A mobile in motion leaves an invisible wake behind it, or rather, each element leaves an individual wake behind its individual self … a slow, gentle impulse.
–Alexander Calder, 1973
Feet and knees aching like an old woman’s, I’m seated in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts exhibit titled “Hyman Bloom: Matters of Life and Death.” It’s my first visit since my mother died.
I’d come to see the photographs in the Howard Greenberg Collection, a stunning collection of 447 photos that chronicle American and European lives during the mid-20th Century.
In my early teens, it was Walker Evans’ work that awoke me to the power of black and white photography. This collection has surprisingly few Evans prints, but I lingered in front of one I’d never seen before: Negroes’ Church, South Carolina, 1936. It’s a typical Evans photo – unpeopled and austere – but today it strikes me as something almost threatening. Immediately below the roof over the entrance, two dark, shadowed windows look like the cut-out eye holes in a Klansman’s hood, the vertically paneled door the mouth.
Why am I now seeing menace where I once saw pride and light? After all, I don’t yet know that the COVID-19 pandemic will strike in six weeks, that this will be my last outing to the museum for the foreseeable future.
I brought my mother here frequently in the last few years of her life. Though her legs worked well enough, chronic light-headedness from Parkinson’s Disease had made it impossible for her to stand or walk for more than a couple of minutes at a time. But sitting, gazing, waiting for the oblivious viewers in front of her to step away and finally give her an unimpeded view of the canvas –she could be transported, not just pushed from place to place.
Since returning to art-making in her retirement, forty years after taking her first painting class, my mother’s own work was wildly variable. You couldn’t look at anyone painting or collage or small sculpture and recognize it as distinctively hers. She had no Blue Period or Spanish Series or set of Mountain Montages. Other than her frequent use of text – found or painted, single words or scraps of small, dense classified ads, instruction manuals, canned food labels, Chinese funeral paper, or brochures for travel or cosmetics or political candidates – her art had no defining characteristic, at least not to my uneducated eyes. You could only say that it – that she – was restless. And though physically cautious, in her art she was utterly fearless.
For a long time, I confused her lack of fear with lack of discipline. She’d had a comfortable, even pampered youth and – always hungry for new experiences – readily indulged her impulses.
I was about to write that she had expensive taste, but that’s wrong. She had a distinctive taste. Her physical environment mattered enormously to her; any place with streaming natural light where she could knock down walls and repaint the ones that were left would qualify as a structure she’d like to call home. That didn’t necessarily mean spending a lot of money – my parents never had a new car, and I don’t think my mother ever purchased a new piece of furniture until she was in her late 70s – but it often did, simply because she craved change.
Which perhaps is why the art she loved on those museum outings was so eclectic.
“When you extend yourself, you can’t possibly know what you’re doing.” She is reading a quote from an interview with Alex Katz. “That’s been my experience,” she says cheerily.
We are studying Katz’s huge, bold painting of his wife Ada. Pink lipstick, beige skin, a hint of shadow under the chin, and an enormous, floppy black hat against a yellow background – the portrait is simple and bold and flat and, to my eyes, utterly decorative; a piece of hotel art but with brighter colors. But my mother’s seeing something else in it, something more. She’s seeing Ada’s confidence, her ease with posing, and Katz’s comfort with color manifested in that canvas. She will subsequently treat herself to a large, vinyl purse bearing that image in the gift shop.
For the four remaining years of her life, everyone she meets will comment on the splendor of that handbag.
Our last trip to the MFA together was in August, seven months before she died. My brother and nieces were visiting from out of town, conscious that the opportunities for time together were likely dwindling. My mother was by now chronically fatigued and in pain, washed out like a faded image, lacking in the contrasts that had so defined her.
We were at the museum to see a Mark Rothko exhibit. I was drawn to the multiform works, huge striped canvases in which each bar of color melts into the next. My mother asked to be parked in front of the two black canvases, each gleaming in a way that seemed to repel my gaze. But she took their impermeability as a challenge, determined to see how the darkness was made.
