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Excerpt From: Love Life
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She grew up in an extraordinarily happy atmosphere. So happy, in fact, that she took pleasure as much for granted as other children did hand-me-down clothes or battered toys that had been played with by many more than one other pair of hands.
The ripest visual memories of her childhood always centered on an image of sunshine flooding through the windows of her mother's studio, catching and illuminating dust motes that seemed drawn to the sunlight; the sounds of Vivaldi or Beethoven pushed, somewhat tinnily, from the small black Victrola it was sometimes her privilege to crank. And Amanda, her mother, caught in the sunlight as she stood before her easel, her brush poised midair, her head turned slightly, as if listening to something only she could hear.
If she concentrated on remembering those years of childhood, the effect was one of overlapping films of her mother: Amanda in the studio; Amanda in the kitchen, absent-mindedly adding herbs to a simmering pot of stew as she talked knowledgeably about something or other; Amanda patiently answering one after another of Helen's questions.
It was a time so completely satisfying in her mind that she was never totally willing to relinquish the idea that it was gone, irretrievable. Those sunshine days cushioned every other day of her life, affected every action she undertook. She was able, for the most part, to approach every tomorrow with the attitude that whatever happened, nothing could interfere with that insulated corner of her brain that sheltered the remembrances of those childhood days.
She was born in Port Zebulon—never actually a port—but remembered nothing of it, because Amanda sold the house there and moved to the city when Helen was almost two. Helen's father died five weeks before she was born in an influenza epidemic at the close of 1920. Helen was born in January, 1921, when Amanda was thirty-eight years old.
Almost from the moment Helen was born, Amanda viewed her with her artist's eye, rather than her maternal one. She couldn't help herself. Helen was so unlike anything she'd expected, small and exquisitely pretty in a way she herself hadn't ever been (and doubted Lawrence had been either). Helen wafted joyfully through babyhood and into childhood. She toddled through the large, dusty rooms on uncertain legs, smiling and confident of an enthusiastic reception at her destination.
Initially the house seemed far too large for just herself and Helen, but Amanda was determined not to allow her loneliness for Lawrence to destroy the satisfaction she derived from the big, rambling house and from Helen. She hired a housekeeper to help with the cooking and cleaning, and immersed herself in her work with renewed concentration.
Her painting and pottery were as important to her life as her daughter, as living itself. The ordinary things—tending to the house, enduring dreary social functions, watching and enjoying Helen grow—were in some ways nothing more than diversions, necessary interludes between work sessions. She recognized her compulsiveness; her total need for self-expression hinged on her ability to give herself over to her work, capturing with paint or clay a mood or an emotion that was not satisfied simply by being voiced aloud. She gave in to these needs totally, not even minding the backaches and stiffness that followed her bouts of intense effort.
She felt contented, at peace with herself. Her work sold so well that she couldn't keep up with the demand, and early on she gave up trying to perform to order. She simply followed her inner commands, throwing fresh clay on the wheel when the need to feel growth beneath her fingertips overtook her, ordering new supplies of paint, canvas and brushes when she felt she had to paint.
From time to time her preoccupation transferred itself from her work to Helen and, scooping the child up into her arms, she spent long hours with her in the garden studying the flowers and insects or simply lying on the grass watching Helen explore the fringes of the flower beds.
Helen didn't seem to mind being alone, appeared quite happy to play on her own for hours, running along the upstairs hallway or piling her blocks into elaborate structures, laughing when they collapsed. She loved the zoo in the park across the way, and in particular the aviary with its high vaulted ceilings, which echoed with the exotic cries of the birds.
Fearing, though, that too much isolation might harm her, Amanda sent her off at almost three to a nearby nursery school. On the first morning she waited outside the door, prepared to see Helen reappear within moments. But the child stayed inside, and, peeking through the door, Amanda was both pleased and oddly disappointed to see that Helen had forgotten all about her and was merrily engaged in playing the triangle in the nursery-school band.
The house seemed empty with Helen away every morning. But, afraid she might do damage by removing Helen from the school strictly for the sake of her own comfort, Amanda made the decision to take on several students. She didn't really want to teach, but she was wary of making any mistakes with Helen by making her the human center of her existence.
So, three mornings a week, half a dozen youngsters arrived at the studio door, eager and impatient to learn.
And she soon discovered she enjoyed this new aspect of her capabilities: the capacity to convey to others the basis of her own distraction. She was able to teach about color and sensation and form. Soon the teaching became an addition to instead of a detraction from her own hypnotic attachment to her work.
