Twenty years ago, I quit my not-so-royal family. Unlike Prince Harry, whose book, “Spare” is released today, I did not write a scathing memoir. But the exit was hardly graceful, with hours spent sobbing at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta airport, in the parking lot, at the ticket counter, at the gate. My unhappiness had mushroomed far beyond what I could contain, and my husband and I agreed: it was either them or me. I simply could not remain part of that family without losing myself.
Unlike the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, I made no public statement, hatched no preconceived plan. No one called it Bethxit. Leaving the family seemed like a swift decision on that beastly hot, late July Atlanta day, but I had long fantasized about freeing myself. Also, I did the research. In the years leading up to the split, I spoke with others who had cut ties with their families. Here’s what I learned from them, and from my own break-up.
Do the Math
What do you gain by staying? Lose by leaving? Consider relationships as well as money and stuff. With no family fortune or compound to inherit (my parents told me years before that by depriving them of grandchildren, I’d inherit little) I was more concerned about relationship casualties. It’s unfair to ask friends and relatives to choose between you and those you left behind. How would life be if you or your kids were unable to spend time with your favorite uncle or cousin? In my case my mother’s best friend, my beloved Aunt Jeannie, had passed away years before, saving me from such a decision.
Kick Over Every Imaginable Rock
Harry and Meghan left the fold after less than two years. I waited until I was nearly 40. My advice: Attempt to work through issues first, on and off the analyst’s couch. Try therapy, hot air ballooning, karaoke, escape rooms. Knowing you’ve attempted every possible strategy to remain part of the family will bring peace to your decision.
Quit and Tell Thoughtfully
Most of us are privileged not to be stalked by paparazzi hiding in trees. Still, protect your privacy and your family’s by sitting with the decision for a while (it took me six months) before telling people or posting to social media. Finding the appropriate language and manner takes time. “I’m estranged from my family,” is not an easy thing for most people to admit, nor for others to hear.
Resist the Urge to Create a Revenge Epic
Famed writing teachers Phillip Lopate and Mary Karr caution against using memoir writing as a revenge tool. The same applies to quitting the tribe. Your motivation for cutting off contact should be the desire for a happier (and in some instances safer) domestic situation. Resist the urge to strike back on the page or screen. Instead consider the break an opportunity to better yourself and your life.
Quitting the family can be painful and messy, but cutting ties also creates the space to craft your very own version of a happy, satisfying life.
Older sister screams, maroon with rage, I wrote in my first poetry writing workshop at Hunter College. For that was the image I held of my older sister, always angry, always yelling, always at me.
Four years earlier, during spring break of her second year at college, my overachieving sister surprised me by giving me her room—the biggest of three children’s bedrooms in our house on Pumpkin Hill. More than twice the size of mine on the other side of the wall, which provided only a slender strip of floor between desk and bed. A narrow bit of real estate on which to lie listening to music with headphones or curl into sit-ups.
By then, our constant animosity had thawed. Though I was rarely allowed to step across the threshold into her sanctuary, she occasionally began letting me, a junior at Staples High School, linger in her room long enough to ingest what M called “choice bits”—favorite tunes from favorite records on her turntable. The tally of time she spent pinning me to the floor, digging her grubby nails into my scrawny wrists had dwindled. Occasionally, I was even permitted to take a seat on the daybed, usually reserved for friends spending the night to whom I was not permitted to speak.
M was an English major at Vassar hoping to write a creative thesis for her senior project, so I like to imagine that communing with the spirit of Mary McCarthy in the college library put her in an agreeable mind that spring.
One afternoon, she cornered me in the kitchen. “What’s the one thing you want from me most?”
Before I could make my mouth say “kindness,” or “your friendship,” or “a feeling that you might pull me out of the path of a speeding truck rather than sitting behind the wheel,” my sister answered her own question.
I was not naïve. I knew that by inheriting my sister’s room, large enough to accommodate four friends or two overnight guests, I would not suddenly become popular. Or that she would magically appear at the door, asking permission to come in and hang around.
Eventually I stopped waiting for M to change into the caring older sister I craved. Moving on, I replaced her wallpaper of flat, uninspired pink and red tulips with an elegant design of shimmering pastel columns, applied to college in New York City, and started writing.
I found your wedding invitation last night, Laura. A blessing amidst our packing-to-move chaos, discovering such an artifact, two decades old, still so freighted with emotion.
How I cried originally, sliding the thick embossed invitation from its gracefully addressed envelope. And how this surprised me, as it had been 15 years since we’d seen one another, when I was in my early 20’s, and you were about six, sitting on a Big Wheel singing and stroking your huge gentle German Shepherd, Ivan.
No matter. The connection between us was forged before birth. Your mother — “Aunt Jeannie” to me, and my mother, your “Aunt Carol” – were two girls from Brooklyn, who found one another in junior high school and, from that day until the day your mother died, talked constantly.
Your mother was Yin to my mother’s Yang. They were each other’s alter ego, Virginia Taranto Bochicchio and Carol Masnik Warshofsky. As close as sisters, but extremely different. Carol, the only child from a Jewish family, lost her father before she turned 19. Jeannie, Italian Catholic with several siblings, had parents who lived into old age. They had opposing views on nearly everything, from child rearing to cooking to decorating and food.
Maybe you’ve heard some of the stories. How as a young adult, your mom lived with my Nana at 2161 East 27th Street for a time, after my Grandpa Max had died. Or that my mother dove in and covertly pulled Jeannie across the high school pool, to fulfill the swimming requirement necessary to graduate from New York City public schools in the 1950’s.
