My father’s parents lived in Romania and came to the United States before the war. With them they brought many, many paintings, most of which were by an artist named Cottavoz. Cottavoz painted out of Paris and my grandparents were loyal patrons of his. When my brother and I were cleaning out my father’s apartment recently (he didn’t die; he just moved), we found photographs of my grandparents carousing with Cottavoz at a Paris nightclub. The name of the nightclub was emobossed in a gold script on the cover of the folder into which the picture was inserted and on the back was a brief note by the artist. It was in French, but my college French is long gone.
I grew up with many of the paintings in my childhood home and once both my grandparents had passed away the paintings hung from almost the floor to the ceiling, covering almost every square foot of wall space. It was like living in a well-stocked art gallery; I didn’t think much of it because I was used to it, but when my friends came over they were in awe.
My parents divorced when both my brother and I were away at college and I imagine splitting up the paintings, deciding who got which one, proceeded as carefully as any custody battle. Originally the paintings belonged to my father’s parents, but my mother had a lot of equity in that marriage; twenty-five years worth of putting up with an alcoholic, depressed, non-working husband. She deserved half of those paintings.
As I moved out into my own series of apartments, one or two paintings trickled down to me as housewarming gifts, presents for special occasions, but mostly I made do with cheap prints from so-called art stores framed in cheap ready made frames. I needed to have something hanging on the walls to recreate the warm feeling that the gallery-like atmosphere of my childhood home had provided for me.
After my mother died of pancreatic cancer nine years ago, after the coffin was lowered into the hard ground, after shiva was sat, after we had both returned to work, my brother and I met on a weekend afternoon to pick out the paintings we wanted for ourselves. My mother had a big house for one person – four bedrooms, a formal living room, a family room – partly because she worked out of her home, and partly because once she had gotten married we had always lived in an apartment and she just wanted room to spread out.
My brother and I took turns; he picked one, then I, until all the paintings had been selected. There was no arguing, no nastiness, no pettiness, just two siblings who were still in shock. Once in a while I picked one that he really wanted and he asked me if he could have it so I acquiesed. The most important thing to me was not to argue with my brother in order to honor my mother’s memory.
Those paintings have hung on the walls in my bedroom and living room in the same place for over nine years. My little gems. A portrait of Cottavoz’s wife with a vase of flowers next to her in hues of reds and pinks. A standing nude in shades of blues fading to a muted turqoise. A large unsmiling portrait of the artist’s father hanging over my nightstand. A still life of green apples and pears in a wooden bowl. Numerous landscapes; some with brightly swirling colors reminscents of a sunny day, and others where the colors are darker – perhaps the clouds were prominent in the sky.
When I came home from a stressful day at work, I put my feet up on the coffee table and those paintings were there to greet me; they were my companions, they comforted me. I have counted on them day after day, year after year. Inherent in them are memories of my mother for they hung on her walls before they hung on mine. Her kind and generous nature, her humanity, her laughter and her tendency towards workaholism and perfectionism which I inherited. The fact that she chain smoked Larks which came in a red package and she was never without a cigarette dangling from her mouth. She was my best friend.
We had a health crisis with my father this past summer and he moved from the apartment I grew up in – a large three bedroom, two bathroom – to a studio near my brother in the suburbs. He didn’t want to take any of his paintings to hang on the walls of his new apartment and my brother and I didn’t question him. We went to clean out the apartment. Not only were there the paintings that we had grown up with hanging on the wall, there were paintings stacked behind the armoire in the bedroom, behind the drapes in the living room We opened the closet expecting to find my father’s old suits, instead we found stacks of paintings.
My brother called me one night to ask me how many Cottavoz’s I had hanging on the walls of my small one-bedroom apartment. Phone in hand I went around counting. “Fourteen.” He had contacted an art dealer who knew of Cottavoz and felt there was a market for him. A lucrative market. I started to cry. “We need the money.” he said. He has a family to raise and I have regular medical expenses.
I am staring at blank spaces on my walls. I am bereft. I kept three of the paintings. A reclining nude done in pastels. A tiny portrait of Cottavoz’s son with golden hair, and the one of his mother with dangling earrings. I sit on my couch writing on my laptop and she looks down upon me. My mother looks down upon me. Does she see the blank spaces on the walls?