I wanted her old nightgown with the satin bow, her worn cotton T-shirts still holding her smell: Dove soap and L’air du Temps, the powder she’d dusted under each pendulous breast, lifting one then the other. I didn’t care about the mahogany mirror or the gold-plated dishes with men in white hose, long russet coats, ladies fainting in bustled gowns. We lived over the liquor store. I walked through the alley passing the drunks hunched on empty whiskey crates, sipping pints of Tiger Rose from brown paper bags — the cocktail lounge, we called it — under Zopher’s mulberry tree that in summer dropped storms of berries customers crushed under their soles, tracked onto the linoleum my father had to mop, sometimes twice a day. Years of sticky black mash. He bought five-inch copper nails and in the dead of night crept out and drove them into the helpless trunk. I wanted the painting she fell in love with, a mother and two children in a large dim cottage, a fire in the cavernous hearth, strokes of vermilion and cadmium yellow and a big iron kettle with zinc white steam, a dab of pearl for the shine. They face the open doorway, their backs to us. She’s seated at a table, the children in loose shirts, barelegged. Are they eating? Shelling peas? Is she sewing? Their heads crude circles. The children, one a greeny brown, one ocher. And outside an arched door, the cathedral of summer: mint green blur of field, blue sky, white clouds. The Alps? Or Pyrenees? We’re Jews. We live in cities. My mother’d never seen a mountain — or a prairie for that matter. Or a huge fireplace — except for a great stone hearth we stared into on our one trip to Williamsburg when we stayed in a hotel and ate in restaurants. She said she loved that painting, though I never saw her look at it, never caught her even once standing before it or lingering as she walked through the room. Did she wait until we were all asleep? Slip in at dawn? Or was a glance enough, a quick check to see this mother and her children before that grand open door looking out at the sun-drenched, alien world.
“My Mother’s Painting” is included in The Human Line. © 2007 by Ellen Bass. Reprinted with the permission of the author and Copper Canyon Press (www.coppercanyonpress.org).