Your mother desperately wanted children. When I was born, she became Aunt Jeannie with her whole heart, and over time, my fairy godmother, my cheerleader, my champion, softening my mother’s harsh edges with her warmth and generosity.
Carol was named your godmother, a tradition not practiced in our Jewish faith, but since the request came from her best friend, she accepted. You spent a lot of time with my mother over the years, and it’s comforting to think that as a godmother, she was able to provide you the comfort and support I seemed unable to inspire in her.
Possibly because she lost her father suddenly, or because she married young and never lived alone, my mother radiated fear. She parented with it, so many rules rooted in the culture of No. No cookies or candy in the house. No soda. No calling boys. No buying food at the concession stand at Compo Beach. No, no, no.
To me, Aunt Jeannie was the opposite. Oh, their endless debates around my mother’s restrictive diet plans. Your mom’s feigned horror the day she learned I had never tasted real butter. How crazy it made my mother that Aunt Jeannie served me whole milk!
One day, while in the car, your mother insisted we stop at the nearest Carvel. Mother pulled out her usual list of objections — it was too close to dinner, we had just had lunch, it was too cold for ice cream – yet Aunt Jeannie was ready. But Carol,” she said, “I read that Carvel is made with skim milk!”
As I got older, Aunt Jeannie noticed, and nurtured, my interest in shopping and boys. She took me and my mother to the yearly shoe sale at Heller’s in Mount Kisco, where they fought about a pair of pumps I coveted, black patent leather with a gold loopy buckle and kitten heel. Not exactly practical for a Hunter College student who spent hours studying in the library, but I really wanted those shoes, and Jeannie, well she understood.
Too ego-beaten to stand up for myself, I loved that Jeannie did it for me.
“Oh Carol,” she said, “just buy her the shoes already!”
I still have them. Heels ground down to stubs and faux croc patent leather cracked, a reminder of the time a parent took my side, even though she wasn’t mine.
Possessing a great sense of ceremony, your mother was, as we say these days, over the top. Meals shared at chez Bochicchio were always a little tense; our mothers had such conflicting philosophies. My mother, who existed on fruit, boiled broccoli, and breadsticks, thinly hid her disapproval of Jeannie’s extravagant Italian spreads. Lunch or dinner, a meat course always followed by pasta. Two or three rich homemade desserts at the finish.
So many Christmases at your house! One year, nestled between the tiramisu, profiteroles, and cherry cheesecake, sat a platter of strawberries right off the vine, like something out of a Dutch still life—crimson, glossy, big as a fist.
Besides Jeannie, my mother’s circle of friends and acquaintances was small. She talked about a lot of people but didn’t get to know them. Of anyone who wasn’t related, my mother would say, “She isn’t Blood!”
Further down the pecking order were non-Jews. But your mother, neither blood nor Jewish, was the exception, the small soft place of acceptance, the one person to whom my mother didn’t apply labels.
I was not surprised when the news came that Jeannie, who had been ill for years, had died. My mother called and instructed me to write a note of sympathy to your father. I was 34 years old, and didn’t need prompting.
Yet I delayed writing that condolence letter. Instead, I walked. For 13 days, I moved my feet across the Washington D.C. pavement. Suddenly I understood. In losing Jeannie, the only truly maternal figure I had known, I’d also lost that small, warm, and accessible part of my own mother.
Eventually I wrote to your dad.
I’ve been wandering around in a fog these last two weeks, trying to find words to express my sorrow. But there are no appropriate words. You know how much I loved her, what a blessing she was to me and my family. I have other aunts and uncles, blood relations I adore, but none plays as important a role on the home movie screen of my memories as my beloved Aunt Jeannie.
Sometimes I type your name into Facebook, Laura, wondering what it’d be like to communicate now, 20 years after your wedding. Though connected by deep roots, we never knew one another as adults. Would we forge our own relationship, in person, over email, or on Zoom, each bringing a little bit of both our mothers?
Part of me still wants to think of you as my little cousin, pedaling a tricycle down the driveway in Bedford, or turning somersaults on the back lawn. In that particular time machine, I’d be 21, a young adult too serious, self- absorbed, and contemplative. And Jeannie, she’d be around, too. Jumping in the middle, absorbing the existential body blows of a mother-daughter duo too similar and too close, frozen in emotional combat. I never got to thank her for that, my cheerleader, my champion, my fairy godmother, Aunt Jeannie.
After several false starts, the West Building of the National Gallery of Art is slated to reopen on May 14th. I have circled the date in red on my kitchen calendar. As a school docent at the museum, touring the Gallery, talking about art with kids, is at the top of my: Activities Most Missed During the Pandemic list.
Over my four-year tenure, Gilbert Stuart’s The Skater (Portrait of William Grant) became a favorite tour stop. The sheer size of the canvas (96 5/8 X 58 1/16 inches), plus the generous gallery floor space in front of the work provides an inviting area for kids to sit and delve into the massive oil painting.
On my phone I have a photograph of The Skater. Locked indoors during the last 14 months, I took a moment to acknowledge it daily. Those minutes transported me back to the museum, and to a chilly day in London’s Hyde Park, 1782. As a runner who skated, danced and tumbled as a kid, I’m comforted by the rhythm of movement, drawn to the portrait’s fluid physicality.
The father of American portraiture, Stuart is most famous for his 104 likenesses of George Washington, one of which graces our dollar bill. But the artist also had a playful side. Upon showing up to Stuart’s studio, William Grant, a Scottish barrister, reportedly said “on account of the excessive coldness of the weather . . . the day was better suited for skating than sitting for one’s portrait.”