As we were getting ready to leave, my niece asked her what she thought of the exhibit.
“I wish I’d had his patience,” she told us. “That was never my strong suit.” She was, by now, after two years of diminishing capacity and increasing pain, impatient for death.
Suddenly a siren sounded. A loudspeaker voice instructed everyone to evacuate the building. We hustled to the elevator, the squeak of her chair’s rubber wheels against the polished floor now audible in the empty building, but the elevator had been automatically disabled. The only way out was via the stairs.
We made our way to a beautiful staircase – long and skylight-lit, with shallow risers and marble steps. My niece – who loved my mother and loved Rothko with quiet tenacity – helped her grandmother rise from her wheelchair, folded it, and carried it down the stairs. Then, with my husband at my mother’s side and me facing her one stair below, she grabbed the gleaming chrome handrail firmly in arthritic hands and began to sidestep her way down. We moved to a rhythm that was slow but staccato; as her right foot touched each new stair, mine would do the same. Like a Lady-in-Waiting, I held up the hem of her dress so that she wouldn’t trip on it. Every few steps, we’d stop for a moment to let her rest.
Sirens wailed and now we could hear the fire engines rumbling into the parking lot. With agonizing deliberation, we made our way down the thirty or so steps, and when my niece snapped open the wheelchair to embrace her as she finally arrived at the first floor, my mother did not sink into it. Rather, she slowly, regally lowered herself, as if this mode of transport was suddenly a choice rather than a necessity.
Then she reached over her shoulder to cover my niece’s hand, which rested on the back of the wheelchair. She looked longingly at the vacant first-floor gallery as she was pushed out the door.
“Great job, Grammy,” my niece said.
“Not bad for an old lady,” she acknowledged.
But I was still thinking about her on our way down the steps. Are you okay? I’d asked. She’d nodded yes, her jaw loosening and her deep brown eyes brightening as the choreography became more practiced. I’d silently berated myself for asking since her answer didn’t matter, since we had no choice but to do what we were doing, to cocoon her descent.
The first time I stood in my high school’s darkroom with my classmates was to develop a roll of 35 mm film. The deep red safety light illuminated only enough to reveal the silhouettes of our bodies. After days of practicing how to pry off the lid of the film canister with a can opener, thread the unspooling film onto a reel, and place the reel into the development tank, we were finally doing it for real. The darkness, the intense focus on my own fingertips and the concentration that the task required, the silence except for the breathing of the other kids and occasional quietly muttered curse – it all felt vaguely sexy.
My anticipation only heightened when we emerged into the fluorescent light of the classroom to pour the developer we’d premixed into our tanks. After ten minutes, we poured it out, rinsed the still-encased film for a couple of minutes, then poured in the liquid that would “fix” the image, preventing the film from darkening any further where it had been exposed to light. After giving the film a final rinse, we unscrewed the lids of our tanks, lifted out the reel, and gently pulled off the vinegary-smelling negatives, sticky to the touch.
I was bowled over. There was a strip of tiny, chromatically reversed images, just like the kind I’d gotten in envelopes from the drugstore. I’d done this – seemingly made something out of nothing.
But the wonder of developing film paled next to the magic of making a print.
I’d shot a roll of moody images – spiky tree branches reaching out against a darkening sky, a crow standing sentry on the peak of a roof, a white-maned man with a flaring white beard who I’d surreptitiously shot as he sat on a park bench berating an invisible companion, numerous brooding sunsets, and a photo or two of my older brother, one foot resting on a tree stump, goateed and somber.
The first one I printed was the tree, sensing that its contrast with the sky would be vivid and gripping. It was, but the theatricality of the image was surpassed by the drama of its emergence. The creases of clouds, the thorny twigs at the branches’ tips – these were signs of a latent world released from the paper, inanimate but somehow alive. And that miracle was repeated with every print I made that day – a different image surfacing from the inscrutable white surface of the 5” x 7” sheet as if that image and only that image had been there all along.
