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Portrait of the Artist As My Mother: A Mother's Day Reflection

05/08/2014 02:53 pm ET | Updated Jul 08, 2014
  • Sheila D. Collins Professor of Political Science emerita, writer, blogger on politics, public policy, the environment, social activist

Freda was never "mother" or "mom." She refused the appellation, didn't believe in families, rebelled against the role and would always say that you have children to set them free. That wasn't the only thing she rebelled against. She was a flower child brought up in a staid Victorian Canadian home surrounded by siblings who excelled in the sciences, a romantic in an age of reason, a vegetarian long before vegetarianism became vogue, a bohemian in an age of conformity, a believer in reincarnation and channeling who regularly attended a Methodist church but refused to sing the hymns or recite the prayers.

She set us free all right. My aunt Lois tells me that when I was a baby, Freda would ask a childless friend to push my baby carriage. I was a cute baby and when women came up to coo at me, they assumed that Susie was the mother. Freda was not about to disillusion them. When I was 4, my Dad, an illustrator, emigrated to the U.S. to look for work, leaving Freda to support the family on whatever meager income she could raise from a portrait-painting business she was trying to start. Alone for two years in Toronto with a 1 and a 4-year old, struggling to paint in a tiny upstairs flat above the apartment of an invalid who would bang on the ceiling at the slightest noise from us, Freda would set my baby brother Freddy out in the yard in a clothes basket and get on with her work. Luckily in those days, neighbors looked out for each other. Our nextdoor neighbor, Rita, would often have to call across the yard to tell Freda that Freddy's diapers were full of poop and were dragging around his ankles or that it was raining outside and didn't she think she should get him in? "Oh, is it raining?" Freda would reply. On most mornings as a 4-year old, I would cross the busy street by myself and go down another block to my little friend Marilyn's house, where I was just in time to be invited to breakfast and watch with envy the family ritual of hair curling and mustache grooming.

When we were older and living in a working class neighborhood of Stamford, Connecticut, we children would take off in the mornings, wandering along the railroad tracks that lay at the foot of our street, playing for hours in the large woods that lay near our home, getting lost in swamps, swimming in a sand pit at an abandoned construction site or spending hours hanging out in neighbors' yards and houses. Freda never knew where we were and never thought to inquire. My sister, Denise, who was about 10 at the time, tells the story of calling Freda on the phone late one night to ask if she could stay overnight at her friend Debbie's house. Freda replied, "Oh, is that where you are? I thought you were upstairs in bed asleep!" Having never excelled in any subject but art, she could not help us with our homework, nor did she take the slightest interest in looking at our report cards. Somehow I managed an almost straight A average. When it came time for college, my Dad told me they didn't have the money to send me and that I should go out and get a job as a secretary. Crestfallen, I confided in Freda, who encouraged me to look for scholarships. I won a full scholarship to a prestigious Midwestern college and Freda drove me all the way to Minnesota in our beat-up Chevy whose door had to be held closed with a rope.

Freda had become a vegetarian at the age of 8 when her family killed her pet chicken to eat. She couldn't bear to think that animals were eaten and never got over it, preaching to us carnivores constantly about the evils of eating meat. When Grandma would come to visit for Christmas, the turkey she baked would have to be kept out of sight so Freda wouldn't have to look at it. The only meat she would allow in the house at other times was ground hamburger, which didn't bear any resemblance to the animal from which it had been taken. My sister was sometimes sent to school with brown paper bags dripping with oil from the tuna fish Freda had scooped from the can and slapped between two slices of bread, while trying not to look at or smell it. Freda refused to kill any living thing. While the sentiment was laudable, her propensity for wild things meant that our yard was overgrown with weeds and vines, our trees untrimmed and our home crawled with every type of arthropod. Parrots, canaries, squirrels and a white rat at various times shared our home with us. Mice and ants feasted on our crumb strewn countertops and cupboards filled with greasy dishes and silverware. Freda didn't seem to believe in soap.