Stuart agreed. After they glided across the ice together, the artist painted a full-length portrait of Grant in motion. Portraying a subject from head to toe while athletically engaged were unprecedented techniques in Britain’s “Grand Manner” tradition, under which Stuart was apprenticing.
As the pandemic endured, I missed interacting with the museum’s collection in person, and the energy of the kids. The Skater calls to mind both—and reminds me of the rejuvenating power of movement. When I was still anxious about working with children, on one of my early tours, a 12- year-old boy taught me to dab, right beneath Stuart’s masterpiece.
With the promise of the gallery reopening, I can’t wait to stand before my favorite works of art, like The Skater, Archibald Motley’s Portrait of My Grandmother, and my beloved Degas dancers.
“Art is not a treasure in the past or an importation from another land, but part of the present life of all the living and creating peoples,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt said at the opening reception for The National Gallery almost exactly eighty years ago in March 1941.
Art certainly is an integral part of my life. With the reopening of The National Gallery on May 14th, I can once again find inspiration in the museum’s enduring magic.
I miss a mask-free face, others as well as my own.
Mask wearing is particularly challenging for hearing impaired people like me. Removing the mask’s elastics consistently pulls out my hearing aids. One over-ambitious yank, and I worry the tiny pieces of machinery that enable communication between me and the rest of the world will end up crushed on the parking lot asphalt.
Even with hearing aids, I rely heavily on lip reading. Since most people don’t wear the clear plastic variety, cloth masks obscure any chance I have of understanding what others say. Masks also make it challenging to recognize friends, flash or return a smile, or simply blow a kiss.
While we’re on the topic of lips, a quiet rant, if you please, regarding one of those small but enjoyable details which punctuated pre-pandemic life: lip color.
Shallow? Perhaps. But fastening on to the memory of everyday pleasures we once took for granted—like hugging a friend you unexpectedly run into while shopping, going to a concert, or eating out—brings normality to this very challenging time.
So here it is: our now nearly 11 month-long mask wearing mandate has made a hash of my lip color obsession.
If you are sporting MAC Low Cut Deep Chocolate Nude Lip Glass or Clinique Curviest Caramel Cubby Stick beneath your mask at Whole Foods and no one sees it, does it even count?
I am here to say Yes. It does.
Wearing lip color is about more than appearance. It’s about—for me anyway—glamour, artistry, self-expression, and style. And let’s face it, a little bit about dress up.
And, as any lip covering addict will admit, the habit of applying lipstick, gloss, or even ChapStick regularly is a tough one to break. Not that I care to. Going without? Not possible. Naked lips feel dry and exposed, underdressed.
Since mask wearing has rendered lips undercover I could, I suppose, focus my attention northward. But lids and lashes require more maintenance than I am willing to donate. Sweeping color across my eyelids is easy enough, but I’ve never been motivated to develop a committed mascara wearing practice. Wielding that gloopy black wand requires patience, a mirror, and a steady hand. Plus, mascara travels, migrating below the eye and into both corners during the course of the day.
So, lips win every time.
A tube or tub of lip color, even costly designer brands like Chanel or Dior, is less expensive and far less of a commitment than changing my hair color. With practice (of which I’ve had plenty), lip color can be applied anytime, anywhere (even sans mirror) with a couple of swift strokes.
My obsession started early. The gateway product of choice for my generation, Bonnie Bell Lip Smackers, debuted in 1973 when I was ten, though I probably didn’t start coating my lips until a few years later in junior high. I can still remember the feeling of that oversized tube in my fist, and of course the yummy smell.
Lip Smackers were famous for their scent. My favorite was the sweetly tart Green Apple, a precursor of my own grown-up apple eating obsession. In 1975, a Dr. Pepper-flavored Lip Smackers was released, exotic in its dark maroon tube. Gliding the flavored gloss across my lips felt especially contraband, given that I was not permitted to drink soda. Another favorite, Watermelon, smelled like hard candy, which I was also forbidden. Lip Smackers, by their name alone, were clearly not a grown-up’s product, but perfectly branded as cheeky and fun, what every teenage girl yearned to be.
Part of the danger of our new normal pandemic stay-at-home-routine, is the temptation to embrace a “Why Bother?” attitude, including lip color. The very mindset which temps me to wait three days longer than I should to wash my hair, or dive too deeply into the scrumptious tin of Neiman Marcus chocolate chip cookies a friend sent for Christmas.
But as an artist, museum docent, and former fashion journalist, I worship at the crossroads of art and fashion. For me that means make-up.
Several well-known make-up artists began as painters. The French magnate Laura Mercier, for example, who entered art school in her native Paris at 17. On a visit to New York’s Soho some years ago, my husband and I stumbled across a tiny shop owned by portraitist and make-up artist Linda Mason. As a portrait painter myself (of teddy bears not humans), and make-up enthusiast, I felt as though I had found my home. We left the store with Mason’s signature work, a hand painted mirrored compact, her specially blended lip glosses resembling an artist’s palette, and a copy of her book, Make-up: The Art of Beauty.
Reading about the lives and careers of the make-up industry’s female titans is a parallel hobby. The autobiography of Estee Lauder, Estee, a Success Story, and Michèle Fitoussi’s Helena Rubinstein, Beauty is Power, which draws a direct line from Rubinstein’s salons and cosmetics to her legendary art collection, are especially inspiring.
