Christmas in July

Merry Christmas, six months from now.  I thought I’d show you a page from my current project; I’m illustrating some of my favorite Christmas Carols and putting them in a book.

I’m going to show you “Angels we Have Heard on High” because
one, it’s a beautiful song and I love it and
two, Sam told me when he was little he thought
“In Excelsis Deo” meant “Jesus lives in Chelsea.”
Well, Emannuel means “Lord with Us’ and I kind of like the thought of Jesus living just a few blocks away.

Here’s is how this drawing has evolved.

 

The first pencil marks.  I have a vague sense of what I want and I feel pretty tentative. I think about the composition for a long time before even making a pencil mark.  I look at my collection of pictures of angels and try   some really vague sketches on cheap paper that I throw away. Then I move onto my Arches watercolor block, 140 pound, cold press paper.  It has a pebbly surface that give my line a nice lively feeling. Time to make a committment. I use a pale sepia for the first inkings–Iit’s more forgiving than black, but now there’s no going back.  No erasing.

A few more angels and the beginning of the night sky.
Now I’m getting started.  There’s a rhythm to the work; dip the pen, make a few marks, the pen runs dry, look out the window, maybe get up and walk around, come back, sit down, then dip the pen and make some more marks.

Time to decide on the colors.  Each new addition changes the balance of the composition. I used as a reference the Neapolitan angels from the tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

More color and I’m seeing how I want it to go. I like that green. I’m still not sure of the angel in the upper left but I know I don’t want an even number of angels.

More color, more sky.  Should all the wings be the same color? Before I proofread thisit  read, “should all the wigs be the same color–”  These angels have all their own hair.

 

Closer and closer.  I really have to work on the seventh angel.  I”m always eager to erase the pencil marks but It’s very important to wait for the ink to dry completely.

At last, angel number seven arrives. I was drawing her around the time of Ascension Day, when our pastor, Bob Dunham, cited in his sermon this stained glass window in the chapel of Queen’s College in Oxford.

At the ascension, forty days after the resurrection,  Jesus is lifted up into Heaven.  But look at his feet. They’re so silly looking for such a holy moment.  What was the artist thinking?  Was it the end of the day, and he was working on a deadline?  I know that feeling.
The whole time I was drawing these angels I had those feet on my mind.

The finished picture.It still needs some work to define the faces and I’ll clean up some blots with photoshop but here they are.  How do you like their feet?
Stay awake for more pages for  the final book.  
What’s your favorite Carol?

Happy Birthday, Jessie

Happy Birthday, Jessie!

7/9/79
One of My Best Days

 The original due date for our first child was late in June, but July came and still no baby.  I got on a Fifth Avenue bus after a Doctor’s appointment where I was told, once again, to be patient.  A woman saw me and leapt up to give me her seat.  When I thanked her she said, pointing at my belly,

“Well, I’m a nurse and, Honey, I’m not delivering a baby on this bus.”  

I said, “I wouldn’t mind, I’m way past my due date.”

The old lady sitting next to me said, “Your baby’s late? It’ll be wrinkled.”
“Really?”
“Like staying in the bathtub too long–You get all wrinkled.”

When you’re pregnant everybody has something to say.

So we waited.  My mother woke up on July 3rd and said, “It’ll be a girl on the ninth.”  Mom was always right, but I didn’t think I had another week in me.

On Sunday, July 8th, Arthur put me on a forced march from our home on Horatio Street to Chinatown, a dim sum lunch and then home again.  That evening we went to our friend, Kathleen’s, for dinner and home again with no action.  As we got ready for bed I felt an unmistakable twinge.

“Arthur, I think this is it.”

“Ok, the most important thing is that you get your rest.”  And he went to sleep.

Let me say here that Arthur was the most mature and focussed Dad in our Lamaze class.  The others were eager to talk about anything but childbirth but I can still hear Arthur saying, 

“Can you explain Braxton-Hicks again?”

I”ld been told that it was best to be as far along in the process as possible before getting to the hospital, so I settled down to pass the next few hours timing the contractions.

I watched a movie with James Cagney and Barbara Hale, who played Della Street on Perry Mason, about the everglades in Florida. All I remember is lots of gators.

I worked on this drawing—not that I thought it would be any good but it kept my hands busy and my mind off the pains.

