S.E. Elliot St, Portland, OR - June 1963
Sue's portrait of me, oil on corrugated cardboard.
Sue Sellars head study - Monte Rio, 2014
This same sculpture is in the background of the photo taken in Mill Valley, 1960, below.
Fast forward to 1972, when I moved away from home at 15. I didn't have to run away, Louise let me move in with a 35 year old man I met while hitchhiking... with her blessing. This is the same brilliant mother who dosed me with a whole batch of pot brownies when I was in 4th grade.(1) I thought she was the coolest mom on the block. ( A few years later the easiest way I had to describe my mother to friends was that she was just like Louise Lasser's character in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Really spaced out but she meant well.) My sister turned me on to hashish and then LSD when I was in 7th grade. LSD was a favorite and frequent pastime. Anything to escape the misery of reality!
In 1973 I set out in search of Sue and find her in El Verano with her amazing girlfriend, Janet Seaforth and their daughter Bridget, who had the most beautiful fiery red hair.
What I learned from Sue was that my father had been gay and that Sue had been my mother's girlfriend and had raised me for the first four years of my life. I was one of Sue's kids! This finally explained my response of profound contentment to the smell of turpentine and gave me the first real sense of belonging in my life. Sue and Janet were doing beautiful porcelain and stoneware sculpture. I was in awe of their creative discipline, something I was always lacking. Sue encouraged and inspired me to take up sketching with a more disciplined approach.
Sue 1973 - Railroad Ave, El Verano, CA
When I returned to Portland I went to my mother and asked her why she never told me the truth about Sue and Franc as it seemed like a cruelly withheld treasure. Her response was that she was embarrassed and afraid I would react like my sister, which really was rather negatively as I was to learn for myself. She finally admitted that Franc's shotgun wound to the head was not the result of a hunting accident~
Louise had had this framed photo of Sue on display for years which I now coveted and would periodically, over the decades, beg her for:
Her response was always, "No. That's MINE."
At least Louise finally started sharing stories about my father and revealing early photos of me with Sue.
Sue holding me on Bridgeway in Sausalito - 1958
A hot day on Corte Madera Ave, in Mill Valley -
1961 or 2 somewhere in Northern CA
Louise and my half brother, Jon, in front of Sue's portrait of two girls. Portland, OR 1986
The beetle life cycle necklace that Sue sculpted for me when I was a baby.
I added the lapis beads so it would still fit.
I was able to find some comfort in the knowledge that I had been cared for and protected, at least by Sue, in those early years. While helpful, it couldn't repair the core damage done by years of negligent parenting which resulted in a lifelong battle with depression, insecurity, self loathing and excruciating awareness of mediocrity.
Every moment I was able to spend with Sue over the years was incredibly energizing but sustaining this "charge" on my own has been difficult.
Another fast forward. 2001? Louise says she's dying and starts asking everyone what they want of hers. Mind you, this was a few years before she actually died. My response to her was that she knew her family and that she must take responsibility for doing a will, in part to avoid the likelihood of a feeding frenzy.
Shortly thereafter, on a rare visit to Portland, I learned that she did not heed my plea. She had been clearing out her house and family members had been claiming dibs on things with Post-It notes. Notably missing was the portrait Sue had done of the two girls. She told me that another family member had asked for it but she didn't want them to have it so she gave it to her neighbors. She then showed me the receipt that she had faked to "prove" that they had paid $1,000 for it.
I won't even go into the details of Lou's lengthy history of gift giving, taking back, and/or deliberately ruining. I had assumed that it would come to me since Louise knew that the painting was important to me and that Paris hated it. I thought it was a no-brainer. I told her she had made a huge mistake and asked if I could go talk to her neighbors. Then she just flipped out screaming, "Don't you dare!" Well I did dare and talked to her neighbors without telling her. They were actually relieved that I would take it back. While one of them liked itthe other hated iy so they stuck it away in their basement. The only reason they agreed to take it was because Lou was so desperate for them to accept it.
Prior to this visit Sue had told me that one time my father had been drinking and had kicked my sister down a long flight of stairs. She was only four. Paris had hit the handrail so hard that it broke and Lou took her for an x-ray but fortunately she was unharmed. Physically.