I love reading about make-up almost as much as I love buying it, in person that is. Lip color is my feel-good grab, not least because purchasing necessitates neither the harsh light nor unforgiving mirror of a dressing room. Bonus: no clothing removal required.
You’d be amazed (I know I am!) at what pudding I become at a department store make-up counter. Entranced by the different displays of product and color, always on the lookout for seasonal releases and old favorites, I am fodder for over-zealous sales people.
Which is why I consistently returned to my regular advisors. Due to the pandemic however, most of my gang of enablers, my personal “Glam Squad” have disbanded. Millie from my favorite Trish McEvoy counter, who kept me apprised of new products by text before demonstrating them in person, has headed back to school to complete his degree.
I started buying from Karen in the 1990’s, and over the years followed her from Neiman’s to Saks to Lord & Taylor and beyond. Always so generous with her brand’s samples, she never hesitated to load up my bag, or tell me the truth about a product. The pandemic forced Karen into a well-deserved retirement, while Nordstrom took out its whole first floor beauty department staff in one swift swing by closing my favorite branch. Only Brandi at Estee Lauder, who continues to gently nudge me out of my comfort zone (rightly suggesting for instance, that despite my distaste for shimmer, I might love the effect of Pink Parfait High Luster Lipstick), remains.
There is always of course, the option of on-line shopping. Whether I’ve taken to perpetuating my lip color obsession from home, I’ll leave that a mystery. And, like sporting lacy lavender lingerie under my sweatshirt and yoga pants at the grocery store, whether I am wearing Trish McEvoy Sheer Mulberry with its amazing peppermint tingle and subtle tone (“looks as if you just bit your lips,” Millie explained) under my mask, or simply Carmex Classic Lip Balm, you will never know.
I am obsessed. Amedeo Modigliani’s 1917 painting, Madame Kisling, consumes me.
The artist is of course famous for his female nudes, but Renee Kisling is fully clothed. Everything about the oil on canvas portrait at the National Gallery of Art is strong and angular. The colors are bold: rust, red, grey. The shapes are sharp, from her angled hair to her tilted neck. Clothed in a man’s grey business suit and red tie, Madame exudes a combination of feminine strength and sensuality.
There is a musicality for me in the painting. As one who considers the first four beats of any song an excuse to get up and dance, Kisling’s costume and hairstyle evoke a 1980’s rock and roll sensibility, calling to mind k.d. lang, Eurythmics front woman Annie Lennox, and the young superstar Janelle Monae.
Like them, Madame Kisling is a picture of substance and originality. She has the kind of thick straight hair I have long coveted, able to hold the shape of her pageboy haircut and move expressively as her head moves. In contrast to my own weightless curly hair, that moves only northward, as the humidity rises.
I visit Madam Kisling often. Since the pandemic shutdown, I can no longer confront her portrait in person at The National Gallery where I am a docent. So, I seek her out on the museum’s website, or study the pencil tracings I’ve made and hung on my bathroom mirror and home office bulletin board.
Like several of Modigliani’s models, her almond-shaped eyes are clouded with a smudged, smoky grey. Instead of a robotic, generic look though, they have a thoughtful, expressive quality, as though she were listening to a song no one else can hear.
Renee Kisling was the wife of painter and Modigliani protégé Moise Kisling. She epitomized the picture of then-current European modernity, as one of the first women to wear trousers and cut her hair short. She and her husband amused themselves by running around the city dressed alike.
I admire Modigliani’s bold portrayal of his subject, in contrast to the soft, curvy portraits Moise painted of his wife. The outfit or look, is something I might pin to my Pinterest board if I were inclined to such things. I also salute her free-spirited nature, and courage to blaze new trends in fashion-saturated Paris.
Yet what captures my attention most about Modigliani’s portrait is the angle of Kisling’s neck, which tilts aggressively to her right.
For the last three years, I myself have had a crooked neck, pitching even more severely the opposite way. My left shoulder stands significantly higher and tighter than my right. But, unlike Madame, my self-confidence is wobbly. Instead of bold and strong, I imagine my own visage conveys a tentative, perhaps timid image. Even before the pandemic, I stayed close to home.
A distrust in Western medicine renders me a challenging patient. Heady with the belief that diet and exercise can cure most things, I consulted a variety of Eastern and New Age modalities including acupuncture, myofascial release, core synchronicity, Pilates, mindfulness and breathwork. All with negligible results.
My knack for contracting rare ailments which mystify the professionals goes back decades. Insect bites which blow up to the size of golf balls. A runner’s callus shredding on the bottom of my foot bewildered several pharmacists, but finally responded to an on-line remedy of repeated duck-tape application. And once, a suppurating sore on my bottom lip which simply would not stop oozing.
“Doctor, what is it?” I asked as he circled around, examining my face from different angles and scribbling notes.
“Nothing to worry about,” he assured me. “I just haven’t seen a good case of Mango Dermatitis in AGES!”
So, it was no surprise when I learned that my crooked neck, known as Torticollis or Cervical Dystonia, is a fairly rare condition. Though not a joiner, I did pay $30 a year to become a member of the National Spasmodic Torticollis Foundation. The association’s newsletter contains conflicting information, from both patients and doctors. Some encourage the use of neck braces. Others discourage it, fearing that constant support will cause muscles in the neck to weaken.
