A Portrait of the Mother as a Young Girl

Marlene Adelstein finds herself transported back in time and consciousness via an inherited painting.

Marlene Adelstein | Longreads | December 2018 | 13 minutes (3,190 words)

When Mom sees me, a big smile lights up her face, her blue eyes shine bright, and I give her a hug and kiss. “Hi, Connie,” I say. Although she doesn’t know me any more as her daughter, she seems to recognize my face. I’ve flown down to Florida to visit her in the assisted living facility where, until last year, she lived with my dad. When he suddenly got an infection and needed to be hospitalized, Mom, who has late-stage Alzheimer’s, couldn’t be left alone. It was clear what needed to happen. We moved her one floor down to the locked memory care unit, a necessity that was long overdue. My dad had been her caregiver since her diagnosis but the last couple of years she’d simply become too much for him. He recovered from the infection and moved back to the facility but into a smaller apartment, a one bedroom, where he lived alone for about five months until he had a sudden, dramatic decline in his health and, at 89, died.

Once she moved to memory care, Mom would often ask for my dad by his name, Bernard. He was the last person she remembered. But lately she has asked for Bernard less frequently and now when she sees me she says, “Have you seen the other guy?”

“No,” I say cheerfully. “I came to see you! Want to go out to lunch?” Redirecting is the name of the game to avoid the extremely unpleasant outbursts which my mom is known for. A few times a week she sets off the alarm by opening the door to the stairwell while trying to leave the floor, yelling and flailing as the staff restrains her. Exit seeking, the staff calls it. Connie wants to see her mother, who she claims lives across the street. She shoves caregivers away or pounds on the window overlooking the rehab wing my dad was in for many weeks, where she often visited him. Mother, I’m guessing, represents her husband, her children…home.

Back in her studio apartment after lunch, I give her a book called “Bear Hugs,” a small board book meant for very young children. It contains drawings of animals and the various cute nicknames their loved ones call them. I read it aloud with exaggerated expressions, acting it out. “You’re super cute and cuddly, as sweet as pumpkin pie.” When I get to the end where a mama bear grabs her baby in a bear hug, I demonstrate on her, which makes Mom giggle and smile. She loves that part. “That is so sweet,” she says and she flips through the book. She quickly forgets that we just read it so I go to the beginning and read it to her again. She loves being held and I have to admit, I like it too. I was never particularly close to her but in recent years that’s changed as our roles have reversed and I’ve had to care for this mom-child.

“You’re good,” she says to me after the third time through the book. “Well, thank you,” I say. “So are you,” and again, I get that brilliant smile out of her.

Later when I am getting ready to leave the facility, always a dicey situation, I tell her I have to say goodbye. Sadness descends over her like a curtain and I think she’s going to cry. I give her an effusive bear hug, holding my mother the way I would have held the child I never had. When she asks for her mother and “what’s his name,” I rock her back and forth as if playing a game until I am able to cajole that smile again. “I’ll be back tomorrow, I promise,” I say.

The elevator is taking forever to come so I punch in the code to disarm the alarm and duck into the stairwell to hide my tears, the door clicking shut behind me. I hear Mom screaming “Let me go, I want to go home!” and when the alarm goes off I realize she’s tried to follow me out the door.

***

After my emotional visit, I fly back north. I’d recently moved, and when I walk in to the house I’m greeted by Mom again. But this time it’s only an image. In my dining room, a very large portrait of my mother at age 9, framed in gold leaf, is propped up on a chair. It resided in her childhood home in St. Paul, Minnesota; the assisted living facility in Sarasota, Florida; and every one of her residences in between. It has always been in my life in some way too. In the house where I grew up, in Cleveland, it hung above the piano.

In my dining room, a very large portrait of my mother at age 9, framed in gold leaf, is propped up on a chair.

The painting is mine now, shipped to me from Florida after my siblings and I cleaned out my dad’s apartment. In the portrait, the young girl who would become my mother wears a forest green dress with a white lace Peter Pan collar and holds an oversized doll in her lap. Young Mom has brown, shoulder-length hair, and a pair of hair bows protruding from the back of her head that match the color of her dress. The painter’s skills are uneven. Her face is well-executed; cheekbones nicely shadowed, and highlighted with a rosy hue, but the arms and hands of both the girl and her doll are out of proportion. Mom gazes directly, assuredly at the viewer with a calm, yet commanding look in her eyes; a closed mouth, neutral expression. But the painting isn’t pretty. Its colors are drab and dark, and in fact, it’s kind of creepy. The large doll wears a pink dress with a stiff Elizabethan collar. Her intense eyebrows and worried expression add to the strange, but powerful image.

“Who wants the painting when I’m gone?” Mom playfully asked my two brothers and me so many times over the years it became a family joke. My siblings would respond by exchanging a look with my dad, rolling their eyes and stifling a laugh. My dad said he hated the thing, but humored Mom by letting her hang it prominently in every home they lived in.

I stayed quiet, knowing I would probably end up with it, yet not wanting to admit I actually coveted the eyesore.

