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October 10, 2010 / elodie kaye

How to See

My mother was an artist, as was her mother before her.  From a time before I could read, she showed how the same shade of blue could be made to sing, or whisper, depending on the colour next to it.  She pointed to the foot of a bowl as an essential adornment to its grace, or the absence of one as the root of its rustic warmth.  We played games at the fruit stand.  Which pear is the most womanly?  Which one is just a girl, or a gawky boy?  She would send me to find the prettiest peach or apple, and then choose hers.

My mother always chose the apple with a flaw, a piece of fruit that was almost perfect but for a little scar, or a roundness slightly askew.  These lessons were different from the ones about numbers, letters, right or wrong.  She often neglected to explain herself.  She didn’t want me to be led by the right answers of others; she was waiting for me to find beauty with my own eyes.

When I was in middle school, I finally learned the names for her lessons.  Art theory gave me words: asymmetry, balance, proportion, the rule of thirds, composition, and I could articulate why she chose the objects she did.  My mother put her aesthetic imprint on everything that would bear it, but it was less from zeal than a desire to take pleasure from the objects around her.  The shape and proportion of the bowl of her spoons was chosen with more care than the earrings she might wear a few times a year.  The textures of the tropical plants in her bedroom were better choreographed than the flowers by the curb.  By the time I was a teenager, I had the words, rules, and principles behind every object in the house.

My mother’s response to this was to take me to view contemporary art that was entirely opaque: chaotic, confusing, sometimes ugly installations that silenced me.  She asked straightforward questions like, “Does it make me feel something?” or, “Does it have movement?”  I didn’t know it at the time, but she herself didn’t understand nor enjoy many of the pieces we saw.  When she did, her summations were simple.  It made her want to dance.  That one brought up the smell of sticky pine from her childhood.  This image was startling — searing, but all the more tender.

My mother taught me not merely to see art, but to let myself be touched by it.  She wasn’t opposed to analysis, but she didn’t want me to rest at understanding.  She wanted her overly rational girl to be unafraid of sensation, even revulsion.  She wished for me to hold myself open to experience when comprehension fails.

In seven days, the Toronto marathon will run on my mother’s birthday.  The half-marathon course passes by the doors of the hospital where she spent her last month, and the cemetery where I run and remember her.  I don’t have a race plan.  I don’t intend to think.  To the best of my ability, I hope to inhabit the moment as completely as I can for those thirteen miles.  I will look for beauty in imperfection.  I will run as my mother taught me to see.

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4 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. Keith Peters / Oct 11 2010 11:39 am

    Wow. Powerful remembrance.

    • elodie kaye / Oct 11 2010 1:37 pm

      Thanks, Keith. I’m not sure right now whether I’ll write a full race report, so in case I don’t, I thought I’d put this out there by way of explanation. I hope you have a great race, too!

  2. Anne / Oct 17 2010 11:35 am

    What a wonderful woman and instructor your mother was to teach you to cherish the imperfections in people and objects instead of always seeking the ideal. And what a wonderful way to remember her during those 13 miles.

    • elodie kaye / Oct 18 2010 12:14 am

      Thanks Anne, I had a good race. I don’t like to plaster over my mother’s faults; they’re beyond the scope of this sliver of our relationship. We had more than our share of frictions, but eventually I came to love her failings, too. We were lucky that I arrived at that before she died. As a young mother, I don’t think she anticipated it, but her lessons came back to her.

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