I did a lot with that first set of negatives. I played with double-exposures, superimposing the bearded, messianic face of the homeless man against the brooding sky to present the face of a dazed and angry God. Layering one set of tree branches on top of another in the enlarger, I created dense thickets out of what had been individual trees.
My pictures were corny and melodramatic; the clumsy card tricks of a child magician. But I was an adolescent and the process of making them instantiated all that I was feeling each day. It forced me to imagine what could be conjured, to quite literally see possibilities.
And that anticipatory seeing informed what I did behind the camera lens. I learned to recognize when and where a great shot might compose itself. In the Guggenheim Museum, I stood at the banister of the winding ramp, finger on the shutter, knowing it was just a matter of time before some person would peer into the glass case housing a metal face, jutting and angular, presenting the same profile as the sculpture they were studying. I found the spot in the public bathroom where I could capture the faces of women studying their reflections in the mirror without being in the shot myself. On a ferry boat in Greece, I saw the lined, kerchiefed old face I wanted to photograph, and hid patiently behind my friend until I could snag it in the frame.
During my first year of college, I got to use the dorm’s darkroom only occasionally. And when I did, it was usually just to develop and print the photos I was dutifully and increasingly, resentfully taking for the school newspaper. Pictures of City Council meetings – white men in white nylon shirts that revealed the outlines of their white undershirts – were over-exposed and boring. My photos of actors rehearsing had all the verve of paper doll dioramas. Even the anti-war demonstrations that I attended with and without my camera were wholly lacking in rage or joy.
My assigned images looked like homework. By sophomore year, I’d moved on.
Without the sad, frantic wisdom born of aging, I didn’t yet know that I needed to nurture what I loved.
I almost left the museum today without looking at Hyman Bloom’s work. I’ve never heard of him and would have skipped the exhibit were it not for the old-world Jewishness of his name, one I associate with a schemata manufacturer or the guy slicing smoked meat at the deli. I picture the artist as a man with bags the size of butt cheeks under his eyes, a smoker’s cough, and a sense of humor that careens between crude and sly.
Instead what I see in the black-and-white portrait near the entrance is a man with fine features – a thin nose and penetrating dark eyes peering out over a thick black beard. A cowlick popping up from the middle of his scalp makes him look young and earnest.
The rooms are painted a deep, rich blue and the gallery is almost empty—a respite after the brightness and din of the photography exhibit. But while dim, the walls are not muted, as the colors on so many of these canvases are luminous, as glorious as any I’ve ever seen. Still, some of these pictures are hard to look at – the ones of corpses and severed limbs that Bloom painted for years after watching autopsies being performed.
In The Hull, a pair of knife-wielding hands lifts an intact rib cage from a young body draped backward over an autopsy table. The ribs look like meat, but also like the framework of a ship, still sturdy and robust. In Torso and Limbs, body parts are heaped askew-like pieces of laundry. But one leg atop the pile ends in a beautiful ballet foot, its pointed toes commanding our gaze upwards and out at the glowing dawn sky surrounding the stack, all yellows and soft pink, orange, and blue.
I quickly look away from these canvases, finding refuge in the text next to each. Of his experiences in the anatomy lab to witness the dissections he would ultimately paint, Bloom said, “On the one hand, it was harrowing. On the other hand, it was beautiful – iridescent and pearly. It opened up avenues for feelings not yet gelled; it had a liberating effect … As a subject, it could synthesize things for me. The paradox of the harrowing and the beautiful could be brought into unity.”
These are the words of a true mystic. Raised in an orthodox Jewish family, Bloom was a Latvian immigrant whose spiritualism changed course when he discovered the music of India and the writings of Sri Ramakrishna and Madame Blavatsky. His favorite subjects appeared to be rabbis, chandeliers, corpses, cantors, and fish. In all of them, he saw radiating light. In death and decay, he saw life shining out.
He became a believer in reincarnation, in the absence of endings.
In the days after my mother’s surgery for colon cancer, I saw both decay and radiance.