CD produces pain and discomfort. But most challenging is the reality that the sharp slant of my neck means I no longer look like me. I used to love fashion: burrowing through my closet each morning to select an outfit, deciding between a black turtleneck, bright blue cardigan or deep maroon jacket to top my customary tight black pants was an affectionate nod back to my Fashion Institute of Technology roots. Accessories were always my playground: including dangling black vintage telephones earrings, necklaces made of French champagne caps, or bum bags splattered with leopard prints.
Now my daily wardrobe includes hooded sweatshirts, and a deftly wrapped scarf to camouflage my poor tilted neck. Necklaces and earrings are relegated to my jewelry box.
My new physical/yoga therapist suggested I make myself into a work of art, when venturing out to the grocery store or showing up for Zoom meetings. Meaning that instead of resorting to hoodies and scarves to conceal, I dress up- as I did before CD tilted my neck and plummeted my physical self-image.
But as an artist and museum docent, I yearn for context, of finding myself in art. My mind turned first to Picasso, as the fractured language of Cubism seems a likely starting place. But I am by nature an upfront creature, and thus drawn more to the straightforward, sculptural portraits of Modigliani. Recognizing the striking similarity-of my neck to his Madame Kisling’s, I knew I could cease looking.
As what my husband still refers to “as my lovely neck,” became increasingly inclined, confronting a mirror meant fretting, not only about what I saw, but about what others might think as well. This worry was not exaggerated. People stopped me, some complete strangers, some acquaintances or even well known to me, to inquire what was wrong with my neck.
Coco Chanel once declared that while she wasn’t classically beautiful, she wouldn’t have it any other way. My crooked neck does make me feel less than beautiful, but it also has me questioning why I spend time considering my own visual image, if it matters, and why I care what others see.
Something in the strength of the artist’s portrait suggests that Renee Kisling or at least Modigliani’s version of her, didn’t feel compelled to hide, camouflage or people please.
These last few years I’ve become a master of concealment, with my expanding collection of hoodies and scarves. Yet it is the strong, eye catching detail of the exposed, tilted neck which Modigliani chose to boldly include in his portrait of Madame Kisling.
Several practitioners suggested that my CD may have been subtly lurking all along, a notion I initially dismissed. Then I remembered my hairdresser in the 1990’s, remarking that the left side of my hair, longer than the right, seemed to grow more quickly. Also, a tailor about the same time, suggested when shortening the sleeves of a jacket, that my left arm was longer than my right.
Look at old photos my acupuncturist suggested. Sure enough, pictures of me with others from ten or 20 plus years ago, show my head is often pitched toward the person on my left, almost as if I am trying to get into their space and out of mine.
Searching for answers and struggling to comprehend the mind/ body connection, I’ve read a great deal. The nonmedical practitioners have also been helpful, and now I have a neurologist on my team.
But I also have questions for Mr. Modigliani.
Did Madame Kisling actually have a tilted neck? If not, did he choose to paint her with one because the two were rumored not to have gotten along? Or was he simply being faithful to his sculptural style of almond eyes and long mannerist necks? Or perhaps the moment he captured on canvas was a time when Madame was deep in thought, cocking her head to one side?
“Our faces lie but our necks are the truth,” the late essayist Nora Ephron wrote in her book, I Feel Bad About My Neck.
The truth my neck is straining to reveal reaches beyond physical appearance. Inspired by Madame Kisling, I’m working to carry my whole self, crooked or straight, with confidence and grace.
Here’s the way things would have played out, had Covid-19 not hijacked our chosen daughter’s wedding. Since I was unable to attend the dress hunt outing, she and I arranged to spend a day together a month or so before, shopping for her headpiece, shoes, and jewelry.
More than three decades later, wedding dress shopping is the best memory I have of spending time with my mother. For once the boundaries between us are clearly drawn, and we are both comfortable with our assigned roles: I’m the bride and she’s the mother of the bride.
Looking at the statement the following day, I realized my memory aligned closer to fiction than fact.
My mother and I shopped together frequently. By the time I am in junior high, she needs my help whenever she is in a store. She cannot buy clothing, accessories, or decor without me. Not for herself, for my father, for the house. Sometimes I feel like the parent in our equation, often like a store employee, running back and forth between the sales floor and the dressing room, searching the racks for a smaller size or different color.
In my early 20’s, when my mother starts buying the identical outfits and accessories as I pick out for myself, the boundary confusion multiplies. Though she has the figure to pull off a midthigh black skirt, and I should perhaps be flattered that she likes my taste, I can’t help feeling that she is taking something from me.
Navigating the stress of adolescence and early adulthood was difficult enough. Then throw in my mother’s conflicting signals: if she respected my clothing choices so much, why did I need such heavy supervision when it came to my hair?
In retrospect, our frequent shopping trips produced for me two things: an uncanny ability to calculate ridiculously complex percentages in my head (buy one item and get 20 % off, two and get 30% off, and three at 40% off), and what could be considered a shared, diverting interest, a distraction from so much else that felt fraught between us.
A respite of sorts. Was the inside of a clothing store our Switzerland? Sometimes. When we shopped, instead of parsing out the unruly nature of my curly hair, or why I did not take her advice about something (okay everything), my mother and I could focus on the hunt, finding the perfect straight leg black jeans on sale, gold espadrilles, or silver hoop earrings.
No wonder that now even in our digital age, shopping on-line feels uncomfortable to me.
As a natural storyteller, I’ve learned the most improbable tales turn out to be those we tell ourselves. Perhaps my impulse to rewrite the memory of my wedding dress shopping experience falls in line with my mother’s need for us to all have dinner “together as a family” every night growing up. Even at 14 or 15, I recognized the charade. Rather than a nurturing coming together, or one of those us-against-the-world families, our evening gatherings reveal themselves to me now like an Edward Albee play, complete with nightly yelling, spilt milk, and tears.