There were occasional men who came to dinner bringing wine and flowers and personal needs they hoped she might fulfill, but she found, with some sadness, that she was no longer interested. She didn't feel forty-two, scarcely gave any notice to the passage of time or the small physical changes taking place in her. It was just that, with Lawrence's death, that part of her that had needed a man had also died. He'd been so much one of a kind that it didn't seem probable she'd find his qualities in another man.
The sexual loss didn't bother her at all. She'd always had a certain take-it-or-leave-it attitude about the physical aspects of love, a detachment, as if it were something to be involved in only to more fully cement her emotional relationship with her husband. In many ways she'd found lovemaking exceedingly pleasurable. It was more that she hadn't ever had the preoccupation with sex that so many of her contemporaries had. What she'd never especially savored, she didn't particularly miss. What she did mourn was the loss of wonder that went along with being young, and the sharing of marriage. She frequently found herself turning to include Lawrence in some thought or concept, to hear his reaction to one thing or another, only to find a shadowy, imagined outline where his real person should have been. She missed him.
At five Helen, still tiny but even lovelier than she'd been as a baby, was a semi-serious child with a rapidly developing fondness for words and books. She spent hours curled up in an armchair in the corner of the studio, studying picture books while Amanda gave classes or worked on her own. At times Amanda would turn to see Helen smiling out at her from the depths of the chair, several books tucked between the cushion and side of the chair, another open in her lap. At those moments Amanda wondered about Helen's future—what she'd do, what she'd become.
She had a certain way of smiling that was startlingly mature. It seemed as if she had an understanding of the goings-on around her and found them neither displeasing nor curious, but, rather, just the way things were. It was a somehow perceptive smile of recognition, as if she had already achieved a knowledge of her own identity within the proscribed boundaries of her world and saw no reason to question either her own personal definition or her mother's.
Following nursery school, Amanda enrolled Helen as a day student at a girls' prep school. And within a few months little girls began appearing at the front door asking for Helen and the noise of children at play upstairs filtered down to Amanda in the studio. Helen was very sociable and very popular. Children as well as adults were drawn to her enthusiasm and prettiness and openhearted interest.
The next summer, after a most successful exhibition that made her a good deal of money, Amanda purchased a small cottage up north. It was situated in a cove with its own private beach, approachable from either side of the beach but, as it was between other privately owned summer homes, entirely protected from the possibility of strangers happening accidentally onto their stretch of beach. With Jessie, the housekeeper, along, she began the first of their summer expeditions north.
On those mornings when Amanda painted close to home, Helen tagged along, sitting some distance away, watching. During the intervals when Amanda rested, enjoying a cigarette, they talked. It was while observing her mother roughing-in in charcoal a gnarled old tree slightly up from the water's edge that Helen asked, "How did you get me?"
"What, dear?" Amanda asked distantly, glancing over.
"Where did I come from?" Helen repeated, curling her toes in the sand.
"Oh," Amanda said, setting down her brush. "You came from your father and from me," she said.
Carefully, aware that this moment signified the ending of one era and the beginning of another, Amanda selected her words with caution, for fear of implanting misconceptions in her daughter's mind. She explained the anatomical differences between the sexes (the teaching side of her warming at once to the aesthetics) and then proceeded to the more difficult literal description of the physical process wherefrom children are conceived.
"Is it something people like to do?" Helen asked thoughtfully.
"Yes," she said simply, preferring a shaded lie to her personal truth. Perhaps it would be very different for Helen.
"Good," Helen said enigmatically, getting up and wandering off down the beach.
Amanda watched the small figure move away down the beach and wondered if she'd said and explained it all in the best of possible ways. She thought of Lawrence. He'd been a man who hadn't ever been vocally overt about sex. Lovemaking had been an activity he'd relished but wouldn't readily discuss. But still ... She stood a moment longer, her eyes caught by the sensual memory of his fine, long body lying warmly over her own. And she felt again his loss.
Helen's first views on sex, then, were closely tied to her mother's paintings, to the nude studies of men and women she was allowed to examine, to the art books in the studio and at the cottage. Her conception of sex, of making babies, was one of fluidity and beauty filled with splashes of explosive color. She thought often of making babies, of someday having one grow right inside her. And every time she thought about it, a little shiver of excitement ran through her, making her smile.
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