Art in the Family
My mom’s mom – my gramma – was an artist. She was also an art teacher at the community college for many years. A child of an Armenian immigrant, she is a bit of a mystery. I know her more by my mother and aunt’s (as well as other relatives’) reaction to her: outrageousness. She was not well-loved, and in fact my aunt essentially disowned her in the late 1970s and my mom did as well in the last year of my gramma’s life. To be honest, she could be unbearable and difficult. Her name was Marjorie and she was a career woman before it was common for women to work. She most likely had kids because it was the thing to do. She’d had a son, and like most couples in the earlier part of the 20th century, went on to have another child, but….she had twins. Three children under the age of three years old. It’s enough to drive a woman insane. And we collectively know now, that mental illness can sometimes be the result of trauma. We know that her father was also a difficult person. He’d had a difficult life – (insert Facebook post about immigrant great-grandfather)
But what I remember about my gramma, who died in 2005 at the age of 93, was her perfume. It was musky and she used a little roll-on bottle - the traveling kind that could fit in your purse. After they retired, she and grampa began traveling all over the world and she collected indigenous art wherever they traveled. She amassed a vast collection and after many years of this, she began renting a space in a museum in San Diego for a short time each year to have a post-Christmas sale. She was a clever traveler, taking cargo ships to cut down on costs – I assume— and thoroughly researching the countries she would be traveling to – long before the internet made it so easy to look up country information and traveling details. Once when I was in high school, she learned I had attended a Javanese puppet show fulfilling one of my culture assignments. She sent me an original Javanese puppet that she had from one of her journeys. I didn’t know what to do with it after a while so I gave it to a friend. Now I wish I’d kept it.
When I graduated high school, my gramma sent me on a month-long trip across Europe with a group led by a European History professor from San Bernardino State. It was important to her that we were well-traveled, and the trip left a lasting impression. I enjoyed it, although there were far too many art museums and cathedrals. What I remember most about that trip is that although she had paid for the big trip, there were lots of “optional excursions” we could do on the fly. But I barely had enough money to feed myself every day. A breakfast buffet was included at every hotel. After I ate I would take a couple of extra rolls, fill them with meats and cheeses, wrap them in napkins and stuff them into the inside pocket of my jeans jacket, and that would be my lunch. There were a lot of older folks on the trip and I imagine they felt bad for me, that I was not able to join them on those optional excursions. One day the tour leader, Kris, told me that several of my traveling companions had anonymously paid for me to go on one of the optional excursions. I don’t remember what that excursion was, but I sure remember their generosity.
When I returned home I sent my grandma a Thank You letter – and I’m sure I gave her a rundown of what I liked and why. Obviously it was the least I could do. I appreciate that she sent me on that trip. I remember bits and pieces about it - learning about the Hapsburg jaw and royal incest, the kindness of some of the folks on that tour, the puns the professor liked to crack, going to take a shower when I first arrived in London and thinking “Oh my God I’m in London!” and the feeling of self-reliance I gained by traveling alone to and from and being on a long trip without a parent for the first time. I was super proud of stretching out my breakfast into the lunch hour. I think it was something my gramma would have done too.
In the late 1950s she had a mid-century modern house built outside Houston, Texas back when it was just called “modern” and at the end of her life she had a funky apartment filled with contemporary, mid-century décor (the Barcelona chair! the Eames chairs and table!), macramé lamp coverings hanging from the ceiling, a plethora of international indigenous wall art, masks, carvings and textiles, my grampa’s pottery, Moroccan wool floor coverings and a ton of doo-dads and what-nots. She’d created a bohemian-decor apartment before it was hip.
Marjorie’s own art was varied. She was a funky mixed media artist who didn’t like to fill in the details of faces. She did a whole series called “The Ninth Month” that included a mixed media image of a pregnant woman with newspaper as part of the background. We suspect that she may have had issues with motherhood – perhaps it was not her most favorite role. According to my mom though, she was a making a social statement - that women didn’t have a choice about motherhood - that pre Roe v. Wade, once women were pregnant, they were destined to a life of motherhood whether they wanted it or not.
She was quirky, snarky, and a bit ahead of her time. She probably could have benefited from therapy for generational trauma for children of immigrants, but that was not the thing to do in her day – and she probably would have been too busy for it anyway. She passed on her artistic skills to her daughters, son, and granddaughters. We each inhabit it in different ways. As my dad often says about his ex-mother-in-law, “She was an interesting lady.” Creativity can be learned, or it can pass through the veins from one generation to the next. For that, I am grateful to her.