My Village, My Self
ONE beautiful spring morning in 2002, as I meandered along Charles Street towards the Hudson, I had the uncanny sensation that a map of my late mother’s body was unfolding under me, that I was walking along her asphalt arteries, traversing her cracked spinal column. Spreading out beneath my feet me was the body of my mother, indistinguishable from the streets and byways of the beloved Village that had nurtured me. It was a powerful sensation, an epiphany like those described by hippies discovering themselves through the tumult of India or mind-bending LSD trips.
The black and white photos from her childhood show nothing out of the ordinary: the girl-baby born in 1911 on a bearskin rug, the feisty Boston Terrier sprawled beside her.
On Easter, holding up a basket, huge plaid bow atop her head with its thick straight bangs, high-button shoes on her dainty feet.
Swimming in a lake, head aloft, grinning, with her girlfriends looking on from the dock.
How did this young woman dare to make the journey from Omaha to New York City, to Horatio Street in Greenwich Village, where I was taken home from the hospital as a new-born infant?
Was it the magnetic attraction of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry, read by the young woman on the high school radio program beamed from Omaha out into the cornfields? After she arrived, how many detours were there on the way to becoming the writer she knew she could be? After five children, too many men to count, an editorship of McCall’s (it was rumored she invented their slogan, “The Magazine of Togetherness”—she, the eternal single mother!) her luck turned a bit.
An amazing team, Morris Engel and Ruth Orkin, took her in as a creative partner. She receiving writing credits on two films: “Lovers and Lollipops” (1956) and “Weddings and Babies” (1960). The latter shared the Critic’s Award with Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” at the Venice Film Festival. Both are in the archives at the Museum of Modern Art, and are now listed in various Internet movie sites devoted to classic movies. Unavailable to the public for years, they can now be viewed in DVD format. French filmmakers like Godard gave credit to Morris Engel for sparking the independent film movement with the pioneering shoulder-slung camera that the ex-GI Morris devised, enabling him to shoot on location in New York City. The results were poignant, luminous films that found meaningful drama in the lives of “ordinary” Americans. Ruth Orkin’s brilliant photographs of New York street life live on in museum collections and note card reproductions.
But nobody (except her widely-scattered children and grandchildren) has ever heard of Mary-Madeleine Lanphier, the young woman from Omaha: writer, mother, artist’s model. She was the ravishing subject of a 1940’s painting titled “The White Fichu” by George Bellow’s best friend, Eugene Speicher, who was once the most celebrated portrait-painter in mid-20th century America. (His portrait of fellow student Georgia O’Keefe hangs in the entryway of the Art Student’s League in New York City.) Together they helped make Woodstock, N.Y. a summer retreat for the avant garde of the New York art world.
A young woman from the heartland, Mary-Madeleine was educated by nuns in a Catholic convent in Omaha from the age of 10, after her beloved mother’s death; she never finished college, never judged another human being. She adored the color chartreuse, made her own hats, gave bright pink boiled starfish as Christmas presents, loved sex and foreign films, Colette and gypsy music and Megdalia D’Oro coffee. She sometimes hinted at Native American ancestry (with French Canadian heritage in her family, Lakota Sioux genes are a distinct possibility). She was self-destructive, spontaneous, foolish and fierce, always. She charmed her friends and bewildered her children. When she died in 1981 after a year-long, intense battle with the most virulent form of lung cancer, our family decided against placing an obituary in The New York Times. We later came to regret this omission.
The mystique and the gritty reality of my girlhood in the Village of the 1950’s are both inextricably intertwined with the complex woman I call “mother,” though mothering was not exactly what either she or I would have called her forte.
What I came to realize, after an absence of many years, was that her peregrinations and upheavals (to Perry, Charles, W. 10th, Bank, Washington Place, W. 11th, in fleabag hotels and 4-story rented townhouses) all spiraled around two excellent public schools, and I had the best free public education any state in America could provide in the 1950’s. The original versions of P.S. 41 on Greenwich Ave and P.S. 3, on Hudson, were unbeatable, and their heirs are still magnets for families who squash themselves into tiny overpriced walk-ups or spring for pricey condos in the West Village just for the privilege of using these free institutions.
My friends and I had the benefit of that post-WW II plenitude of experienced, passionate teachers with ample bosoms and money to spare for art materials and cherrywood recorders—teachers who took us on field trips to Washington Square Park to make charcoal sketches of the old “hanging tree,” or uptown to the old Metropolitan Opera horseshoe to hear Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”
Mrs. Elliot—the math whiz. Mrs Hill, the Revolutionary War buff. She brought shells from her Florida vacations and taught us to make whimsical animals with pipe cleaners and scalloped heads. (How many advocates of endangered species were inspired by her passion for tropical mammals?) Soon, we’d be sneaking off to watch Jeanne Moreau shed her clothes and hop into a French bathtub at the 8th Street Playhouse, but pre-puberty, one couldn’t have asked for better guardians. Mrs. Elliot, black-stockinged Miss Solimando, Mrs. Hill—I love you all, even if I didn’t then.
You asked so much of me! “Could do better,” my report card sometimes read. What made you think that? (Me, the winner of the citywide Brotherhood Week essay contest, with my picture in the Villager? For cripe’s sake, Miss Solimando!)
But you saved me, you gave me normalcy and goals and deadlines when all was chaos at my two alternating Village “homes,” when I was navigating a cautious path between my mother’s out-of-work actor boyfriends, and a divorced father (who loved his Four Roses blended whiskey a tad too much). I headed out for school every morning while mentally blocking images of scuttling cockroaches, saggy old mattresses and empty Pall Mall packages, knowing I would be entering a realm where I was accepted and even admired.
Somehow, at who knows what cost to her own psyche, my mother managed to keep intact my umbilical cord to the best of the West Village that was right outside our ever-changing doors. It can’t have been easy, but she did it. For that, I am forever in her debt.
I know a little bit more now about motherhood—and chaos.