Six am came, the sun rose and I called the Doctor’s office.

“I think I’m having my baby.”

The receptionist said, “Oh, today’s my daughter’s birthday!”

I’m hoping for a girl—so this is a good sign.

 I woke Arthur.  He walked the dog and got a taxi, telling the driver to wait there and he’d be right back. I went down and got in.  The driver looked askance at me and said, “No—I’m waiting for a man.”  

“Right. That’s my husband.”

When Arthur came downstairs the driver said, “I’m sorry sir, she said she was with you.”

So we set off for Mount Sinai—a long ride from the West Village. We drove through Central Park; in 1979  Park Drive was riddled with pot holes and I felt every one. But the trees were lovely in the early morning light and I concentrated on my breathing.

The driver asked Arthur—he couldn’t look at me—  if he wanted the emergency room, but no, the Fifth Avenue entrance would be fine.

We arrived and Arthur had to go inside to get change of a twenty to pay the fare. That’s right; in 1979 you could take a taxi from the West Village to the Upper East Side for well under twenty dollars.

I got out and thanked our driver.  He looked me up and down, took a breath and said,

“Have a nice day.”

And I did have a nice day.  Our beautiful baby arrived around noon; seven pounds, fourteen ounces and no wrinkles.

Here she is, a few days old.  She looks like she’s not quite sure about us.

We named her Jessie Mayhew for my great-grandmother, Jessie Brown, because of a story my mother used to tell me.   Grandpa Brown said to her, “I know you see Grandma as a gray-haired old lady who walks with a limp but you should have seen her.  You should have seen Jessie running, with her long black hair flying out behind her.”

Mayhew is for my grandmother on the other side, Louise Mayhew Russell.

Here’s a funny thing.  I”m Barbara Russell.  I had Jessie Mayhew.  And she eventually had Molly Louise.  We replicated MomMom’s name in three generations, totally without planning to.Here we all are–four generations.  Not in straight line, because MomMom’s not Mom’s mother but why quibble. We’re certainly connected by love.

Remember the Ladies

Here are three artists I adore—I love them so much I’d like to be them but, oh, right, I gotta be me.  What I mean is, I look at their work and think, “Gee, I wish I’d thought of that.” But I didn’t, so I stick with what I do, inspired by all the different ways there are to make art.

First, Rest in Peace, Gloria Vanderbilt.  She personifies this quote from Robertson Davies,
“Money can’t buy happiness but it allows us to endure unhappiness with exemplary fortitude.”
She endured unhappiness beyond what most of us can imagine and her fortitude was more than exemplary. She just kept on keeping on. 

I love her aesthetic.  I had trouble finding images of her paintings but she was often photographed in the midst of her creation. Like Aunt Connie, she made her home her magnum opus.

A wealthy woman who showed that money is nice but not everything, she was classy and not snobby—she’ll always be an inspiration.

 Florine Stettheimer 1875-1944

Born into a wealthy Jewish family in Rochester New York she had rigorous academic training in Europe and at the Art Students League, where she also served on the board. Never married, she led a lively social life with her mother and two sisters. (Carrie Stettheimer created a magical dollhouse, decorated with tiny works of art by Marcel Duchamps and Gaston Lachaise. You can now see it at the Museum of the City of New York.) They were shut out of New York society because they were Jewish but created a circle of artists and intellectuals that was probably  more interesting and fun than Mrs. Astor’s 400.

Florine had one gallery show and didn’t enjoy the experience so decided to show her work in her own home—then wrote this poem.

 

OUR PARTIES

Our Parties

Our Picnics

Our Bouquets

Our Friends

Have at last a raison d’être

Seen in color and design

It amuses me

To recreate them

To paint them.

From then on she painted in a new, personal style, loose and faux naive; she made her life into her art and her art into her life.

Carl Van Vechten, noted art critic at the time, wrote, “The Lady had gotten into her art a very modern quality. A quality that ambitious American musicians will have to get into their compositions before anyone will listen to them. At the risk of being misunderstood, I must call this quality jazz.”

You can see her work in the Whitney’s permanent collection and the Jewish Museum gave her a huge show in 2017. You can read about her in Peter Schjeldahl’s piece in the New Yorker.

