This site is dedicated to my aunt, Miriam Cohen.
I can’t remember a time when my aunt wasn’t an artist. Her watercolor of a box of cherries that hung in my kitchen is part of my earliest memories. My recollections of her old house in Connecticut include a large, abstract oil she painted that dominated the first floor; in the den, a life-sized paper maché figure of a man lounged on a beanbag chair—sporting a real man’s hat and tie, and nothing else.
Yet as an adult and mother in my 30s, when I expressed dismay at where I was as an artist, my aunt told me that she didn’t even start painting until she was 40. I’ll never forget that conversation. It’s one I think of every time I get discouraged about my life as a mother and an artist. It has helped me have faith that I still have time.
There was a lot to emulate in my aunt. For one thing, she never stopped evolving. Though she started with traditional paintings, honing her skills in media ranging from watercolors and pencils to oils, her focus later changed to sculpture. At that she was exceptional, shaping smooth, sensual forms from stone and wood.
When she got older, and sculpting’s physical demands became too great, she returned to painting, first to where she’d left off, in the representative world, and then to abstracts, mostly of the splatter and drip variety. Experimentation and innovation dominated her technique; she explained to me once how she poured a new coat of paint over what she’d thought was a finished painting, letting stick what may and allowing the rest drain off to reveal glimpses of the original.
She never stopped learning, either, developing skills in printmaking and continuing to take life-form classes until the age of 79 when, her hands and spirit crippled by Parkinson’s, she stopped producing art.
I’ve also come to admire her bravery in ending a 30-year marriage and marrying the love of her life right after the divorce was final. It was gutsy not just because of what everyone would think—and in my family, such a move was really…unthinkable—but because she married Sidney knowing he was dying. And though he was gone within six months of the wedding, the love endured. After the love of my life broke up with me, and I wondered how long the feeling of love would last, my aunt told me she still thought of Sidney every day, 25 years after he was gone. That was a powerful lesson to me on the nature of love.
My aunt is one of the smartest people I’ve known, going to college at age 16 in the early 1940s—when it was hardly the fashion for girls to do so—and majoring in chemistry. Not exactly the steno pool. Once she got married, though, she didn’t work again until after her divorce, when she started a career in the insurance industry. What she did was unheard of: at that age, from that generation, she advanced year after year, passing ever more difficult tests, becoming expert in finance and other highly technical aspects of the industry.
Although she has many fine qualities as a human being, generous of her time to community and political causes, a treasured and loving mother, sister, daughter, and friend, she has been an inspiration to me because of her low-key fearlessness and her quiet insistence on living her life on her own terms.
I don’t tend to be particularly unstoppable myself, as I’m often too concerned about what people will think about me, and I worry about the chance for failure. When I started to work on this endeavor, both of those concerns were at the fore. But I keep reminding myself of how my aunt lived her life: considerate of others, but not making life decisions purely to please them. I’ve vowed to follow her model and not let my fears and insecurities deter me from doing what I believe in, even when I risk being ridiculed and castigated.
As my aunt made her life decisions, so it will be with her death. In February of this year, she learned she had colon cancer that had already spread irretrievably. A long-time member and former board member of the Hemlock Society (“Good life, good death”), she was opposed to prolonging her life in a terminal situation. Chemotherapy might have given her six more months. Medically administered nutrition would certainly keep her alive longer. But, not surprisingly, she has stood by her long-held convictions and refused any medical intervention.
At this writing, she is near the end. I saw her last week for what will be the last time, as she is no longer allowing visitors. Though she could barely speak, I tried to spend the time with her as I have come to in the past 10 years, which is in a comforting combination of niece and friend. I told her about this project and she said just a few words, but they were full of the support I know she has for me: Good luck with it.
At the end of our brief visit, she took my hand and grasped it firmly. We held each other’s hand for a long time and it was understood: this was goodbye, and neither one wanted to have to say it, neither of us wanted to let go.
I didn’t want to upset her by crying so I held my tears as best I could for her sake, though not very well. Because she was my hero, a supporter, and truly simpatico. And she was an aunt—my only aunt—and everything that an aunt should be.
I hope I can live the rest of my life with half as much bravery and dignity as she has.
I love you, Mim. You’ll always be with me.