The Miracle of Dora Wakin’s Art

Unexpected consequences when a maturing artist turns from universal to Jewish themes.

At one side of Dora Wakin’s bed her husband stands. At the other side, her mother. Stuart presses coins in his pocket with nervous fingers. Mildred presses her legs against the mattress. Dora feels it shift beneath her. Feels how her mother sends the mattress to bite at Stuart’s knees. Her way of telling Stuart to be quiet about the show. The word “show” had been in Dora’s mouth a moment ago, before pain emptied it.

Oh, don’t! She wants to cry that out to them. Don’t fight over it now!

She rests, and feels how husband and mother stand above her like grownups at a child’s bedside. Feels how the word “show” hangs in the air like a bright form. She lies still, waiting to regain breath. Her eyes are closed, but she can hear perfectly. And feel, of course, having refused to take pain-killers until the show is hung.

“Better, darling?” Dora’s mother asks it with infinite delicacy. “Feeling better?”

Dora opens her eyes. Mildred has put her fingers into the hollow of her throat, as if to feel Dora’s pulse within her own. About her neck is a silver chain from which hangs a large silver crucifix. It rests against her white blouse as if set on jeweler’s satin. The sight of this cross about her mother’s neck makes Dora think of how Stuart detested Mildred’s out-of-the-blue conversion. Not because it violated Jewish belief—he had long since lost that—but because he felt it was what drove Dora, perversely, to her subject. Dora’s subject enrages Stuart: he requires a guilty party. But Dora had always blamed herself for her mother’s conversion. It had all been the other way round, she thought. It was the loss of Dora to art in the first place that drove her mother to the body and blood of Jesus, as if in replacement for the more elusive ones of her daughter.

“Don’t forget. . . in the corner. . .” Dora’s failing strength forces her to eliminate entreaty. “Would you… ? Could you… ?” she used to say. “Would you be a darling and…?” Now she hears her own hoarsely uttered commands. “Put the dance figures together. Do it today. . . don’t get tired.”

Stuart takes a deep breath, boldly teases her: “You’re not worried about me getting tired! You’re afraid I won’t get it done!”

Dora feels it in the mattress, how he has shocked her mother. Mildred presses at Stuart. Remorseless, he presses back.

Yet Dora knows her instructions must sicken Stuart. He will have to hang everything for the show, arrange it all, then prepare for the opening. Dora, he must think, about to descend into earth, craves an opening! And for what, he must ask himself. What critic in his right mind would come?

For years Stuart had centered his life on Dora’s art and helped to guide her. She was to bring them renown. In Dora’s sinewy hands—she cannot bear to look at them now—he must have seen it like an old political cartoon: eagle with claw-caught banner—the pennant, fame. He had begged her to listen to him. Nevelson, he had said. Franken-thaler. Large, abstract forms. For a while, yes, she had done beautiful big canvases and then had turned to ceramic sculpture reliefs—heroic, immense. Stuart had had to help her lift the separate shapes. Critics had praised her work: “The miracle of Dora Wakin’s art… .” But then she had changed. Lost her nerve, was what Stuart said. She had chosen “subject.” Leave statements to the talentless! Large, abstract forms, he had begged.

The truth is, she had not brought him fame. She had taken away from family well-being to do her around-the-clock work—even when her fingers weren’t in it her brain was—and nothing could make up for the loss, only fame. But Dora hadn’t caught it. The bird would fly away with no pennant in its talons. After the long apprenticeship in suburban art shows—libraries, barns, churches, synagogues—to which Stuart had fetched a hundred wheels of Jarlsberg cheese, several hundred carafes of white wine, enough cocktail napkins to paper a mosque—they had climbed at last to a Madison Avenue gallery where there had been, following her one-woman art show, a steady place for Dora’s work for several years. Then the gallery owner informed them of the change in public taste. “They’re looking to invest. If I show a Chagall lithograph it’s gobbled up the same day. Nobody wants to gamble.” He needed, he explained, the space for sure investment-art. Dora felt more stricken for Stuart than herself. She had not brought him fame.

When Dora began to do Jewish themes as a means of getting shows again, at least in synagogues, Stuart had sneered. Why wouldn’t he? He had been trained by her to gallery art. Dora had made him a connoisseur. Only the aloofness of Madison Avenue galleries, bare as bank vaults, could thrill him and make him see the worth of art, its energy triumphing over sterile walls. Dora began to acquire renown in her new circles, but Stuart told her he knew the taste of such circles: menorahs made of little men, each with an open mouth to receive a candle. Hanukah sword-swallowers, well why not? One miracle as good as another. A Holocaust concoction—burning scrolls, floating prayer shawls, all cooked together in the smelter, bronze drops melting into jagged peaks: Art!