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/05/15/revisiting-florine-stettheimers-place-in-art-history

 

 

 When I taught Art at Trinity School I often painted in the studio alongside my students. I did a series of large cheerful paintings and hung them in the cafeteria—flowers, vegetables, a swan, a rooster, all with checkerboard borders-appropriate for a room where children eat lunch.  A friend said, “Jeez, where’s the angst? I thought artists were supposed to get drunk at the Cedar Tavern and beat each other up, throw paint around, cut off their ears, live a life of misery and die young.Your work is so ….nice.”
I took it as a compliment.I don’t think I’m the only woman artist to hear that.

Red Rose Cantata, by Alma Thomas

I first encountered this painting in a staircase at the Museum of Modern Art.  It’s 69” x 60”—bigger than me.  I raced to the gift shop to buy a print and I’ve kept it on my bulletin board ever since.  

The artist is Alma W. Thomas, an African American woman born in 1891 in Columbia Georgia. A graduate of Howard University she taught art until her retirement. She said,  “The use of color in my paintings is of paramount importance to me.  Through color I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.”

there was a gorgeous show of her work at the Studio Museum of Harlem in 2016.You can read about it here.
https://www.artsy.net/show/the-studio-museum-in-harlem-alma-thomas

Three extraordinary women, so different, so amazing.
 They make me want to keep working.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The Sea

.My friend, Jim, took his elderly father to the beach. The old man sat all day watching the waves and as the sun began to set he said, in wonder,

“It never gets tired.”

 That makes me think of this poem by Mary Oliver:

“I go down to the shore in the morning

and, depending on the hour, the waves

are rolling in or moving out,

and I say, Oh, I am miserable,
what shall–
what should I do? And the sea says,
in its lovely voice:
“Excuse me, I have work to do.”

The sea may never get tired, and it may have work to do, but we’re putting an enormous burden on it.  It’s choking to death on plastic garbage.

What can we do about it?  When I walk on the beach I try to remember to take a bag and pick up trash.  People see me and thank me and I think, “You could do it too.” 
But what do I do with what I pick up?  I put it in a trash can but can I trust the ones who empty the trash to dispose of it properly?   And what’s proper disposal?  Whee does it all go?

 I carry a reusable bag to the store, and I only buy vegetables that aren’t wrapped in plastic but plastic is extremely difficult–actually impossible–to avoid.   I’m making a collection of plastic bottle caps with some kind of art project in mind but really that will just eventually end up as trash.  I feel overwhelmed.

How did we get here? 

Fat Free Ocean

 “Fat Free Ocean” is by my friend and neighbor, Stephen Hall, husband of my pal, Samantha. You can see more of his work at

 

He addresses big questions with exquisitely crafted, powerful images in oil paint.  You should see what he does with guns.

The question I’ve been wrestling with and we all should ask ourselves is; why are we using indestructible materials for things we use once and throw away?  Because they’re cheap?  they’re not at all cheap when you factor in what they do to the earth.
 Midway Island, halfway across the Pacific Ocean, is drowning in plastic garbage. We’ve all seen pictures of birds who’ve died with a belly full of plastic crap.
We drink water to keep ourselves healthy and we value its purity but we drink it out of a plastic bottle and then the earth chokes on it.

My Dad used to say, “If everyone picked up just one piece of litter everyday, it would clean up the city. Nice thought.
So I’ve taken to picking up garbage on the street.  Every piece of plastic I see makes me think of what it will do to a fish or a bird.  When I see those styrofoam peanuts flying around I can’t breathe.
Do you think I’m crazy?

The Sea is Rising

June is the Month of Dads and Brides

Sunday is Father’s Day,  so here’s an album of some of my favorite Dads.   This is my grandfather, Harry Brown, with my mother and her big brother, Alan.  Sorry it’s so fuzzy, but I love this picture. Note the Model T in the background.

My Dad and his Dad, Robert Swanson, Sr. and Jr. I can tell by the shadows and their clothes that it’s early morning and they’re about to start a big work project.

Dad and his three sons, clockwise from Dad, Alan, Robby and Larry.

Arthur with Jessie and Sam.

My brother, Rob, and his daughter,  Katie.

Last weekend the Bob and Ginny branch of the Swanson clan met on a mountaintop in Vermont with the Pratt family and a multitude of friends to celebrate Katie and Eben’s wedding.

As Justice Anthony Kennedy said, 

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.”  

