A block of wood

Carved from a solid block of wood, oblong like an island and with a small hole in its middle that made it easy to grasp, it had an undulating form and a smooth surface that darkened with age and handling. In my world it had existed before me and it followed us from home to home, apartment to loft. It was neither signed nor dated and never had a name. It just was. Its smoothness and shape was always comforting to me.

At some point, I became aware that my mother had made it in a time before me, when she studied with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy at the School of Design in Chicago. Moholy, as she called him, was an art god in our family. My mother had been smitten with him, I realized sometime in my 20s, when I felt the same way about some poet or other.

During the best times, my mother would take my brother and me to the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum to see the works of Alexander Calder and Paul Klee and Pablo Picasso. I knew strange words like Gyorgy Kepes and the Bauhaus before I knew much else. But by the time she was taking us to museums, my mother had forsaken any hope of an artist’s life. Even before my brother and I were born, she had been called back from Chicago to Pittsburgh to care for her two younger siblings by her own depressed mother. Later, she found work in advertising and made do as a single mother with two children in New York City. Art was only a dream then, and by the time she could have made it her life, her life was nearly over.

She passed her passion about art to us, and her creative talents were evident in everything from her style of dress to her home and career. But she also passed on a kind of fear of the artist’s unsettled life. The idea of living without a steady paycheck was anathema to her and for good reason. She had only herself to depend on for much of her life.

As an early loft tenant in Soho, she used her creative eye to capture the rough and decaying city textures of that old manufacturing district with photography. She had a few gallery shows in the ‘70s, but abandoned even that when her third husband died suddenly at age 50.

I think it was the central tragedy of her life that she never fully explored her artist self. I have taken many lessons from her life, mostly what not to do, and this one has served me well. Although I have never supported myself or anyone else with earnings from my writing or performing, I have fed my inner artist with self-expression.

My mother spent her last years in a nursing home, having lost her mind along with her once-vibrant life. I tried to make her comfortable there, although I know she never was. One day, I brought the piece of sculpture to her, thinking it would comfort her. I imagined her holding it in her once-elegant hands, now knobby with arthritis, and turning it over, feeling its smooth turns and valleys, maybe even enjoying memories of her days in Chicago with Moholy.

Foolishly, I left the sculpture on her bedside table, within easy reach I thought. The next time I visited, it was gone. Other things went missing too, her wedding ring and a smoky topaz ring her last husband gave her. It’s only the sculpture I miss now, and her, of course.


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