Author’s note: I’m in a daily, morning writing group run by the novelist and writing teacher + coach Diana Zinna. (Among other themes, she specializes in grief.) From one of this week’s writing prompts, about a painting or piece of art coming to life, I had the chance to free write about a lithograph of a drawing by Käthe Kollwitz called Mutter mit Jungen (or Mother with Child) that my late mother-in-law, Deanna, had in her house, which I took after she died. It held meaning for her and for her first child, Jimmy, who was my late husband. I wrote the following from the imagined point of view of Deanna. This is the second pass, lightly edited.
“Hold me like the lady in the picture. Hold me.”
Here is the picture before me, the yellowed paper, the grayed stroking lines. The face of the child is turned to me, to the audience, and I try to see Jimmy in the eyes.
I close my own, and I peer at the screen inside me where images of Jimmy flash like cards in a decked, shuffled. Always, what I see is he as an adult, as a father, as my son in his glory and his despair, as he was before he died. Sometimes I picture him, awful, in the hotel room, his body cramped and frozen into position. Why cannot I see him at rest – the body supine and his mind, at last asleep?
I want to see, to dream even, a remembered flash of Jimmy the child. It’s out of reach, as though my mind is a house full of rooms, and the one I’m in has only furniture and blank walls and a window straight ahead, blinding with its light. Over my shoulder, in this house of rooms, i feel the presence of Jimmy, and he’s scampering and fidgeting like he always was as a boy, yet my head cannot turn. I can only look ahead. These are the rules of my mind-house. See only what’s in front of you.
The image of the mother and her child assemble into view again. The boy… the boy… a cherub… with his mother’s arms around him. The lines of her arm and sleeve pull down, vertically, to convey his wonderful weight. The lines in her back and blouse, also down. Her head and face, tipped down to him. That was what he wanted, my child, my Jimmy. To be held like that, to be adored, to be carried.
The lines vibrate – what a gift this artist had! To draw those charcoal strokes to carry weight and still make them seem alive, to tremble – with love or burden or even the mother’s strength. The drawing bristles, the lines also sketchy and ephemeral, that charcoal dust. Like life.
I’m in the house in my mind again, full of rooms. The ones around and behind me I cannot return to. Ahead, the painting. And the lines of the child soften and fade. Where? Where is he? The lines of the mother darken. Her head tips down and down. Her empty arms wrap around empty space the child is gone and she embraces herself. Hands gripping arms. The lines of the figure shake and I am wondering how did she do this? How do the lines seem so alive, so electric? And even the head seems to rotate, degree by degree.
The eyes of the mother – the lady in the picture – turn to me. They are wide and open and rimmed darkly with charcoal. The mouth, darkly shaded, is parted and opens wider and wider. I cannot hear in my mind that is full of rooms. I can see and I can sense, but I cannot hear. The mouth of the figure opens, and it closes again. It makes the shape for “Mmmm.” The mouth opens again, “Ahhh.” And closes, “Mmmm.” And opens, “Ahhh.”
Mama. Her mouth says.
Mama. Mama. Mama.
Over and over and over. Like a wail, the cry of ages. The anger. The grief. The bottomless pit. The love. The never forgetting. The child gone. The mother terribly remaining, with empty arms that are always empty. And though I almost cannot bear to, I remember his sweet baby words: Hold me, mama. Hold me.