Eleanor Munroe on My Mother, Amply Pregnant

eleanor monroeOn this Mother’s Day I ask us to think about our mothers, both real and fictive, and their role in our creative lives.

Eleanor Munroe is best known for her in depth studies of the relationship between artists and their art. In 1979 she wrote Originals: American Women Artists in which she brought a new perspective to the creation of art through intimate biographical interviews with women artists. She believed that “significant childhood memories” were key in the development of the imagination and artistic images.

In the introduction to Originals she wrote:  “In recounting the trajectory of her life, the artist was consciously or unconsciously, looking to impress form onto a past tangle of conflicting impulses, to give their own version of the great myth by which artists and many other human beings live: that they were in some sense, “called” or “chosen,” graced with a special mission, and then set single mindedly upon the road to its fulfillment.”

Anyone who has been a creator – an artist, a writer, a composer, a choreographer, an inventor – understands that the creative process is messy. The ideas rattling around in one’s head  are a conglomeration of who we are at that moment of time – our present driven, passionate self. But if we look back later we can peel away the surface and find the child within us, and deeper still, the mother who formed that child who later grew up to be us – our mother who intentionally or unintentionally set us on our chosen road.

Eleanor Munroe in Memoir of a Modernist’s Daughter describes her mother and in doing so the reveals her own significant childhood memory .

Our father’s work and taste set us apart. But with our mother, the difference lay in what she was. Or was not. Which was it? I didn’t know, having never seen another female nonconformist. Was it her driving concentration on the piano, in the garden, the kitchen and the authoritarian way she sometimes marshaled us to do the same? Was it her frequent lamentation that she was so tired she was “dead”? Or that I was hanging on her, being a pest, whining for attention?  Or was it her occasional voluptuary self-indulgence, unlike the straightforward plainness of other mothers I knew? She had brought along to the new house little green perfume bottles, though now nearly empty, and when she dressed to go out, she went through the old pantomime of searching out a bit of scent. By now, her jewelry collection, made by my father, was elaborate and curious, consisting of ethnic or antique necklaces, brooches, bracelets. Her clothes, too,  were quietly theatrical, richly textured, in colors to point up her hair. Unusually, when she was carrying Elizabeth, she sometimes wore black, an evening dress of net spangled with tiny metallic stars. Amply pregnant, wrapped in that drifting galaxy, she was the most heavenly thing I had ever seen. And added to her appearance was some sense she always communicated that she was on the point of going away forever, or breathless from just having arrived – that her real place was somewhere else.

Therefore her medium, music, retained its unfathomably painful hold on me. As we would sit in the semi-darkness of a summer evening listening to records, slowly, as if the whole house became a diving bell, we sank together through the surface of things…

Once – if only I could remember the circumstances – mother burst out in the middle of some music, “I could die and be buried to that piece…,” and I swore never to forget what it was. And of course I have, for I have no musical memory at all.

Who was your mother? How would you describe her? Did she push you away or pull you in? Is she under your skin and in your creative life?

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