Does the Woman in the Painting Have a Secret?

In the wake of her mother’s passing, Dylan Landis wrestles with unanswered questions about love and art, and imagines different possibilities of what could have been.

Dylan Landis | What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About | April 2019 | 23 minutes (6,154 words)

 

The wives of my father’s friends do not iron shirts.

“I’m sure they don’t wash floors either,” my mother says evenly. She talks to me but also through me. We are alone in the elevator of our New York apartment building, going down to the basement, where a woman named Flossie is going to teach my mother, for two dollars, how to iron a man’s shirt.  

My mother tells me the wives have degrees in psychology or in social work, and they see patients, like my father does in our living room.

“Let’s just say I’m conscious of it,” my mother says, and we step out into a vast gray complication of corridors.

It’s 1964 and I am eight years old. My public school is so strict that girls can’t wear pants, even in a blizzard. My father is writing his psychology thesis, “Ego Boundaries,” which I half-believe is the name of some fourth, shadowy person who lives in our apartment. My father teases me that when I grow up, I will get my Ph.D. and take over his practice, and I believe that too.

He doesn’t tell my mother that she will get her Ph.D.

My mother is a housewife.

We walk down a broad hallway with padlocked doors. The super’s red-haired daughter, Silda, gets to live down here. We roller-skate on the velvety floors and spy on Otto, the porter, who has a number on his arm and sleeps in a storage room behind towers of old newspapers.

The laundry room smells deliciously of wet wool and it always rumbles from the dryers. My mother says hello and how are you to Flossie in a bright voice, and Flossie looks up. She gives my mother the exact same half-smile I see her give everyone who talks to her. She has folds in her face, and she is dark as a plum and delicate as a bird. Her iron looks heavy. It thumps on the board and the sound is a slow heartbeat that goes on all day. 

The wives in our building, who are white, pay her twenty-five cents a shirt.

I tug wet clothes from our washer. My mother selects a shirt, takes it to Flossie, and hands her money that disappears into a smock the color of clay. Then Flossie wedges the shirt onto the nose of the board. 

My father wears a dress shirt every day. If my mother stops giving the shirts to Flossie, they could save five dollars a month.

I pull out rack after screeching metal rack from the wall till I find one that’s not full of someone else’s clothes hanging stiff and dry over the rods. As I drape my father’s socks and undershirts, I watch the lesson: Flossie ironing, then my mother ironing, then my mother listening to Flossie with her head tipped.

She is so beautiful, my mother. She has distant blue eyes and cheekbones like butter knives. Her chin is like one of my grandmother’s porcelain teacups. Once a week she sits for a portrait because an artist in our building, a woman she likes, asked her to model; and I see her slipping out of a cage, those hours, and talking about books and sipping tea with the artist, and watching the Hudson glitter.

Beneath the racks, behind the wall, are gas burners—rows and rows of beautiful orange-blue flames, kept under tight control. Otherwise they would rise up and lick the clothes.

Dryers cost a quarter. The racks are free.

My mother comes over with the shirt on a wire hanger.

“She’s an excellent teacher,” she says, and calls back to Flossie, “You’re an excellent teacher.” Then she says, “I’ve got my work cut out for me.”

 

A few weeks later my father does something startling, right in our living room. He asks my mother to dance.

It’s after dinner, and dark out, though for us it’s never daylight because our living room is on the airshaft, low down, and my bedroom faces a brick wall.

My mother and I clear the table. My father, who usually goes straight to his desk, picks out a record album: “The Boy Friend.” Records are what we do for fun. We don’t have a TV. But we do have this record player made of thick, shiny plastic the color of eggplant. I am not allowed to touch it.

My father lifts the arm over the record and sets the diamond needle down. The overture starts, horns so effusive and cheery I know they’re lying. But my parents pretend this is what happiness sounds like.

My father settles on the sofa, unfolding elbows and knees like a praying mantis. My mother opens a book at the other end and tucks her toes under his leg.

