Creative Nonfiction: Madame M. on Lockdown by Andrea Jarrell

Like any woman, I am an expert on my face, though I’ve never seen it with my own eyes. Does a reflection really count? Still, I have stared at my own image for untold hours, cataloging my flaws and assets: long lashes, broad nose, angled cheekbones, strong jaw. Only recently would I have added, right eye smaller than the left. Scrolling through my Instagram, I noticed this for the first time in one photo and then another and another. Initially, I dismissed it. Overtired. Only when I smile.

“Look, see, there it is,” I said to my husband and adult daughter, handing them my phone. They each bent their heads, scrutinizing. “Huh,” my husband said, as if seeing the shimmer of a different painting showing through the surface of the one with which he was so familiar.

“I wonder if I’ll get it, too,” my daughter said, handing my phone back to me.

She sees my narrowing eye as a flaw. I understand. When I was young, I was like her. Noticing my great-grandmother’s right eye, smaller than the left, angled like a cat’s and squinting — I saw it as an imperfection.

I’m not sure I even would have noticed Great Grandmother’s eye if not for my mother. And she might not have ever pointed it out if not for the painting of Madame M. by Valentin Serov.

One day, perhaps my mother and I will hunt down the Serov portrait again. If it weren’t for the lockdown, we might buy tickets, board a plane, check into a hotel with crisp white sheets, venture out into a faraway city with unfamiliar smells, and hear our shoes echoing on the museum’s floors as we search for the painting of the Russian lady. Finding it at last, we would murmur as we leaned close to one another, our upper arms brushing.

“Yes, yes, can you believe the resemblance?” we would gush. Staring into the eyes of Madame M., we would feel as if our own flesh and blood had swept us into her arms, pressed us close, held us like children instead of the women we are.

My mother first saw the portrait over forty years ago — in the 1970s when the Cold War still smoldered, and the USSR was “the Other.” The painting was on loan from the Hermitage to the Los Angeles County Art Museum. The exhibition was like a state dinner hosting rivals, best behavior and surface-level grace shot through with one-false-move unease. My mother, who splurged on a museum membership despite her secretary’s salary, was there when the exhibition opened.

Imagine how surprised she was strolling the high-ceilinged galleries and coming face to face with her own grandmother’s beatific smile and that one winky eye gazing down on her.

I confess that my mother, a normally level-headed and practical person, can also be quite fanciful, especially back then. Back when she needed to believe that the single mother’s life she was living with her young daughter was not how it would always be. Perhaps to escape the reality of ex-husbands, unpaid bills, and our tiny apartment, she went to tarot and aura readers to conjure a much grander destiny. She pressed her slender index finger into Turkish coffee grounds to have her future told.

My mother was invested in the idea of living past lives that spanned the globe—England, France, Russia, China. Her spirit often had royal connections—an embedded greatness that lingered and was part of her still. We had been in each other’s lives again and again, she said. This explained our mother–daughter closeness.

I trusted my mother completely, the way a balloon trusts its string. I wanted to believe her fancies were facts, in that slippery way your mind almost remembers a tune on the tip of your tongue. Solid and sure one moment, evaporating the next.

So, when she told me that she had seen the portrait of a noble lady from another era who looked exactly like my great-grandmother, I was prepared to play along, to nod even if, in the end, I chalked it up to my mother’s wishful thinking.

I was thirteen when my mother brought the exhibition catalog home, found the spot she wanted and held the glossy pages open to me. I thought maybe I would see a slight resemblance. What I saw instead was the face of my grandfather’s mother, my mother’s grandmother, my own great-grandmother, whom I had known well enough to remember.

The little catalog description of the 19th-century painting told us that Madame M. seems to have removed her gold-rimmed glasses, which rest, open, in her lap, as she holds one of the earpieces. Her hat is adorned with violets that are almost blue-black, turning indigo as they take on the darkness of the old lady’s silk gown. Though her dress dims the flowers, the contrast of black folds beneath the grande dame’s soft, fleshy face brighten and illuminate her skin. She smiles slightly, one eye winking.

The catalog text notes her good left eye has a keen sparkle, but it is the smaller right eye that charms my mother and me. We would have seen the likeness no matter what, but that puny eye makes us gasp, delighted by this dowager as doppelgänger to my great-grandmother, a poor woman from Oklahoma, who was fantastical in her own way.