When I was finally able to see her hours after her operation, she was lying in bed, deeply sedated. Her bottom dentures were out, she was devoid of make-up, her thinning white hair was plastered to her scalp, and a nasal-gastric tube pumped bilious green fluid from her stomach into a canister behind her with indifferent efficiency. She would have been repellent to me if she were a stranger. But her lips were moving, and the sounds coming out of her mouth – some of them recognizable words – were musical and sweet.
In the moments before being wheeled to the operating room, she had been chatting with the two young anesthesiologists, asking them about their histories and interests and families, her curiosity about others unabated.
Despite the early hour, her eyes were clear, her blood pressure perfect. She was as relaxed as someone settling in with their popcorn to watch a movie they’d been looking forward to. She still ferociously loved life, she said but believed she’d led a good one and seemed to feel that her death, whenever it came, would not be a tragedy.
That’s what I thought then. Now I’m struck by my willful naivete.
In discussing Hamnet, her book about the death of Shakespeare’s son, Maggie O’Farrell referred to the fear of loss as “love turned inside out, like a glove.”
For the last three days of her life, my mother was unconscious, or at least I didn’t have any sense of what was going on inside her. But it seemed that the only fear in the room was mine.
I eventually tired of my obsession with the Great Depression photos that were intended to represent more than their subjects and began studying images that were deliberately non-iconic.
I was especially enraptured by the psychological intimacy of Esther Bubley’s photography. She managed to make herself invisible. How else could she have captured the pale face of a lone woman at The Sea Grille Bar and Restaurant in a photo that is luminous and longing; it is creamy and human in a room that is all angles and shadow. Melting into the walls of a three-room New York apartment, Bubley frames the startled face of a new mother jolted out of her ironing by the sound of her child’s wail. Looking at it, I’m transfixed by the woman’s dark eyes, which while staring intently, are looking inward, as if she is straining to hear her own thoughts.
Shadows can be so richly read. Though I view and admire color photographs, they interest me less as time goes on. They feel embellished. Now in my sixties, I find that I want less, not more – less stuff, less stimulation. Black and white pictures are intrinsically sparer. They help me focus my attention, to see what is hidden by the verisimilitude of color. Because they have less visual information, what’s there feels more essential.
I thought I saw a flare of iridescent blue in the sky soon after the death of my Uncle Herbie – a man who had been a second father to me. Even in that moment, I knew I was projecting my desire to believe in a soul, in some unique essence that, freed from the body, finds a new form. I was choosing to flirt with an unfounded faith. Soon after, and ever since, I’ve read books about neuroscience, seeking evidence for what I want to but don’t quite believe.
“The illusion is irresistible,” wrote neuroscientist Paul Broks in his 2003 essay collection, Into the Silent Land. “Behind every face, there is a self. We see the signal of consciousness in a gleaming eye and imagine some ethereal space beneath the vault of the skull, lit by shifting patterns of feeling and thought, charged with intention. An essence. But what do we find in that space behind the face, when we look? The brute fact is there is nothing but material substance: flesh and blood and bone and brain. I know, I’ve seen. You look down into an open head, watching the brain pulsate, watching the surgeon tug and probe, and you understand with absolute conviction that there is nothing more to it. There’s no one there. It’s a kind of liberation.”
Was the essence of a person ever there? Broks seemed to be saying no. And now I study Hyman Bloom, who spent his whole lifeaffirming the opposite.
“His paintings of corpses in a state of dismemberment and decay are at once physical records of the molecular process of decay, change, and transformation, and of a spiritual process of substance being transformed into spirit,” art historian Henry Adams said of Bloom.
Adams might have been quoting Bloom directly. This young man, brother, and son to leather workers, to people who cut and pummeled and polished the hides – no, not so euphemistic – the skins of once-living animals into purses and belts, understood something about transformation.