“Dance for us, Yum,” my father says.

My mother dances?

Ladies start singing now, voices so chipper I want to slap them.

My mother smiles, shakes her head and keeps reading. The book cover says The Golden Bowl. “Come on, Yum,” my father says encouragingly. “Dance.”

“I’m not a dancer,” says my mother.

But she stands.

The overture starts, horns so effusive and cheery I know they’re lying. But my parents pretend this is what happiness sounds like.

Julie Andrews sings now that every girl needs a boy friend—that we would gladly die for him, which alarms me; it feels fake, like everything else on this record, and also familiar. My mother moves in a new way, at first as if she’s testing the air for doneness, and then tangoing her way toward the wall-to-wall bookshelves with a boy friend we cannot see, on a stage that isn’t there. She swivels. She bites her lip. “Wow,” my father says, but she ignores him. She stalks, points one toe, hikes up her skirt and pushes her bosom out.

Then the song ends and she sits as if she’d just walked into the room, re-tucks her toes, and opens The Golden Bowl to her bookmark.

“Yum!” my father cries, applauding. “Where’d you learn to do that?”

But he isn’t exactly asking, and my mother doesn’t exactly answer.

“Oh, I just make it up as I go,” she says. 

 

Questions I don’t ask my mother that night:

Why don’t you dance every day?

Why not take your husband’s hand, and pull him into the dance?

Why not take your daughter’s hand, and pull her into the dance?

Where does the dancing mother go, when she’s not here? Where has she been all our lives?

The dancing mother goes into hiding, but three years later, on a spring Saturday, when I am eleven, my father and I blunder into the place where she once lived.

I don’t think my mother meant us to see it.

We take the IRT to Fourteenth Street and stroll. My parents love strolling. My father’s dream is to stroll in Edinburgh again and my mother’s dream is to stroll in Paris. We walk downtown on Sixth and my parents hold hands. My father sings a song he learned in the navy—Dirty Lil, dirty Lil lives on top of Garbage Hill. It makes me feel bad. Does he think she wants to live up there, having sailors tease her? 

Suddenly women are shouting from high up, and balled-up bits of paper are scattered on the sidewalk like fat, chewed-up pearls, and I want to open one, because they seem to have dropped from a distant world.

“This is not right,” my father says grimly.

I always feel I’m dreaming when I walk by the ladies’ house of detention. It’s tall, with columns of dark windows, and it’s a prison, yet ladies are calling out from the inside, and I don’t understand what they’re shouting. Plus, if they are locked up and out of reach, how can they drop these wadded papers?

What are they trying to say?

We walk downtown some more, on narrow streets. Finally I ask, “Why do they drop those paper balls?”

My mother glances at my father. “They write down their names and phone numbers on those slips,” she says. “They’re shouting for people to call their husbands and children, and give them messages.”

“Like what messages?” I’m thrilled. These little white balls are like light from stars that died long ago. “I love you,” my mother says brightly. “What else?”

We are deep in the West Village now. My father strolls us into a right turn, back toward Sixth, and my mother stops so abruptly I step on her heel.

If she feels it I can’t tell.

We’re on the corner of a street with a name you could sing: Minetta Lane, and my mother is looking at the first pink building I have ever seen.

I love it immediately. It is the Barbie Dreamhouse I am not allowed to have. The windows have white shutters, and the house has a wrought-iron gate. Behind the gate is a little foyer, and in the foyer. a black hanging lantern that melts colors onto the walls.

“Oh,” my mother says, as if the air just got socked out of her. My father looks at her patiently. He likes to keep moving.

“I used to live here,” my mother says. She sounds amazed.

“It’s a sweet place, Yum,” my father says, and looks at his watch. “Aren’t you girls hungry?”

The hunger I feel is so unreasonable I can’t parse it, even to myself. But I want this mother, the one who lives in a pink building, the one who dances.

