I have to tell a story about a painting before it’s forgotten, and the last person who knows about it dies.
There once was a young woman who dreamed of being a painter, an artist, despite what her northern Louisiana middle-class Depression-era parents wanted for her.
My grandmother, the daughter of down on their heels aristocratic-minded people, had been the postmistress of Sewanee, Tennessee, and a teacher when women couldn’t be married and work. She met my grandfather in Caldwell Parish through family and friends. He was the offspring of farmers, a man who went on to become a dentist despite the pressure of his own family. My grandparents married in secret despite her family’s disapproval of him and were very devoted to each other.
Mamaw had a brother who had taken advantage of his position as a college administrator to abscond with school funds, and she signed away all her property to keep him out of prison. My grandparents had two daughters, the good one who always did her duty, and the black sheep who followed her dreams. For a while.
I am the black sheep’s daughter.
Mother moved to New Orleans to study painting, and fell in love with her mentor, a one sided thing that never went beyond platonic status.
He painted a huge modern canvas with three figures in it, almost life-size figures, which on one level almost had religious overtones. A person stood in the background watching as a woman with what appears to be a halo embraces a man, perhaps a son. It’s a somber, dark painting, and one comes away with a feeling that the woman and man are saying goodbye.
It was too large painting to hang over our gas fireplace, the same size as a house door. For forty-something years, I lived with or visited it, knowing part of how it came to be hung in a dark hallway of my mother’s northern Louisiana house, far away from New Orleans and a long dead painter.
A formal black and white photograph of him, wearing a suit and tie, looking out on the world in his hornrims and metal frame glasses, sat on my mother’s bureau as a shrine.
My mom had a habit of telling me things that she shouldn’t, often when she’d been drinking and was depressed. I was some kind of elementary school father confessor at these times. More than once I heard of how she’d loved the painter, but nothing had come of it.
I met him once, the only member of my family to have had the pleasure. He was kindly and drove my mother and me around New Orleans while on a visit. Barely six, I didn’t listen to their conversations, but was fascinated with his car, the tall buildings of 1964 New Orleans compared to my backwoods home.
We ended up in Story Land in City Park, and their conversation was lost to me. It was a fairytale place, the perfect one for adults to have a private conversation while a child played. I don’t remember much afterwards, just that I was in the thrall of Storyland, and happier than what seemed possible. I don’t even remember them saying goodbye, in what was probably the last time my mother saw hm.
After mother died of pneumonia, weakened by Stage IV lung cancer, my sister and I examined the photo and I told her the story. We found a letter from the painter hidden inside the frame, a short handwritten one. It was a one-sided conversation, with him diplomatically and carefully telling Mother her love was not returned. The paper was barely yellowed from being hidden, and I can’t even tell you the date.
Mother had left her estate to be divided solely between her only children, my sister and myself. But many of my mom’s treasures disappeared, ending up as gifts to my cousins, my sister enjoying the largesse of being executor and living closer. She emptied out Mother’s house and stored the belongings she didn’t take in storage units, relinquishing keys to me after her family and my cousins had apparently shopped there.
The painting disappeared, as did the painter’s portrait, only to reappear in a cousin’s house where it had pride of place. I have to say it gutted me to see it, to not have been able to claim it, but at least that mystery was solved.
I was the only one left who knew it had blown off the roof of my grandfather’s car on the way back to northern Louisiana. How he argued with my mother about going back and getting it off the side of the road. Of what it meant to my mom to have something the painter had created, the only thing of his besides the letter she possessed.
Mother made him go back, to retie it carefully this time. It seemed to silently rebuke him every time he passed it in her house.
The painter said the theme of the painting was a joke, but one he never told her. That mystery, and why he never loved her, became part of her unfulfilled life. Memories she anesthetized by often drinking until she fell asleep at night.
My mother’s foray into painting and art had been a source of shame to her parents and sister. She’d lived in New Orleans and Chicago, trying to learn her craft, unsupported spiritually and mentally by them. Then one day she became broken and gave up her dreams. She married my father twice, gave birth to two daughters, taught school, and brooded about why her life had ended up the way it had.
So it’s ironic that my aunt’s youngest son ended up with the painting, the very symbol of Mother’s carefree life as a bohemian artist in the French Quarter. The bohemian life my aunt despised, and the one that made my mother happy for a while.
Years ago, after Mother died, I looked for the painter on the internet, wondering if he’d been artistically and monetarily successful. He and his wife were well known in New Orleans, with a lovely house in the French Quarter. In the courtyard of the house was his studio, and I can still see the mossy, shady patio that bridge house from where he worked. A place he’d shown my mother and me on that one visit.
I read about his regular lunches at Mandina’s and looked at other paintings he’d finished, searched for clues of what kind of man he was, what attracted my mother. The end result was more mystery. He’d never become a world famous painter, never would become a household name like Diego Rivera.
One thing surfaced in the archaeological dig of Mother’s belongings surprised me. Her antique painter’s kit, battered and aged beautifully was found, along with appalling pastel and charcoal chalk drawings I’d done years ago. None of her paintings or drawings survived, destroyed by her out of pique, or were eaten by voracious mice in the pack, rodent urine marked attic. Maybe they ended up in the multitude of bulging leaf bags hauled out to garbage collection.
In the end was more mystery of what kind of artist she’d been, of who had encouraged her to stray to training in Chicago and New Orleans. And that’s part of her sadness left behind.
That’s the last of the tale of the painting, the mysterious trio work that haunted decades of my disappointed mother’s life. Love and art never requited but sought and lost.