Photo: Misty Fox
Don't Look Back
By Danila Botha
My great-aunt Mara was the one who taught me what nominative determinism was. My grandfather made the joke once, when he heard me asking my grandmother what she was like as a kid. What can you expect? he asked, and smiled his slightly crooked half-smile.
Mara, I knew, meant bitter.
Great-aunt Mara’s real name was Tamara, but no one ever called her that. Tamara came from the word Tamar, which meant date, like the fruit. I sometimes wondered after that, what would have happened if her parents and older siblings had been more patient, if she would have been as soft, and yielding, and honey-toned as a medjool date if they’d stuck to calling her that.
My mom always hated the way she gleefully interrupted people to correct their grammar. If I ever told her she was using a word wrong, she’d say, “That’s enough,” and then add: “You don’t want to be like my Auntie Mara.” For my mom, Mara was always a cautionary tale. I thought she was misunderstood, but even her own kids and their father kept their distance.
I tried to picture Mara as a kid, but all I could see was her today: small, with slightly curved shoulders, determined to make the tiny bronze busts on her work desk conform fully to her vision. Her face looked exactly like a portrait I’d seen of my great-grandmother, but I could never tell if I really remembered my great-grandmother, or if it was everyone else’s stories and the framed photos my whole family had of her in their houses.
Mara was the only real artist I knew. When I applied and got into art school, and my mom mentioned it to her, she seemed excited, which was something, since no one else thought it was so great. I went to the kind of high school that forced me to figure things out early. It was mostly a sad thing, when I thought about how much of my teenage years I spent agonizing about things I couldn’t possibly know, but in some ways it made things simpler. My scores on our standardized tests were high enough. I could have got into other programs, the kind my parents desperately wished I chose instead, but when I thought about them, the only image that made me happy was me sitting in a studio with headphones on, painting all day.
Mara made me promise that I’d take a few philosophy courses if I could, and a few literature courses. She was the only one of her siblings who had a master’s degree, and the only one who couldn’t make a decent living. She took odd jobs, and sometimes she even had normal ones, like teaching little kids at a daycare, or teaching art in an art college, but it was never enough, and my grandparents often supported her. I asked her once if it bothered her, and she shrugged. “We all contribute in different ways,” she said. “My art will be here after me.” When she could sell her work – her bronze sculptures, her ceramics, and her portraits – she always sold them for a lot of money, but it didn’t happen often enough.
She was proud of me, I knew, for getting accepted into an art school in the U.S. She’d spent time in other places – in South Africa, in Australia, even in Canada – but she always came back to our small town in Israel.
“Make it work,” she whispered to me before I went. “Make a life for yourself. There’s much more opportunity there. Don’t look back.”
I wanted to be like her, unshakeably confident in who I was and what I was creating. But I wasn’t.
I came back both summers, after my first and second year. I missed my parents and my sisters. Once a week on Wednesdays in the summers, our town had an outdoor market called a yarid, where everyone from little kids making bead necklaces to silversmiths making fancy rings with turquoise and coral sold their wares. Naturally, my great-aunt Mara was there, selling her ceramic bowls and nude bronze ladies in various states of repose. I still went to my favourite art store, the only one in our town, on our main street where everything was overpriced, and they didn’t have the high series cobalt blues or lime greens I’d come to love. But Pazit, the poufy haired, eternally bored owner, greeted me with the same friendly indifference as before, never asking me about my time in America, and I could pretend for a few minutes that nothing had changed. But when I got home and sat on my family’s balcony in my usual chair, headphones blasting music so loudly you could hear it if you stood close to me, I knew I’d lost the freedom I used to have, when no one expected me to do anything except quietly amuse myself. I had my professor’s voices in my head with every brushstroke, I could hear the group critiques, and suddenly the stakes were high. I had to make a success of my life there. I had to justify the money that was being spent on me. I had to make everything work somehow.
I ended up tearing page after page out of my sketchbook, and I destroyed two canvases midway through. I used to hate our building’s giant garbage chute when I was younger, but I loved it now. I could fit canvases into black garbage bags and make them disappear without having to explain myself. Great-aunt Mara insisted I come with her on Wednesday nights to help her sell. On the nights that we didn’t sell anything, I was disappointed. I’d ask Mara if she didn’t think her work was overpriced. I was sure that if we lowered the prices by a third, even by half, that we’d sell it all.
She glared at me, her black olive eyes glinting with startling sparks. She pointed an arthritic finger at my face. “You always have to know your worth, child. If you don’t, who will? I’d rather sell nothing than to devalue my work.”
I stared at her, trying to decide if I admired her or thought she was crazy. After that, she made me come with her to start selling my own work. I didn’t have much with me, except whatever was in my portfolio that I’d brought from New York. I had to admit, people’s compliments felt good, even if they didn’t buy anything. My expectations were low, and if someone bought something even with Great-aunt Mara inflating its worth, it felt incredible.