On paper we looked the perfect suburban family. Though divorce was rampant in the 1970’s, my parents remained married, raising three healthy daughters. Even our address evoked Norman Rockwell visions: 4 Pumpkin Hill.
My first lesson in irony: 1313 Mockingbird Lane, the location of the home of the strange and awkward family from the popular 1970’s TV show The Munsters, would have been more suitable. Little about us was typical. Rather than boarding the train to New York every morning like most other Westport, Connecticut dads, my freelance writer father worked at home, wearing jeans, T-shirts, and puka beads. Much of my afterschool time was served acting as companion to my insecure mother, riding around Westport together in her silver Oldsmobile doing errands and food shopping.
At home I worked at creating space between me and my older sister’s fists. Unable to understand why my mother did not step in to protect or at least stand up for me, I cried daily. Instead of conversation in our house, there was an abundance of weeping, (me) and yelling (my mother). Later, I understood that, unable to express or own her unhappiness, she pointed her rage at me.
My mother could not admit that we were not the perfect happy family, and I could not forgive her for failing to be what my adolescent mind considered ‘real’. In refusing to accept that we were flawed, I felt that she could not see me. No amount of evenings around the dinner table would bring her middle child into sharper focus.
Skills which I now see were a big part of her identity. Though bright and capable, my mother was a product of her generation. Raising three daughters in the 1960’s and 70’s, she must have felt compelled to cook dinner every night. Yet she might have preferred reading, throwing pots in the basement or painting canvases. But I suspect she knew that to express or explore those needs would be to seemingly betray her responsibilities as a mother and wife. So, she radiated unhappiness instead.
One summer at sleepaway camp when I was about 13, one of my bunkmates received a letter from her mother which she read aloud: “Well, it wasn’t such a good year, but at least we got through it.”
I envied my friend’s mother’s honesty, concluding even then, as a young teenager, that things may not have been rosy at her south Jersey home, but at least they were honest.
Nothing it seemed to me, was upfront or honest at our house. Difficult as that was, I am coming to understand why my mother needed to believe that something as simple as sitting down to dinner together every night signified a happy, united family.
In revising my wedding shopping memory, wasn’t I doing much the same thing?
Instead of the popular culture of the 1970’s, which portrayed happy families in saccharine TV shows like the Brady Bunch and Eight is Enough, my writing a revisionist positive memory came from being bombarded by joyous family wedding photos on Facebook, and endless episodes of Say Yes to the Dress. Watching bride Susy from Sacramento show up to the store’s Manhattan showroom with her adoptive mother and her biological mother in tow (even though I know bio mom and adoptive mom probably want to smack each other), all together and all smiles, it’s hard not to wish for a perfect, or at least warm memory.
In reality, my mother and my wedding dress shopping experience was a solid five. A little better than some previous shopping trips, a little more stressful than others. Having been denied the opportunity to stop for lunch, I was hungry, thirsty, and cranky at the finish. Yet I dutifully followed my mother to the lingerie department, in search of a wedding night trousseau.
After an entire day of wedding dress shopping (stopping for lunch or coffee not permitted), during which I have tried on beaded eveningwear, silk pants suits, and strappy cocktail dresses, my mother and I finally agree. I will be married in a below-the-knee, fitted bodice frock with scooped out back. Illusion polka dotted lace covers the sleeves, and joyfully explodes from the skirt.
Finding The One at Bonwit Teller, the elegant women’s department store is especially exciting. I have lived in New York for seven years, and visit the shop’s 57th Street location every few months, simply to check out the windows-everything inside the store is beyond my entry level salary. Also, since opening in 1895, Bonwit’s avant-garde displays have featured scenes designed by Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Salvador Dali. For a graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology like me, the outings feel like a necessary part of my education.
Thinking I’m alone in the dressing room and stuffing a Power Bar into my mouth, I feel something scratching. My mother is not on the other side of the curtain, but in the room with me, drawing across my back with a blue ball point pen.
At first, I don’t know why. Why does she do anything? Why did she call me at 9am this morning, with the intensity of a trial lawyer?
“Are you planning to wear make-up?”
“No, to your wedding.”
“I really hadn’t thought about it.”
“Well, I’d like to know.”
“You need a commitment now?”
The ink line is necessary, she explains. In order to find the right bra, one not exposed by the plunging back, we need a line indicating how far down the dress scoops.
The bra? We haven’t even paid for the dress.
I spend the next several hours trying on bra after bra in the drafty dressing rooms of B. Altman and Lord & Taylor: After opening the door and turning around, each option is subjected to the line-drawn-on-the-back test, until finally a suitable brassiere is identified.
Four months later, the day arrives. August 9, 1987. At Garvins, an elegant French restaurant with lace curtains two blocks off Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, 65 people will watch Arthur and I get married.
But first, I’m standing in my dress and Jackie O. pillbox hat before my parents in their Upper East Side apartment. At 24, I feel sophisticated and beautiful. I am ready.
“Take it off,” my mother says.
“Take off the bra.”
“You have lost weight. The bra shows. You can’t wear it.”
“You want me to hang loose?”
My proper mother, who makes mayonnaise from scratch, does not permit swearing, and gets upset if anyone uses the word ‘pissed’, is insisting that I bounce braless on my wedding day.
“Stop being such a prude,” she barks. “It ruins the back of the dress. No one will notice.”