My mother looks dreamily at the lantern. My father watches the street scene.

I hold the locked iron gate with both hands and try to will myself inside.

“I scream, you scream,” my father says. “We all scream…”

“How could you leave?” I ask.

My mother touches one of my hands. “The apartment was small and dark,” she says gently. “It faced the courtyard. It was nothing special.”

But she is wrong. The apartment has sun, and cats, and hanging plants. It has pink walls, like a stage set where the mother can dance. It has a table set for two.

“I promise you,” she says. “The inside was nothing like the outside.”

 

I’m fourteen in 1970 when we live in a suburb of New York called Larchmont. We own a house, barely. My mother still irons my father’s shirts. She puts them in the vegetable crisper to keep them damp till she can get to them. She has long since taught me Flossie’s art—cuff, cuff, collar, yoke, sleeve, sleeve. We make hospital corners, we mend hems and scour rings off tubs. I’m expected to fold my father’s undershorts out of the dryer, which disgusts me, but there is no getting out of it.


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


My mother’s oil portrait now hangs between my bedroom and my parents’. It captures her perfectly—the faraway blue gaze, a sadness so faint it’s really not there, bone structure so elegant you want to trace it with a finger. I need to own this painting, and plan to steal it someday.

I’m lounging on the guest bed in my mother’s messy study, the room where she types out bills for my father’s patients, when she mentions for the first time an artist she once knew. His name was Bill Rivers.

Bill is a man’s name. She’s only ever talked about my father and, just twice, a man she was married to briefly. All she’s ever said about him was that he killed her darling bulldog, Chiefie, by leaving him in a hot car.

I sit up. 

“His name was Haywood, but everyone called him Bill.” She peers at my father’s handwriting, then releases a clatter from her red Selectric. “This was long before you were born,” she says, and swivels in her chair to face at me.

“We were just friends,” she says. “I didn’t understand how good an artist he was, but I knew I liked being with him, and I liked being around the artists he spent time with. Those were some big names. He would take me to a bar in the East Village where painters and writers hung out.” She looks at me closely. “They thought I was interesting. I had wit in those days.”

“Gee,” I say. She’s made a soap bubble around us. If I talk, it might break.

“It was a rapier wit.” She sighs. “A group of us would be drinking and talking, painters and sometimes writers, and I was always the one with the line of sarcastic repartee that made everybody laugh.”

I’m so riveted I nod, nod, nod till I’m rocking.

“They loved having me there,” she says. “And I loved being there with them.”

This is not the woman who married my father and raised me.

“Bill and I had pet names for each other,” she says. “I called him Country Boy, because he came from a very tiny town in North Carolina.”

She begins to rub her legs repetitively through her pants without seeming to realize it. Her palms go ceaselessly up and down her thighs, up and down. 

It’s embarrassing. I look at my own hands.

What did he call you, I ask.

“City girl, of course.”

Pet names are a big deal to my mother. She gave my father one. He gave her one. She has a bunch of ridiculous ones for me, like Winning Ways, which sounds like the name of a racehorse to me, and—it’s hard to even say aloud—Pussy. So did she go out with this Bill Rivers person?

I’m about to ask another question when my mother swivels back to her desk and draws an explosive burst from the Selectric.

 

Partly by cheating in French and math, I finish tenth grade. It’s early July, 1972, the summer of Watergate, and I’m flush, because I’ve inherited my friend J’s part-time job sorting transistors in a TV repair shop. J, who is 15, had an affair with the 36-year-old married boss, so I’d been wary, but apparently it’s not required.

One day after the shop closes I come home and glimpse my mother locked in grievous conflict with the family checkbook at the dining table. She’ll sit like that, arching her back to stretch, for two or three days.

“Pussy,” she says brightly. “I need you to pick up dinner.”

Too late. I’ve bolted upstairs.