Working intensely from morning until late at night in a studio attached to our house, Freda often forgot to get meals ready. In fact, she sometimes invited people for dinner and then forgot she had invited them. They would arrive and sit around the living room and then, after an hour or so, hesitatingly ask her when dinner was going to be served. Once, she invited friends to dinner and, while draining the spaghetti, accidentally dropped it into a sink full of dirty dishwater, scooping it out and serving it to her guests. This story was told to me 60 years later by a guest who had never forgotten it. My defense against this kind of neglect would be to arrive conveniently at our neighbors' house, the Bassaros, just before dinner, hoping to get invited to eat with them. Mary Bassaro, the matriarch of this Italian family, was a marvelous cook. She had a large vegetable garden in her backyard which bordered the woods that I played in and would often take me on foraging expeditions to collect wild edibles for sautéing with the evening meal. From Mary (as well as from my grandmother), I learned the feminine arts of cooking, cleaning and sewing. Since Freda's idea of dressing up was to take us to the thrift shop, I had the skills to make many of my own clothes as a teenager.

Though she brought her children up to set them free, Freda was a collector of stray souls, bringing into our home a motley assortment of people who needed a sounding board for their troubles or a place to live or who needed the shirt off her back, or ours. There was the alcoholic artist who had been kicked out by his wife and who continued his habit during the year or two he lived with us, eventually succumbing to cirrhosis; a woman released from a mental hospital who moved into my father's studio after he died and proceeded to burn it down, along with much of my father's art work; an undocumented Colombian immigrant who came and stayed 18 years during which time Freda helped him to obtain citizenship and taught him art; a gentle soul who could not work because of a severe autoimmune disease and needed a place to live. During the 1960s our house was invaded by about a dozen pot-smoking, guitar-strumming young people who either couldn't live at home or were kicked out by their parents and who found in Freda a kindred spirit. By this time I was married, but on returning home found that Freda had given up every bed in the house to the hippies and was sleeping in our cobweb-strewn basement on a cot next to the furnace. She thought of this period of her life as the happiest, with its free-spirited hi-jinks, its all-night hootenannies and casual sex. Having been born during the wrong era, she was now soaking up the life she had always been destined for.

Freda's last stray was a young Guyanan of Indian extraction who came to mow her lawn and moved in with his girlfriend and her two daughters by another man. He stayed the longest, eventually telling his girlfriend, an unredeemed alcoholic, to leave and sought and won custody of her two daughters, raising them in Freda's house until they moved on to college. When Freda began her long descent into senility, he bought the house and continued to care for her until she needed more than he could give. She then moved into our home and lived there until I could no longer take care of her. In her last years, she would often tell me, with no memory of the role she had eschewed, "I just don't know what people would do without families; I am so grateful to have you in my life!"

It wasn't easy being Freda's daughter. You couldn't long to be bragged about as my aunt Helen bragged about her children in the letters Freda would read to us, laughing at the silliness of someone who would speak about their children in such gushing terms. Each of us children was in some way marked by Freda's carelessness about mothering: the attention she seemed to pay to everyone else; the forgotten birthdays; the times she was to pick me up after school and left me standing on the curb; the ugly thrift shop clothes we had to wear; the embarrassing practical jokes she like to play on everyone -- even door-to-door salesmen and the very proper Prussian brother of a German exchange student to whom she fed a rubber egg and laughed herself silly over. At moments I couldn't understand how she was so loved by everyone else when I had so much rage inside. But this physically beautiful woman who cared not a wit for her looks was a spark, a ditzy, outrageous non-conformist who made life for others light up like fireworks.

Looking back now, I realize that her greatest gift to us might have been that which we so resented as children -- the gift of our freedom to explore the world without limits; the gift of the rich bohemian environment in which we grew up with its smells of linseed oil and turpentine, its cans of paint brushes and stacked canvases, its art-adorned walls, the music always playing on the gramophone, my mother, at the easel, maul stick in hand, and the colorful cast of characters who constantly moved through our lives. The long hours I spent playing in those magical woods -- now long since obliterated by ticky-tacky condominium developments -- has turned me into a passionate environmentalist. And though I must confess I do swat at flies and kill mosquitoes, my heart aches for the lost worlds of my childhood: the abundant bees and butterflies, the woodland wildflowers and tangled vines, yes, even the beetles and daddy longlegs and praying mantises that crawled through our house, the neighbors who looked out for us and took us in, giving us insights into family dynamics so different from ours; and oh, I can never see a cut mango without thinking, cadmium yellow, or the highlight in an eye without thinking, titanium white!

Sheila D. Collins is Professor of Political Science Emerita, William Paterson University. She has written widely on politics, public policy, religion and the environment. Her most recent book, authored and co-edited with Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg is When Government Helped: Learning from the Successes and Failures of the New Deal (Oxford, 2013). Her blogs have appeared on Huffington Post, Truthout, Oxford University Press, and Religion Dispatches. She is currently working on a memoir on which this piece is based.