Once in a while like today, I put on one of my “famous artist” shirts. I always keep them ironed and on hangers from the dry cleaners. One is from Turnbull and Asser, another is from Mr. Fish, and the third is from some Bond Street tailor and is actually bespoke. They are all I’m guessing from the 1970’s. Unfortunately the bespoke one has a small hole in the front. I keep meaning to ask my friend Valerie if she’ll embroider something over the hole.
H, who died several years ago, gave me the shirts. They belonged to her husband E, who was a well-known Abstract Impressionist from The New York School. She gave them to me after he died, because she said E liked me. I certainly liked him. He was charming, Spanish, funny and I loved his work. He was also very kind to me about my writing. Which I appreciated. He was close to a hundred when he died and was old enough to remember being in Paris at the same time as Sartre. He was always talking about Paris before the war and other topics of glamour at the dinner table. He spat when he talked and his accent was so thick a lot of the time it was hard to understand what he said. It would be a lie to say, I would rather have three of his old shirts than one of his paintings or collages, though I ended up with a collage that was hanging in my mother-in-law’s bedroom moldering away in a frame she bought at some art supply store. When she died, I got the thing reframed and it’s in my living room. It’s not, I must say, one of his best. My husband doesn’t like it at all, but I do.
H was totally impossible. But there was also something really cool about her. She had energy, she had a certain really crude integrity and she was funny. Even if her humor was always at someone’s expense. She had absolutely wonderful taste. She could cook. She could throw a very chic party. She could laugh and make herself the center of attention. And even though she battled fat all her life, she always looked snappy in her tunics and her one piece of important jewelry. I liked it that although she went to Europe every five seconds, had eight zillion bucks, and hobnobbed with art snobs, she never lost her Brooklyn accent.
I was for a time, one of her honorary “daughters” at least that’s what she told me. I never met the other two. Being one of her honorary daughters meant, she could call at any time of the day or night, she could yell at me, she could criticize my hair, my make up, body mass (I was always too skinny) and choice of undergarments (why do you wear a black bra under a white shirt?) It also meant that I would have the honor schlepping her about. Luckily we lived on different coasts most of the time, so I only had to schlep her when I was in New York.
Her real daughter killed herself. Just as her first husband had, and in the identical manner. Sometimes when H was being particularly hideous I would understand why her daughter committed an act that would permanently render her mother unable to hurt her ever again.
Like all true blue narcissists, she had the skill of the pointed jab, the knife in just the right place designed to hurt the most! And her voice could get really scary. She loved wielding that knife. And the power of the wound that came with it.
I was getting sick of the whole thing around the time my mother in law died. And stopped calling her back. H was one of her oldest friends, and I ended up with the nasty task of telling her, and which because she was old, I did in person. I didn’t drop her, instead, I schlepped her to and from my mother in law’s funeral, and a year later to the thing that happens then. And lots of stuff in between. Perhaps because I lost my own mother very young, I have always sought some disapproving elder in my life to take her place. And in fact, H was a lot like my mother. Though H was rich, my mother was poor; H lived a long amazingly interesting life, while my mother died young and broke in Shreveport, Louisiana. And never alas, even got to Europe.
Still, H was really really nice to my son. And for that alone, I’ll always think of her with a certain fondness. H adored handsome men. When he was at college, she let him stay at her fabulous apartment at Hotel Des Artists. And even to bring friends! And when E died, he got a collage in an archival frame. Probably if my son had been my daughter she would have gotten shirts like I did if she got anything at all.
H phoned me the day she died and left a message on the machine one I didn’t end up hearing until three months after she died. “It’s me,” said the ghost voice, in its strong Brooklyn accent. “I’m calling to say I’m mad at you. Where are you? Are we up? Are we down? Call me!”