The Walls Of My House Are Lined With The Faces Of Women I’ve Never Met

I only started to know my grandmother after she’d forgotten who I was.

Irene had the most beautiful skin. That’s what I focused on, the last time I saw her. It was milky white, and smooth like an airbrushed makeup ad. It may have sagged around her eyes and below her chin like melting wax, but, even at ninety, her cheeks were still round and full — just like mine, just like my mother’s.

Irene was staring at the two of us and smiling. She had no teeth. A pink gash stretched across the moon of her face where her dentures used to be, causing a memory to flit across my mind: Me, age eight or nine, pestering Irene to take her teeth out after dinner. The shock of seeing slimy, naked gums for the first time. Irene laughing at my horror.

Irene was the story behind my middle name, but she didn’t know who I was at the end. My mother reintroduced me each time we visited.

“Mom,” she’d say, “This is Julie, your granddaughter.”

“Are you my daughter?” Irene would then ask me.

“No, I’m your granddaughter,” I’d answer, and point to my mom. “That’s your daughter.”

Irene’s lips would part into another mushy grin. She’d turn her head back and forth between my mother and me.

“You’re so beautiful!” she’d say to both of us, every time. Her voice was high and thin, like the last bit of air escaping a balloon. “I love you!”

This felt strange; my grandmother didn’t say this to me much back when she remembered my name. The woman I grew up with was a formidable presence — stern, though not cold, and occasionally known to reduce young artists who sought her tutelage to tears. To be fair, I never told her I loved her, either. My family never was the type to dole out affection generously.

It seems dementia made Irene sweeter than the rest of us. As far as degenerative disease-induced personality changes go, it could have been worse. I hoped it was a sign that she was happy, at least. In reality, Irene had “no quality of life” in the years leading to her death. That’s what my mom muttered on the drive home after our visits.

She was probably right. Irene used to be an artist, but she couldn’t draw or paint anymore. She barely spoke, and couldn’t walk. She fell a few years ago and was confined to a geri-chair, one of those padded recliners with adjustable foot rests and a built-in tray table so she could be fed in front of the TV by her twenty-four-hour caregiver, Melissa. Her short-term memory spanned a few minutes.

‘Hope Is Crystallized’

Duty compelled me to visit Irene with my mother whenever I was in town. I’m supposed to say this made me happy, but that would be a lie. The truth is that seeing my grandmother unnerved and overwhelmed me. And then there was the fear; Irene’s mother had dementia, too. Maybe it ran in the family.

I wasn’t the only one thinking this. On a recent drive home from a visit, my mother told me that if what happened to Irene happens to her, not to become her caregiver. “I don’t want to be a burden to anyone,” she said.

This was the first time she’d acknowledged the possibility of a future like Irene’s to me. She often talked logistics — the cost of elderly medical care, what groceries to pick up, potential nursing homes — but there was never any recognition of loss, of that fact that Irene was alive but her mother was gone. We didn’t talk about those sort of things.

“Listen, because I’m telling you now,” she continued. “People expect daughters to drop everything. I want you to have your independence.” Her voice was measured, like she’d thought about this carefully. I don’t blame her. Irene’s decline took less than a year, and happened right after I, the younger of my mother’s children, finally graduated from college.

“Irene was acutely aware of the conflict between nurturing one’s talents and family obligations,” my mother said, more to herself than to me. “And she focused on her work.”

I can’t speak to how Irene was as a parent, given that I didn’t exist at the time. But while it may be true that she resented having to balance her creative energies with motherhood, her family still invaded her art: Irene was a book illustrator in the Sixties, and sometimes used her daughters as models. The books are long out of print, but we own a few copies. I can leaf through them to see my mother and aunt, much younger than I am now, starring in other children’s stories.

One of them looks like Carcosa.

My mother and her friends were subjects for Irene’s oil portraits in the Seventies and Eighties, too, and now the walls of my house are lined with the faces of women I’ve never met. “I found posing pleasant,” my mother told me when I asked her about the portraits. “She would make me black coffee and a snack and we would talk.”