Now marriage is for everybody.

This month we celebrate Loving Day, the anniversary of Loving v. Virginia, the aptly named 1967 Supreme Court decision which vacated the two 1-year sentences of Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter Loving who each pled guilty to a law criminalizing marriage between persons of different races, on the grounds that the Virginia statutory scheme violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. 

That decision was relied upon in U.S. v. Windsor, which granted Edith Windsor a marriage exemption of $363,053 after her Canadian-wed wife passed away and the IRS denied her estate tax refund, striking down the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional in the process. 

It was most recently cited in Obergefell v. Hodges, which held that Michigan, Kentucky, Ohio, and Tennessee’s statutory definition of marriage violated the Fourteenth Amendment and recognized a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawful licensed and performed out-of-state.

On June 26, 2015, when that decision was announced, my neighborhood bloomed with signs that said, “LOVE WINS!”  

At my church this Sunday we’ll have heart shaped sugar cookies and chocolate kisses to share the sweetness because love is love is love.

 

 

June 6, 1944

One of the highlights of my week is opening the mailbox and seeing the New Yorker cover.  It’s alway a treat.  Sometimes it’s just a nice picture but more often the artist pinpoints a moment in our collective consciousness.  Like the silhouette of Notre Dame cathedral before a fiery background, titled “Our Lady.”

It makes universal a grief that transcended national and religious differences.  Our Lady survived the fire and the people are already at work restoring her.  There are flames behind her but the orange and yellow could also be the sunrise and we’re reminded that “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot put it out.”

As Francoise Mouly, the New Yorker’s art director, said in an interview with Lawrence Weschler, “The artist doesn’t function in a vacuum.  He doesn’t create the feeling that is in the air, but he has a way of catalyzing it and forcing one’s attention to it.”

I have a book of all the New Yorker covers from the very first, February 1, 1925 up to 1989.  It’s a treasure. All those issues, all exactly the same size, week after week. One in particular grabs my attention—July 15, 1944-and today is a good day to talk about it. It commemorated D Day, the invasion by allied forces on the coast of occupied France.

The artist, Rea Irvin, depicted the planning and execution of that monumental effort in the style of the Bayeux Tapestry. 

What’s the Bayeux Tapestry? It’s not actually a tapestry but embroidered wool on linen. Measuring 20 inches by 230 inches, it  un-scrolls from left to right like a movie reel to tell the story of a momentous event in our history.

1066 is a date everyone knows; the Battle of Hastings and William the Conqueror are familiar to us all from History class. Remember the story? Duke William of Normandy decided to cross the English Channel and invade England.  He gathered his forces at Saint Valery-sur-Somme, building long boats, powered by wind and oars, big enough to carry soldiers and horses.

 

Then he crossed the Channel and landed at Pevensy. He defeated Edward the Confessor, King of England, at the Battle of Hastings,

became William the Conquerer, and ruled England. It’s a turning point in Western Civilization. 

 

     In the days before Gutenberg the Bayeux Tapestry told this story  and preserved it for history.

     Then comes 1944, and the world  is overrun by the forces of evil—Nazi Germany occupies most of Western Europe.  Now an invasion is planned to cross the channel again, not to conquer France but to liberate her. This was Operation Overlord, the largest seaborne invasion in history, the greatest amphibious operation ever launched. It was a mighty endeavor, a great and noble undertaking.

Rea Irwin told the story with the same colors as we see in the tapestry. Instead of 23 by 230 inches, he had only 7 by 10 inches to tell the story, so he used a comic book format. 

     In the first row of images we see the Allied leaders planning in secrecy; King George of England, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.  Then we see Field Marshall  Montgomery and Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, (I don’t know why Irwin made the slim Eisenhower so chubby.) Above them are the words, “George Rex, absit invidia: Monty et Ike.” “Absit invidia” means “no offense.” It was meant to deflect the evil eye, “lest the hubris of the braggart attract jealous deities.” There were all sorts of prayers being raised. This was a daring venture with much depending on the weather and no guarantee of success.  When it was time,  Eisenhower said, “Okay, Let’s go.”  