Lou and I had never directly discussed the beatings my sister gave me when I was young but I told her that Franc kicking Paris down a flight of stairs would explain the trickle down of abuse I suffered. It would also help me to forgive her for it. She then insisted that IT NEVER HAPPENED. I tried asking her calmly if Sue, or the witness, our neighbor Betty Whittington, would lie about something like this? Her response was "no" but that perhaps Betty told Sue but not her? I tried to explain that it was not my intention to blame or punish her but that I really needed her to validate my experience of not being protected. It would explain why I thought I was invisible when I was a kid. She then started screaming, "I protected you when you were a baby! I was so worried that Paris would hurt you out of jealousy that I wouldn't let anyone look at you or talk to you if she was around!" I still have a gut wrenching, Holy Crap, reaction when i recall this conversation. Since Paris was only seven years older than me I imagine she was around, a lot.
I asked Paris if she remembered Franc ever kicking her down a flight of stairs and she said, "Franc wouldn't have done that! But I DO remember falling down the stairs and breaking the hand rail and Mom took me to the hospital!" She was shocked when I told her that Lou denied the whole thing. I told her it was perfectly normal for people to misremember events especially when their own mothers deny their experience. This exchange served to bring some unexpected closeness between us for the first time.(2)
After all this I broke down and made it clear to Louise that I wanted to lay claim on the portrait Sue had done of me and that photo portrait of Sue, to which she happily agreed. Why happily? Because she was able to force me to participate in her method of estate dispersal. I also had her stick a Post-It on a shabby but useful bookshelf: I may have been late to the game, but I was all in.
Shortly before leaving for the airport I discovered the Lou had cut Betty Elgin out of the portrait of Paris and reframed just the part with Paris. WTF. More denial from Lou. When I asked Paris about it she countered with,"Yeah, and did you see what she did to the portrait of you?" Lou drew in a book on my lap in obvious oil pastels. Again, WTF. I decided that it was pointless to confront Lou about it.
When I got back to San Francisco I called Sue to tell her about Lou's recent screwy behavior and to ask her if she could do some restoration on the painting, which had become chipped.
Now as "luck" would have it I had to go back to Portland a month or so later
to breed my Italian Greyhound. I called Lou and asked if I could please take the painting and photo with me on my return from this next visit and she, again happily, agreed.
For as long as I can remember I've had terribly vivid dreams.(3) A week before going to Portland I had a whopper about Sue's portrait of me. In it, I was in Portland on a short turn around trip for the sole purpose of getting the portrait. I only had a couple of hours before my return flight and Lou said she didn't know where the painting was but that it might be in the attic. A painting that had hung on our walls for over 40 years. I was frantically digging though crap in the attic and when I finally found it it had been cut down and reframed, no longer showing my body, only my head.
I woke up completely distressed but thought that this could be the perfect opportunity to ask Lou if she might offer an interpretation of the dream that would allow her to tell the truth. She fancied herself quite the psychologist after reading a ton of self-help books and taking a handful of Community College courses in co-counseling. I called her and she readily took the bait. I described the dream to her and asked if there was anything at all that she'd like to tell me about the painting. Noooo... I asked her if she would describe the painting to me, which she proceeded to do with accuracy... until she replaced the ribbon Sue painted across my lap with a book. I said now wait a second, there was never a book in my lap and she insisted that it had ALWAYS been that way. She was speaking faster and faster and her voice was rising in pitch. I finally realized that that was what she would do when she was lying. How silly of me not to figure out sooner that she was a such a bad and easily detected liar! I then told her that I had a photograph of the painting in our house in the 1960s that proved she wasn't telling the truth. A brief stony silence then a rushed "explanation" that, "Well. Sue originally painted it with a book but changed it to a ribbon and besides your vagina wasn't that dark!" Really? I uncontrollably blurted out that I thought it was incredibly disrespectful to scribble on top of Sue's art. I told her that it didn't matter though because Sue said could clean it. Cat's out of the bag, she now knows that we'd already been taking about it.
