“The Milliners”

Published: 2019, The Citadel, Los Angeles City College

On the top of a hill, after the trolley, through guest reception on the way to pick up an audio guide, across the blazing white tiles, one floor up the stairs of the West Pavilion, at the very back of the 18th century artists hall, nestled in the corner, is one of the finest paintings that no one ever sees.  It’s brown and ugly.  Unappealing and dull.  The subject is plain and if there are any details at all, they’re sparse and bloated with revisions – so why do I feel so connected to it? 

It’s a simple painting of two women sat at a desk making hats.  The painting itself was named after them — The Milliners — and maybe it was interesting at first because I had to look up the word “milliner” and what it even meant.  Milliner, noun, is a person who “designs, makes, trims, or sells women’s hats”.  An entire term dedicated to an entire trade that no longer exists.  Funny, I thought, and that was that.

I didn’t know it yet, but my affair with the milliner had just begun. There was something about the sallow face of the forlorn woman between the two hat stands that charmed me.

She felt like the comfort of feeling sad and I wanted to indulge myself, but it scared me.  To me, she was dangerous; she was the last shot of gin, the final cigarette, the first step to my own plummet into what I could only explain as abysmal and unexplored by the living.  So I stepped away before I fell.    

I was lost in the ecstasy of Christ’s Entry into Brussels in the next building.  James Ensor would be proud to have distracted me from my sad lady with modern excess and the humility of faith, but it wasn’t for long.  The bombastic commentary of Ensor’s Christ should have thrilled me, but I was stuck on my lady.  I had to get back.

She was right where I left her and when I stepped into the artist’s shoes, close enough to reach out and touch if I wanted my hand slapped, I felt awash in relief that she had stayed the same – maybe even grew more pitiful than how I’d remembered.   

Her eyes were downcast and shadowed as she stared into the table and her thin, pinks lips were parted in a sigh that I could almost hear.  It would be heavy, but come mostly from her nose.  It’s not a wet, exhausted sigh, but one of resignation.  It was a daily sigh at the peak of the hour when you realize no one will care what you make, only that you exist to embody a job no one wants.  A job that doesn’t even exist anymore. 

She was a fossilized woman, stuck forever between a pair of hat stands and her own uselessness. 

I listened to the audio guide and it broke my heart.  She wasn’t a milliner at the beginning.  An x-ray of the oil paints told a story about the sad lady, how she used to have fancy collars and cuffs with a smile on her face and a need for a hat to be made for a party or a Sunday event.  And then Degas changed his mind and sentenced her to forever sit behind that workbench and dream of what she used to be, if it had not been for the whim of an old man who thought luxury and status weren’t as beautiful as destitution and emotional abatement.    

Yes.  That’s the face of bitter circumstance.  I’d seen it on my mother’s face many times.  Too many times.  That look in the milliner’s eyes is the only way I can remember my mother.  Maybe that’s why I couldn’t get the painting out of my head.

Scouring the gift shop, I looked for a postcard to take with me.  I kneeled at the wall of cards that featured precious paintings, even Degas’ ballerinas, abdicating any pride in my search for the milliner.  I found her at the top, watching the worship with downcast eyes. 

I tacked the card onto the easel before I started to paint.  I had to get it right, I had to capture that look and capture everything I could about my mother in that little milliner, or I would go crazy.  I had to have just a piece of her returned. 

Mom had been dead for quite a while now, and I could barely remember her face.  That made it so much easier to lie to myself and say she and the milliner looked so alike.  They both had thin lips, dark hair, pink cheeks and a harrowing look of resignation; they even had the same pallid green undertone.  Mom always looked sickly and a little toxic, like the world was poisoning her blood and she planned to poison it right back. 

Canvas was best set by hand, someone told me, so I stretch it over a little wooden frame thinking of how lovely my own little sad lady will be.  I didn’t intend to copy, I just wanted that expression.  Degas wanted Holbein’s cheeks.  I wanted my mother.  Some mimicry is fine.  With a rubber mallet, I banged in the pegs to finish the stretching, splashed some white primer, and spread thick the brown and red paint.

I called out to her with my brush and she ignored me, making me want her attention even more. 

