Grandiose and ambitious best described my parents. Raised in a tiny rural town in Washington State, my father became a Secret Service agent who accompanied Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, and vice-president Nixon all over the world. “Can’t trust Nixon at poker,” Dad always said, many years before Watergate.
Dad guarded Truman at the Potsdam peace conference after the war. In his letters home, he wrote: “Waiting around as usual for Joe (Stalin) to get here. Winnie (Winston Churchill) and the Old Man (Harry Truman) are always on time, but we wait two to three hours a day for Joe to show up.” In our middle class neighborhood, Dad basked in local fame and I grew up feeling proud of him, but terrified when he went into a drunken rage a few times a month. He remained a complex man.
Mom drummed in the lesson that our family reigned supreme over all others. My charismatic and magnetic mother dominated the groups she gathered around herself. Her constant stream of entertaining stories and jokes kept people enthralled and laughing. She saw herself as superior and gave my two sisters and I specific instructions on our roles in the powerful family drama. She commanded us to excel at school, do volunteer work to impress the neighbors, pay room and board to her once we became teen-agers with real jobs, go to college and pay for it ourselves.
Also, she required one of us to become a doctor: our choice as to which sister did it. I ended up with a Ph.D in Art History. According to my matriarchal judge, this fulfilled her mandate, but she would have preferred a medical degree. All three of us took her requirements to heart and each sister told me separately, “Thank god you got a doctorate, so it didn’t have to be me.”
I felt driven all my life to achieve the ultimate to please her. As an adult, I realized that I actually wanted love from her, which I thought I could earn if I worked hard enough. In my forties, I concluded that she seemed unable to give love, but my habit of striving remained entrenched. Sadly, Dad passed away from a sudden heart attack when I was eight years old. But my parents’ ambitious patterns were set into the bedrock of my character by then, and Mom remained a vigorous enforcer of family standards.
My mother venerated artists as the ultimate humanitarians. I’ve no idea where this conclusion came from but she touted it loudly throughout her life. Naturally, in a bid for respect from her, I became an exhibiting artist. From comments she made, like a snide, “You, a real artist?” and from the drawing I gave her that I later found in the trash, I never felt she respected my art. However, she bought one small landscape painting from an exhibit held at my sister’s church art gallery. Thrilled at first, I later paled when she explained to me and her usual surrounding retinue that she bought it because the hills looked like vaginas. She got her customary big laugh, especially since the piece had been shown in a church. I lowered my head to hide my red face. But, overall, I continued to pursue her high regard with dogged determination: more exhibits, more critiques in art magazines, more catalogues of my work. Although, to the outer world, I appeared to be a determined artist and professor of art, in reality, earning Mom’s love remained my eternal ambition. Perhaps my mother and father’s pursuit of high goals had the same source as mine: they simply tried to please their respective parents. I didn’t know my grandparents and couldn’t plumb that mystery.
Several times a year, I sent postcards of my exhibitions to family and friends, because, via this grapevine, I heard that Mom bragged about my shows to others (never to my face). She’d always encouraged my sisters and me to look good to the outside world and apparently my art shows worked that way for her.
When I was fifty years old, Mom collapsed with a fatal brain bleed. Once my grief subsided a little, I slowly began to feel free from compulsive achievements. A few months after her funeral, I had an exhibit in Europe, but felt no need to send out the usual postcards – a revelation.
Now, retired from teaching, I’m gradually learning to scale down my goals to a smidgeon of what they once were. After Mom passed, I found plenty of authority figures to substitute for her: gallery owners, curators and art critics. Slowly, I stopped trying to please others, first and my life became more manageable and pleasant. I continued to exhibit my art for the joy of creation and sharing it, not from trying to impress others. I’ve learned to put my fundamental essentials first. Will the next offered exhibit be gratifying for me or, perhaps, beneficial for my personal growth?
Lately, when offered a show in Venice, Italy in 2022, I didn’t jump on it. I thought about it for months and discussed the details with trusted friends and colleagues to determine if the effort involved would benefit my inner needs. First, I added up expenses and found it fit into my budget. Although it sounded obvious, I discovered that when I avoided financial stress, I enhanced my opportunities to enjoy and learn. With my gallery dealer, we evolved a new manner of presentation. Rather than framed drawings, collages and paintings which cost an enormous amount to pack, crate and ship, we decided I might draw and paint on silk. Lightweight and rolled around a cardboard tube, no frames would be required, perfect for a European exhibit. I felt excited to launch into the new media rather than the paper and canvas I’d formerly used. Creative delight filled me with anticipation. This mindset could launch me on new and interesting explorations.
Rather than the overwhelming urge to impress or please someone that used to be my main motivation, I’ve found that my spiritual and creative energies favored baby steps to point me in nurturing directions. Being offered an exhibit in Venice was big and I felt tempted to plunge in head first. However, all the tiny decisions needed beforehand grounded me and determined whether I embarked on a wholesome and helpful internal journey. So far, signs point to Venice.