For years she mentioned having Irene paint me, but, like many things, we never got around to it.

A portrait of my mother by Irene

My grandfather, John, was an artist, too. After graduating from Yale, he taught a Renaissance technique class at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts for thirty years.

John’s process painting his wife and daughters

In hindsight, it’s hard not to wonder how gender informed and constricted my grandparents’ art: John imparted the style of Old (male) Masters to new students while Irene painted portraits, illustrated fashion advertisements, and sketched books for children. It’s not that one form is any more worthy than the other. They both made what they knew, in a way — to imitate the deep legacy of art is to imitate traditions that have ignored women’s words, voices, and brushstrokes.

Perhaps Irene just chose to turn her eye towards the present. I see the parallel as I plunder my family here, poring over the experiences a woman I knew for only a fraction of her life in the hopes of finding insight into my own. Maybe it’s feminine, this desire to focus on something so personal. Maybe it’s also transgressive, a corrective to history, to paint women’s portraits, to capture your daughters in sketchbooks, to tell women’s stories for no other reason than that they deserve to be told.

Of course, that’s not all Irene did. Later in life she began painting and sculpting geometric designs out of tessellated triangles and tetrahedrons. “Order From Chaos,” one was called. Meaning from abstraction. She signed her paintings with a stylized IG, for Irene Garlitz. Her maiden name.

That day in the car, I wanted to tell my mom that I understood, and that she was a better daughter than she gave herself credit for. Instead I just said, “Okay,” and turned up the radio.

Irene in her studio

The truth is, I don’ know what I’m talking about. I didn’t know much about Irene until well after she’d forgotten who I was. I never asked. I’d never even seen a photo of her as a young woman until a few months ago. So my perception is skewed: When I think of Irene, I tend to think of her only as my grandmother, and even then, only as she was when I was little.

Back then, she had lunch at our house every Sunday with John. They’d bring a spread of fresh cold cuts and soft rolls from the deli, or steaming containers from the Chinese restaurant. After lunch, my grandparents would play with me. We’d explore my dollhouse, which they’d helped furnish with ornately carved pieces of tiny furniture and rugs made out of fabric swatches, or dress up in bits of my old dance costumes. Then one Sunday, I can’t remember exactly when, my grandparents were suddenly too old to come over anymore.

Perhaps it’s better to remember Irene in the era of Sunday Lunches than as she was the last time I saw her, which was on Christmas Eve. A building was burning down on TV — Melissa was streaming a movie through her iPhone. People my age are supposed to be numb to this kind of thing. But watching with Irene, I was suddenly aware how loud movies are these days, and how unnecessary their gore. I worried that the fire, rendered so vividly on screen, would appear, in my grandmother’s mind, to be in the room with us.

But when I looked over, I saw that Irene wasn’t paying attention to the movie at all. Instead, she was still staring at me, and still smiling. I smiled back. Her mouth opened wider in response, and something glistened at the corner of her eyes.

“You crying, mom?” my mother asked.

“I’m scared,” Irene said, eyes growing bright with terror. She blinked, and the tears rolled down her cheeks.

My mother rubbed Irene’s arm. “There’s nothing to be scared of,” she said in a singsong voice you’d use to reassure a child that there are no monsters under the bed. “You’re nice and safe and warm. Nothing is going to hurt you here.”

What else can you say? We sat in silence punctuated by screams from the TV until it was time to go.

Irene’s tears dampened my cheek when I kissed her goodbye. “I love you,” I mumbled, the words clumsy on my tongue. It would take practice before they flowed more easily and felt less saccharine — or, perhaps more accurately, less inadequate. But they were true. Love was as much to blame for this sadness and fear as it was for any gentleness and sacrifice.

So maybe, when I think of Irene, I should remember her as she was in the end, too. Because if I look for any beauty in what happened, perhaps it’s in the fact that this is what remained: Irene smiling while I gathered my things, her cheeks wet with tears as she echoed my words over and over again. “I love you, I love you, I love you…”

‘Order From Chaos’
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