We seem to have more money now. For one thing, she sends the shirts out. For another, last summer my father bought an Alfa Romeo convertible. He didn’t trust me to drive it, and then it got stolen. This seems like justice to me. Also, we have a gardener every week, which is major, because when we moved here two years ago guess who mowed and raked.

“I’m going out,” I yell down, because I am one of those teenagers now. But the truth is that the sight of her chained to that chair—chaining herself to that chair—makes me angry.

It’s a monster, this checkbook. My father set it up—a binder of double-width spreadsheets. Many categories run across the top in my mother’s tiny, pretty script, and every category needs filling in for every check.

I would rather die. 

My mother appears in the door of my room. It’s painted rose because she rolled up her sleeves and painted it with me, and it’s cloudy with cigarette smoke because I don’t obey my parents’ rules anymore. They don’t beat me and they won’t throw me out, and you can’t yell me into submission.

Last summer my father bought an Alfa Romeo convertible. He didn’t trust me to drive it, and then it got stolen. This seems like justice to me.

“I need you to go get dinner,” she says seriously. “Please don’t do this now.”

By now I’m aware that my mother is scarily smart. She got only halfway through college and won’t say why. But she talks of Turgenev, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Pritchett, both Eliots, Pound, Lessing, Chekhov—and she reads books about books, by literary critics. Something drives her through these pages. She says it drove her mother too—Esther, who got to third grade in Russia before she had to go to work, rolling cigarettes in a factory with other children, bare-fingered even in winter.

I’ll never be able to read all those books, I don’t want a Ph.D., and I am doomed to disappoint my intellectual parents. So I do what I’m good at: hanging out with boys, especially boys in their 20s with long hair and cars and drugs.

“I’m late,” I say. “And that checkbook is just stupid.” And we are off, arguing over a figment we can’t even name.

My mother struggles with the numbers on clocks, with left and right, with counting out change at Grand Union. But balancing the checkbook is part of her job. She stays at it, poking the adding machine with the eraser end of a pencil till she gets it down to the penny.

She is a housewife.

The next morning, my father takes me into his office. It’s a beautiful room—red walls, cedar ceiling, deep leather Eames chairs where the shrink and patient sit.

“Take it easy with Erica,” my father says gently. “She’s having a rough time.”

Later that day, when they are out, I search my mother’s dresser. I don’t know what I’m looking for because I don’t know what the question is, but I do find the answer: a small cardboard box with a gold lid. It’s hidden under a scarf and filled with Seconal—maybe twenty red capsules, bright as blood.

So I am not the only one filching downers from my father.

Hours after I bring him her suicide stash, she takes one careful step into my room. “I am really sorry,” she says somberly, “you had to find that.” She says, “I don’t know why I felt compelled to stockpile those pills. But I want you to know I never planned to take them.”

It’s a speech, and she has come to the end of it.

She has one hand on the doorknob and I don’t know how to swim to her or if I even want to.

“It’s okay,” I say.

 

It is 1947 and my mother is twenty. She has quit the University of Miami and moved to New York, and for an easy few months she lives rent-free on West 114th Street, in a building owned by her father, Ulrich. Once he managed Miami hotels and Borscht Circuit resorts; now he is in a wheelchair. He depends on his second wife, who dislikes my mother, to feed him, bathe him, help him to the john. And Ulrich is weak in other ways. He never stood up for his baby girl. When Erica was little, and asthmatic, her mother would charge to her bed at night, a hairbrush in her raised hand, and hiss, “Stop. That. Coughing,” until her daughter learned to choke it back.

Esther’s violence was a force as unstoppable for him as his own stroke. But he’s told Erica, I’ve made it up to you, sweetheart. When I’m gone, you’ll be set.

And so my mother is shocked to find herself homeless, cut off, on his death a few months later. “Because my daughter, Erica Ellner, has displeased me in ways she will recall and understand,” the lawyer reads, eyeing her over his glasses, “I leave her the sum of four thousand dollars.” The rest of the estate—and there is a lot of it, including the building where she lives—goes to her stepmother.

