The young woman leaned back in her straight chair, long legs stretched, arms crossed below tan-lined breasts. Her eyes issued a challenge.
The life-sized nude presided over Deborah’s living room, an oil painting with the depth and glow usually seen in painting by old masters. Unlike those nudes of centuries past, however, this model was undraped, her dark swath of pubic hair defying convention. My mother referred to the painting as That Nude. I wonder if the model’s defiant stare reminded her of Deborah, of the way she denounced our parent’s moral code by embracing the sexual revolution of the 60s. I wonder if Deborah loved the painting for the very reason my mother hated it.
My sister’s house was full of art. Oil paintings–many by a former lover, numbered prints, photographs and reproductions, a composite of people and ideas she admired.
A larger-than-life headshot of Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist renown for her self-portraits and feminism, commanded one wall of Deborah’s dining room. The intensity of Frida’s stare, the jaw set of a strong woman did not take away from her dark beauty. “I am grateful to the women who came before me and were willing to take a stand,” my sister once said in a keynote speech at a Women in Leadership conference. “We no longer have to dress in dark suits with silk bow ties in menswear patterns as we were advised in the seventies. Today it is possible to be both powerful and feminine.”
A black and white photograph shot in 1967 of a uncharacteristically demur Janis Joplin, hair flowing and naked body adorned with peace beads, hung to one side of Deborah’s front door. A tribute to the first white, female rock star, a headliner at Woodstock–the festival my sister was not allowed to attend? Or a memory of innocence lost when baby boomers exchanged their beads for degrees and stepped into corporate America.
Down the hall a gaunt John Lennon, eyes obscured by dark glasses, sat at a mixing board with a cigarette in one hand. His head turned to the photographer, expressionless. The caption below the large black and white photo said Double Fantasy recording session. NYC, 1980. The album was released in November. Three weeks later, Lennon was gone.
Two silkscreen portraits of Man Ray hung in Deborah’s guest bathroom. Like other Dada artists, Man Ray was anti-war, anti bourgeois, and had an affinity to the radical left. The silkscreens were the work of Andy Warhol, another icon of the counter culture revolution. Deep inside, my sister remained a child of the sixties.
Her house was full of art–far more art than a small assisted living apartment could accommodate. I let the estate and moving person I’d hired take any pieces that weren’t going with Deborah. I thought they were too valuable to distribute among family members. I thought they needed to be sold to bolster her savings, which was decreasing at an alarming rate.
Three years after moving Deborah away, I clicked through digital photographs of her house and tried to remember it in happier days, the way it was before I systematically tore it apart. I wish there had been more time to quietly reflect before dismantling her life, time to decide what should be treasured and what could be scattered to the winds.
I wish I hadn’t given up so many pieces of my sister.