In explaining his glorious, iridescent images of eviscerated corpses, he said, “These paintings are emblems of metamorphosis … I felt there was the possibility of opening a door into what is beyond, to see the mystery beyond the partition …”
Bloom chose not to believe in death as final. With what strikes me as almost pitiable conviction, he said, “Life is not just what we experience on earth. We don’t just die and rot away. That would tell us that life is trivial, and that wouldn’t make sense.”
In his refusal to believe that a soul could simply end, this visually inventive man suffered from a failure of imagination.
Still, I would have expected my gullible mother, always intrigued by the exotic, to be in Hyman’s Bloom’s mystical camp had she known about it. Some of her paintings of imaginary creatures had the look of reincarnated souls gathering for a campfire reunion. But in her last hours of consciousness, she rejected my expressed belief that she would see my father again.
“You mean life after death?” she asked, her narcotized voice slurred and puzzled. “Do you mean heaven?”
“No, not heaven,” I answered. “But people who have died and been revived describe seeing their loved ones at the moment of death. Their memories, their brain’s capacity to envision, make them feel that they are seeing the people they love.”
Slowly, regretfully, she shook her head. “That’s not for me. I want the real thing.”
Though imagination is just as real as fact, it cannot replace it.
A few months after my father’s death, my mother told me that she slept with his pajamas next to her. But beyond that, I know little. Normally forthcoming, my mother carried her grief then and for the rest of her life with fierce and protective privacy.
But when she returned to painting, she was astonished by the colorful, joyful images that she found herself creating.
“He wanted me to get back to art,” she told me, “and he was so proud of my work. I think that’s what I’m channeling.”
Working in acrylics, monotype, collage, and mixed media, her art during those years was bold. Great big canvases, invented mythical creatures, glitter and rubber, and ink tussling and colliding in golds and greens and crimson. Subtle it was not, but it had the kinesthetic wisdom she’d shown as a younger woman.
Back then, for most of my childhood and young adulthood, her body was her comfortable home, not her prison. She was a tentative skier, a reluctant skater, but that woman could dance. Even when seriously overweight and suffering from arthritic knees, she and my father could waltz and jitterbug with such lightness that they seemed to float over the floor. Even after breaking her pelvis, then losing her balance to Parkinson’s Disease, she’d carefully wheel her walker into the shallows of Walden Pond, then let go and plunge into the water, legs kicking, arms stroking, head-turning methodically for breath, determinedly swimming to nowhere.
But in time, even sitting upright made her feel faint, and bursitis in her hips made lying down an ordeal. Torn rotator cuffs in her shoulders made raising and lowering her arms to dress, let alone to paint, increasingly difficult. And with spiraling sensitivity, she felt the slightest breeze as an assault. Her extraordinary antennae, once so attuned to pleasure, had flipped their poles.
How did she go from pain’s conqueror to its victim? Slowly, at first reluctantly, and then, crossing some neurological threshold in her last six months, with adamant surrender.
During the pandemic, I’ve been taking an online drawing class. Today our teacher told us to select a picture of someone important to us and create a sketched portrait from the photograph.
The photo I chose was taken at a party held for my mother two years after my father died. In it, her head, its newly white hair framing her tan face, is tilted to the right. She is smiling and gesticulating as she speaks, her left hand a blur of manicured nails and turquoise rings.
I’m a terrible artist. The faces I sketch are typically marked by broken noses, gapped teeth, jug ears, grotesque smiles, and terrified eyes. But today I’m meticulous, attentive to the distance between eyebrows and hairline, nostrils and upper lip, erasing and redrawing to get my marks closer to truth.
When I’m done, I prop my sketchpad up on the window and step away from it. What I’ve produced is a pretty good likeness of my grandmother.
My mother’s mother developed Alzheimer’s disease in her early 70s. Her descent into dementia wasn’t evident from the photos I took of her during her last summer of independence, in which she still appears as the delicate, elegant woman I’d grown up with. Her high, rounded cheekbones presided over a face that hadn’t yet sunk, her silver hair was perfectly coiffed, and the milky crescents on her manicured fingernails lent her arthritic hands an exotic beauty.
Before she stopped speaking altogether, my grandmother – seeking help or treats or comfort – called her daughter Mommy.