When I arrived in Portland the painting was there... but she couldn't find the photograph. Again, always on display, for decades. Did I think my dream was prophetic? Nope, I was just figuring out how she operated. I asked her to keep looking for it. I returned from the dog breeding to find her growling hysterically about how YOUR DOG got BLOOD on MY pillow case! Yes the dog was in heat and sleeping in bed with me. Under the covers, not on the pillows. I had put down old sheets on the bed and had planned to do laundry before leaving. My girl wasn't drippy and kept herself very clean anyway. I told her that I was very sorry and would clean it up immediately. I had brought hydrogen peroxide with me for that very purpose. There were a couple of stains but they looked old and not really like blood. When the spots didn't foam up when contacted with the peroxide I realized that it was chocolate. Lou then admitted that it must have been when she gave her granddaughter chocolate at bed time. I was grateful for her admission and sincerely thanked her.
She then ask me to help her get the painting off the wall. She unhooked it herself and lowered it, passed it across a coffee table to me. As soon as I had a hand on it she released one of her hands and started furiously trying rub away the oil pastel. We were having this crazy one handed tug of war across the coffee table, the painting precariously about to fall and I'm begging for her to please stop, that she's only making it worse and that Sue can fix it. Evil me, I know what will stop her: I then say coldly and calmly, "Besides, I find it psychologically interesting." That did it: She let go and called 911, sobbing that I was on drugs, scaring her and stealing her things! It's true, I was on drugs. A dear friend gave me a bottle of Xanax specifically for this visit and I had been taking them along with nips on a bottle of Chartreuse ever since my plane landed.
In retrospect, I shouldn't have tried so desperately to get her to help me resolve my childhood issues. On one hand I think I was acting like an obnoxious baby. On the other, I think it was healthy that I was finally getting angry instead making excuses for her inability to be a protective mother.
Lou is outside waiting for the police and I'm inside afraid that I will be busted for illegal prescription drugs, hauled away to jail
and, worse, my beautiful bitch be confiscated by Animal Control, stuck in a filthy kennel and forcibly spayed before being returned to me. I'm rushing to pack and haul ass when the cops arrived. Stuck! After some time spent listening to Lou one of the cops comes in and asks me what's going on. I tell him, leaving out the part about the Xanax... and the chocolate stains. He tells me he's having similar problems with his mother and asked if I had some place safe to go where I could take the painting with me. Phew! Yes!
The photograph hadn't been "found" yet. I called her a day or so later and said that I was hoping to clean her pekingese's teeth while I was there. Since her dog really needed it and it would save her a lot of money she agreed, on the condition that I was NOT TO ENTER THE HOUSE. Fine with me~ So will you please look for the photograph while I'm scaling your dog's teeth? As I'm finishing up she comes out exclaiming that she found it! She handed it to me as she's detailing how she had my little half sister, Karen, removed it from the simple brass frame it had always been in and laminated it in plastic. I got my BFA in Photography and she knew that I was keen to organize and do archival preservation of all the family photos and negatives. I couldn't say anything. I silently turned it over and discovered the inscription on the back that had been hidden all these years:
Sue had given the photo to me. My mother's capacity for inflicting damage on her children knew no bounds.
Those last few years Lou and I would talk only periodically on the phone, at my request. I couldn't take the stress, or disappointment, of casual conversation. I did ask her to please call me if there were any emergencies or serious family news. She called to let me know that she had been hospitalized and almost died and that she had told my siblings to not let me know because it would make me too sad. That is not what I meant, I'm sure she knew it and I told her so.
Lou finally died three years later. My brother, Jon, decided to keep her body at the house for the legal limit. Jon took me aside to apologize for shut me out for the three previous years and said that he realized that I was the only one trying to get at the truth. I thanked him for that and ask if Lou had been vilifying me the previous three years as this was her usual reaction to anyone who challenged her. He replied, "You know, that's interesting... She didn't have to vilify you because (then speaking as Louise) 'Tia can't help what she says because she's CRAZY!'". An invalidating coup de grace from the great beyond!
