In a pink house on an ordinary street named after a number lived my great-aunt Ruth and her crazy husband Mickey who, at the age of 35, began an inseparable relationship with a foul mouthed parrot. Down the block to the pink house I walk after my mornings at Miss Margaret’s day school dressed on some days in a taffeta bridal gown hand made by my grandmother or draped in an array of scarves embellished with the Eiffel tower, seashells, or miniature horses being roped by a gang of tubby cowboys.
After a snack of saltines spread ever so thinly with Smuckers fudge topping I make my way quietly up the stairs to the room where crazy uncle Mickey and his balding, chatty companion languish in their inter-species love affair. Outside the door I listen as Mickey hums, hums away. It is different than a hum I think to myself as I press my ear close to the door. More of a stammering musical croon, and at times I think he is in there dying; gulping for air as if being smothered by a pillow.
When I’m home I practice making these noises; gurgling, purring, humming, trilling. I’m wonderstruck by the grazing capacity of the voice and even more intrigued by the talking parrot. In the room where he hums and plucks is a desk and stacks of old newspapers, a large bird cage filled with shredded newsprint and a variety of shriveled vegetables, a short tattered couch where Mickey naps, and a TV tray set up by a window which looks out onto a cobblestone alley lined with old Iowa oak trees. Mickey wanders about the two story pink house humming, droning, and cawing with his parrot on his shoulder, oblivious to the goings on around him.
It was whispered he lost his marbles from “drugs”. Mickey and his two brothers were pharmacists and he was, as it was told by my grandmother, a genius in his youth and the youngest ever at the time to graduate from a prestigious midwestern pharmacy school. I believe Mickey was a sort of intrepid, audacious test pilot during the kick-off era of the pharmaceutical industry. He became a successful independent pharmacist and businessman; an eccentric nobleman from a monied, well educated family whose salient knowledge was trumped by a kind of desperado desire to conduct his own private intramural experiments. Undoubtedly Mickey had access to state-of-the-art laboratory designed hallucinatory confections of the time.
While Mickey cuts and pastes the local obituaries, studies the periodic table of elements, waits for garbage pick up, eats tomato soup and cheese sandwiches, naps on the short couch, strokes his parrot, aunt Ruth is making art. Her light-rich studio is to the back of the house, part greenhouse part painting studio, full of flowering begonias, azaleas, and bromeliads, trailing trellising ivy and chestnut vines. Here is what I remember: Buckets of paint brushes, easels, the smell of turpentine, canvases stacked against a wall, paintings of flowers, still life’s, clowns, a scene in a park, a self portrait. The linoleum floor is splattered with paint and I learn to see things hidden inside the frenzy of color.
Great-aunt Ruth’s studio is a large open space next to the kitchen which she rarely uses except to make instant coffee and simple foods like canned soups, toast, frozen dinners, an occasional batch of oatmeal cookies. Her cupboards are mostly filled with things of a painter, a craftswoman, a collector of odds and ends; magazines about hooking rugs and painting, odd doo dads and knick knacks she collects at antique stores; unusual salt and pepper shakers, elephant statues, sewing boxes, figurines of dancers, clowns, hobos, and cowboys.
Aunt Ruth was a buxom sexy woman who wasn’t afraid to show cleavage. She mostly painted in handmade embroidered circle skirts and cashmere sweaters, or dresses. I was thrilled when she would bend over wearing a tight lambswool sweater so I could peer down the tapering passage of her soft jiggly flesh into a crevice of succulent darkness. From a distance I watched her at the easel. Ruth was in love with color and textures and beauty. Bright vivid reds applied to lips or canvas. Warm penetrating yellows woven into rugs or painted lavishly as background. Fecund greens. It seemed effortless for her to enter into this play, this creative conversation when she stepped into her studio. I too, touched it, felt it, smelled it; I was filled with that creative vitality in the brief time I would spend in Ruth’s pink house.
Unlike the other women of my childhood, Ruth wasn’t awash in thoughts or responsibilities of cooking, cleaning, childrearing, surviving. She had the luxury of having no children and a financially well preserved mental invalid as a husband who made few demands on her time and body. Remembering her at her easel or hooking rugs or having tea with her gentlemen callers, I believe Ruth relished in the reality that hers was a life of quiet solitude shaped by her own needs and desires; she had carved out a life for herself that seemed unaffected by her marital circumstances, eccentric for a woman of her generation, and most importantly for her, its very foundation was her creative freedom.
“You go off now and find something to do while I paint. You can come in and paint too, but if you’re in my studio when I’m painting there’ll be no talking.” I don’t remember ever making art in her studio. It was too filled with Ruth, vibrating with the painter’s soul. But something else lived in there. There was a boxed up human sadness; the sadness of a woman gone untouched. A young girl emotionally undernourished. An artist unseen. I sensed them sitting there in the cold corner where the ironing board stood. I watched them, the girl and the woman, from a distance. I would later understand this anguished sadness, so stowed away, so incomprehensble at times, as part of a legacy passed on through the line of women who choose, who cannot choose otherwise, the life of an artist.
I was allowed privacy and personal space in Ruth’s house; room to imagine, to wander, to become absorbed in my own curiosity. I ambled about the house snooping, rifling, peering into drawers, cupboards, closets, boxes; getting into whatever seemed odd and interesting. One day I tracked a musty smell into a long closet that was underneath the stairs. Here I discovered an entire wardrobe. A stock of clothing and accessories that told another story from another time in the lifebook of Ruth and Mickey; double breasted tailored suits, long elegant gowns, a fur coat, a wild collection of hats, patent leather heels and two-toned wing tips. My mind widened with this find; I understood that the old muttering fool was someone else before the crackup and Ruth had jouissance in a life outside of these walls.
Nothing in particular was expected of me in the pink house. There were no stifling rules or clinical cleanliness enforced, as it was in my mother’s house. No awkward questions about my alcoholic father and my struggling mother who was raising three children on her own. Mickey was perfectly content shackled in his detachment, shuffling about the upstairs in his silk robe and slippers going through old papers, sorting and stacking, humming and pruning the parrot and paid no attention to me.
Ruth, when I think about her now, painting or hooking rugs, seemed hidden, tucked away inside a cryptic insular world; her depth and essence unknowable behind layers of color and fabric, moving through her life tethered to no one. But wait. I feel she truly loved that life. She tells me now as we reconnect, through words and memories, through the veils of time and dimensions: Oh Rebecca, yes, lonely. I was. What woman artist isn’t at times? The artist must learn to take loneliness and turn it into solitude. That solitude must be your beloved. Women crave this space, know this space intimately far more than they crave the touch of a man. It is a high calling. Difficult yes, but so delicious.
I am walking down the long front steps to the street, holding the crooked old handrail for the very last time. It is winter and the steps have frozen over. Ruth takes my hand and walks me down to the car where my mother is waiting. She kisses me on the forehead, leaving a faint etching of her red lips. I am seven years old and have gathered inside of me what I will need as a girl, and later a woman who has come into this life as an artist to discover, remember the sacred creative space; the indwelling solitude which is my home, my work place, my resting place. And when I’m in my studio, in some future time, I will peer back into the pink house on the hill and see great-aunt Ruth in her sun-drenched atelier, painting sweet tango apples resting in a Blanc de Chine porcelain bowl, wearing a wool circle skirt embroidered with poinsettias, listening to a Mozart violin concerto, delighting in her solitude.