It Took Decades to See who her Mother Really Was
Here’s a wonderful personal essay by Jill Robinson that appeared in the “Hers” column of The New York Times back in 1978. Robinson’s musings on her relationship with her mother are timeless and particularly apt for Mother’s Day.
How difficult it is, at any age, to separate the longing for traditional mothering from the recognition of one’s mother’s ambition. Such a difference there is between my daughter’s acceptance of my writing and the way I felt about my mother’s painting. I am not sure how much of this is due to social change, how much to the specifics of personality and circumstance. How I hated it when my mother would say, “I want you to know me as a person.” I swore I would be a Real Mother. I based my definition not on mothers I knew, not mothers I saw in the movies. Even though as a child brought up in Hollywood, I might have noticed those roles were played by some of the most driven women n the world. I never made that connection.
I am suddenly making all of these connections while standing in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. I have come here between appointments on a business trip my own daughter encouraged me to make even though she was ill at the time. “Just go,” she said, “do your work and have a good time.” I surprised myself being here. I turned away from art as a youngster mainly because my mother loved it. “Aggressions toward mother,” my mother called it with a kind of a sad laugh.
The smells and sounds of motherhood
As I watched painters here at the National Gallery copying pictures, I want to reach out to them and have them turn to pay attention to me. I disliked the sign over my mother’s studio: “M. Svet, Painter at Work: Disturb at Own Risk.” I disturbed my mother whenever possible. She worked out a clever compromise. While I was complaining and telling her tall stories, she would have me pose. In this way she listened, silently, as we wish our mothers to do, and got her work done.
The smell of turpentine and linseed oil, the soft sound of the brush tapping, sticking an instant and leaving the canvas, because motherly smells and sounds, as, to other children, the smell of baking things might be. I watched my mother clean up-swirling the brushes about on a cake of Ivory soap-the way other children watched mothers doing dishes. Will the sound of a typewriter be a motherly association to my daughter, Johanna, and my son, Jeremy?
I see paintings here by Rosa Bonheur, by Vigee-Lebrun, and Mary Cassett, and remember my mother telling me about them, that they were great painters. She longed to be one of them. I refused to listen when she complained they were not given recognition. What my mother liked, I felt then could not be very good. But now I look at the arms on Cassett’s children. They make me sigh, they are so warm, so exquisitely painted. They also make me long to touch my daughter’s firm, young arm. To be home. Did my mother feel that pull – even as she forced herself to work every day. My mother despised “Sunday painters.” I thought then, at least they drive station wagons and pick up their kids at school.
A new appreciation dawns
Now I am looking at a painting by Robert Henri, who was my mother’s instructor when, at 18, my daughter’s age, she left home to study at the Art Students League. I can see that my mother’s work is very, very good, cruelly unrecognized. As my mother said, during the years of the Abstract Expressionists, “My work will come into its own one day.” Do I have the generosity of spirit yet to tell her she is right? Can I accept and recognize my mother’s work as my children do mine? I turned to admiration and competition with my father because my mother’s work was relegated to a second place. Shamed by her defeat and my failure to appreciate her excellence, I didn’t even acknowledge the achievements she was able to make.
Unrealistic expectations of mothers
We talk of the expectations parents give children! My God – the expectations I had for my mother. Imagine: She was to be sexless, except that I should be her gently eroticized obsession. She would give me her total attention – but leave me alone except when I need her and then she was to be there instinctively. If my mother had troubles, I was not to hear about them, although she was to listen endlessly to mine, to offer only pleasing advice.
She was also to understand all of my troubles were of her own making and yet she was not to be guilty because that would make me uncomfortable. She was to keep herself attractive, but to age – in an acceptable manner – so I would not feel she was in competition. She was to remain married, but to have a less perfect marriage than any of mine. It was clear she should have no sex life at any time, but at the same time she was to understand and approve any sexual conversation I might throw her way.
In my daughter’s and my son’s eyes I see the toll their understanding has taken. I also see the rip in my mother’s life as she fought ahead of her time to be herself. I want to acknowledge that understanding here. To ask forgiveness for the selfish denial of her excellence and frustration. I want to say to her as my daughter did to me, “Just go, do your work and have a good time.” My mother gave me the license to show me her own longing, but I am still caught. Surrounded by luminous paintings, astonished at how much my mother was ale to teach me about understanding them, in spite of my resistance to every word – lessons which served me better than the pies she never made – I wonder if I will give her the pleasure of telling her that for relaxation now I turn to the world she offered to me so long ago.
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