The restoration of a painting is as good a metaphor as any this time of year. Rosh Hashana begins Wednesday evening. We are in the waning days of the month of Elul, a time given over to introspection as Jews prepare not only for the New Year but for Yom Kippur’s day of atonement ten days hence.
I inherited the painting at the left from my mother. It was done by a Russian emigre painter – A. S. Baylinson – in 1939. He was an artist of some note in his day, and had shows at the Art Institute of Chicago, here at the Detroit Institue of Art and elsewhere. The Metropolitan in New York has some of his work in their collection. How my grandfather came by this painting, I do not know. Perhaps he bought it outright. Perhaps he took it in trade for medical care. Or maybe his and Baylinson’s connection was personal. Perhaps they were landsmen, Russian emigres both who came to America early in the 20th century in search of a better life and much distance from murderous Cossacks. Maybe the painting was a gift from one grateful American to another. It hung in my grandparents’ home and then in my mother’s.
By the time the painting came to me the canvas was torn, yellowed with age and discolored by decades of cigarette smoke. It was large, dingy, costly to restore, and I wavered about what to do with it. Relegate it to the basement? Hang it as is? Put it out on trash day? It carried memories of a woman whose mothering ran more to Dali than Cassat. Happily, restoration won.
Ken Katz of Conservation and Museum Services did a masterful job in bringing the Baylinson, as it was always called at home, to life. Carefully, painstakingly, he and his staff worked over the summer removing varnish and nicotine, patching a gash in the canvas, damage that likely occurred during one of my mother’s moves. They matched paint and brushstroke so well that I cannot tell where the canvas had even been torn. It was quite exciting to unwrap the painting when Martin brought it home last week. The dahlias seem to dance in new brilliance, their petalled faces crimson and proud. The marigolds are lively once again, no longer weighted and wan beneath varnish and nicotine. And surprise! The vase on the pie crust table is not green but a silvery white. I wish I could show my mother and ask if this how she remembered the painting growing up? I’m sure it hung in the living room. Did she read on a couch within its view? The Baylinson now hangs in the entry way of our home. I smile every time I see it. She looks good, this painting, hopefully as beautiful as the moment in 1939 that Mr. Baylinson looked at his work, declared, “It is good,” and laid down his paintbrush.
All of which brings me to the work of Elul, Rosh Hashana and restoration. This has been a cataclysmic year. My mother died. My son married eleven days after her funeral. I was in a car accident two weeks ago (not my fault.) Last week I needed emergency dental work. My jaw still hurts. My heart is mending. My soul still soars at the memory of Elliot’s and Elizabeth’s wedding. As this Jewish year draws to a close, there are hurts to forgive and forgiveness to ask for. There is a patina of pettiness and impatience to wipe away and the hope that the face I show in this new year will project kindness and welcome. Instead of relegating my missteps to my inner basement or sending them to the trash unexamined, I strive for restoration. Even if no one can see where we’ve been patched, the rips remain just beneath the surface. I embrace this month of Elul, for Elul invites us to restore ourselves, to take long walks and think back over the past year. Elul reminds us that restoration is possible. Even if we are torn, even if we have been dragged hither and yon and none too gently, even if our faces are clouded with care and grief, we can do the necessary work and restore our personal canvas.
And so a still life painted by a Russian emigre, owned by another, then his daughter and now his granddaughter, has a new home. She is once again bright and gleaming. May we all be so as we move into this New Year.
What an inspired post, Debra! I love the painting (can’t wait to see it “live”!) and how you weave past and present together – in this, and in every post you write. Happy New Year to you.
Lovely reminder of the meaning of this time of year and what it represents. So glad that you had the painting restored. Touching piece. Both of them!
Thank you, Amy.
I am just now seeing all these comments! Thank you so very much. So glad you enjoyed.
Hi Debra, I’m sorry to hear that you were in an accident. I hope you are mending. Your description of the painting and of it’s relationship to your family, was beautiful, pure poetry. Many people regard “old” stuff as irrelevant, and OLD. But they have not lived long enough to understand the need to remember the old.
Thank you, Manny. I’m doing fine, now. Yes, old stuff carries so much. It’s never irrelevant, and yes, there is a need to remember selectively.
Your words paint vibrant lush pictures Debra. Thank you for chronicling your grace and spirit in action this year. It speaks volumes and inspires me to the restoration of my soul…(with the help of a loving deity, and friends and family)
Linda, you are a gem. I am glad that the column spoke to you so deeply.
La Shana Tova! Thank you for a beautiful and sensitive article! I love the metaphor for refreshing of our souls. May you have a sweet new year and be inscribed in the book of life!
HI MIchelle, thank you so much for writing. Shana tovah to my twin. Wishing you a sweet new year and may you be sealed in the book of life for the coming year.
Debra-I just loved this! I always enjoy what you write, but some of the writings just zing my heart. Thanks for the thoughtful zings!
Like I have written above I am just now seeing all these comments! I am thrilled you are reading and enjoyed this one. Thank you.
As I see it, the mystery of your mother’s ownership of the painting is as much a metaphor as its restoration. Again, you’ve touched and challenged my heart with your genuine words. A friend cut a bouquet of her dahlias for me today. Bright reds mostly, like your painting. Dahlias, the flower of friendship and restoration.
HI Iris, Thank you for your note. Dahlias are really amazing flowers.
Great Post for the New Year! As always you have a wonderful way of weaving things together. As our favorite Rabbi used to say “May you go from strength to strength.” Much love from Paula and Ray and wishing you, Martin and family a wonderful, happy and healthy New Year. I hope we see you soon!
Thank you, sweet friend. So glad you enjoyed the column. It wasn’t in the house yet back in the day. A sweet and wonderful year to you and Paula and Marc, too.
Beautiful portrait of the process of aging and renewal. Discovering what is obscured, secretive and valuable. Happy New Year! Vivian
Shana Tova to you too, Vivian.
I am so glad you chose restoration instead of discard or hiding in the basement. So often “old” is not valued. It is perfect hanging against that wall. Reflection and restoration is so good for the soul. August 28th would have been our 49th anniversary; September 4th was hubby’s birthday; September 8th was my birthday; and September 9th was the first anniversary of hubby’s death. Circumstances placed me in the home of a dear friend of 45 years (in MI) and enabled reflecting on my many years with that man, all of the events of the previous year, and then on the year ahead and “reinventing” myself. Restoration of who I am rather than shrouding myself in grief, which prevents living. Will I miss him? Forever! But shrugging off the weight that so heavily beset me gives freedom to move ahead and once again enjoy life and loved ones. As a friend (who lost her husband only a few months after I) so accurately said recently, “I didn’t die!”
Oh Judy, Wishing you the sweetness of memory and the restoration of all you wish and need as you move ahead into enjoying life. Thank you for sharing your poignant wisdom with me and my readers.