In the second row, the invasion—landing craft loaded with troops, soldiers coming to shore, one swimming, and in the background a massive fleet of battle ships with planes and parachuters overhead.  Above, as in the tapestry, are the words “Mare Navigavit” or “sail the sea” and the date, June 6,1944 AD in Latin numerals.  What would William the Conquerer have thought of such a navy? 6,000 ships!

In the third row is the battle; one frame shows tanks and a soldier with a bayonet confronting the Nazi’s in green uniforms. Above this image it says “Bayeux-June VII; allied forces landed there the next day. In the next frame Cowardly Hitler hides under a table in his bunker. Above him it says “sic semper tyrannis.”  On the bottom we see rats fleeing.

This was the triumph of democracy over totalitarianism.    This week, the seventy-fifth anniversary, everyone will be making speeches and honoring the brave sacrifice of so many. We mustn’t forget that they saved the world.

I admire the way this artist memorialized it for us.  By replicating the style of the Bayeux tapestry, Rea Irvin placed the Normandy Invasion firmly in the annals of history, in the company of heroic events.

               

 

 

   Here is a painting that has fascinated me for years.

Young Virgin Spanking the Infant Jesus In Front of
Three Witnesses

                                         by Max Ernst, 1891-1976

     I first saw this at the Museum of Modern Art—I think it was a show about surrealism but I can’t find it on MOMA’s website.  It’s a shocking painting, almost six feet tall as I remember it.  Mary is sitting in a shadowy corner of a de Chirico like space before a bright blue sky,  spanking the heck out of the toddler Jesus—so hard his little bottom is bright red and his halo has fallen to the ground.  It’s a violent image—all sharp angles and brilliant colors.  She wears a  red dress and her lap is covered with a blue robe. Her arm is high over her head—she’s really letting him have it. And she’s doing it in front of witnesses; there’s a window through which Ernst and his friends, Paul Elard and Andre Breton are watching. Why are they there? Their presence is creepy and voyeuristic.

    It knocked me out and raised a ton of questions.   At first I thought it might be a response to Ernst’s grand tour of Europe’s great museums and cathedrals and a glut of simpering Madonnas.

     John Russell said Ernst’s anger dates back to the death of his sister, Maria.  Ernst blamed his father, the Catholic Church and God.

     I didn’t think much about Mary as I grew up; my grandmother never mentioned her. I think she didn’t want to tell me what a virgin was.  I can hear the conversation,

    “What’s a virgin?”

    “Well, she wasn’t married. “

    “Then how could she have a baby?”

    “Well, her husband didn’t know her.” 

    “How could they get married if he didn’t know her?”

    MomMom was relieved to keep Mary in the background. Ernst made Mary the center of our attention.

    Now that I know what a virgin is and how babies are made, I’m taking a closer look at Mary. So much of what I feel about her comes from the way artists, mostly men, have depicted her.They’ve fleshed her out for me. Let’s  begin with the Annunciation, where the Angel Gabriel tells Mary that she’ll get pregnant and give birth to the son of God.

   
     Dante Gabriel Rossetti made her look like a patient in an asylum. She can’t get far enough away from him and his lily.  She seems to be saying “Whatever you have in mind, just forget it!” 

     In Fra Angelico’s Annunciation the way she holds her stomach makes me think she’s about to be sick but then I see that her hands are mirroring Gabriel’s hands. And she says, “Oh, Ok.” 

    And then she sings the beautiful song that Bach wrote for her—The Magnificat; “My soul doth magnify the Lord.”  

         She’s all in. Traveling on a donkey in her ninth month?  That can’t have been fun. Giving birth in a stable?  Not something you want to try for yourself.

        I remember the moment when I had had enough of natural childbirth and said, “OK, give me some drugs.” The cheerful little nurse said “Nope, too late.”  I wanted to kill her, and the feeling that washed over me was sheer terror. It only lasted a moment but I haven’t forgotten it.  I had it easy compared to Mary but she gets through it and you don’t hear her complain. She gives birth to a beautiful baby boy.

          This is The Adoration of the Shepherds–I don’t know the artist.

          Look at her face- she really loves that baby. 

     She doesn’t get much time for bonding; pretty soon she’s got company.  She greets them graciously but in her place I might have said, “Thanks for the Frankensence and myrrh but what I could really use is some fresh swaddling clothes.  Maybe now you could all go away and let me sleep.”

    Then she and Joseph have to get out of town, because King Herod is looking for them. He wants to kill the baby.  Back on the donkey and more traveling.

