In September of 1967, when I was nine, and my brother six, my parents brought us to my aunt’s house in Michigan and went to Ireland for a month on their own. Thinking back on it, I find this a little surprising. My parents were not the type of people who had “date nights”, let alone “date months.” School started right after Labor Day in New Jersey in those days, so I missed the first month of third grade, and my brother of first grade. My cousins were in school already in Michigan, and my aunt and uncle both worked, so we were home with the cleaning lady most days.
I wonder why my parents didn’t bring us along on this trip to Ireland. Could they not have made the trip in the summer instead of the fall, and brought us along with them? (In fact, we never once traveled as a family outside the United States, and rarely within the country either, except to visit other family members, even though we all traveled separately quite regularly.) Or they could have gone on their own in the summer, which would have made our visit to the cousins in Michigan a little more like a vacation for all of us, and avoided having my brother and me miss a month of school.
Perhaps they were having what would have been called “marital troubles”, and decided precipitously to rekindle their relationship with a trip to Ireland. Or perhaps we children were driving my mother insane and she needed a respite from us. (She was a stay-at-home mother in the 60s, with a husband who traveled a great deal for work, which would drive almost anyone insane, and my mother was more sensitive and high-strung than most.) But when I asked my aunt about this recently, she confessed to being as unclear as I am. So I guess I will never know what led my parents to embark on this slightly mystifying adventure.
They returned with many stories and photographs, and with all the enthusiastic energy a good trip engenders. They had rented a car and wandered all over the country, and while I don’t remember many details, the overall emotion was utter joy. I think they had a very good vacation. (I haven’t found the photos yet, they’re in one of the boxes in storage, and when I find them I’ll post a few.)
And they had bought a painting. They were very excited about it. They had met the artist, a young woman, younger than they were themselves. They loved her work and they thought she was impressive and talented.
Maybe a month or two later, the painting arrived, having been shipped from Ireland, probably on a freighter.
I have a vague memory of the immense wooden box it was shipped in. And the painting itself was very large. And unlike any painting I had ever seen. It was a painting of a dolmen, a prehistoric burial mound. And there were Irish rocks and Irish moss affixed to the canvas itself, to make not just a painting, but really sort of a sculpture, since the stones and plaster actually protruded from the canvas. I was fascinated. I thought the head of the dolmen looked sort of like the skull of a horse, perhaps, even though I knew it was stone and not bone. And the background of the painting was so different from the dolmen itself. It seemed very flat, almost an abstraction of sky and horizon and a bit of hills in the distance, and a ragged fence on one side. I kind of loved the dolmen, its feeling of being somehow organic, even though it was stone depicting stone. But the background bothered me. It seemed, I don’t know, incomplete, maybe. Half-formed. An afterthought.
My parents absolutely loved this painting. I don’t know if it was a talisman of their excellent vacation, or aesthetic delight in the painting itself, or both. They spoke of the young artist with great respect and delight: her talent was their shared discovery, their shared pleasure. The painting felt like it contained mysteries of adulthood, of my parents’ existence as a couple, as two individuals in a relationship, rather than as parents. It may have been the first time I glimpsed them in this way.
And so the painting was hung in a place of honor in the living room of our house in New Jersey. And when we moved to Los Angeles two years later, it hung over the fireplace in the living room of that house for fifteen years. And when they sold the house in California and bought a house in Westchester, it hung over the fireplace in the living room of that house as well, for eighteen years. After my father died, and we had to sell the Westchester house and move my mother to assisted living, the painting went with her to New Jersey once again. A couple of years later, my brother wanted a turn taking care of my mother, so we moved her to Los Angeles. But my brother refused to take the painting. He told me he had always hated that painting.
So I packed it up and brought it to my tiny New York apartment, which has no fireplace. And I hung it for a while over the dinner table in the living room, but it was overwhelming and ridiculous. When my then-lover visited from Athens, she, in her forthright Greek way, asked me if I liked that painting, if I wanted it looming over the dinner table. And I explained this whole story (she was patient), and she told me I didn’t have to hang the painting in my apartment. You understand I was in my late forties by now, certainly an adult. I had had my own apartment for thirty years. But it had never occurred to me that I had a choice about living with this painting. It was part of my inheritance, whether I wanted it or not.
So with great emotion, we encased it in packing foam and bubble wrap and put it in the very back of the hall closet. It sat there quietly for maybe eight years. In the meantime, my mother died, and then my brother died. I am the only person left of my immediate family, and I have no children to whom to burden or gift this inheritance.
Fourteen years ago, I bought land in Vermont. It’s quite a bit of land, and there’s a stream and a ravine, and a beautiful view of the Green Mountains, and lots of trees and ferns and rocks. Many rocks. Vermont is rocky. And one night in June 2015 I was sitting on the porch of the master bedroom (every room is a separate structure: there’s a bedroom shelter, and a composing cabin, and an outhouse shelter, and dining shelter and a reading/guest-room tent and so on.) And I suddenly had the idea to bring the painting from out of the closet in New York and put it on top of one of the big rocks on my land, the one that overlooks the dining area’s fireplace. I imagine the big rock is a formation left by the glaciers, a glacial erratic, that itself looks almost like a prehistoric burial mound. I could place the dolmen painting on the natural dolmen, and gradually the painted dolmen will disintegrate into the natural dolmen.
This is the right thing to do with the painting. I am sure of it.
In mid-July of 2015, I pulled the painting out of the back of the hall closet, and my friend Meredith helped me lash it to the top of my car (it wouldn’t fit inside), and I drove it up to Vermont and placed it at its final resting place. Every day I am here on the land, I take a photograph of the current state of the painting. I don’t know how long it will take to disintegrate, but I will document it as well as I can.
And there will be a piece for the dolmen every three months in A Book of Days, at each solstice and equinox. As time goes on, each of the pieces will be revised (both musically and visually) to reflect the current state of the dolmen painting. My idea is that the texts for these pieces will all be taken from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but that may change as the project develops.
And one of these days I will take my own trip to Ireland, in honor of my parents’ psychically important trip, in honor of my Irish ancestors about whom I know nearly nothing, and in honor of my own status as an “erratic”, carried by forces larger than myself to a resting place I cannot predict or imagine.
Orphan Girl is the first piece I made as part of this project. It is posted as September 21st in A Book of Days. This is the 2015 version of the piece, and I am imagining I will revise it in response to the effects of time.
Tower of Ivory is the second piece I made as part of this project. It is posted as December 21st in A Book of Days. The version that’s online now is Margaret Lancaster’s 2017 multiple flute extravaganza, and a video will be coming soon. I am imagining we will continue to revise the piece in response to the effects of time.
Mistake is the third piece I made as part of this project. It is posted as March 21st in A Book of Days. Emma Courtney has made a video for 2018, and the score is now available, if you’d like to perform the piece live. I am imagining we will continue to revise the piece in response to the effects of time.
You are warmly invited to support this ongoing project: