When I was nine, my mother rented us a room out of an apartment in Santa Monica from a woman named Jean who was an ex-nun. Or a former nun as my grandfather would say because ex means they're dead, he had said. The apartment was a run-down, first-floor dingy two bedroom place cluttered with a million years of Jean's stuff, but the apartment sat across the street from a bluff that overlooked the ocean. Inside, the place was grey and heavy and dark, but the windows revealed brightness and a sense of the spectacular.
My mother and I shared the back room off the alley which was sunlit during the day. What fit in the room was my mother's full-sized bed that we shared, our dressers and a thirteen inch black and white TV complete with wire hangers shoved into the rabbit ears. My mother hung every piece of art she owned or had painted on the walls and they covered it floor to ceiling. Every night my mother would watch TV from her side of the bed after I was told to roll over and go to sleep. I caught many episodes of Fantasy Island or the Merv Griffin Show with one eye open.
At the time, my mother was part of a team that put together the ceramic Heritage Floor of Judy Chicago's brilliant and feminist iconic art piece, The Dinner Party. The Dinner Party is a huge installation piece of a triangular table set for thirty-nine famous or impactful women in history. Each place setting features a cloth banner depicting some of their story, a plate, a challis-like cup and flatware; all made of ceramic. The Heritage Floor contains the names of 999 more women that have made a mark. The piece is on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum and I highly recommend visiting it because when fully assembled it looks like God put the table together Herself. That entire summer, I hung out in and explored the massive warehouse-studio that was filled with the constant smell a fired-up kiln and freshly glazed ceramics. The plates were fashioned into the shape of colorful three-dimensional and flower-like vaginas. The glaze was often iridescent and without realizing exactly what they were -- though there was constant talk about the plates as vaginas -- I thought they were beautiful. Thirty or so women artists assembled the piece within the warehouse, all orchestrated by Judy's powerful vision and presence. I stayed clear of Judy as much as possible -- she scared me -- though I did get yelled at by her once when I knocked over some blueprints in a back concrete hall way. Of course I had bumped into them just as she was rounding the corner. The team of artists eventually taught me how to embroider a caterpillar for the Mary Wollstonecraft banner, which was terrifying. I did not know how to sew and my hands shook as I tried to make a perfect, shag-like caterpillar. During the process, I stared constantly at the scene embroidered on the main part of the banner which was of Wollstonecraft dying during childbirth. The satin crimson thread used for the pool of blood on the bed was a gorgeous color. It haunts me still a bit. Needless to say, this experience is a highlight of my life because the residual empowerment inherited to me locked into my young mind, and never left. Many of the women who worked on the project raged hard to reclaim this empowerment; they were boisterous and rebellious advocates of the ERA movement and of women's rights. They said things like "herstory" instead of history. They constantly sited how men were holding us down. My mother told me -- and they echoed -- that high heels were invented so women couldn't run from rapists. My mother also had a bumpersticker that read: "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle," which is sadly ironic coming from her. But that's the point; these woman, including my mother, had to exaggerate a sense of entitlement to their rights to reclaim them, to even recognize what they were. While assembling The Dinner Party, we all received a tremendous herstory lesson that many of the women, no matter how bra-less or how much armpit hair they grew, still might not have known excised. And I, as a kid, absorbed it, without having been too tainted by sexism just yet. I was able to build a strong base of my womanhood first.
Jean The Former Nun didn't talk about why she had left the church. This seems a heavy and personal decision that would not be easily discussed with a child. I spent enough time with Jean for her to have had the opportunity to tell me, and I was still attending Catholic school which made the topic even more accessible, but Jean never did fill me in. I wish I knew now, but back then it didn't matter to me. I loved Jean nun or no nun. She was in her fifties and shaped like a ball. A ball with a short steal-grey haircut. She had two Siamese cats; a mother named Katrina and a cross-eyed son named Ivan who often fell off the TV when he napped. Jean worked at what was then called The Museum of Science & Industry and I would often go with her on the weekends she had to work. As she worked I would wander the halls of the museum alone for hours, staring at the kinetic energy display and the neon exhibit. The dental exhibit was one of my favorites because the set of teeth on display filled an entire room. I pretended to get eaten a thousand times.
Jean was a champion for me. A champion in an even stronger sense than my grandmother Mama because Mama never confronted my mother in regards to me, especially not in front of me. But Jean did; Why had she hit me for that? Why did she leave me alone? I couldn't believe my ears the first time I heard her speak up.
Months before my mother and I moved out of Jean's place, Jean had cleared out the front hall closet and crammed in a small desk for me to use. She clicked on the overhead light and said I could work in there, for homework or whatever I wanted. I said, "I can do what I like in here?" She said, "Absolutely." I promptly painted a portrait of Susan B. Anthony on the wall. I don't think that's what Jean had in mind, but she wasn't too mad at me about it. In that tiny closet, I tried to close the door with a chair at the desk, but it wouldn't shut all the way. I pretended anyway that I was in my own private office, and I decided then that I was going be a writer. I had written one small composition for my fourth grade class and it was the only piece of school work that the had nuns complimented me on. My teacher even read it aloud to my class and I temporarily soared out of by body for those few minutes. I sat at the desk in my closet, staring at Susan B. Anthony botched in acrylics. I never did write anything else in there, but the dreaming about it was grand.