Paris decided to stay with me at Lou's rather than drive back to her place. There were only two places to sleep: In another room or in the bed next to Lou's hospital bed in the living room. Guess which one my sister took? Sleeping on the floor was NOT an option it being covered in mouse turds and dog piss... just in case you were wondering.
Dissociative Disorder has it's useful side. I tend to pride myself anyway on being a Very Tough Cookie: Sure! I'll be the one to clean up after the hatchet murder of our grandmother and the suicide attempts of our uncle! I'm certainly tough enough to be kept awake by gasses escaping my mother's corpse.
Little sister Karen made an elaborate show of pointing out a(nother fucking) Post-It note that Lou had left at the table next to her death bed. It read: Call Tia. Oozing with sincerity she said, "You see? She meant to call you before she died!" I couldn't help but laugh as I explained to her that the note wasn't to me, it was to remind them to call me when she was dead.
My mother's dodgy will was apparently written two days before she died. It was witnessed by her ex-husband, my stepfather, and the mail man. I say "dodgy" because there was a glaring misuse of the word "tumultuous" I believe that my mother was too intelligent to make. The will only stipulated a Round Robin dispersal of any remaining house contents amongst her children. And what were those contents? Things like hoarded quantities of hole punches, pencils and dental floss.
Okay, I will now confess that I totally regret not claiming the hugh box of what must have been every brassiere that Lou ever owned. Small scrunched padded cups, exhausted elastic and yellow stained with ancient sweat. Laundered, but pointless. As it was, I had to pay extra baggage fees for bringing home some pots, pans and rocks.
The only thing I really cared about was the family photos which had been removed from the house just prior to my arrival and with Lou's body still in the living room. It was decided by the other siblings to go though the photos after a year. I was never invited back. Maybe they forgot.
Things given to me by my uncle which my mother had been storing for me were gone. This included my grandmother's photo albums, which I was accused by my brother of lying about owning. When the albums were finally shipped to me the first 2 volumes were not there and the others had been thoroughly picked over. These albums had covered the entire history of photographic technique on paper. There could have been an online database of this record for future generations. For all I know they are laminated in plastic somewhere, perhaps being used as place mats under feral cat food and water bowls.
I'll never know if Lou actually realized that she was exposing Sue's inscription on the back of the photograph. Fact is, I wouldn't of figured it out if the photo hadn't been unframed and then screwed up with adhesive plastic. A twisted sort of gift I think would have been far less painful if the inscription had remained hidden.
don't believe that Lou was such a bad mother to Karen and Jon as she was to me and Paris. If anything, she compensated for early mistakes by being overly protective of them. My son had a really good relationship with her and I'm truly happy for that.
With my mother's estate finally settled I was able to pay off my credit card debt, get myself a new computer and give Sue $10,000 to pay off what was overdue to the bank on her property in Philo. I always called this a gift, Sue always called it a loan. I knew that she would never be able to come up with a chunk of cash like that but thought that I might be remembered as "one of her kids" in some small way in her will in the distant future.
There was no evidence of me in Sue's obituary and there is only a brief mention of her other kid, Bridget. I never knew that Shiloh McCloud, Bridget's cousin, was considered one of Sue's kids or that Sue had actually co-parented her. Sue had only told me that Shiloh was her boss at the gallery in Healdsburg. Now I learn from online posts and videos that not only that Shiloh was Sue's "daughter or the heart" but she also had a new son-in-law who referred to Sue as "Mom" (I can't imagine Sue allowing any man to call her that to her face...). I'm having serious questions about my perception of reality, yet again. I don't know which side is up and perhaps there isn't an up side at all.
I'm still lousy at creative self discipline but I at least know what it looks like, from knowing Sue, which was one of my greatest honors. She was an amazing artist who, in my opinion, should and could have had a much wider audience, if not for her stringent politics and unwavering and selfless support for others.
Sue never did get around to returning my painting of the two girls. She was always so busy struggling to survive and pay her bills. At one point she offered me a placeholder of a painting with girls and horses which I declined because I though it would just make it take longer for her to restore my painting.
It's time for the painting to come back home.
I Finally got to speak with Shiloh today and she gave me two bits of fantastic news. Sue had told her about me and my painting is safe and will soon be coming home.