“Talk to me,” I would say in the dark of the studio, “why are you so sad?”  The shaking voice of the girl I used to be made my throat give and my lips shake like a poorly-made dam.   

The last memory I had of my mother was a good one, or at least I’d twisted the reeds of a bad memory into a basket for my rose-colored nostalgia to gather dust.  We were living in a tent, but this time at a camp ground so it wasn’t as obvious the sheets of nylon and tarp were our only home.  She had the milliner’s face, or the milliner had her face.  To me, Mom and the milliner were timeless: both existing and unreal at the same time.  Mom was staring into the fire.  Her eyes were downcast, her lips were between a sigh, her face just the bad side of ashen as she smoked a hand-rolled joint, and I asked her the very same:

“Why are you so sad?” 

I didn’t know she’d already been planning our separation.  I had no idea she was staring into the fire that night trying to decide between pills or hanging.  We were too poor to buy a gun and knives were too messy.  Even in the firelight, Mom’s eyes were shadowed like the sad milliner and, just like the milliner, she stayed silent.   

She chose hanging.  In a park restroom, no less.  

I repainted.  And painted.  Over and over again until, like Degas, it seemed to be 25 years I’d been working on this sad woman.  I wouldn’t stop until she was hallow-cheeked.  I kept painting until her eyes were just the right amount of sad and cold, my brush set green to her cheeks and pink to her lips and I sat back to look at her anew. 

Still, she wasn’t right. 

Soon my brushstrokes worked a rhythm that wasn’t my own.  I wasn’t taken by a madness, nor was I possessed by the spirit of Degas; I was overcome with a harrowing emptiness.  Nothing I could do would bring Mom back, not even on canvas, not even in homage, as if I were forbidden to see her again even in my mind’s eye.  Her gaze evaded me, her shoulders were too sunken, her face was too green – she was a horror of my own making and I loathed her.  Hatred absolutely burned me.   

Furious, I clawed through the fresh paint.  I pushed and smeared her shallow eyes and her horrible cheeks.  I forever closed her sighing mouth with a hard swipe of my palm because she never opened it to tell me why.  I smacked the canvas to the ground, slapping the easel with it.  With a clatter, it broke apart at the hinges, but I didn’t care.  Ripping off the postcard, I cried, “tell me why you’re so fucking sad!” and wondered how I would feel to get an answer – to finally know.  She never left a note.  She left nothing behind but this face in my delicate memory.

My hands were green with paint and I went to wash them off.  In the mirror, I saw my face.  My mother’s face.  The milliner’s face.  I stared and stared until I couldn’t tell if I was looking at myself or a sad woman who’d been dead for a long time.  It could’ve been impossible to tell.  Reaching up, I painted the mirror with my palm, touching it with spots of green and brown until there was nothing reflective left; until I’d snuffed out whatever light, whatever color, was left of me or Mom or the milliner and I could forget it all in the smell of fresh oil paint and chalky sink water. 

I could rip up my postcard and paint a thick white over my mess.  I could forget the milliners and ignore the memories enlivened by smoke and park bathrooms.  It’s so easy in theory how much I don’t have to think about it all.

But I can’t.

I go back instead.  I drive up the hill and take the trolley, I check in through guest reception and grab an audio guide for company.  Crossing the blazing white tiles is a walk across hell this time of year, “how fitting,” I think, as I walk the path of Orpheus.  I take the stairs and ignore the Renaissance, the Impressionists, I’ll visit Ensor’s Christ later, and I bee-line to the end of the 18th century hall. 

There she sits, resolute and unmoving, snug in a corner and overlooked by the world like so many sad women are.  I stand before her, taking my Degas spot, and ask again, “why are you so sad?”  I’m begging, pleading, for something.

Still, there’s no answer.  Nothing.  Silence.  And then an old woman shuffles to a stop beside me.  She’s made up of grey hair and grey lips that poked out from her complex skin, and she watched the milliner like an old friend who understood.  This old woman had a lifetime to earn her understanding.       

“That’s just how she was painted,” the old woman said with a sigh of resignation passing through her nose.

Was it as simple as that?    

Edgar Degas, “The Milliners,” oil on canvas. About 1882-before 1905

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