    Finally they get home to Nazareth and settle down to raise Jesus, the Son of God, God in human form, come to earth to rescue humans from their sin.   No pressure there.   

    As all human babies do, Jesus grew and developed a will of his own.  What did he do to set his mother off?  How long did she stay calm, answering his questions, persuading him to eat his supper and go to bed, before she finally lost it?     

       I once heard a child welfare advocate activist say,   

      “Anyone who says, ‘How could you hit a child?’  has never spent a day with a two-year-old.” 

    One of my church friends, at her wits end with her toddler, said, “Was Jesus ever a two-year-old?”  I wanted to show her this painting.  See?  Yes, Jesus was a two-year-old and even Mary could be driven crazy by a two-year-old’s willfulness. 

    What did Max Ernst have in mind when he made this extraordinarily vivid painting? What did putting such anger on the canvas make him feel? Was it cathartic?  I have no idea. Do I care what he intended?  Not really.  He painted it, framed it and hung it up for all to see. That’s the deal when you make art; you send it out into the world and it inspire whatever it may. 

         I only know what it says to me.  It says Jesus, Lord and Savior, the Son of God, was fully and completely human, experiencing everything it means to be human, including a spanking. That’s my take. 
     Once again, art and faith have converged to show me something new and wonderful.  This irreverent painting has deepened my reverence for the heroism and humanity of Mary, the Mother of God.

I Love My Neighborhood

I love my neighborhood, the Far West Village. In our early days here a visitor said, “Wow, You live in the Boonies.”  

We moved into our home in 1981. It was only two blocks from were we had lived but Washington Street was a line of demarcation between the brownstones of the Greenwich Village Historical District and the factories and garages of our new block. It was remote and industrial but the building had an elevator and we were expecting our second child—who turned out to be Sam.  I’d had it with lugging toddler Jessie, the stroller and the groceries to our third floor walk up.  In those days, Skippy peanut butter came in glass jars, and I was mortified that Jessie repeated what I said when I dropped an extra large jar and it smashed.

Our new block stood between two elevated roadways. To get to our place you walked under the  viaduct line of the NY Central Railroad, dodging what the pigeons roosting there dropped on the street. It was now disused but left alone because no-one knew what to do with it. It was right below our windows. t looked like a wild garden.

To the west we were only steps away from the beautiful Hudson River but the remains of the Westside Elevated Highway, shut down in 1973 due to lack of maintenance, stood in the way.

 A great debate was raging as to what should replace it but in the meantime it moldered, rusting and crumbling, looking like a sleeping dragon. We never went near it.

Next door to us was the Superior Ink Company where the inks I used in my etchings were made.  Some neighbors didn’t like to smell the ink cooking but it was the aroma of art to me.  Across the street was a smokehouse whose smell I didn’t love; it was definitely not like bacon sizzling in the kitchen.  

Next to that, directly across the street from us, stood what was once a Police stable, then the studio and home of artist Lowell Nesbitt, of the massive flower paintings.  When our building became residential and he feared for his privacy he installed in all his windows large stained glass versions of his paintings—on the second floor vegetables, on the third floor, flowers. 

When he turned on all the lights It was beautiful.  

Lowell celebrated the cocktail hour every evening by inviting the young men who hung around the neighborhood to pose for him.  The entrance to his home was the ramp for the horses, and all the walls were covered with huge drawings of comely, naked young men.

Next door to Lowell was a garage filled with busses and a big sign that said,  “Learn to Drive a School Bus.”  Next door to the garage was a bar.

The meat-packing district was only a few blocks to the north; I mean the real Meat-packing district with real meat packing and a lively, maybe even decadent night life. Remember where Glenn Close lived in Fatal Attraction?  That was our neighborhood. 

In 1989 the remains of the Westside Highway were removed and we could see the river and New Jersey beyond.  We heard rumors about what would come next but not much happened—debate still raged.  We’d take walks there but it was still pretty urban and gritty.

in 1991 the railway spur from Bethune Street To Gansevoort that went by our windows came down and real estate developers came sniffing around. The two now empty corner lots at Washington and West 12th quickly because construction sites. The plan for the building right next to us, 756 Washington Street, included a brick wall just twenty feet from our window but our neighbors got together and persuaded the builders to move to a different corner of the lot.  Phew.  

