Saturday, April 3, 2010
On My Mother, My Muse
Today is the tenth anniversary of the death of my mother, Josephine Carlton Brett (June 9, 1908-April 3, 2000.) She was born in London within the sound of the Bow Bells, making her a true Cockney, but her parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe. Her life spanned most of the 20th century, encompassing two world wars and the Great Depression. When I was very young, our family emigrated to Pennsylvania for 18 years for my father’s work, but my parents retired back to London, which was always home for my mum. Except for her last year, she lived the final 30 years of her life in a flat in Putney, overlooking the Heath.
My mother was an art teacher and artist, and her huge range of talents, her continual learning of new skills, her creativity, and her productivity in her “golden” years, when she took up a new (to her) art form (silkscreen), serve as inspirations to me, perhaps now more than ever. I own and proudly display pieces from her legacy.
Because of the time in which she grew up and her detour to the USA, she was never quite able to realize all her personal ambitions. Perhaps as a consequence, she was fiercely proud of her daughters and her granddaughter and our professional accomplishments. When I became director of the career services department at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in my mid-thirties, my mum bragged to everyone, “My daughter is a director at Harvard!”
I know she would have been supportive of my writing efforts, if not a little eager for completion of my projects. When I first told her that I was writing a screenplay (probably around 1997), she was very excited. Of course, she kept asking me whether I’d finished it. I think she expected it to magically appear on the silver screen. But even in the last year of her life when she was suffering from severe dementia, she became animated when recalling the passion of the creative process—it’s like “butterflies in your stomach.” Much like love, yes?
A large portrait of my mother as a young woman hangs on the wall in the room where I do most of my writing—serving as my muse. Between my sister (see March 16 blog entry) and her, I should be able to draw sufficient inspiration to last a lifetime. The photo on the left was taken when she was about 23 (and still involved in acting, her other love.)
Below I share a poem about her that my sister and I wrote and read at her funeral, following a family tradition that my mother maintained for many years of composing poems for our birthdays. It seemed fitting to honor her life in a similar way. The last line was originally, “Go in peace,” which she always said to us as adults when we would leave her flat after a visit. I have changed it to be more eternal.
ODE TO JOSIE BRETT
Creative, imaginative, energetic, vivacious.
Lively, theatrical, talkative, but gracious
Tailored suits, high heels, black leather, bright smocks.
Patterned jumpers, silk leggings, red velvet, warm socks.
Painting, silkscreens, puppetry, and plays
Sewing, knitting, odes for birthdays.
San Francisco, Montreal, Boston and Maine
Venice by ship, New York by train.
She shopped at-
Lord and Taylor, Blum Store, M&S with a cart
Fifth Avenue, Liberty’s, always dressed smart.
Shepherds’ pie, soufflé, sherry trifle, shavas dinner
Sponge cake, stuffed trout, each one a winner.
She took pride in-
Her handwriting, her voice, an organized chart,
All her family’s achievements, her posture, her art.
Proper, stoical, don’t make a fuss.
Generous, loving, unconditionally supportive of us.
White Linen perfume, flowers, teaching children, Matisse.
Sisters, husband, and family.
Now, Mum, rest in peace.