It’s the girl’s face and eyes that draw me in. Even though it’s a painting of my mother, I only see myself in it, my childhood doppelganger. I have photos of my mom from the day she sat for the painting and photos of myself when I was 9. I think I looked much more like the girl in the portrait than she did. Portrait-girl has my 9-year-old face, high forehead, brown hair, even the same hairstyle I wore back then. The only difference is that my eyes are brown. There is no mistaking my mother’s startling sapphire eyes.

But it’s not just the girl’s resemblance to my younger self that gets to me. It’s something else — the essence of the girl. Looking at the painting is like looking in a mirror of sorts and feels both comforting and disturbing. It’s not me, yet I feel the artist somehow captured my inner self. I relate to the girl’s tranquil spirit, her poise and seriousness, yet mature veneer. But the fact that this is a young version of my mother doesn’t really compute. Let’s just say, my relationship with this portrait is complicated.

Looking for clarity, I call my brothers and ask them what they remember about the painting. My younger brother, Frank, says he knew it was a portrait of Mom but, like me, he would sometimes forget. He’d just see an anonymous girl, and then he’d remember it was really mom. “Mostly,” he says, “it was just home.”

My older brother, David, says he thought the “depression girl” was weird, and when he was a little boy it scared him. “It was Edgar Allan Poe-like. I didn’t think of her as Mom.” Like our dad, he didn’t like it, but mostly, “it was always there.”

Now that I can’t ask Mom about it, I wish that I had earlier. What was it like to sit for the painting? How many days did it take? Did the artist ask her to look so serious and stare straight ahead? How did she really feel about the results? I’ll never know.

Even though the portrait is now mine, I haven’t hung it in my new home. I’m not used to its presence in this space. It feels so big, so demanding. Yet I can’t help but look at it every time I enter the dining room. Often, like magic, it carries me time machine-like, to defining moments of my past.


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There I am in the first grade, holding in my fear as I waited in line to return to our classroom after receiving a TB shot. Next thing I knew, I was lying on the floor, the principal, a buxom, no-nonsense woman, kneeling over me with smelling salts. Or wait, there I am practicing the piano unenthusiastically, disappointing, in my mind, both my musician father and the girl in the painting above me. Oh, and next I see myself at 10 in the family car overhearing my parents as they discussed their upcoming anniversary. But it didn’t make sense to me. My brother was older than the number of years my parents had been married and as I corrected them my mom turned to me and said “You remember honey, I told you I was married once before I married Dad.” Her words had a don’t ask, don’t tell quality that became my unspoken instructions to withhold my feelings and keep secrets.

Encountering the portrait post-Florida-visit, I am transported back to October of 2005, Westport Island, Maine where I was doing a six-week writers’ residency at a luxurious artist colony. I stayed in a light, airy, upscale home right on the rocky coast that had high-end decor and impressive local artwork on every wall. I was assigned a pretty bedroom with killer water views, a dainty, antique desk, and a mattress so plush, I looked forward to bedtime each night.

When I awoke one morning in the comfy bed three weeks into my stay, a dream taunted and circled but wouldn’t land. All I could recall of it were images of a little girl, the daughter of one of the other colony residents. The night before at dinner, Harry, a collage artist, had lovingly spoken of his 7-year-old daughter. I was at work on a novel about a mother whose precocious, bird-watching 10year-old daughter went missing from a Gap-like clothing store at a shopping mall, never to be seen or heard from again. The story dealt with the mother’s inability to move on with her life, stuck in a limbo of not knowing whether her daughter was alive or dead, if she’d ever see her again or if she could ever let go of her own guilt. How could she fill that huge gaping hole her missing daughter had created?

When Harry’s daughter surfaced from the murky dream that morning, my first thought was that I should make one of my handcrafted bark boxes for her. I had been taking long walks on the island when I wasn’t writing and picking up pieces of birch bark from the ground and then sewing them into little round boxes. Making something with my hands that I could finish in an hour or so was a satisfying task, the complete opposite of this endless novel I had taken on. I was giving a box to each artist and staff member at the colony. I assumed that my early morning dream bits of Harry’s daughter simply represented the character of the missing daughter in my novel. And though I didn’t know Harry’s kid, I decided one of my boxes might be a nice gift for her. A gift for my character, from my character. And besides, I reasoned, I was running out of people to give my bark boxes to.

I was still lying in bed, mulling over my next bark box, when…Wham! Something else from my elusive morning dream hit me. It was a list about my novel that had been buried deep in my subconscious but used the dream to ram into my awareness.

I had an “oh my God!” moment, rushed to get pen and paper and wrote down what poured out of my head fully formed.