Lowell Nesbitt moved away and Diane von Furstenburg took over his stable and the smokehouse.   After a few years she sold to a developer and in a twinkling everything-the smoke house, the stable, the garage, Superior Ink, the bar on the corner—it all came down.  Now we had four construction sites on our block, all at the same time and another visitor said, “You live on the block from Hell.” 

Well, not quite. I once overheard a young woman describe an ordeal she had live through,

“it was a living Hell but it could have been worse.”  It wasn’t pleasant but it wasn’t Hell.

Now, I have to say, our block is quite posh. There are two elegant apartment houses across the street.  The doorman at number 385 has the keys to our building and helps out if we forget ours and our doorman’s on a break.  He also keeps extra poop bags just in case. 

The site of the little bar on the corner is still an empty lot, with grass growing.  I look there for dandelions.  

756 Washington Street, which had threatened us with a brick wall has an open court yard planted with birch trees, a lovely little Japanese maple, and a pergola entwined with wisteria.

The Superior Ink site is a 17 story condo named the Superior Building; the doormen wear white gloves and always give us a friendly greeting as we walk by.  And we do walk by, because Hudson River Park has bloomed right under our noses.  Arthur and I walk there almost every evening.

Diane von Furstenberg left the block but she remained in the neighborhood and worked tirelessly to transform the old rail line into The HIghLine, a park that is now a destination for visitors from all over the world.—at least once a week someone with exotic accents asks me how to get there.

My sister-in-law said recently, “This place was pretty scary when you moved in.” Nice of her not to say it back then.  Did we feel scared? Did we feel like pioneers? We were just happy to find a place we could afford with an elevator. Did we know such dramatic changes were coming? We had no idea.

In Vermont they say, if you don’t like the weather wait a minute and it’ll change.  We waited 38 years.  We liked it then and we like it now.

Today is My Mother’s Birthday

Today is my mother’s birthday.  She would have been ninety-two.  I can’t picture her as an old lady; she was vigorous up until the day she collapsed on the golf course.  I’m pretty sure that’s the way she wanted it.

 I was born on her twenty-first birthday.  I once, looking for some love, asked her,

“What was the best birthday present you ever got?”  I thought she’s say, “My darling baby girl.”

She replied, “I guess it was the blue bike I got when I was eight.”

“Hey, what about me?”

“Oh, right.  Well, you were nice too.”  Fishing for compliments never pays off.

 It was nice sharing a birthday with Mom. She was energetic and creative and I’d always have a great party.  Then Dad would do something nice for her.  The year I turned nine and she turned thirty I had the first slumber party of all my friends, and the next night Mom and Dad went into the city to have dinner and see The Music Man.  They brought home the cast album and I can still sing every song.

I have many gifts from my mother. One of them is Myopia.  And I ‘m grateful for it. 

When I met Arthur he was directing a play that had this line,

“The whole family was blind as bats; around that dinner table there were thousands of dollars worth of ground glass.”  

“That’s funny, don’t you think? But unrealistic.” Arthur said.

“Well,” I said. “Maybe not…”  That was a pretty fair description of my family’s dinner table. 

When I was eight Mom noticed that I was squinting and a new ritual began.  Going to the eye doctor was important enough that I could skip school and Mom and I made a day of it.  We’d get dressed up and take the train into the city. It was the Long Island Railroad, so we probably arrived at the late great Penn Station, and how I wish I could remember that.  

First the appointment, which was no big deal because eye doctors don’t give shots.  I’d pick out a frame, choosing for myself; my first pair was plaid with little scottie dogs at the corners. 

Afterwards we’d go out to lunch, maybe to the Automat, and then shop for a new winter coat. No little brothers, just Mom and me.

When I put those glasses on I was amazed at the change. Now I could see every leaf, every blade of grass without squinting. Maybe my love for drawing fine detail stems from that moment. 

The new sharpness defined my other way of seeing. Without the details the glasses provided I became more aware of color.  I could shut out the world and turn inward, to my dreams and my imagination.  That didn’t serve my school work but it certainly helped my art.

Mom and I were both adept at whipping off the glasses when a camera appeared. In Junior High I only put them on in class.  But it was important to me to see who was walking down the hall so I learned to identify a person’s posture, body shape and gait.  This came in handy when I studied life drawing in art school. 

