I looked up at them, the two older women who meant the most to me in the world.
One was my boss; the other, my mother, facing each other off, fiercely engaged in a battle of what they thought best for me.
Mom: What she needs is insurance, health and life and whatever else she can get!
Elaine: Are you kidding, Eve? Insurance for artists like us, like teZa, is a death sentence.
My mother was absolutely flummoxed. She’d never been talked to in such an authoritative manner, especially when it came to what she thought best for her babies, my one sister and me.
It didn’t matter to her that at the time I was nearly forty. I would always be her baby, even as I grew closer to the age she was then, the day she and Elaine stood side by side, arguing over me.
I felt I was watching them debate about the true meaning of my life, played out by two feisty characters, both representing parts of myself which I now could recognize.
Elaine de Kooning was my spiritual and artistic mentor, the supporter and champion I’d always wanted in my own mom, but never had. My mom and Elaine were born in exactly the same year. Both were in their late sixties then, yet right there their similarities ended. Other than they were both white American women.
They could have been in the same school class, but they’d never have hung out in same gang. My mom was a first generation, all-practical, hard working immigrant farm girl. Her first job was her reward for having quit high school because she didn’t have “proper shoes” to wear. Getting dressed up in a skirt and stockings to earn enough to walk around in good leather shoes, in those pre-WWII days, gave my factory-working mom the self esteem she’d never found in her two years of high school. English was her second language, picked up only when she started to walk the miles to and from school on the outskirts of town. She was smart enough to pick up skills to mask her terrible feelings of inferiority, being a daughter of dirt poor truck farmers.
Ironically, during the Depression it was to her family’s farm that hungry folks flocked to, around Riverside and Burlington, New Jersey. Time after time strangers, mostly men on the move looking for work, would end up sitting in my Grammom’s cozy kitchen, saying, “Yes’m’” when she, Antonina from Lithuania, asked in garbled English, if he’d care for one more fried egg. My mom told us stories of many men who’d eat more than a dozen freshly laid eggs apiece, in one sitting, fried up one by one by Grammom, until they’d had their fill.
Such were the rewards—good healthy food and lots of it—of being a farmer during hard times.
Elaine wasn’t a farm girl but she was definitely a hoarder, as lots of city folk turned out who experienced the Depression’s scarcity. When I started working as Elaine’s assistant, besides cleaning her paint brushes and preparing manuscript pages for my artist/writer mentor, one of my jobs was to help sort out her heaps of belongings.
Having ten or twelve of every pair of shoes, dress, coat or blouse was not what an average person does. “I have to have them,” Elaine simply explained. “Even though I know I’ll never use them. That’s what being poor did to me.”
My mom, just as poor when a child as Elaine, never hoarded clothes. Her Depression scars were borne deeper within, marring her feelings of self worth rather than needing ten instead of just that one special lavender sweater.
I arrived in Elaine’s life via an old fashioned letter, to which I’d attached a snapshot of myself kneeling in front of one of my sculpted screens depicting ordinary-as-sacred images. Maybe it’s because I’m big and strong and Elaine was small and delicate, or maybe it’s because I was just brazen enough to ask if I could be her assistant—but I got a phone call as soon as she received my note.
“I need someone to help me sort out my life,” a smoker’s voice said.
“I’m the one for you, Elaine,” I confidently told her. “Like you, I’m both artist and writer. I know what it’s like to have that kind of complexity going on.”
“When can you start?”
I’d ended up in East Hampton after a decade of living as an ex-pat in the Caribbean, living a sailor’s dreamy existence, setting up businesses wherever my anchor was set. I’d left the USA because its politics and materialism made me mad. Like I tell folks who grumble over our last election, “Try living a decade somewhere else if you don’t like what’s going on here at home.” That’s how I got the grumbles out of my system.
As Elaine and I sorted through her attic-filled, basement-crammed house, I didn’t know she was dying of cancer at the time. I knew she had a bad cough, but she laughed whenever I expressed concern. She was too busy to be sick, she told me. She had paintings to paint, critiques, articles and her memoirs to publish.
