Leona and her father, Richard, have been visiting works of art around the world.
Leona is an interior designer and is working on a nursery for a client. She has just had argument with her husband Gary. Ghosts of her father and mother, Marlene, appear. She is in her apartment in San Francisco.
Leona at Home
A mother, Leona thought. She had wanted to be a mother. Though after several years with Gary, she wasn’t sure she even wanted to be living herself, never mind taking on the responsibility of bringing another being into the world. She knew just how she would raise a child and she had no idea what she would do. It was confusing. She wondered if her father had any paintings for that.
“Of course, I do. There are centuries of Madonna paintings with and without child. Where do you want to begin?”
She wasn’t even startled this time at her father’s voice. “A Madonna? That doesn’t seem a realistic motherhood for me. You heard Gary, I guess.”
“Yes, unfortunately I did.” Richard studied the nursery drawings.
“I don’t want to tell my child what to do. Except for things like don’t touch that, don’t do that…” Leona laughed at herself. “I mean not telling them what to do when they grow up. I’d want him or her to grow up and have a wonderful life.” Leona picked up the drawings and put them and her schedule on the table.
“Just what every good parent wishes for.” Richard sighed.
Leona joined him in sighing, until, they both broke out laughing.
Richard was the first to recover. “The most beautiful Madonna, is, unfortunately, in St. Peter’s, the Madonna with her dying child in Michelangelo’s Pieta. But I’ve had a falling out with the Pope and I’m banned from the Vatican.”
“You’ve been banned? You know the Pope?”
Leona leaned in toward her father. “Perhaps you should tell me something about your ‘life’. The Pope?”
“Never mind him. He’s a drag.” Richard stepped away. “So when you think about children or children and mothers, who do you think about?”
“Cassatt,” Leona lingered over the s’s and t’s of the name.
“Naturally. Since we’ve been inching towards the Impressionists, Ms. Cassatt is just the painter. She has been trivialized in calendar-land with darling children. Shall we reclaim her?”
“Yes, where shall we go?”
Her father rose from the couch and pointed the way. Leona followed him and when they passed through the kitchen door, they were in the cool, marble-floored rooms of the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
At the National Gallery of Art
Expecting this change of place, Leona casually asked as she looked around the gallery, “Was Mary Cassatt a mother herself?”
“No, I don’t think so, though her social or private lives were very separate from her life as a painter.”
“Wasn’t she an American who went to Paris to paint?”
“I don’t think she went at first to paint. She was the daughter of a wealthy Pittsburgh banker. Later, her brother took over the business and helped her as well. Her father was not pleased with her choice of careers, but she became dead set on painting. Finally, parents and sister went to Paris with her.”
Leona considered what kind of support that might feel like.
“Oh, a few more things. Before I forget. You know all that stuff about backgrounds in paintings with the École saying it must be dark.”
Leona nodded that she did.
“Well, she submitted a painting one year and it was rejected. The next year, she repainted the background and they accepted it. The same painting! Judges! Critics! It’s a wonder there are any artists!”
“But she was! Just look, a whole room of Cassatt. Her colors always make me think of summer.” Leona spread her arms over her head and spun around letting the sunshine of the paintings warm her. There were sunny whites against the blues, a dash of red, the vibrant pink skin of the children and their mothers. “Oh, this makes me happy. So happy. Thank you, Father.”
When she stopped and looked at Richard, she could see that he too glowed in her happiness. It felt good to make him seem contented, though it made her aware of how infrequently she had been able to offer him that over the course of her life. She didn’t mean to be disagreeable, but events carried her in one direction where she was desperate for love, while not getting love from her mother and not willing to accept it from her father. She suddenly looked sad.
Her mother’s voice spoke clearly, “I’m sorry, dear. Are you okay? Should I get help?”
Marlene Shows Up
Leona sank on a bench. Her mother, Marlene, was not someone she wanted to see. How could she make it stop? Did she conjure her in some way?
Marlene began, “You know, dear, I didn’t come here to upset you. I would do anything for you. You know that. Where are we anyway?” She looked around for the first time. “Oh, isn’t that sweet, it’s about mothers and children. You’re not pregnant are you, dear?”
Leona’s mouth fell open.
Her mother continued, “No, of course you’re not.”
Leona tried to communicate her unhappiness to her father by sign language.
Marlene expounded. “So let’s see. Rather a limited palette, she’s overcompensating for her willfulness in running away from home. Why they let her go to Paris and then went themselves, I don’t know—though it was fun in the 1960s until those awful students and their demonstrations, wasn’t it Richard?”
Leona’s father spoke, “Yes dear. Now shut up.”
He turned to Leona who tried to compose herself. She ran her hands through her hair. “I wanted to tell you something.” Pausing, she looked at her mother. Then she went to her father and said, “I’m sorry if I’ve disappointed you.”
Richard shook his head and made to comfort her. “You haven’t. You mustn’t think that. I have always been very proud of you.”
Marlene interrupted again, “Don’t worry about me. I’ll just sit here. If you say anything wrong, I’ll correct you.” They both looked at her, puzzled. “About the paintings.” She waved them off.
“Thank you, dear.” Richard called over his shoulder.