It’s a new will.

“She forced him to sign it,” my mother says through her fingers. “Can I sue?”

“Not if you’re already in his will,” the lawyer says. “That’s the purpose of the four thousand dollars. You understand? Now you can’t say he disinherited you.”

 

Thanksgiving 1976. Erica is in her study, sorting through papers, which somehow creates a mess she cannot corral, which utterly confounds her. Then her daughter asks if she can take the oil portrait for her dorm room.

“Please do,” says Erica. “I’m so tired of looking at it.” It’s that tinge of regret in the eyes that gets her. She’s moved on, but the woman in the picture has not.

She adds, “When I was a young woman, I modeled for the Art Students League.”

Really,” her daughter says. She has an encouraging way of hanging on Erica’s stories without prying. “Did you keep any of the work?”

“No. But I did walk by once and see my portrait in the window.”

As she talks, she slides a sheaf of brown envelopes from a manila folder into a liquor carton, and tucks them into place. She does this as if this were meaningless paper reshuffling, and not the concealment of a dozen unopened—never mind uncashed—Medicare reimbursement checks for her husband’s psychotherapy work.

The idea is that she deposits each check in the bank, enters the amount into the checkbook spreadsheet, and squares everything up. Bills, debits, credits. But she cannot square things up. So she buries the checks, like a squirrel.

Her daughter gets excited. Well, of course, they both know the building. It’s beautiful, French Renaissance-style, with very tall and prominent display windows.

“Did you go in and try to buy it?”

“No,” says Erica. “I could use some help in the kitchen.”

“You didn’t track down the artist?”

“Not that interested, I suppose.”

“In your own portrait?”

Erica tucks in the flaps of the carton. It bears typed labels that say CLOTHES FOR DONATION. “Come help me cut green beans,” she says.

The carton must have a thousand, two thousand dollars of checks in it by now. Soon she will start a new one.

How does one get rid of such a thing?

 

The Bill Rivers story is a parasitical worm that swims beneath her skin.

 

In 1946, Bill Rivers comes to New York and studies at the Art Students League for three years.

In 1947, my mother begins to model there.

She is twenty-one, fatherless and evicted. She moves as far from West 114th Street as she can get, to a townhouse smack where Minetta Street hits Minetta Lane.

The apartment is small and dark, but the building is a frosted cake. She gets a job selling ads for the Yellow Pages over the phone, and sells more ads than anyone in her office, using her bright-but-serious voice.

For pin money, she models at the Art Students League.

The studio smells deliciously of turpentine, though when she sees that most of the students are men she stands quite still holding her pocketbook. Then the instructor sees her and says “Thank you for coming to our workshop” as if she were a visiting artist.

He hands her a folded white sheet and directs her to a standing screen.

My mother takes off her clothes quietly. Nude modeling for the purposes of art is not erotic. She knows this. It’s a job. She knows this. She looks down at her body, which is sexy and curvy when she’s dressed, but maybe not so lovely when she’s naked. Her breasts are perky but the nipples are inverted—slightly pursed at the tips. Her doctor says she will have to bottle-feed when the time comes.

My mother wraps herself in the sheet and walks out with her shoulders erect.

She is good at holding a pose. She is good at finding the pose again after a break. She is good at noticing, from the corner of her eye, how the young men might as well be medical students the way they study her body, probing with their gazes for line, light, shadow.

And maybe she thinks that one of them notices through his eyelashes when she robes herself; and because she thinks he is exceptionally handsome, she takes her time arranging the sheet, and stops to look at how he’s portraying her.

Not till it’s finished, he says, and blocks her view. Haywood Rivers. Call me Bill. He holds out his hand. A pleasure painting you, Erica.