“Oh Bethie,” my Aunt Judy says watching the wedding video. “You look so beautiful.”
“But Beth?” she asks, leaning forward in her chair, studying the screen.
Imagine, presenting Jackson Pollock’s No. 1 1950 to fifteen eighth graders. Instead of standing quietly, taking in the bad boy backstory and hypnotic swirl of what legendary critic Clement Greenberg titled LavenderMist, they wander around the museum gallery giggling, or slumped across the available couches. You are left alone in front of the painting.
Desperate to interest tenth graders in 17th century Dutch still life a few weeks later, yearning to hear more than, “where’s the bathroom?” and “can we take selfies?” you share a list, procured from British art historian Kenneth Clark’s Civilization, of strange items traded by a Dutch businessman during the Tulip Craze of 1634, in exchange for one prized bulb–1000 pounds of cheese, eight pigs, 12 sheep. The students stand silent, unfazed.
Such began my tenure as a school docent at The National Gallery of Art. Eager to spend my “third act” volunteering at a first rate arts institution—after completing a successful sales career and having enjoyed the first ten years which followed painting—I’d hoped to become an adult docent, leading grown-up visitors on tours. Interacting with kids wasn’t anywhere on my radar. But the school program was the only available option at the time, and I was eager to get started. My secret plan was to gain admission, absorb as much as I could during the extensive training program, and then gracefully slide over to the adult sector once it opened.
I loved the pre-tour training period. Once or twice a week, we had the luxury of spending hours with our two leaders in front of a painting, discussing, analyzing, comparing. Or sitting in the auditorium soaking up lectures with slides by senior staff and exhibit curators. Surprisingly, I also enjoyed the sessions devoted to making art interesting to children.
Though training continued for three years and the lectures were ongoing, rookie docents were scheduled to begin giving tours after only four months. Preparation began with mock tours. Working with an assigned piece, (mine was Anne Truitt’s sculpture, Insurrection) we were charged with presenting a three-minute tour stop to our “class” – fellow trainees impersonating sixth graders.
Unlike a painting by the Impressionists or Degas, (whose A Dance Lesson I had chosen for my audition interview), I was baffled by Modern artists, Truitt included. Though labeled a minimalist, she hand-sanded and painted her wood sculpture, pairing a stripe of vibrant red next to one of deep maroon. Two smooth planes of color standing together like fraternal twins. While most minimalists construct using industrial materials, techniques and neutral tones, Anne Truitt chose aggressive color and hand execution, infusing her work with memory and emotion.
Research suggested that Truitt disliked being tagged a minimalist, considering herself beyond classification. A free spirit myself, I could understand. But just what, with Insurrection, was she trying to convey? Shiny and linear, on a matching recessed platform, the sculpture brought to my mind two enormous sticks of gum ready to head off for an after-dinner walk.
I wondered if my fellow docents felt similarly non-simpatico with their assignments. Also, how on earth did everyone else seem to know what they were doing? Where were they getting ideas for making their works come alive for kids?
Given Georgia O’Keeffe’s brilliant series of abstract flowers, Jack in the Pulpit, J. brought in hydrangea blooms from her garden for us to sketch. R., tasked with Simon Hantai’s manic red and white abstract Etude, displayed a piece of canvas she had folded, painted and then smoothed out, employing the artist’s method he invented in 1960 called pliage. Another trainee played a Mozart symphony, demonstrating how music helped inspire Kandinsky while painting.
Such creative ideas held the attention of our docent training class, and illuminated the artist’s intention. Also, they made me wonder. Had I missed some key session, How to Keep the Attention of Exhausted 12-Year-Olds perhaps?
Eventually I discovered that many of my fellow trainees had accumulated years of docent experience at other museums, including The Smithsonian, George Mason’s Gunston Hall, and the (recently shuttered) Corcoran.
And, they were parents.
My husband and I are childless by choice. Knowing from an early age that I was not mother material (due to, among other things, my love of quiet, long and open blocks of time), I used to joke that my favorite film character was The Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, with his ski jump nose, darting black eyes, and swooping yellow cape.
Being around children was a novel and daunting experience for me. I worried early on, was I up to the task? Would my lack of maternal instinct cost me my spot? Did I even know what would interest kids?
Then, I began to question skills I’d always relied on. After shadowing my first tour with a veteran docent, I couldn’t remember enough to fill out the trainee observation form and answer questions like: How did the tour leader encourage students to reason with evidence when considering the four paintings in Thomas Cole’s The Voyage of Life series?
Since I’ve been blessed with an excellent memory, being unable to recall the exercises recently witnessed was disturbing. Until I realized that instead of being present on the tour, I was trapped in my own head. My oversized sense of empathy working overtime, I worried about the kids: Were they having fun? Was anyone feeling left out or uncomfortable? How about the little blonde girl who seemed disconnected? Instead of actually experiencing the tour itself, I was caught up in concern about the children. (Isn’t that what one does with children I reasoned, worry?)
After shadowing a second tour things began to turn around. As the veteran docent chatted with the teacher, I found myself standing with the kids. Waiting for the bus to go back to school, they were burning off excess energy, and I got caught in the wave. Standing with my arms out, gently swaying back and forth like a windmill, three or four fifth graders moved from side to side imitating my motion. On stage at a new age festival, we could have passed for a spontaneous modern dance segment.
Reflecting on the flow of the situation later, I realized that I was not worrying–about the kids, my performance, or my aptitude for the job. I was living in the moment.