Leona stood silent, thinking of all the things her father had done for her as a child and what he was attempting to do now. She pushed thoughts of any disappointments from her mind. “No, it’s not all your fault. I, uh, I just didn’t understand then. Or now. But I want to be here with you more than anything.”
“Are you going to talk about the paintings?” Marlene called from across the gallery.
“She is right sometimes.” Richard took Leona’s arm. “We came to revel in Ms. Cassatt’s sunshine. And so we shall.” He pointed to a painting.
Mother and Child
It was of a mother bathing her child. The child of three had just stepped into a white pan filled with water, the mother coaxing. She squatted, offering the child a hand of security. A simple elegant gesture full of care and giving, just between a mother and her child. They are painted with a loose brush stroke, the child perhaps more loosely as indeed she was a less formed person. The white pan more clearly painted, the rug underneath it of the brightest colors in the painting. The child’s skin displays a rainbow of color. The mother’s clothes loosely rendered, defining her softness mixed with the deliciousness of the towel she will be offering the child. The mother was in blues, but yellow shaped the form, defining light from shadow.
After this study of the painting, Leona observed, “Ah! Cassatt has focused us on the mother’s task. We are invited only to look in.”
“Yes, Leona.” He glanced over at Marlene as if to include her but saw that several people had come to bring her tea, and offer her an array of scarves, jewelry and hats. She selected something, then dismissed the person and rejected another immediately expressing her displeasure. She looked up and waved.
They returned to the painting. Leona said, “Ms. Cassatt has made an everyday task inviting. Not an easy feat if we really think about it.”
“No, I don’t remember any easy tasks with a small child.”
“Or with an adult one?” Leona raised her eyebrows in question to her father.
He kept quiet and looked at another painting.
Leona remembered a Manet painting of a mother and daughter. The colors of the girl, all whites and blues, are similar to this painting but the style was not as free. The girl faced away, holding onto some bars around the park, and the mother paused in her reading to look at us. He painted a mother and daughter apart.
Her father reading her thoughts turned to look at her. “Is that how it was for you and Marlene? It started early?”
“I don’t know. Maybe this isn’t the place to be.” Leona twisted at her jacket.
Richard stood up from the bench he had been sitting on, and led Leona to the far side of the room. “I think when Cassatt painted older children, young girls of twelve or thirteen, they’re friends. No mother at all.”
Leona recalled how she fumed in silence at her mother telling her what to do and how she faded each time giving in to her mother. She sighed.
Two Almost Grown Girls
Richard pointed to the two dressed up young ladies of Cassatt’s The Loge.
Leona almost laughed to see the two miserable looking girls of twelve, dressed in lace, one sadly coy behind a fan, the other holding a bouquet throwing mental darts at some rival,. The theater levels arced over their shiny hair done grown-up style. They ably expressed those horrible years, trying to be grown up, not very comfortable with it and everything hurting so badly. Including the shoes, Leona thought.
“Yes, they would pass this miserable existence on to their mother. Lord, I can hear them having endless conversations, trying on every article of clothing, every idea, feeling, trying every emotion on for size.” Did she have such a relationship? Could she hear those conversations from her life? No, all her friendships were so brief. Leona edged away from these miserable preteens and went back to the mothers and children at the bath, at the beach, at the park, the truly sunny side of the room. Leona could almost feel the ocean breeze on her face.
Leona at the Beach
In fact, she did feel the breeze. Her bare toes sank into the sand, the sound of waves crashed in her ears, and over that she heard the laughter of children running along the waters edge. “Madame. Madame. Come along, come with us.” They shouted and giggled at her.
One small toddler, in a starched white pinafore came up, grabbed at Leona with her damp soft fingers. She looked up with wide eyes. “Hurry, Madame. They have found something.” Leona stumbled and laughed trying to help her toddler stay upright, moving along until they got to the spot where the other children had stopped. Ten children, ranging in ages from two to twelve, their pant legs rolled up, feet bare, though their pants were wet, bottoms covered with sand, hats on the backs of their heads, formed a circle and together they bent at their waists, hands on knees . The oldest one pointed to the crab at the center of their circle.
“Look at that. It’s amazing.”
“Is it alive?”
“No silly, it can’t be.”
“Ew. It’s dead. Somebody touch it.”
The oldest took charge. “No, we should circle around it and bring it back. Sing the song of life.” And the children clasped hands, and circled around singing a nonsense song, laughing, almost falling down, falling down and then rolling in the wet sand. Leona laughed and yet watched to see that none of the children got hurt.
They all rose again, circled, sang, fell down and rolled in the sand. They did this until they exhausted themselves and could hear their mothers calling them. As they went off, they waved goodbye. The little toddler who had led her to the group hugged Leona’s legs and ran off. She watched the children until they disappeared from sight.
Leona saw the waves still breaking and wondered what had become of her father and the National Gallery of Art. She had long conversations with her dead father in museums around the world, without any other visitors. Now she had played at the beach with Mary Cassatt’s children. And it was real because sand coated her hands. She felt good as she rubbed her hands together and touched her cheek.
In her lap, lay the nursery drawings. She knew what colors she wanted now. The colors of Mary Cassatt and of the sea. She started to rise from the couch.