Stuart had begged her to try again. The magic names, Frankenthaler, Nevelson, bubbled once more on his lips. But by then David Baum, the young rabbi at the synagogue, was eagerly reading with her the texts that gave her backgrounds for the Biblical figures she depicted. Stuart warned her not to get carried away when she said she would like to give the rabbi one of her pieces in exchange. He had insulted young David Baum: “You ride on the coat-tails of the Talmud and Torah. What do you know about artists, who take everything that’s ever been, and lift it onto their own shoulders! You don’t know artists. .. how cunning they can be. . .anything for the sake of a show.. . .”

But the young rabbi took it all in stride, the artist’s family being for him part of the miracle of art.

Since her illness, Stuart and her mother seem also to have begun believing in the miracle of art. Last night, his voice trembling, Stuart had whispered to Dora: “You’ll be working again soon. There’s so much still in you. There’s still time, Dora, for fame!”

The evening nurse, when Dora’s eyes were closed and she was thrashing in pain, had piously said, “Maybe she’s making one more work of art to take with her to God.” And Mildred astonishingly had cried out, “No, no, she shouldn’t do that—she should rest!”

Dora counts on no miracles. With her final flickering strength she musters only what is practical.

“Take someone—to help,” Dora tells Stuart.

She feels her mother pressing. The mattress bites at Stuart’s knees. Mildred makes a sound, pushes it up from deep in her chest. A tormented sigh— “Khunkh!’—that says: He’s always taking someone!

“Don’t dare to criticize!” Stuart’s knees shove that back at Mildred through the bed.

Silent, Dora feels their messages travel through her. “Oh, for God’s sake, don’t!” She would cry that out if she could. But instead she continues, hoarsely, telling Stuart how to place “the Deborah,” “the Esther,” “the Judith….”

“If you think I can tell one of those dames from the other.. .,” he grumbles theatrically. Then: “Of course, Dora. We’ve gone over it!” After a moment he adds, though Mildred is madly pushing at him through the mattress, “I don’t like the Deborah as well as the others.” Dora knows it is only to rouse her to some energy, but for a moment she feels her eyes focused by doubt.

“I think”—now he sounds desperate—’It’s too muted for that group.”

She tells him to put it on a wall by itself. For a moment she feels intent in the old way. Then the focus slips and she gazes past him as if he stands in the path of something else.

Stuart pulls the hair at the back of his head despairingly, then smooths it with flat fingers. He holds erect his stocky, middle-height body. Dora and he had once joked at how, with his sandy moustache, he resembles a handsome military figure—English colonel—as he grows older. He has a small but good insurance and real estate business in the town, enough for a comfortable life with frequent vacations, even exotic travel. But Dora could not live life the way he wanted to live it. They went to galleries and museums on Saturdays in Manhattan, then stayed in town to see a film or a play, because Stuart wanted that. Dora wouldn’t have cared if she never left her studio. She wanted to sit even longer hours there, staring at her sketches and biting her lips, digging with her strong narrow fingers into the mound of clay before her.

But Stuart craved vacations. At times she had said, “Go without me,” and wondered whether he found vacation women to sleep with. She told herself desperately that whatever happened he must know she was best for him: no other woman could make him feel so loved because she embraced him with arms that knew how to shape something.

Sasha, their daughter, had grown up happily drawing and painting beside Dora. But when she was old enough she announced that she would study business.

“But you are gifted!” Dora had been shocked. “Don’t throw that away!”

“Lots of people are gifted, Mama.” Sasha laughed in a knowing way. “They don’t have to let it ruin their lives.”

Dora blamed herself for poisoning all that. The memory bit at her heart. She had sometimes locked Sasha out of her studio: “Mommy must work by herself now, Sasha.”

Sasha and her husband had careers on the West Coast. They lived well and traveled regularly. Stuart envied their lives. Yet Dora knew he could not himself have lived such a life, for he was a man plagued by the sense of something missing. His assertiveness, his sudden laugh, his desperate grasp of female flesh, all part of his personality now, have sprung from this sense of something missing. It embarrasses him, this craving for some nameless something beyond the life he lives. More, he feels. There should be more. And this craving for more along with his uttering of less had driven him to become a husband of art. Greedily he had watched as works came from Dora’s hands. That’s not very good, no, Dora, not yet good enough. Some inner part vibrated with longing. He was hopeful, year after year. The slow accumulation of works and honors. But then hope was dashed. Dora began to create religious works. She sensed how Stuart’s own inner artist, locked up and waiting for release, shrank and shrank, curled in on itself with embarrassment. Harps, Arks, Torahs, ragged beggars dancing: he could not bear it! For Dora the joy of work continued. But for Stuart, if there was no fame there was nothing: she knew she had failed him.

