Throwing my mother's artwork in the dumpster
(Still working on this piece)
Two years after my mother died, I made the heartbreaking (and liberating) decision to throw a small box of her artwork in the dumpster. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have. I had to. I miss every piece of it.
Inside the box, there were four fabric projects. I do not know if my mother named them. I do not know if they were displayed at an art show or in a gallery. So, I have named them myself and composed gallery-style labels for each piece, following the guidelines I found here: https://artbizsuccess.com/wall-labels/
White Nightgown. (Circa 1975)
White on white fabric. Hand-sewing. Embroidery. Appliqué.
A white linen nightgown with pearl buttons and long sleeves, gathered at the wrist, is affixed, with tiny running stitches, to a white cotton bed sheet. The bed sheet is stained (deliberately or accidentally) by coffee or tea, blood or wine.
This piece may be a symbolic allusion to the marriage bed or to a woman’s life or to sleep. I don’t know. As I was not paying attention at the time, I missed the opportunity to ask her. Of the four pieces in this collection, ‘White Nightgown’ was my favorite. I always wanted it. I had it. Then, I threw it away.
Branch (Circa 1979)
Driftwood, white fabric, Jingle shells, silk thread. Hand-sewing.
A square of white cotton canvas, folded over a two-foot branch of driftwood to form a curtain. Two dozen Jingle Shells are suspended from silk threads.
Also known as Mermaid’s Toenails, the shiny gold Jingle Shells, translucent as onion skin, belong to a class of sea creature called anomids, bivalve mollusks (similar to scallops), with a shell that forms around the shape of the object it lies upon - usually a rock or a large shell of another creature. Like mussels, anomids attach to their host with fine and sticky threads, a kind of self-made glue strong enough to weather the movement of the tides but no match for wailing Nor’easters.
I didn’t know any of this when I threw the work away. I discovered it today, while researching the name and origin of the shells. Now, perhaps I see the message here. Mystical, symbolic and full of poetic resonance, an artist’s statement about co-dependency and mermaids, and the translucent nature of women’s lives.
My mother was always sending messages this way: pulsing secret whale song through the murky space between us. For years, I tried to decode her language of sighs and muttered musings by the sink. Now I have discovered, too late, that the key to her secret language was right there, hidden in plain sight, on the walls.
Dancing Woman (Circa 1985)
Two ready-to-wear garments. Hand-sewn to white cotton canvas. Applique. Embroidery.
A cherry red skirt and a white, off-the shoulder top are appliqued to unbleached white canvas. The folds of the clothing are arranged to appear as if the dancer is still moving, as if a woman who was dancing was captured by a web of embroidery thread: blue twists, French knots, and hundreds of neat crosses, holding her securely against the visual field.
I think I get this one. I see my mother sitting by the fire, embroidery hoop on her lap, stabbing her needle in and out while my father watches football on television.
This is a piece about marriage, about acedia, the endless waiting for other people to finish speaking before you speak, to finish growing up before you can grow, to finish leaving home before you can finally arrive. There is something about freedom and dancing. Something about waiting for Edith to visit so she could finally make the martinis.
It was such a special piece. It’s in a landfill now - a woman dancing in her favorite skirt, her bare feet stomping on a pile of jingle shells, her shoulders luminous under the full bright moon.
Unfinished, Untitled (1990)
Fabric scraps on burlap backing. Safety pins.
Scraps of fabric - pinks and reds mostly - cut into random shapes and affixed to the backing with messy x’s and safety pins.
Maybe I made that one - or one of my sisters. Maybe it was a study of Mom’s. Who knows? It’s in the dumpster now. I’m sorry. I was angry. She is free. And I am letting her secret magic language go. I can’t care this much and also live my own life.
“Do you want this?” I asked my sisters, my daughter, my son.
“No, thank you,” they said, politely but firmly - all of them better at setting boundaries than I, or perhaps, more clear about the way that other people’s artwork can cleave onto the surface of our lives, endlessly generating coins of fragile, inexplicable meaning. The way that things that appear to be dead and buried are still (very much) alive.
A few months before I threw the box away, my husband disappeared it into the crawl space above the kitchen. It was the last of the pile of my mother’s belongings, cartons of books and collectibles that I’d been sorting through for months.
When I noticed it was missing, “Where’s the box?” I asked.
He pointed skyward. Someone else might have interpreted this gesture as a reference to Heaven or the way that our parents hover over us, even after they’re gone but I knew what he meant and, exasperated, I climbed the ladder that he keeps in the pantry and hauled the box back down.
I set it on the floor in the living room and stared at it.
I wasn’t supposed to have it. My mother’s artwork belongs to her art estate, which is managed by her executor, who was my mother’s psychiatrist and later, her best friend. When my mother died, the will explained, my sisters and I inherited everything but we couldn’t … have it. We were each allowed one piece - a painting, a mono print, a sketch. Other than that, the executor-friend-psychiatrist told us: “You may not remove the artwork from the estate.”