When I was packing to go back to school, Great-aunt Mara tapped me on the shoulder.
“I helped you a lot this summer, didn’t I?” she asked, with an arch smile I’d not seen before.
She then gave me a big black zip-up bag full of her art, including some small bronze and carefully bubble-wrapped ceramic sculptures, and a detailed price list.
“See if you can get some Americans to bite,” she said.
The thought of lugging the bag back with me seemed like a nightmare, but I couldn't afford to tell her I'd sold her work if I hadn't really, because I didn't have the kind of money. I told one of my professors that I had some art from a famous Israeli artist, and she agreed to feature it in an upcoming student and alumna show.
Great-aunt Mara was losing her hearing, just like everyone else in my mom’s family, but when I told her about this over What’s App, and she finally understood me, she was ecstatic.
She insisted on flying there for the opening, which seemed a bit over the top for a show that served blocks of no-name cheese and crackers, but she was so happy. My professor set it up to center on a piece that was not typical of her style and I tried to explain that, but he ignored me. It was a bust, of a mother and child. The child’s eyes were squeezed shut, the rest of its expression a grimace. The mother looks down, tears coming out of her eyes. It was uncharacteristically vulnerable. The rest of her work was all about female sexuality, female confidence, “what your generation would call feminist and sex-positive,” she’d say, and flinch a little. I’d never seen anything like the mother and child, and I wondered why she’d included it. But my teachers loved it, so I gave in and deferred to their expertise.
It was my parents who paid for her plane ticket. Great-aunt Mara stayed in my apartment with me, for a few days, running a broom over the floors absently, making tea and then forgetting to drink it.
The night of the show, she was nervous. She changed three times into various versions of the loose floral dresses she loved, and changed her shoes twice. She wore a ceramic beaded necklace with one of her tiny sculptures as the centre piece. She even asked me to help her put on make-up: some rose blush on cheeks, gold eye shadow to highlight her intense eyes.
When we got there, she moved around the room, seeming taller and more beautiful than ever. She let someone pour her a glass of white wine and got annoyed when I asked her if alcohol interacted with any of her medications. Someone bought one of her full-figured ceramic women and she was delighted, and then a pregnant woman, with a toddler hanging onto her skirt, edged her way towards the mother and child. It was the only piece without an artist statement beside it. She looked at my great-aunt Mara, her eyes filling with tears.
“It’s such a perfect metaphor for parenting,” she said. “No matter what we do, everything is a risk but we keep trying and we keep loving. I promised my husband I wasn’t going to buy anything, but what the hell.”
Great-aunt Mara exhaled so sharply everyone heard it. People standing close to us turned around to listen.
“My dear,” she said, her voice growing louder with each syllable. “That is not what my piece is about at all. The reason I chose not to write an artist statement was exactly that; fear of being reduced to the banal.”
It seemed like everyone was listening now. I looked down at my sneakers.
“When I was your age,” she said, then looked the woman up and down. “No, when I was younger than you, I had two healthy children and I was already pregnant with my third. My second child, my son, Moshe, got meningitis, and there were no vaccines, and the doctors couldn’t do anything, and he died.”
I looked up at her. No one had ever told me this story. My family had obliquely referred to hard times she’d had when she was younger, but her kids all had issues, and different fathers, so I assumed I knew everything, more or less.
Great-Aunt Mara stared at the woman, who seemed to shrink before our eyes.
“It’s not about parenthood, my dear. It’s about losing the most precious things we have, and being powerless to stop it.”
The woman backed away and walked out the door, her son whining behind her.
People went back to their conversations, everyone trying to pretend that nothing had ever happened here, that the night could still be a success. She didn’t sell anything else.
A few days later, she packed up all her stuff, and got ready to head home.
As we waited for her cab, she took my hand and thanked me for the trip.
“Why did you never tell me?” I asked her quietly.
She sighed. “I talked about it at the time. After a while, people stopped wanting to hear about it, and I stopped wanting to hear their platitudes.”
“Is that what you afraid of?” I asked, practically whispering. “Did you think I was just like everyone else?”
She pulled me close to her and put her hands on both sides of my face. “You, my darling, are the most unique, talented artist of us all. You’re going to do great things. I was trying to find the right time to tell you. It shouldn’t have been that night.”
It was the closest I’d ever heard her come to an apology. I found myself crying.
I hoped she wasn’t disappointed when I found that I had nothing to say, no comfort, no insights.
I helped load her suitcase into the trunk of her cab, and she rolled down the window and waved to me.
“Never waste any time feeling guilty.”
When the car pulled away, I thought I heard her add, “I love you,” but I might have imagined it.
My mom and dad were the I-love-you types, and Great-aunt Mara was the succinct type, but I knew I felt her love.