Dora hears the creak of her mother’s knees. She leaves exhausted in the evening and arrives again early in the morning, dressed and powdered, so that Dora will be cheered by the sight of a mother who keeps herself up. If Dora allowed herself, she could weep at these signs of her mother’s devotion, remembering how she had shut Mildred out of her life. Dora’s mother has been unable to accept that Dora’s work exists. Only Dora’s body—once well, now sick, exists. The creative sailing-out of Dora’s mind Dora’s mother cannot share. And so, for as long as Dora can remember, her mother has been trying to pull her back to earth. Food. Shelter. Your house, your child. As if she tried herself to become Dora’s body. With every move Mildred makes about the sickbed it is as if, Dora feels, her mother is at last crying out, “You see—you see—what could it lead to but this!” And the resentment Mildred feels about this last show, because she has always wanted Dora to pay more attention to life, less to art, now means the opposite. It means: Detach yourself from your ambition, think—though Dora knows Mildred prays for a miracle to reverse the progress of her illness—of dying.

“Time to go.” Stuart presses his lips to Dora’s forehead. Dora’s eyes are like hands pulling at him from the bed: Don’t forget, don’t forget.

Then, from the doorway, Mildred whispering. “I’m sending for a priest.”

“If anyone,” Stuart whispers back fiercely, “it should be someone who has meaning for Dora!”

“All right, then.”

“All right, what?”

“I’ll call him—the rabbi from that place where you’re taking Dora’s things.”

“You’re a hypocrite if you do!”

As the door shuts, Mildred rushes back to Dora’s bed, snatching at her hand. “Rest, rest!” she cries. “Don’t think of anything, my darling, but rest!”

Before Dora sinks into sleep, she imagines Stuart hanging all her sculpture tiles. She sees clearly how it is. He is angry. He is smashing with his hammer at the bumpy walls of the synagogue community center, knocking in the hooks to hold her heavy tiles. Then she sees it is done, everything is up. There is an alive leaping of color and shape form wall to wall! She feels she is suspended in a kind of net, and being lowered into a well. She is happy. Her work is there.

She awakens to a new turmoil of voices. Among them Sasha—cool, distanced Sasha, whose voice she had heard on the phone extension: “Call me if it’s really serious next time, Daddy. I can’t miss work all this much.” Then Mildred’s voice rising hysterically: “He smashed her work! It will kill her!”

“It was those rotten walls!”—Stuart-miserable, furious—’The goddam hook fell out! One lousy piece got smashed!”

Someone notices Dora is awake and listening. “Oh, Mother, you’ll make a thousand more,” says Sasha brightly. And her husband: “Yes, a thousand!”

What has Sasha told him to make him echo that hard hearted cheerfulness? “My mother was home all day but she was never really there. . .”?

David Baum, the young rabbi, is leaning over her bed. His voice, too, sounds the strange note of cheerfulness. “Hello, Dora, I can’t wait till we have another of our learning sessions together!”

“Bring me the one I gave you,” she whispers hoarsely.

“Gladly, Dora.”

“Let Dora rest!” her mother wails. “How can she rest with so many in the room!”

Dora sleeps after they go. Then she hears David Baum’s soft voice: “I’m putting it on the table here, Dora.”

“No. Here. On my bed. Under my arm where I can feel it.”

“Goodnight, then, Dora. Till soon.” She feels herself sink once more toward the well. A fluid motion, a shape she pursues, flickers there. She is awakened again by Stuart’s voice crying out, “My God!” Over and over. There are sounds of people rushing about. Then her mother: “My God! Yes, why shouldn’t I believe it? A miracle!” Sasha: “What? Daddy, what?”

Stuart’s voice, broken by sobs, answers. “The pulverized clay was in the car trunk, I tell you! It can’t happen, but it did! It’s the one that smashed! Atom by atom it must have risen through the trunk lid and reassembled itself, because Dora willed it! But the thing is, it’s even better! The blues and greens are deeper, there’s something magnificent… all the trivial stuff burned away. This is what Dora was capable of all along! Her best energies can do that!”

Dora feels the mattress creak and shake. When she opens her eyes she sees that her mother is kneeling at one side of the bed. She throws her arms across Dora’s bony hips. Stuart kneels at the other side of the bed. He reaches across and clenches Dora’s wasted arms in his fists. Dora is afraid she won’t be able to breathe. Sasha slowly approaches the foot of the bed and looks down, weeping.

“How hard you worked to do that, my poor Mama!”

Dora thinks indignantly, Is it possible? They all want to believe this miracle about clay binding itself into sculpture? But that was something she had done every day! The real miracle was that she, a self-wasted woman, had been able to work and to create at all.

She wrenches her head up from the pillow so that she can cry out at them: “I am the one who was the miracle! If only I had worked harder!” But just then she feels herself sink deeper into the well where the work beckons. More and more the image at the bottom of the well resembles a large piece of clean canvas. With a last convulsion of her body, she reaches out to stretch it on her frame.

Norma Rosen is the author of a collection of short stories, Green, and of three novels—joy to Levine!, Touching Evil, and At the Center.