1. It’s about my own “missing daughter” — the child I never had but was supposed to.

2. It’s about my inner self — the little girl, childlike me that is always there, sometimes hidden, sometimes not.

3. It’s about Etan Patz.

Etan Patz was the 6-year-old boy who disappeared from New York City’s SoHo neighborhood on May 25, 1979 on his way to his school bus stop. It was one of the first missing child cases that got huge nationwide coverage. The little boy’s smiling face was plastered on fliers all over Manhattan shortly after I’d arrived in the City to attend NYU. It was a sad, mysterious, tragic story that lingered for years, the boy or his body never to be found. Only recently, some 38 years later, was the case resolved with a murder conviction for a former bodega clerk who had confessed to the crime.

Etan’s father had been in the news over the years advocating on behalf of his son, but rarely did I see the mother. I thought about her, wondered what her life was like, and imagined the hell that she must have gone through. To me, this tragic real-life story was always the obvious inspiration for my book, the one I’d mention when asked. But my sneaky subconscious had firmly placed Etan’s story in my dream list’s third place slot. In first place was my own “missing daughter.”

Hmm. Interesting.

I had always assumed I’d have children, but neither the appropriate partner nor the strong desire to mother a child alone ever came along. I was 48 at the time of the dream. I didn’t yearn for children, even felt grateful for the freedom being childless allowed. When I saw my friends with their kids, it wasn’t jealousy that washed over me, it was a sense of relief. But clearly, my subconscious dream list was telling me I had unresolved feelings.

Then item number two — my own inner-self. The child inside me that was always there, hidden, but a part of who I was: a mix of a very capable, highly independent woman and a shy young girl who wanted protecting. Sometimes the inhibited girl wished she could be more confident, more aggressive. But sometimes she felt comfortable in her calm, knowing way. That was all me.

Apparently I was exploring my own grief, my own sense of loss over not having the child I’d assumed I’d have.

I studied the list I’d scrawled onto paper. How could I be working on a book for years and have no idea why or what it truly meant? I thought I was inspired by a well-publicized news story. I thought I was exploring a mother’s grief, which was a topic I had written about in short stories before, although I was never quite sure why. But apparently I was exploring my own grief, my own sense of loss over not having the child I’d assumed I’d have. And the loss of that possibility. And maybe most of all, simply the loss of my youth. It made me feel like I’d been hit by the proverbial brick, but it was also a wonderful gift. I knew that no reader would need to know these things to enjoy or appreciate the book. It was a private, secret message to myself. A way towards acceptance of the path my life had taken. It didn’t change the emotions that were surfacing but being aware of them itself was a comfort. The idea that I was exploring these huge life issues subconsciously made me feel that perhaps, publishing wasn’t the most important thing about finishing this novel. Maybe, I finally realized, my tortoise-like subconscious was processing all these issues, and that’s why it was taking me years, many years, to birth this baby, so to speak.

***

I come out of my art colony memories, back to my dining room, back to the painting. I realize it’s more than a conduit to my past, it’s also a channel to my inner life, a part of me I’d submerged that was always there, all along. As I watched my parents age, I began to worry about who will care for me the way I have cared for them when I’m old and need help. Who knows if I’d had children, if they would even have been there for me down the road. Yet from my current vantage point, selfishly, that’s what my childlessness means to me. I will never have the daughter I was to my dad and still am to my mom.

When Dad recovered from his infection and hospital stay and moved to the smaller apartment in the assisted living facility, he was alone for the first time in his 62 years of marriage. I could tell he was depressed. He was both lonely and afraid of running into mom in the lobby with one of her caregivers, as well as worried about his own declining health; it all took its toll on him. He started using another elevator at the far end of the hall to avoid seeing mom sitting with her caregiver under the shade of the main entrance canopy. I pictured Dad with his lightweight walker, the one he could hoist into the car he shouldn’t have been driving, unsteadily shuffling out the side door like a thief in the night. He wanted to be with Mom. They’d been a happy unit through their marriage and barely apart since he retired, but when he saw her after they began to live separately, she’d demand to know where he’d been or where he was going and why she couldn’t go too. Her noisy, public scenes stressed him terribly. The immense guilt and grief, undoubtedly, weighed him down.

I had helped him settle into his new apartment, buying groceries, arranging clothes in his dresser drawers and hanging photos and artwork on the walls to make living in this place he hated more homey. When I asked him what he wanted to hang over the couch, his response came without a moment’s hesitation. “Mom’s painting,” he said.

***

There’s only one wall in my new house big enough to hold the portrait, a nice empty white one in my dining room. I eyeball a good spot in the middle, climb up a stepstool, make a pencil mark, and hammer in a nail. I heave the bottom corner of the heavy painting onto my shoulder for leverage and hang it.

Climbing down off the stool, I step back, straighten young Mom, young me, and take a good look. “We’re here,” I tell her. “We’re home.”

* * *

Marlene Adelstein is a writer and freelance book editor. Her debut novel, Sophie Last Seen, was just published. She lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Editor: Sari Botton

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Also In the Fine Lines Series:
Introducing Fine Lines
Gone Gray
An Introduction to Death
Age Appropriate
A Woman, Tree or Not
Dress You Up in My Love
The Wrong Pair
‘Emerging’ as a Writer — After 40
Losing the Plot