She had been a tiny girl on a covered wagon when the official gun was fired, the signal shot for hordes of racing settlers to grab up the Cherokee Strip. Even as a child, I marveled at being close enough to hold the hand of someone who had once ridden in a covered wagon, a bridge spanning history from her life to mine, both of us living and breathing in the same room.

As a family, we puffed our chests at the mention of our connection to our country’s history—the formation of a state. I was confused, though, by the story that there was free land for the taking, if you were quick enough to claim it. Of course, I came to understand that the land wasn’t just sitting there like a dollar bill dropped from a pocket. We took it, but it wasn’t free. Did we even look furtively side to side to see how others judged our greed? No, my family scooped up that stray dollar and never looked back.

A lot of good it did us. We became the Dust Bowl Okies, running for our lives to the less-fashionable California towns: Chino, Modesto, Fresno.

When I knew my great-grandmother, she was certainly no dowager. In a cast iron skillet on the front burner, she scrambled eggs in bacon fat. She sat beneath a tree in her yard eating tomatoes straight from the vine, a shaker of salt beside her. She ate the hottest peppers, too, relishing their fire as tears streamed down her cheeks. She churned ice cream by hand, peach and strawberry. She had soft flesh for hugging and when I got close, a smell specific to older, heavy ladies, a special brand of body odor that made my small nose crinkle. Her asymmetrical eyes behind her glasses cast a knowing look.

Now, I understand that the winking eye is gravity’s toll, the result of over fifty years of opening and closing my eyes to the world. At first, I sought to fix it. Doctor, doctor: inject me here, lift me there.

As time ticked by in quarantine, whenever I noticed my narrowed eye, I began to think about the Serov painting. I hadn’t really looked at the portrait since my mother first showed it to me. Yet for years “that painting that looks like Great Grandmother” had been a shared touchstone. Now I wanted my mother to fill in the gaps in my memory — to remind me of all the details, the artist, the exhibition, its home museum. When I called, she said, “hold on a minute.”

I could hear her in the background and pictured her miles away in New York City, searching the mahogany bookshelves that run the length of her apartment, floor to ceiling. Moments later, she texted me a photo of the painting along with its description. And so, despite our separation, there we were again, heads bowed together, gazing at the portrait. It held its magic, still. There was Great Grandmother with her winking eye, threading our family together through my mother and me, across cities and eras, despite evil deeds and with enduring love.

For years, one of my favorite yet flitting memories — the kind that dodges and ricochets inside the darkness of your skull — was of watching the moon landing from my great-grandmother’s living room. It was summer and I was staying with her, eating scrambled eggs and buttered toast in the mornings, churned ice cream in the evenings. On the large television in her living room, no doubt purchased by her grown children, we watched Neil Armstrong take his historic steps in the morning. That night, we stood in her yard and looked up at the moon.

As my mother and I talked about the Russian portrait, I said, “We watched Bobby Kennedy’s funeral that summer, too.” But my mother said, “That couldn’t have been. He died the year before.”

Insisting on my memory, I strained to see the knees of adults—black skirt hems and black trousers—and to hear their voices murmuring above me. But I had merged the majesty of RFK’s flag-draped casket with my own great-grandmother’s funeral just a few months after Armstrong went to the moon. My whole family was there, hugging and crying, laughing sometimes and handing each other tissues, eating casseroles and pies, ham and rolls. Once again, I must have stood in her yard looking skyward believing she was up there too.

Now, here she was again, staring out at me with her small cat’s eye from the painting of a Russian matriarch with violets decorating her hat, like the violets in the pots placed on the lace doilies on the tables in a house in Chino fifty years ago. African violets with furred leaves, surrounded by delicate figurines of little children, cats and dogs, and a crystal bell. Don’t touch, the adults said when my small hand reached.

As I scroll through photos of myself stored on my phone, I no longer think of fixing my own cat’s eye. Through these months this visual connection to my family has buoyed me, warmed me, soothed me, as I wait for the day when I will take a train to my mother’s city, hail a cab at the station, knock on her door, and feel our arms around one another as we breathe the same air again, as we hold on to this dear life together. After that first embrace, we will pull back, take each other in, see one another with our own eyes—the good left eye and the imperfect right one. We both have it, but only when we smile.

Andrea Jarrell’s work has appeared in The New York Times “Modern Love” column, Harper’s Bazaar, Literary Hub, Narrative Magazine, Brevity, Fiction Southeast, Cleaver Magazine, the Washington Post, and other sites, journals, and anthologies.

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