with an MFA from Boston University Cynthia Close plowed her way through several productive careers in the arts including instructor in drawing and painting, Dean of Admissions at The Art Institute of Boston, founder of ARTWORKS Consulting, and president of Documentary Educational Resources - a nonprofit film distribution company. She now claims to be a writer.