TW Column by Judith A. Ross
A Potter's Studio Gives Form to a Daughter's Grief
Last winter, I hung up the phone after a brief chat with my stepmother and burst into tears. “Why so sad?” I wondered.
Plagued by Parkinson’s Disease, she was about to turn 89. The sadness I felt after hearing her faint voice leak across the wires made sense. But since then, I've also realized that my grief went much, much deeper.
Edith married my father two years after my mother died. I was nineteen years old, a college sophomore. Although I've grown fond of her over the years, I greeted her arrival in my life with ambivalence. Edith was in her early fifties when she met my father. She'd never been married and was clueless when it came to dealing with an angry, grieving teenager.
We now get along just fine, and she's been a good grandmother to my children. Yet, the deep well of loss I felt that day was not just for her. It took me a few weeks—and a visit on a snowy Thursday to Elizabeth Cohen’s pottery studio—to understand this grief.
Cohen's studio in Wellesley, Massachusetts, is small but holds a multitude of porcelain objects in varying shades of cream. Just outside her window, on the afternoon last March when I visited with a friend, falling snow whitened the air, the trees, and the ground.
A former public high school English teacher, Cohen is a self-taught ceramic artist. “I dabbled in any art medium that fit into my life at a given time,” she told me, adding that she’s now been a professional potter for twelve years.
Her mugs mold themselves right into your hands. I own four of them. But the piece that struck me the most then was a set of carved nesting bowls. It looked so fragile that I was afraid to touch it, even through my camera lens. Here's an image provided by Cohen:
The three of us paused over the piece. Cohen explained that her mother had died in the past year and that these carved porcelain nesting bowls were inspired by her aging bones. My friend, a writer and something of an expert when it comes to beautiful objects, seemed particularly taken by them.
But so was I, more than I knew in the midst of all the other evocative bowls and mugs and organic forms in Cohen's studio.
The snow ended. Another weekend came and went, yet I kept rolling the image of those bony bowls over and over in my mind.
Eventually, it all came together: the sadness, the delicately carved porcelain—the smaller, more solid pieces nestled into the larger, more porous ones.
It occurred to me, as it did when I married my husband and birthed my children, that here was yet another event I wouldn’t share with my mother. I’d never witness her body’s natural aging process—her bones becoming brittle, her hair turning white. She would again be absent, not there to show me the way. I'm already seven years older than my mother was when she died.
Watching my stepmother’s decline has awakened an old sadness. But thinking back to that afternoon in Cohen's cozy studio, surrounded by white both inside and out, I now know something else, too.
I am not alone. I was happy as I explored that creative nest, getting to know two other women who were about my age—one who whips up confections with clay, the other who does the same with words.
I will miss my mother until the day I die, just as I’ll never stop looking for her in my family, my friends, and the new people I meet. She will be forever gone and gone too soon.
But each layer of connection I make is like those bowls: I will cradle some, and others will cradle me.
For more information about this artist, visit her website Elizabeth Cohen Pottery.
- "Inside the Kiln" and other photos of Elizabeth Cohen's studio © Judith Ross; used by permission
- "Age" (photo of porcelain nesting bowls) © Elizabeth Cohen; used by permission
Judith Ross is a freelance writer in the Boston area. She helped launch Talking Writing, serving as an editor and columnist during TW’s first two years.
Recently, Judith has been writing for Moms Clean Air Force and in other online venues. This column originally appeared in a different form as “Inside a Potter’s Studio, a Daughter Finds Answers” on Judith's blog Shifting Gears, March 8, 2012.