Saturday was the eighth anniversary of my mother’s death on June 28, 2006. Much about my mother remains mysterious to me, and this painting is an example.
I grew up seeing it in the attic of every home we owned. Finally, maybe 30 years ago , I stole it. A day later, mama called and asked if I had taken it.
I confessed and she told me not to worry, that she just wanted to know where it was. Apart from feeling embarrassed, I wondered how it was that she noticed the painting’s absence so quickly. Did she regularly visit the attic to view it? Why didn’t she ever get a decent frame for it? Why was it always placed out of view?
At some point I asked her where it came from and she told me it was a self-portrait based on her high-school graduation picture. But a few years ago, I noticed some writing in the upper right corner: “R. Oster. Vienna, Austria. 1946.” She would have been 18 at the time.
My brain immediately concocted a story. Perhaps R. Oster was an Austrian boyfriend, a fellow art student, who lived in Charlotte during the war. Maybe, after the war ended, he returned to Vienna and painted this. Maybe Mama kept it out of sight as a memento of her first love in order not to make my father uncomfortable. Or maybe it was some kind of “mail-order art.” Maybe she visited Vienna and a street artist painted it.
I do know that by the time I stole it, Mama had bundled and hidden all of her art supplies and sketch books in the attic too. That made me sad and I asked her why she did that. “Because I’ve never been any good at art,” she said. I later found her artist’s notebook from the time she was about 15. (I‘ve written a lot about that before.) In that, she wrote about her ambivalence toward pursuing an artist’s life, even at that idealistic age.
It’s spooky to me that soon after I stole the painting and noticed mama’s tied-up art supplies, I developed a creative block that lasted for years. I often felt inadequate as a writer, as she did about her painting. Ultimately, I gave up writing as my primary occupation to study psychology, tired of the same financial insecurity that worried mama in her notebook. (But, no, psychology has never provided a good living, either!)
Ultimately, my mother called me the year before her stroke to tell me she had enrolled in an art class. She seemed very happy. I likewise have felt called to return to writing of more depth than the restaurant reviewing I’ve done for 30 years. (That is an understatement.)
Is the mysterious portrait something like “The Picture of Dorian Gray”? My theft occurred during a time of complete hedonism. God knows mama was no kind of hedonist, but she sure as hell liked material comfort. Did she sell her soul by abandoning her muse? Now that my youth has sped away, perhaps I, like her, am called to look back for inspiration. Memory can disappoint, but it also discloses how the arc of one’s life – one’s destiny – makes perfect sense.
I didn’t mention that the picture has spent the last 21 years in a room off my own attic. The irony of that never crossed my mind until now. I didn’t even think about its presence until a few days before my birthday on June 16 when I happened to enter the room in search of something else.
It is now in the room where I write.