Excerpt from Chapter 9 of TREASURES
In spite of all my misgivings, it was my greatest desire that life would be better and we would start anew in this splendid place. When at last we slept in our new home with views of the open sea and smells of the salt air, the only sounds we heard were the waves crashing below.
It was a sunny Saturday afternoon. Bob and I were sitting by the pool in shorts, hats and t-shirts watching the children swim. I said to Bob. “Now that the house is finished, we’re settled and you’re earning a living, I’ve decided to give up my decorating business and just be a painter.”
He rubbed his eyes, pulled out a Pall Mall from his pocket and lit it, then took a deep long drag and looking out at the sea, he said, “That’s absurd, why would you ever want to do a stupid thing like that? Painting is what children do in kindergarten. How could you devote your life to that? Especially when you’re such a superb interior designer and making good money.”
I felt a sharp pain jab through the left quadrant of my abdomen.
* * *
I had a good friend who painted, and after a time quietly joined her small group of very special women artists in Venice. Then, after three years, I rented my own studio on the corner of Millwood and Abbott Kinney, also in Venice. It was a storefront, 12 by 30 feet, with 12-foot ceilings and storage racks in the back corner. My large wooden easel sat in the center of the splattered cement floor holding the painting I was working on. Next to it a rolling kitchen cart laden with a basket of oil paints, bottles of turpentine, copal medium, linseed and stand oils, plus two large soup cans filled with brushes of all sizes. Another easel sat off to the side for small works. The windows facing the street were horizontal and up high. I had a wrought iron gate installed in front of the door so I could be safe when leaving it ajar for air. My corner, with its high crime rate, was considered the “War Zone” of Venice. By the entrance I had a narrow daybed covered in a Madras stripe for a couch, and a small steel desk from my father ’s office.
I wore one of Bob’s old white lab coats from med school days, encrusted with paint, and invited him to the studio, but he was always too busy. He never understood what I could possibly be doing there. So I reached out to friends, one after the other, to come sit for portraits. They loved it, felt important, even lionized, and I played my classical cassette-tapes at last, with no one to tell me to be quiet.
* * *
Around this time in 1973 there were rumblings of the Women’s Movement. No one among my married friends discussed it; they were too frightened they might lose their husbands. But my new artist friends were talking about it. I realized I had been the quintessential caregiver after studying Gail Sheehy’s Passages. She talked about this period of awakening, giving us permission to question our futures, as we never had before. Betty Friedan, talked about the empty life syndrome in her book The Feminine Mystique:
Each suburban wife struggled with it alone as she made the beds, shopped for groceries and chauffeured the children, laying beside her husband at night, afraid to ask even of herself, Is this all there is?
I felt she was talking about me. Then, a couple of years later, after seeing the Stepford Wives movie, I realized that my goal had always been to be the quintessential example of a Stepford Wife.
* * *
I had played the piano as a child, and at last we had room for a baby grand in our new living room. I saved money from my design jobs for two years and finally bought a used Steinway and started playing again. It was our musical period, and Bob discovered the guitar. He often silenced me as I practiced, saying “I can’t hear my own guitar with that loud piano,” and would tromp out.
Neighbors invited us to share their box at the Hollywood Bowl one evening. Usually I gave my regrets, knowing Bob disliked classical music and would not want me out at night without him. However, this time after reading my women’s movement books, I told him I was going, and he reluctantly agreed to join us.
As the throngs milled around, we spread our dinner out on the small table provided by the Bowl, lit a white candle and ate our chicken and potato salad. When dinner was finished, we folded the table to the side and snuffed our candle. The lights dimmed and all was quiet except for sounds from crickets in the high bushes; then the Tchaikovsky concert commenced. I gazed up at the night sky teeming with stars, felt blessed to be in the company of other classical devotees and was overwhelmed by the passion of the instrumental sounds.
Bob leaned over, put his hand on my shoulder and whispered, “What’s wrong, why are you shaking?” I put my finger up to my lips. “What’s going on with you?” he demanded.
Wrapped up in emotion, I realized all that he had wanted me to give up: my precious music, my art, and my very being. When the music stopped I grabbed his hand, put my mouth to his ear, covering it with my other hand and in the half darkness whispered, “I’ve missed my music and I’ve missed me.”
I did not know how or when, but I just knew I could not spend the rest of my life sublimated. Ironic that it was at the Hollywood Bowl where my mother told me she had gone into labor the night I was born, and the very place Bob first proposed, with his fraternity pin, at the Spring Sing in 1956.