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After a Hard Youth, Mom Found Beauty in Making Art

Here's proof that it’s never too late for dreams to be realized.

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Woman sculpting around paintings
Beya Rebaï
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My mother reluctantly embodied her role of 1950s housewife. She was raising my brothers, who were 9 and 10 years old when I was born. Dad was the breadwinner; she was cast as an angrier and less patient June Cleaver. Her uniform was a housedress and Dr. Scholl’s orthopedic sandals.

She served my father scrambled eggs before he embarked on a long subway ride into his Manhattan office. He returned at 6 p.m. and read the evening paper before sitting down to a dinner Mom prepared and then cleaned up. Her cooking style was burnt broiled chicken: unseasoned poultry parts stuck under the broiler until the top was charred. When my parents went to a friend’s house to play bridge, I heated up a TV dinner. Frozen fried chicken was my idea of haute cuisine.

My father was a first-generation American, an engineer turned accountant who had a tax preparation business and also sold real estate in order to send his kids to college and support his widowed mother and mother-in-law. Every Thursday night, while Dad was in his bowling league, Mom took me to Nathan’s for dinner. Watching her drive, I could sense her joy in escaping the kitchen, guiltlessly feeding me a nonnutritious meal of hot dogs and french fries.           

On Tuesdays, Mom drove 30 miles away to compete in golf. She amassed a cabinet of trophies while I was charged with making the beds and vacuuming. I felt burdened doing her chores, but I wasn’t yet aware of the significance that she was no Stepford wife.           

She was raised in an orphanage until her teens and hadn’t been able to afford college. Although she’d dreamed of becoming a gym teacher, she worked as a stenographer right out of high school, making $780 a year.

“My first job was high up in the Empire State Building,” she told me whenever we shopped on 34th Street, gazing up at the iconic skyscraper as if it were a mountain she’d once climbed. We’d devour cream cheese sandwiches at a Chock Full o' Nuts coffee shop, sharing the winding lunch counter with rushed professionals returning to work.           

She was a self-taught art historian, making me tag along at museums from the time I was 8, in spite of my protests of boredom.           

“You learn by listening to a docent,” she insisted, and for years I shuffled miserably along on endless tours. She’d stare at a huge Jackson Pollock painting, saying, “Isn’t he a genius?”           

All I saw was splashed paint. I wanted my mother to be like other mothers, who took their kids to amusement parks instead of the hushed sanctuaries of art museums.           

After I left for college, Mom started to paint. She copied the colorful circles of Alexander Calder, bright primary hues encased by black outlines. I thought her renderings looked childish, something a preschooler could master. I didn’t know that budding artists were apprentices at first, copying famous works before embarking on their own styles, eventually tapping into their full imagination.           

When my father retired, they moved to Florida. Mom was done being a housewife, as if her contract had expired. Every morning she left the cereal box and a bowl on the kitchen table for my father. Off she went to her newfound passion: sculpture.           

Again, she copied the masters, leaning toward abstract works. She spent all day in an artist’s studio with her chisel, hammer and protective goggles. “It gets her nervous energy out,” my father said with a smile.           

It was more than nervous energy that drove her to produce one creation after another: a large abstract circle with a hole in the center, a dolphin with a person hanging on its head and floating in the air, and a man bent into a contorted shape that Mary Lou Retton could never master.

Politely, I complimented Mom — secretly preferring realism. She was thrilled when a community center honored her with a one-woman show. Afterward she draped the prize ribbon over one of her favorites, a curvy white alabaster sculpture of two overlapping oval shapes, which Mom described as fish. I didn’t see it, but I began to admire the way she transformed amorphous stones into smoothly shaped works of art.

A corner of her apartment looked like a gallery, with figures perched on white stands of different heights. During my visits, I gravitated toward a woman sitting on a backless bench, hands folded, pensively tilting her head off into the distance.           

“I know you always liked this one,” Mom said, stroking the brown-and-white marbleized woman. “It’ll be yours after I’m gone,” adding that the ballerina, standing on one leg with graceful arms reaching toward the sky, was for my daughter.           

My daughter had long given up ballet for soccer, but that was how Mom wanted to remember her eighth and last grandchild. And she wanted us to remember her as a reinvented housewife.

After Mom died at the age of 96, her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren gathered in her apartment to select artworks from her collection. They marveled at dozens of sculptures, loose in a museum when all the treasures were free. Each sculpture came with a memory of my mother’s determination and artistic nature. Family members toted the heavy stones out in wheelbarrows.

The next day I received an email from one of the great-grandchildren: “A part of Grandma lives on through her art. I’m grateful for this everlasting gift.”

I found a newspaper clipping among my mother’s possessions, a feature story about lifelong learning. There was my 92-year-old mother’s photo in a sculpting class under the title: “DISCOVERING TALENTS.” She discovered her true talent in her 60s, leaving behind a permanent vision for the next two generations. She might not have been widely known to the world, but to her family, she was famous. Mom’s hopes of becoming a teacher had been squashed by poverty, but she evolved into a confident, proud artist.

Living in a small city apartment, I could only ship home a small selection for my own collection. The seated woman remains my favorite. I think of it as a self-portrait. Whenever I pass it, I’m reminded that it’s never too late for dreams to be realized with courage, persistence and grit.                      

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