My mother’s favorite painting in the Toledo Museum of Art is of Mordecai Myers, painted by John Wesley Jarvis in 1814. She has always been fascinated by the man in this painting, always wondering who he was. She always pointed out that his eyes seemed to follow her no matter where she stood. We used to always tease her when we were young, when we would go to the museum. “Oh, mom wants to see her boyfriend.” She thought he looked Jewish and because he was in uniform thought he was alive during the time of George Washington.
For the very first time, as we were sitting together yesterday, I googled his name. We learned that Mordecai Myers (1776-1871) was, in fact, Jewish. He witnessed George Washington taking the oath of office as President of the United States. He originally joined the military company under the command of Col. John Marshall, who later became the first Supreme Court Justice. Myers was a hero in the War of 1812, personally saving the lives of 200 soldiers. He became the only Jewish mayor of Kinderhook in 1838 and later Schenectady NY in 1851. He ran for Congress when he was 84 and died at the age of 95, 100 years before my father died, my mother pointed out. He was the great-great-grandfather of the Pullitzer Prize-winning poet, Robert Lowell. My mother was rapt in attention. She asked me to send her all the information. She wanted to take the time to learn as much as she could about him. There was something very sobering about her response to his biography.
On my last visit she said she was getting a little bored and it was difficult for her to read. I thought that looking at pictures was something she might be able to do. I brought her a book of 500 self-portraits. I also brought post it notes and asked her to mark the portraits that she thought were the best and the most meaningful using her own criteria. With careful scrutiny, she scanned a few pages of the book. “I never knew they made books like this.” A strange comment from a woman whose husband and all three children were/are artists. This is what art books look like. Pictures on every page. “I might meet these people one day,” she said. She very seriously committed to marking her favorite portraits. On my next visit we will have an opportunity to talk about why she chose the ones she did.
Later she, my sister, my sister’s partner, and I went out to eat to celebrate her 87th birthday. One of my mother’s gifts was a dark chocolate high heel shoe, which we devoured for dessert. My mother took the first bite from the heel, after slowly turning the shoe around and over several times deciding where she wanted to destroy its wholeness. Then we passed the shoe around the table again and again, each of us taking a bite, until the shoe was nearly consumed.
In resolving one’s portrait of self, especially when you are 87, it is critically important to be certain what to bite off. The eyes follow you no matter where you are.