That definitive role reversal haunted my mother, and the awful prospect of it haunted me. And of course, in the last month of her life, what I feared finally occurred. During an episode of night terrors, she pleaded with her aide Sandra to “Please call my mother.”
But by the time she lay in her room at the long-term care hospital – the place where she died eleven days after arriving – she seemed to have forgotten that experience.
Heavily sedated, she woke up long enough to ask me, “Did Daddy die?”
“He did,” I answered. “He died nine years ago.”
“I miss him,” she murmured, then drifted back to sleep, probably before even hearing me respond “I do too.”
But later I wondered: was she asking about my father or hers? When she’d asked Sandra to “call my mother,” did she mean me or did she mean her mother? Was she confused, or was I just making myself the center of her story?
I still take pictures, but those taken on my phone are generally dull and indistinguishable. My fingers are clumsy; pinching and zooming feels like a distraction from the process of seeing, not integral to it the way that manually changing the F-stop and focusing the lens still does.
But even when shot with a camera, the pictures I take now aren’t nearly as good as those from my high school years. I’ve lost both speed and attentiveness. I’m less alert to where and when the great picture is going to present itself, and even when I know, my finger and eyes fail to grab it. It’s as if I’ve lost sight of possibilities or am too slow to catch them.
The problem isn’t just age, though. It’s that I’m generally shooting in color. Black and white film needs less light than color film, so you can use faster shutter speeds to catch smaller moments, moments where all four of the horse’s feet are off the ground and gravity is seemingly defied. You can also shoot in darker places where the stars, stories, and endings aren’t evident.
After my father died, it took months before I could retrieve any memories of him outside of the last few weeks of his life. The drive to leave nothing unsaid, the constant tug between needing to care for my parents and for myself and others in my life, my fear of his imminent death and the prospect of liberation from fear – all those forces erected a wall between the consuming present and the decades that had preceded it.
I’m experiencing the same phenomenon with my mother. So until her whole life, her whole self returns to me in memory, I try to make a list of her last good moments.
One is a mid-afternoon in January, in the living room of her Assisted Living facility, where she is giving an illustrated talk titled “My Life in Art.”
“It’s often the materials that guide me through a piece,” she explains when asked where she gets her ideas. “I may start with a concept that is completely open and it grows itself as I paint, collage, layer, elaborate, and strip. I stop when I have a sense that I’ve created something that is whole, with a life of its own.”
I’m once again struck by her fluency, increasingly rare. But more than that, I am delighted to learn what goes on inside her head as she daubs and glues and pauses, tongue sticking out from the corner of her mouth, concentrating with a happy oblivion.
“I started painting landscapes, and never stopped,” she says, stepping through a succession of paintings that start as images of choppy lakes, forbidding trees, verdant and undulating meadows, and the red roofs of rural farmhouses. But then we start seeing collages and abstract paintings, the jagged vitality of skylines and graffiti, recognizable objects like babies, tomatoes, phone poles, gleaming fish and upended shopping carts emerging from the visual din. “These are landscapes too,” she says happily. “Just more interior ones.”
As she gets to her more recent work, the colors tend to be more muted, but also more playful in their interactions. The canvases are less dense, with more open space. “As I developed Parkinson’s Disease, I had to start working on smaller surfaces,” she explains. “I began compensating for the limitations in my own movement by making images that had a lot of animation. In this collage, you see a lot of forms and shapes, a lot of crisscrossing. Animation, though, is the main thing I felt when creating this.”
She is telling us how she learned to thrive within constraints.
Here is another moment. It is a Saturday morning. I’ve let myself into her Assisted Living apartment and found her sitting on the closed toilet, wet white hair still dripping, wrapped in a bright turquoise bath towel. She is pink-cheeked, cozy, and animated as she commiserates with Mikah, one of the aides at her facility who has just helped her shower, about the challenges of raising a teenage daughter. Her face lights up as I enter the bathroom. “But after the hell of teenage years,” she tells Mikah, reaching out to cup my cheeks in her hands and pull me towards her for a kiss, “you end up with this at the other side. A wonderful daughter.”
