Shocking Mom? My Mom? As If.

A while ago, I was running with a new friend. Running is a great way to get to know people, all those miles to fill with talk. In the course of our getting-to-know you conversation, she said, “My mom is an artist.”

Making sculpture
My mom chipping at a plaster casting in 1976 at school

“Really?” I said. “Mine too!” Not only did we have something to bond about, but she would understand my particular neuroses. “So,” I asked, “are you in therapy for it?”

Her pace actually faltered a moment. “Um, no,” she said.

“Oh,” I said, picking the pace back up. “What kind of artist is your mom?”

“Oil painter,” she said.

Ah. Her mother painted pretty paintings. That explained it. When I was growing up, my mother was in art school, earning first her BFA then MFA. But she wasn’t an oil painter. Nor a potter. No lithographs. No fabric artistry.

My mother makes sculpture.

My mother's phallic art
Seduction Forest, Installation at Chicago Navy Pier, aluminum, dimensions variable 11′ high, 1997, © Carol K. Brown 1997

For as long as I can remember, her huge phallic steel sculptures loomed in our front yard. Six feet, seven feet, eight feet tall, these metal monoliths dominated our house. I still remember laughing uncomfortably when, in high school, a cute boy came over and asked, “Why are there all these French ticklers in your front hallway?” As soon as he left, I had to ask what a French tickler was. (If you don’t know, do yourself a favor and don’t Google it). She has since broadened her medium to include photos she manipulates and paints, even occasionally making my own children her subject to truly creepy effect.

My point here is that there really is nothing I can write that’s going to shock my family. Any shocking to be done was taken care of long ago by my mom. When at the age of six, I visited my mom at her studio at the university, I asked her what all those words written on the bathroom wall meant, and without a missing a beat, she defined them. Every last one of them. Even now, as used to it as we are, she can give us pause. My daughter was about six at the time when, on a trip home, she asked, “What is Nana wearing in that picture?” The series was called Paperdolls and in it my mother painted a nude photograph of herself in a variety of different outfits. The particular painting had my mother in a skimpy lingerie set.

My dad hand sells my booksIn 2008, I wrote a story about hitchhiking in Bulgaria. So what? In 2011, I published an essay about having a urinary tract infection in Jordan. No one in the family blinked. In 2016, I published a novel about unplanned pregnancy and the consequences. My father is out there hand selling the book.

Probably the better question to ask me is, “Aren’t you worried about your kids reading your writing?” Nah. Because at this point, there’s really nothing they haven’t heard. They watch the news. We have HBO. I drop f-bombs with abandon My twelve-year-old son read MODERN GIRLS. He was angry at what happened to the characters, but he wasn’t surprised by anything I wrote.

So no, I don’t worry about shocking or offending my family. I’ve often heard, after someone swears, people saying, “You kiss your mother with that mouth?”

I can only reply to that, “She kissed me with hers first!”

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Jennifer S. Brown is the author of MODERN GIRLS (NAL/Penguin). The novel, set in 1935 in the Lower East Side of New York, is about a Russian-born Jewish mother and her American-born unmarried daughter. Each discovers that she is expecting, although the pregnancies are unplanned and unwanted, in this story about women’s roles, standards, and choices, set against the backdrop of the impending war. Learn more at www.jennifersbrown.com.

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