By Yancy Jack Berns
I have two of my mother’s oil paintings in my apartment right now. I do not mention these works to brag, as the market for Eileen Berns paintings remains nil, as it ever was. I mention this because those paintings occur at the beginning of my understanding of my mother, in the murky and unknown years before I emerged and changed everything, ended that life for her and started a troubled new one.
My parents divorced when I was 7, and my mother soon had three more children beyond the two she had with my dad. Her life became her series of children, and it created a great schism in her. All the while we lived, her paintings became simpler and simpler, less and less inspired, ever less immediate. Canvases painted over, and over again: big blank faces, animal scenes, strange utopian vistas as if seen through an inch of Vaseline. The work of a mother of five with only so much time on her hands for a dream that had died right around the time my father came along, and I came along, and my sister came along, and on and on.
Eileen and I were never close after she moved away post-divorce, and I chose to stay with my dad in Los Angeles where movies and comic books were not in short supply. She returned eventually, eternally on welfare, eternally convinced she was the most brilliant person alive, eternally angry at the world for not recognizing it, eternally pondering the question I myself ponder: Did we ruin her? Did my father and the five kids she had change the course of her life away from one of artistic success, and towards one of banality, government cheese, and anger? How many dreams have died with the arrival of what we are conditioned to believe is “real life”?
When she died in 2008, wrung out to a sketch by lung cancer she couldn’t afford to have treated properly, I mourned her as a son must. As she lay dying, blinded by the cancer months before, the only lucid things I recall her saying to me were along the lines of “Oh, you actually showed up?” and “Maybe next time you can stay longer.” As she went to her death, she must have had it in her head that she had lost my love and affection long ago, that my father had brainwashed me into hating her, before she could do the opposite. Her closest companion in her final weeks was a shaky little Chihuahua who took to nestling in the warm spots on her failing, unmoving body.
But the vague rift between us was not my fault, and it was not her fault. And whether I was there as much as she would have liked during the final months, or as much as I would have liked (I was going through a few other major personal crises at that exact moment, if that excuses me), it doesn’t matter. She was me, and I am her. I can go nowhere without her, and she did not depart this world alone.
The things that drove us apart are the things she had in her, the same things I have in me: vanity, superiority, anger. The things I cherish most about my character also came from her: gushing love, respect for women, maybe a modicum of peace. And every time I’ve thought of my mother since she left my father all those years ago, and since she died, the first memories that flood in are the hazy, early, unbelievable 16mm ones – the two of us shuttling around New York City, me spilling fruit punch on a big wool sweater and her kindly laughing off my mistake with utter love. That woman is gone now, and the child is gone too.
But there are candy-colored tales of my mother working in advertising in NYC in the 60s before she met my dad. She watched a Beatles concert from the wings while chatting with either Petula Clark or Dusty Springfield (she couldn’t recall which), and as the band finished she reached out and touched Ringo Starr’s nose. She also dated either Peter or Gordon, of “Peter and Gordon” fame – a music act that The Beatles had written a few songs for, so the Beatlemania momentarily extended to them, and my mother recalls shouting, crying women outside the hotel doors as she kissed either Peter or Gordon in the lobby. All of this glamour, all of those fine oil works painted or unpainted, were shunted away forever as she entered into the conventional American life of marriage, kids, and divorce.
How much of all this was true? Did my mother really get close enough to George Harrison to notice his poor complexion? I’ll never know, I never could. So goodbye, Mom. I promise to pick up where you left off, as I must, and try to figure out who the heck we are.
Yancy Jack Berns is a screenwriter and freelance television producer living in Los Angeles.