My mother closes her eyes. Let me guess, she says. She watches films like a critic, and has an uncanny ear for accents. Just by listening at the movies she’s erased her own New York twang. One of the Carolinas, she says, and that is just the first time she cracks him up.

 

It’s April, 1992, and the magnolia in my parents’ side yard is showing off blossoms big as salad plates. My little boy is in the living room playing with trains, ignoring the narrative my father is trying to concoct.

Upstairs, my mother tells me and my husband what sounds like the end of the Bill Rivers story. We’re in her cluttered study. It’s cozy, my mother’s version of gathering around a hearth.

She tells us he gave her a painting.

“You had a Bill Rivers painting?” My husband looks almost covetous. He is interested in African-American art—very interested; we have begun, at a low level, to collect it. He knows exactly who Haywood Bill Rivers is. “Where is it?”

“After we lost touch,” my mother says, “I tried to sell it.”

We are amazed, my husband because he can’t believe my family would let go of such a thing, me because when you and your friend are so close you have pet names for each other, why would you turn around and sell the painting he gave you? 

My mother goes on: “I read that Harry Abrams had a big collection of work by black artists. So I called him. I told him what I had, and he said, bring it in.”

She recognizes many of the artists whose paintings hang in Harry Abrams’s office. She works now at the Metropolitan Museum, in Permissions, and spends her lunch hour strolling through the galleries.

He looks at the painting, at her, at the painting, and lowballs her.

“Thank you for your time,” my mother says, and takes her painting home.

My husband and I eye each other. She knew the work had value.

“So where is it?” I say.

“It got damaged in a move,” my mother says vaguely, as if a move had inflicted itself upon the painting without her knowledge.

“Damaged how?” I ask.

“I don’t remember.” Her hand waggles through the air, indicating that the episode has dissipated like so much smoke.

“How damaged?” my husband asks.

My mother shrugs. “Probably badly.”

My husband and I exchange looks again. “Paintings can be restored,” I say, and leave the rest hanging—you hung out with artists, you worked in a museum, you knew that. “So what happened to it?”

My mother’s hand floats out again. So much smoke. “I threw it away.”

 

The Bill Rivers story is a parasitical worm that swims beneath my skin.

***

He’s been thinking about Paris almost since that sheet fell from her like a chrysalis. Half the painters he respects are in Paris or going there. Beauford Delaney. Ed Clark. Lois Mailou Jones, who has some balls for a woman, going alone.

Often they go to Stanley’s. Erica fits right in. She’s a finely tuned listener, and when she has something to add, her intelligence glitters. There is talk of a new gallery being formed in Paris by some of the black expat artists, and he wants to paint modern paintings now, and be a part of it.

He brings Erica’s painting to Minetta Lane. Do you like it? he says, and he genuinely wants to know.

He watches her carefully study the intricate pattern but also the chunks of light, the blocks of color. This is the end of his figurative period: the churches, the aunts, the hand-sewn quilts. The portraits from his classes. He’s aware of that.

I love this, she says at last. And it means so much to me to have it.

And then, or sometime after, one of two things happens.

Either he asks her—and she blows it.

Or else he never asks her at all.

 

In May 1983 I phone home with my news. 

My fiancé and I hold the phone together, in the bright doorway of our balcony. We live in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and we’re both reporters for the Times-Picayune—he’s investigative, I’m medical.

He is black. I am white.

He feels strongly that I should wait and do this in person. I don’t understand his reservations. I am twenty-seven years old. I love my parents. I can’t wait.

I am ignorant.

My father answers and I tell him and he says, “This is the best news you could give me, honey. If I had to hand-pick my son-in-law, I would pick him.” Then I hear him bellow up the stairs for my mother.

To my amazement, when I tell her, she lets a long silence unspool till I am unsettled. This is a woman who fed me books by Alice Walker, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison—who brought me to the Broadway opening of for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. I’m tough; I wait it out.

Finally she says: “What about the children?”