That’s a lot of benefits from what might have been a disability.  So thank you, Myopia.

And thank you, Mom.  We had lovely times together.

But as I grew up we found plenty to disagree about. She was always in charge and rarely in doubt.  She moved straight ahead, never had second thoughts, and certainly never asked what I thought.   Even to her choice of paper towels.

  She used Scott Towels and I preferred Bounty, which are far superior.  

I’d say,  

“You know, Mom, at the Printmakers’ Workshop we have to clean up heavy printing ink with Benzine, and we find Bounty to be wonderfully absorbent and you can wring it out and re-use it.  Really, you should try it.”  

“Well, I don’t use paper towels much.”  So why were they sitting on her counter?

On my next visit, when I saw she was still using Scott, I said,

“You know, you get much more for your money with Bounty.” No answer and the next time I visited, there were the Scott towels.  Flimsy, un-absorbent, throw-away-after-one-use,  but she was committed to them.  Why wouldn’t she take my advice when I was so obviously in the right?

 

After Dad died she told me she was considering moving to an assisted living community, but she wasn’t sure.  

Then she said, “Maybe you could come with me to check it out.” I looked at her and thought, without saying, “You’re asking me?”  She never asked my advice. It felt like the beginning of a whole new way for us to be together.  But we never had that chance. A month after that conversation Mom collapsed on the golf course and died eleven days later.

Now that she’s gone she lives inside me. I think about her all the time, and replay old conversations.  For instance, I go with Mom to inspect the assisted living facility.  We look around and she says, 

“Well for Heaven’s sake!  They have Bounty towels here!”  She turns to me, her eyes shining with enlightenment, and says, 

“Oh, Barbara, you were right.”  

It’s Almost Mother’s Day

Sometimes the universe, via the grapevine, the internet, the New York Times or the Bible sends me a message that I can’t ignore. This verse, which I had never heard before, is one of those.  I  found it in a hymnal. It’s from Paul’s second letter to Timothy, chapter 1, verse 5.

“I am reminded of your sincere faith that lived first in your grandmother and your mother and now lives in you. I remind you to rekindle this gift of God for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but a spirit of power and love and self-discipline.”

I thought of my grandmother, Louise Russell, and her daughter in law, Ginny Brown, my mother.  MomMom and Mom. They both married into the Swanson family and both answered to the name Mrs. Robert S. Swanson.  

Mom married Dad at nineteen.  On her first Christmas visit to her new family she got into a pillow fight with her husband, his little sister and three brothers.  MomMom stormed into the room to quiet them down, saying, “Now that’s enough!  I want quiet and that means You-and you, and you, and you, and you, and…” she looked at her new daughter-in-law and giggled.

They were two very different Presbyterian women who loved each other dearly. They both loved Jesus, MomMom with her whole heart and Mom with a few reservations.  

When I was five, and I know I was five because we were living with my grandparents and we moved away when I started first grade, I heard Mom say to MomMom as she heard a song on the radio, 

“Oh, I love this song, ‘Under a Blanket of Blue.’”  It was a pop song and I knew even then that MomMom didn’t approve. She only liked hymns. She didn’t hold with drinking, dancing or smoking. 

Mom’s idea of fun included all three but she never smoked around MomMom.  “When I’m with her I don’t even feel like smoking,” she said.  I understood that.  When I was with MomMom I wanted to be just like her but sometimes it felt like her way involved too much saying no. 

When I was fifteen I tried once again to be a Christian the way MomMom was.  I told Mom. “I’ve asked Jesus to come into my heart—I’m going to be born again,” or something like that.  Mom’s reply was, “Well, OK, but not for too long.”  As always, she didn’t explain herself but I got the point.  She didn’t like the restrictions.  

Recently I had a dream that I was staying in the guest room at MomMom’s house.  It was on the second floor but I found a door and walked out into a beautiful garden, with a fountain and birds singing.  I asked her, “How come I never knew about that garden?”

She replied, “I didn’t think it was safe for you to know about that.”  

Mom loved MomMom dearly and respected her, but didn’t follow her blindly.  She thought you could love Jesus and also go to the prom.  It’s a balance I‘ve been thinking about all my life.  I think these two women  together showed me a spirit of power, love and self-discipline.