At the gallery, school docents are encouraged to utilize interactive exercises instead of simply lecturing, as drawing and writing help children understand and relate to works of art.
Activities like sketching and Post-it poetry engaged the students and awakened my own creative side. While helping six-year-old’s make pipe cleaner flowers in front of Monet’s A Girl with a Watering Can, or learning to dab from a fifth grade boy while viewing Gilbert Stuart’s The Skater, the Beth Herman I knew myself to be for decades–the one who’d lecture her husband for ten minutes without stopping to breath because he neglected to lock up after taking out the trash– was replaced by an entirely different creature.
A patient creature. A soft-spoken creature. One not easily frustrated, who doesn’t clock watch. A creature who, presented with a student losing his train of thought or not concentrating, says gently, “That’s okay, let’s puzzle it out.” As if one day, while preparing to present Randolph Roger’s sculpture Nydia, the Blind Girl of Pompeii, an intense, impatient me stepped behind the artist’s marble flower seller and emerged serene and in the moment.
I realized I was having as much fun leading tours as the kids seemed to have participating. “Where does this woman come from?” I asked my husband Arthur that evening. “And how can I get her to come out more often?”
Another sign of progress involved the names of kids on my tours. Some docents give the children nametags, or request that teachers provide them. Though historically bad with names, I started to challenge myself to learn, memorize, and use the names of each student on my tour. Sometimes as many as 15. I’m not sure how or when this idea came about, but I noticed that addressing each kid personally (Okay Mary, which one of John Singer Sargent’s portraits in this gallery speaks to you and why?) was much more engaging than pointing and saying, “the boy in the blue shirt, tell us…”
In addition to creating a more intimate experience, memorizing the names of 12 to 15 kids and using them during the 60 to 90-minute tour keeps me interested and invested. Plus, I can bring the students on board, explaining in the tour’s introduction that, “I am going to learn your names, but I will need some help.”
At the entrance of our local Barnes & Noble, books on mindfulness fill the shelves. Four years ago, when I started my docent journey, reading about mindfulness helped steady my nerves. To keep me in the moment rather than outside myself; evaluating the tour and my performance from across the room.
In Wherever You Go There You Are, author Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction explains, “When we commit ourselves to paying attention in an open way without falling prey to our own likes and dislikes, opinions and prejudices, projections and expectations, new possibilities open us and we have a chance to free ourselves from the straightjacket of unconsciousness.”
Being in the moment and avoiding judgement are difficult concepts for me, but those I practice intuitively as a runner. My mother-in-law once asked, “If you are tired, how will you have a good run?” I instinctively explained that it didn’t matter if I had a good run or an average run, as running for me is not about performing. Perhaps that is why I never time myself; whether I run a ten-minute mile or a twelve-minute mile makes no difference. While my morning run is affected by how much sleep I have had or if I ate enough the night before, by refusing to classify my run as good or bad, fast or slow, I can engage and enjoy without judgement.
At some point I began to understand that the same concept could be applied to giving school tours. Having a ‘good’ tour is not as important as relaxing into the experience of the tour itself, for me and for the students. Each group of kids, even if they are the same age as my last, is unique. Maybe one group will respond more enthusiastically to blind contour drawing in front of Degas’ sculpture, Little Dancer, Aged 14, while another will take to the I am Poem exercise. But failing to tune in and listen, straining to remember how many versions of Little Dancer were cast or getting caught up in judging myself, will render me unable to discern what the group needs at that moment.
Last week, Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial was the third stop on my American art tour with fifth graders. First, we spent a minute quietly taking in the life-sized sculpture commemorating the first Civil War regiment of African-Americans enlisted in the North. After voicing observations about what the museum’s website calls “the greatest American sculpture of the 19th Century”, I asked the kids to choose soldier, angel, or horse.
“What might your character feel marching into battle to defend Fort Wagner in Charleston?” I asked.
“I’m the horse,” Evan said, “and I’m wondering when I’m going to get fed again!”
“I’m the young soldier in the back,” Josh explained, pointing to a figure at the end of the line. He began describing what that soldier was feeling, but then his mouth froze, his eyes moved toward the floor, as if a light had been turned off. I could almost feel him floating into the shame haze.
“No, it’s okay Josh,” I said gently. “Keep going.”
Eventually his eyes lifted and he was back with us. “It’s fear,” he said. “He’s scared he won’t see his family again.”
Since that lovely August afternoon in Greenwich Village in 1987 when Arthur and I exchanged vows, I have never regretted our decision not to become parents. Nor have I been visited by maternal urges or the tick tock of my biological clock. Yet, since volunteering as a school docent, I’ve come to appreciate what children can add to my life.
While I get the opportunity to open their eyes to art, help them learn about Matisse, Picasso and Rembrandt, they are enriching my journey– enlightening me on the necessity of getting out of my head, encouraging me to stop worrying, and easing my tendency to judge myself and others.
I’m not sure who is getting the greater gift.
Sometimes if I’m lucky, I’ll end a tour completely present, or as athletes say, in the zone. This happened in early March. After finishing Faces and Places, I found myself in the West building rotunda surrounded by 12 first-graders. Most of the other docents had returned to the volunteer lounge. I however, was engaged in a game of Frozen Statues with the circle of six-year-olds. Awkwardly twisting my body into the shape of a banana, and throwing my arms around impersonating an octopus, I didn’t want the morning to end.
At the introduction of a tour at the National Gallery, seated on a bench with the kids on the floor in a semicircle around me, some excited and eager, a few nervous or distracted, I begin by saying, “the museum is a magical place.”