“And young artists, like you, teZa, to encourage.”
If she was anything, Elaine was an encourager.
En-courage-er: someone who imparts courage, making others feel braver.
My mom, Eve, was too much of a worrier to have ever encouraged me to do anything other than to get insurance. And, oh yeah, I needed a steady straight job. And a husband with one, too. Mom never looked at my art work; she never asked to read any of my writing. She regarded me as her offspring—supposed to do what she thought best. Art was something to be done only when the real work of life was complete.
With Elaine—at whose doorstep I arrived a complete unknown, working by her side for the last year of her life, cataloging her art and artifacts, her so-called Inadvertent Collection of known and never-to-be-known artists, all of it, junk or treasure, treated in the same respectful, curiosity-fed manner—I grew stronger of heart.
I learned about courage from this tiny woman clad in wispy black crepe, wearing ankle length capes, who loved me as a soul-daughter. She gave me the healing I needed from not having had a supportive birth-mother. On my side now, I had a second mom who rooted for me instead of judged my differences.
I looked at the two women as they stood sparring in my Springs basement studio. Still having cross words—over me!
“I’m telling you she needs a steady job, with insurance,” my tall stiff mother insisted.
“And I’m repeating, Eve,” short graceful Elaine said, “that to someone like teZa, thinking that way will kill her spirit.”
“What do you mean,” mom asked. “How can it kill someone to have insurance?”
“Because,” Elaine said, “if that’s the main objective of a person’s life, to have insurance, or rely on anything other than one’s own driving force, she’d never be able to make this moving, strong, totally original art. She’d just be an ordinary person, not who she is. Having insurance will make her too secure. We artists have different needs.”
I looked up at my two mothers. How I loved them both! My bio-mom and my spirit-mom. Elaine with her soft billowing noir clothes that moved like raven wings as she swung her expressive limbs all about. My visiting-from-the-burbs mom, with her polyester pastel pants suit, stood implacable. Both of them daughters, graduates of the Great Depression’s hardships. Elaine hoarded clothes. My mom hoarded her opinions.
Clearly, the one who’d never had a child of her own was the one now giving me the motherly comfort I yearned for, as a rogue artist. As well as the peer acceptance I’d lately come to wonder if I’d ever get. I loved Elaine especially for this, besides giving me a generous weekly paycheck, sans insurance.
And Mom—she gave me life, the most important gift of all. For that alone I stood in awe of my bio-mom, my gratitude multiplying in the years to come, as I learned to love myself.
Mom’s love had so many mandates, strings, conditions, and expectations. I could never live up to her expectations. They were hers, not mine. But Elaine’s nonstop gush, her just-right formula of sympatico, recognizing a free spirit like hers, freed me.
Today they’re both gone.
I think back upon that remarkable day when both Elaine and Eve, my two most important female role models, met at my place in the Springs. Hovering over me, debating what’s best for the fledgling they thought me—one interested in me and the work I was making, the other interested in only that she’d made me—I remember now how intense this showdown was.
Seeing how two such similar cuts of female, born at the exact same time in history, and how they impacted me and the world around them so very differently.
While Elaine was dead within that year, my mom would live another thirty. Happily, the confidence that Elaine bestowed me, the kind my own mother couldn’t because she had none to give—began right then.
I don’t hold one higher than the other. In my heart, they gave me different aspects of a mother’s true love. Elaine was my spiritual art-mother. It felt as if she’d been waiting for me to come help her, that day she got my request with its wild crazy photo in the mail, with my eighties hair spiked out in platinum streaks.
And Eve, whom we lost just a year ago at age ninety-seven, gave me what her parents gave her. Good basic earthy stuff. A solid foundation. Just like all those eggs Grammom fed strangers. My mom fed me the strength and tenacity of an immigrant’s daughter. Both mother’s magic wands of caring helped me become brave enough to spread more love, in return.