I am twenty-seven. I am ignorant. “What about them?” I say, angry and cavalier. “We aren’t going to beat them.”

 

In 1949, Bill Rivers goes to Paris. He meets an American woman with a glinting mind and an incandescent smile. Betty Jo Robirds has a masters in English and a Fulbright, which has brought her to the Sorbonne. She is white.

Imagine that he takes Betty Jo to Les Deux Magots, where the expat writers and painters, black and white, drink excellent, cheap French wine. She fits right in, laughing with everyone else, and when she talks she’s funny and smart. He feels his artistic life opening here like a rare night-blooming flower.

This is a woman who fed me books by Alice Walker, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison—who brought me to the Broadway opening of for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. I’m tough; I wait it out.

One of the expat painters says, Any word from Erica? and he puts his arm around Betty Jo, who doesn’t waste time worrying about what’s not in front of her.

We’ve lost touch, he says.

When he asks her to marry him, Betty Jo doesn’t ask What about the children? But because France has laws against interracial marriage, they take a boat to England in 1951, and marry there. They have a son first, then a daughter. A perfect doll of a brown baby, reports Jet magazine. Is she still managing to take classes at the Sorbonne? Bill works with paint so thick now, in ambers, blues and muted greens, that some of his canvases can’t even be rolled up and shipped back home.

When Betty Jo looks back later on the Paris years before their divorce, one obituary will say, she recalls “poverty, beauty and happiness.”

 

Or else he never asks my mother at all.

 

My mother has one more chapter to share. She reveals it to me when our son is ten, and I am alone with her again in that cozy, messy room.

She is walking in New York one day, many years after their days in the Village, when she hears her name called. Bill Rivers is walking toward her, his face lit with recognition.

“Our eyes met,” my mother says. “He saw instantly that I knew him. But I snubbed him. I looked away as if he were a stranger, and I walked right past him.”

My heart aches as if the person she had snubbed were me, or herself. For the next twenty years, probably for the rest of my life, I replay that moment on the street—stopping time, so that my mother’s face lights up, and Yum begins to dance.

 

Bill Rivers dies in 2002. I won’t find this out for years.

 

A year before her death, when she is 84 and I am 57, I ask my mother a personal question, and it’s the wrong one.

“You’ve spoken so often of Bill Rivers,” I say. My mother looks at me brightly from her wheelchair. “He gave you a painting. You had this amazing—friendship. And I’ve always wondered.”

My mother waits. She is still beautiful, though her hair has grayed rather than silvered, and her body slightly thickened. Her sweater hides a feeding tube, and her scarf a tracheostomy tube.

Deep breath. “Mom, were you and Bill Rivers intimate?”

I have asked her nurse to give us privacy. My mother can no longer live without a nurse. In the bedroom, my father slumbers, his own wheelchair nearby.

My mother straightens and shoots blue light at me.

“I am offended,” she says, “that you would ask me this.” 

My father dies in May 2014. My mother dies seven weeks later, hours after a state of rapture in which she declares the following while I take frantic notes:

“Give your friends a message for me. I accept the miracle that is upon me. I accept the pain with appreciation. I am the luckiest woman in the world.” And, after a pause, “I think one of the worst things in the world is to be cynical.”

 

She never speaks again. Her Bill Rivers story is over.

But my Bill Rivers movie keeps playing in my head. It has two endings.

 

Imagine this.

Deep breath. ‘Mom, were you and Bill Rivers intimate?’

The year is 1949. Peddlers sell fish and fresh corn on the street, and you can buy a suit with two pairs of pants.

Bill Rivers tells my mother he is going to Paris.

She’s been waiting for this. She says nothing.

He says, Come with me, Erica. It’s Paris. It’s magical. I can paint and you can study at the Sorbonne—anything you want.

She says nothing. Her blue eyes are ocean now, not sky.

Come to Paris, he says. Marry me.

My mother says slowly: Is it even legal there?