The art work
Several dozen large canvases, hundreds of prints laying flat in their files in my mother’s studio. Some small sculptures from her earlier years, drawers filled with art supplies - paints, brushes, pastels, tools, cigar boxes of various sizes, a lifetime of collected treasures: tiny tea cups, flattened watches, old coins, broken doll parts, rusted keyholes.
There were cartons of poetry on onion skin paper, marked with the bird tracks of her pencil marks. A stack of calendars, appointments carefully noted. Spice labels. Seed packets. Her handwriting was everywhere.
I had the box long before she died. I’d been helping out, staying overnight weekends, at my mother’s apartment. We slept in the same bed - holding hands. It helped her sleep through the night. She had nightmares then and would call out. Finding me there, “Oh, Amy,” she’d sigh, and fall back to sleep.
After she moved to Esther’s house, I stayed there alone. There was her cat to take care of and her plants to water. I spent my time reading and writing - when I needed more to do, I started organizing the photo albums and refolding the tablecloths. I washed the crystal goblets and realigned them in neat rows in the new kitchen cabinets.
At first, I could pretend that Mom had just stepped out for a moment. That she’d be right back. My children’s drawings still hung from frig magnets. My nephew’s photo was there, smiling at me, each time I reached for the butter. Mom’s orange marmalade, her sacks of French Lentils were still on the pantry shelves.
I tried on all of her clothes. Shoes. Hats. Jackets. Pants. Nothing fit me really. She’d lost so much weight. Her feet were smaller than mine. Her body three sizes smaller. I brought the plants home where I could water them. I sorted through the jewelry. Ropes of pretty but worthless beads. Amber. Blue glass. Painted wood.
There was a black jewelry case lined in velvet, filled with clip on earrings, each pair in its own small square, which she must have purchased at a thrift store (magpie that she was) or been given by Esther, whose ears weren’t pierced like Mom’s. I took the case home - and the important jewelry. Her wedding ring, a thick gold chain. That’s all that was left - if there was any more, it was missing by then. Pinched by ‘the help’ or more likely, lost down a drain or forgotten in a pocket.
I knew she was dying. I knew we’d be left to sort through it. I knew that once she died it would be harder to get my hands on anything that mattered.
I brought the box home with a few other things - some nice bed linens she’d never sleep on again, a cooking pot to replace the one of mine that had chipped, and that box of photos of my children that I’d never seen before.
I set the box on the living room floor and stared at it. Tattered now, the shiny red box had once sat under a Christmas tree containing a robe or a bright jacket in magenta, teal, royal blue. Those were her colors. But also, acorn and nutmeg, cinnamon and that pale blue green. She was an artist. Color was her way of saying what couldn’t be said.
I opened the lid - the tapestries were divided by fragile white tissue paper. Each time I think of it, I imagine my mother carefully folding the work into the box, closing the lid. I see her setting it carefully on a shelf.
I see it there — it was always there, when I ran in to borrow a purse or a pair of shoes (we wore the same size until my feet swelled during pregnancy)— beside the Lord & Taylor gift box (white with a long-stemmed rose on the lid) where she stored her wedding dress. She’d sewn the cap-sleeved, tea length dress herself. White lace over a pink satin lining, the Queen Anne neckline framed her face, the elegant ballet skirt flared out around her… around me, when I, one day, tried it on. Had she saved it for me?
In the black and white photographs of her wedding, in my grandmother’s garden, she wore it with a white beaded cap and a short veil. She was beautiful.
Wait, now I am remembering a third box - stripes of red, green and gold. Another Christmas box, from Abraham and Strauss I think. It was filled with smaller treasure: the wool felt ornaments, the flat mother and father dolls, their heads embroidered with yellow french knots and blue gingham overalls.
Where is that box? Where is that flat family? And where are the dollhouses she built for us out of wooden boxes one Christmas? That’s the artwork I want now.
Once, when I was visiting with the children, she showed me how to make mono prints. On a large (11x17) plate of glass, she painted freehand. The usual theme: Five sided houses, children with haunted eyes, symbols in boxes, birds.
When the image was ready, she showed me how to lay a sheet of thick, absorbent paper over the glass. She let me choose the paper. There were three colors; pearl white, gray smoke, lichen green.
We aligned the paper to the glass. “Now we roll it,” she said, handing me a black rubber roller. It was like ironing, pressing out the wrinkles—as the image on the other side soaked into the paper. “Put a little more pressure there,” she instructed.
Then, we peeled the two surfaces apart with a slurping sound as the glass released the paper with a wet kiss. Mom always made a second print, she told me. There was enough ink still on the glass. She called the second print a shadow. I liked those more.
The box migrated, for several months, from the corner to the dining room chair to the coffee table to the little space below the mirror where I look at myself every morning before I face the world. Every time I noticed it, I felt a pinch of guilt and memory. And then, one day, I carried it to the dumpster and dropped it in.