It’s funny how I thought of her.
It’s forty years and down the line, you see,
And all that time I’d tossed the thought aside:
A pleasant lady, local, known to paint
In oils, really gifted so they said, and in demand
For portraits, so one free weekend
With no boys calling I stayed home, agreed
To meet her with my parents. They cleaned up
The lounge, the hallway, polished all the knobs
And took out silver, china, sugar tongs,
And on the piano placed a fancy vase.
What’s all this fuss, I thought, what would they know!
They hadn’t been to college, studied French!
My father read books, history and politics,
A Rotarian on top
Of his career and Mum
The Lady Chairman of the Inner Wheel,
Dined, made speeches, kept a desk of notes;
She wore the wheel badge just like Dad’s
Upon her dress all rather dwarfed by ample bosoms I
Was trying hard not to inherit. Still,
They must have felt they’d made it, since they asked
The artist lady, Juliet, to come
And have some tea and maybe paint my Mum
Who was resplendent I admit, and had flushed
Excitedly to meet a friend of queens
And dukes, and politicians, captains, all
Those types not interesting to me because
My life was rarified those college days.
She came, and with it sweetest glance,
No sign of sniffy air, suburban dress or pearls,
Just a quick eye, and sat my mother down
Arranging to be paid by Dad for painting Mum.
She sketched her then and there and asked to come
A few times more and bring her box of oils,
And soon the portrait, finished hung above
The settee in our lounge. It stayed there years,
In fact it was still there the day my mother died
Brow smooth, serene, the nose and lips the same
Yet not those in the portrait. Yes, it was Mum,
But stiff, pretentious, strain about her mouth.
They were quite proud and couldn’t understand
I didn’t like it. Then there was a call
From Juliet, Your daughter, would she come
And let me draw her? I have one blank space
And soon the exhibition will be on, and oh
So simply, said in innocence, “I need
A Jewish girl who looks Israeli. She will do.”
Oh genteel Croydon! Oh Rotarians! I didn’t cringe
But thought how splendid, I shall hang between
Ben Gurion and Golda Meir, I,
Shall change my name, and certainly my face
Will become known by royalty and mayors.
And so I sat and she made one of the
Many portraits of me that are lost,
One by grey George at school who clayed a bust
That even I could see was me, and slew
It savagely towards the end of term,
His students horrified to see me smashed.
But to atone he made a massive bowl
And gave it to me on my wedding day:
My nephew when he married placed it on
The very piano that my mother played
And which he now would like to sell because
It takes up too much space. We are alive
Until the last one who remembers us goes up
To that eternal exhibition in the sky. But
To Juliet: she held the show and we
All went to see the visitors
Gaze at those strange Israelis and those Jews
Their Croydon lady friend of queens and dukes
Had painted there, in situ, those were days
When Israel was exotic, brave, the pioneers
Forging a new world after death and war,
When Britain certainly had declared a “Yes”
As had Joe Stalin, Truman, even France.
My parents cast conspiratorial looks
At me, eachother, even her,
Since she had been their artist, in our home
And there was I, with altered name to show
What Jewish girls were like, that is to say,
Not dark haired, hook nosed, Jessica or Ruth
But – I won’t tell you what my name is – blond
The sort of girl mistaken later on
For the new maid which made my ma-in-law
Quite furious, and once, in Ireland, a-sitting on a bus,
A priest behind me tapped my shoulder and
Informed me to my great delight
I looked just like the Virgin Mary, which
Is possible of course because she too
Was Jewish, though I do suspect
She had a hooked nose and dark curly hair. It was
I think the scarf of blue I’d knotted in the way
Duke’s daughters did and almoners
Who slummed it in bed sitters until they
Were summoned home to marry Nigel Smythe.
And yet there was that time upon the deck
On billows from Newhaven to Dieppe
When I was wearing consciously my scarf
So neatly knotted that another tap
Upon my shoulder, and a woman, old
It seemed to me, just said it, just like that,
“Du redst Yiddish? ” No I said, quite red,
But how bon Dieu did you know that I might?
“Oh, I can tell, ” she answered. That was that,
And she was meeting for the very first
Time since before the war her brother, thought
Dead of disease in Drancy, disappeared
Just like his dad, his mother and his wife.
But back to Juliet. She offered us
The portrait but my parents paused;
They’d spent a bit of money on the oil
And couldn’t see to spend more, water paints
Being ok for children, amateurs.
And so I just forgot, and then forgot
Until today when I might pass
Right off this earth with photos, black and white,
Some snapshots of me on the sand in Cannes,
Some songs for me my father threw away,
Some letters from those absent weekend boys,
Some comments to my kids about those days
That they can scarcely picture, from old friends
We meet at weddings, funerals, or soon - good Lord not yet! -
Elderhostel lectures, cruises, bus tours, hotel meals
To rest our weary selves from Passover.
I may as well knot scarves beneath my chin;
My inborn eyebrow raising is not dead.
To finish: just today I thought of her,
Of Juliet, and lo! I went on line
Oh blessed Google, there I found her name
And cursed Timing, she had just now died,
With gentle fame and Croydon in the Times
Obituary, Queen in oils just like my Mum,
And captains, and in other sites I found
The book she made of that famed Israel trip,
So I wrote quickly, email me the price!
I do not know if in it I will find
That portrait of me, but I wonder now
Why does my mother’s, on my sister’s wall,
Still have the power to disturb, why did
She paint her of the perfect nose and lips
And gazing eyes, with strain and tense-hid thoughts…
What was happening beneath that pride
My father paid for? And why did he pay?