He cocks his head and watches her carefully. It’s legal in England, he says. There’s a boat.

After a long, thin silence in which she murders every bodily urge to embrace him, she says, What about the children?

When he walks away, she feels she is standing on the edge of a grave.

 

Or else he doesn’t ask her at all.

 

He tells my mother he is going to Paris.

She’s been expecting this. She says nothing.

I’ll miss you like crazy, Erica, he says. Tell me you’ll write.

I’ll write, she says. Like crazy does not express what she has come to feel.

He says, Come see me off next Saturday at the docks.

My mother says slowly, I’m afraid that won’t be possible.

He looks at her, puzzled. Then he nods, and kisses her on the forehead.

When he walks away, she feels she is standing on the edge of a grave.

 

When my Bill Rivers movie plays, there is only ever one painting.

My mother, twenty-one or twenty two, is the model, the muse. The portrait is a seated nude.

Haywood Bill Rivers is the artist. Because the painting is striking—its patterns are drawn from quilts made by the women of his family—it is displayed in a window of the Art Students’ League, where pedestrians on West 57th Street can see it. Of course my mother doesn’t wonder who painted it. She knows.

They become close enough for pet names, for teasing, and Bill Rivers makes a gift of the portrait to her.

Perhaps two, three years after his ship sails, a mutual friend tells her that Bill Rivers is married in Paris, and not just married but to a white woman, a woman who’s got what my mother would admiringly call spunk. This woman has studied at the Sorbonne, she’s had a baby, maybe two, and she’s friends with the very same expat artists my mother teased with that rapier wit of hers in New York—

My mother goes home to Minetta Lane and stands before the woman in the portrait. She tells her, Betty Jo Rivers is living your life.

 

“Erica!”

The voice of Bill Rivers that day goes through my mother’s heart like a stake.

Erica, he says. (She thinks he says.) Tell me, what did you do with your glittering mind?

Did you make the right choice? Marry the right man?

Would you have studied at the Sorbonne, Erica? Laughed with writers at Les Deux Magots?

Did you lock up that dazzling wit of yours, or did you write a book?

Did you get to stroll in Paris? Would you care if your daughter was a perfect doll of a brown baby?

Who would you love, Erica?

Who would you be?

 

In 2001, at my mother’s request, I hide three mislabeled cartons of uncashed Medicare checks in our Santa Monica garage. She guesses there is $10,000 in those boxes. When we move out in 2007, I can’t find the boxes. My parents live in Brentwood now, close by, so I ask my mother if she took them.

“Oh,” she says. Her hand gesture is so much smoke in the air.

 

My husband discovers that a Haywood Bill Rivers painting, an early figurative work of a country church with a detailed choir in the loft, was auctioned as part of Mrs. Harry N. Abrams’s estate on April 7, 2010. It brought $5,625.

 

I coax the doorman of my childhood building to let me explore the basement. Unbelievably, in 2012, people now live in the once-padlocked storage rooms—I hear televisions through cracked-open doors, and see shoes neatly outside.

In the laundry room, the screeching drying racks have vanished behind Sheetrock as if I had dreamed them, as if the orange-blue flames never burned.

 

After my mother dies in 2014, I make a pilgrimage to 16 Minetta Lane. I still desperately want to live there, because even though I am now fifty-eight, without a mother I am forever eight.

The house on Minetta Lane is no longer pink. Someone has taken the lantern down, and painted the building white.

* * *

Dylan Landis is the author of a novel, Rainey Royal, and a linked story
collection, Normal People Don’t Live Like This. Her personal essays have
appeared in Harper’s Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, the New
York Times Home section, More magazine and elsewhere. She is working on
a memoir.

* * *

Excerpted from What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, (Simon & Schuster, 4/30/19) an anthology edited by Michele Filgate inspired by her Longreads essay of the same name.

Longreads Editors: Sari Botton and Katie Kosma