Mikah, a woman with the same extravagant warmth as my mother, smiles broadly. “You promise?”
My mother solemnly claps her hand over her heart.
The death certificate showed “Failure to Thrive” as the cause of my mother’s passing.
“This condition is most commonly seen in the frail elderly who may not have one specific terminal illness, but may have one or more chronic illness,” explains a Stanford palliative care site. “In the absence of a known terminal illness, these patients often have poor appetite, loss of weight, increased fatigue, and a progressive functional decline.” Another search yields a list of all the symptoms she had – these, plus difficulty swallowing and, most shockingly, “despair.”
When she could no longer thrive, my mother died of despair.
Fifteen years after Paul Broks wrote about what doesn’t lie behind the face, he wrote another book about the nature of consciousness. This one was inspired, at least in part, by the death of his wife, and in it, he shows signs that his thinking had changed.
“The Victorian artist Samuel Palmer said a picture was ‘something between a thing and a thought.’ The same can be said of a person,” he said. “Painting and human bodies are physical objects that can be weighed, measured, and analyzed in different ways, structurally, chemically, and so on. But in each case the material form is only a part of what we see. When we look at a picture, Palmer’s Cornfield by Moonlight, say, it’s not the paper, the paint, the ink and varnish we see. It’s not just the depiction of a man and his dog in a wheat field under the light of the waxing crescent moon and the evening star. We are transported beyond the physical and the literal into the numinous, into a world of gods and spirits. Something similar happens when we look at one another. We can’t help it, even if we don’t believe in gods and spirits.”
I’ve never seen Cornfield by Moonlight, but I think he’s saying that the soul isn’t something internal or intrinsic or even individual. It’s co-created by two people bound by love, a product of intimacy and the pulsing, durable desire to know and be known.
And now here I am, sitting in front of the last Hyman Bloom painting in the exhibit. My feet are spread far apart on the floor, my hands on either side of my hips pressing into the bench as if, knowing my legs are inadequate to the task, already preparing to push myself up. I’m studying a picture of an old, old woman, nude. Her breasts sag down to her belly. Her belly, flaccid and broad, hangs over her crotch like a warped and fallen shelf. Her head is tilted, the scalp pink and mottled beneath her sparse white hair. She looks like my mother. But her eyes, penetrating and almost angry, challenge … who? The painter? The viewer?
I sit there, tongue protruding from the corner of my mouth, and realize I have mirrored her pose. I have become the old lady looking back at her.
A friend suggested that I consider the difference between photography and painting or drawing – the art produced with hands as well as eyes.
Photography, I said, is capturing something external. Art is releasing something internal.
My distinction was facile and probably false. But the tension between capture and release, that’s real.
I fell in love with photography when I saw the magic of an image emerging like a birth. But once there, while it can fade, it can never vanish back into the paper. Which is more like death – the vanishing or the persisting? And what is mourning but a desperate attempt to reel in the essence of the person we have so fiercely loved and also the letting go?
After months of remembering only his last days, I saw my younger, healthier father in a dream. We were in the kitchen making peanut butter and banana sandwiches together. It was the perfect memory of a man who found and made magic in the quotidian details of life.
Similarly, about six months after her death, my mother returned in all her glory one late August afternoon at a lake in southwestern Vermont. The rippling glitters of orange leaves reflected in the water reminded me of a boat ride she and my daughter Katie had taken in our beloved Lac Archambault.
Katie couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old, because my mother was still fit enough to row out to the middle of the lake. Swimming alongside them, I heard snatches of the songs they sang together. Then, running out of tunes they both knew, my mother cut loose. Adopting a faux operatic soprano, she sang in invented Italian at the top of her lungs, her notes colliding with the mountains and bounding back.
Then and now, in this landscape she loved, I see the oars create a fluid channel. Then, implacable, the water returns. Still, I see a shimmering wake.