Like most daughters, I think about my late mother often. Especially in October. Mom’s was born on Oct. 23. I treasure the memory of one birthday In particular.
In 1992, Mom was turning 70. She had been slowing down physically. Her left big toe had inexplicably turned up and out, impeding her ability to walk and necessitating clunky shoes. (If you have my book Godsigns, see Chapter 8.) Her normally vibrant sense of humor had dimmed.
To celebrate and cheer her, my sister Anne and I took her for a birthday weekend at a spa in Ojai, California. One night in Mom’s room, we donned T-shirts that read “The B Team.”(Mom’s name was Barbara.) We performed an original song about our mother and, after, wore our T-shirts to the dining room. Other diners (okay, maybe one) demanded we also perform Mom’s song for the group. As faithful readers know (see my earlier column Motown Fan Makes Her Broadway Debut), my sister has pipes! I croaked along, making up in enthusiasm for what I lacked in dulcet tones.
The next day we wore our B Team t-shirts on a guided walk around town. Mom lagged behind, discouraged about her inability to keep up.
That afternoon I proposed an outing. Suzanne Hilberry, the great Detroit gallerist, had shown me the work of Beatrice Wood. One of the best ceramicists of the 20th century, Wood led quite the life. She had affairs with Henri-Pierre Roche, author of Jules et Jim, and his friend artist Marcel Duchamp. She knew Picasso and Brancusi and many avant garde artists. She was dubbed “the Mama of Dada.” More recently, she provided the model for Rose Dawson Calvert, the 100-year old fictional narrator in the movie Titanic.
I remembered hearing that Wood lived in Ojai. She practiced Theosophy and followed Indian philosopher Krishnamurti, who lived there.
So, I called.
A distinguished-sounding man answered. My heart leapt when he agreed to our visit.
The sweeping Santa Ynez mountains rose above Wood’s low-slung white stucco house. The gentleman I’d spoken to turned out to be tall, elegant, and devoted to Ms. Wood. He guided us to the studio. We found a small woman, nearing 100, thick white hair pulled back. She wore a sari and dripped with Indian silver jewelry. She was writing in a ledger, recording formulas for glazes. She showed us some of her recent clay folk art. “Sophisticated primitives,” she called them. A few of her vessels were scattered on a ledge, though none of the exquisite iridescent vases for which she was famous. (A luster chalice was recently on Ebay for $8,000.)
We asked her about how she had maintained such amazing creativity for so long. (She kept going until nine days after her 105th birthday in 1998.)
She told us, “I owe it all to chocolate and young men.”
Then, she asked about us. We told her about our ourselves, our families. About Mom’s birthday. Anne said she wanted to bring her mother-in-law back to meet her. Wood said, with a twinkle in her eye, “I’d much rather meet your husbands.”
As we were about to leave, Mom said to her, “You must be so proud of yourself. You’re a world famous artist. Look at all you’ve accomplished.”
Wood didn’t miss a beat. “Barbara,” she said, “all I do is make pots. Look what you’ve accomplished. You’ve raised these two amazing daughters. You’re the one who should be proud.”
I’m always moved by the power of words. Wood could not have created anything more beautiful than her parting words to Mom. Our mother left that studio higher than the tallest peak in the Santa Ynez.
Happy Birthday, Mom, wherever you are.
(Please share your Godsigns stories with me—especially if they’re about chocolate or young men!)