"What a wonder life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner." Colette

Sep 14, 2017

What was Good Enough for Mom is Good Enough for Me

Here’s a story about Hillary’s and my own version of Auntie Mame: our Mom, Adrienne Courtney Pritchard Urban, whose one year anniversary of passing is today, September 14th. Last year I penned a short piece, I Remember Mama, in which I mentioned a couple of pertinent facts, including her Christian Science faith and having been an Arthur Murray dance instructor.

I recently decided to pen my own obitu…biography, because I just know I won’t be happy with any living person’s review; and you know what they say: ”The dead don’t talk.” We all have highlights in our lives to which others might not attach much significance, but to us it’s a BIG DEAL.

Being a Safety Patrol during third grade comes to mind. Standing in the middle of the street with a Clorox-clean halter and policeman’s size shield, stopping traffic with a mere gesture, affected my life more than you’d think.  It not only instilled in me a sense of civic responsibility, but Amy enjoyed bullying the cars. I still have a tiny lapel pin, which no one on earth would understand, now that Mom’s gone.

One of Mom’s high points (not counting the schmaltzy stuff like getting married and having children) was her Arthur Murray experience.  She was new to Christian Science, having been brought up by an agnostic and Church of England couple who immigrated around 1919.

Originally from New Zealand, grandfather Sydney had been a steward for the White Star line after WWI, and made numerous transatlantic crossings before deciding to jump ship and stay in the U.S. permanently. Wife Elizabeth Hannah, known as Nancy, soon followed from county Dorset.

Granddad became a photo engraver with a lucrative business, according to Mom. The Pritchards lived on Claremont Avenue, one block from Riverside Drive (near the site of Columbia University), with neighbors like Arturo Toscanini. Before Mom was born, one of their neighbors, at least for a short time, was none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald while he was working on his first novel, This Side of Paradise. I uncovered all this while searching through the Ellis Island manifests and, well, you know...one search leads to another.

Immigrants were required to provide the address of their sponsor, and the records show Granddad Sydney living on Claremont when he sponsored his older brother, George in 1920.  Fitzgerald, not yet married, was furiously working to finish his novel, become ‘rich and famous’ and ultimately woo Zelda.  He was writing nearby at a relative's; and the novel was published in May of 1920. I like to imagine my grandparents partying with F. Scott; since after all, SOMEBODY had to be those people in the background of Hollywood movies.

Throughout the 1920s and most of the 30s, times were good for the Pritchards, and their homes in St. Albans are where most memories lie. On Jordan and Lewiston Avenues, Mom and her siblings grew up in relative comfort while Granddad survived the Crash and kept working during the Depression.

George and Sydney Pritchard
c. 1937
In 1920, Granddad sponsored his older brother, George Thompson Pritchard, his wife and two young children into the country. The Ellis Island manifest notes George's occupation as Engineer, as well as a bad cut resulting in the loss of his left arm (or use of) below the elbow. He could no longer perform his job, but where, how and when he became an artist are unknown to me.

During the Depression (1934-ish?) Uncle George showed up unexpectedly at his brother's for help; just like Vincent Van Gogh and his brother, Theo; or me and my sister, Hillary. Artists can’t survive without family. Here’s where the story gets a bit sketchy, since the brothers came and left the U.S. several times.

G.T. Pritchard's biography briefly mentions that he spent time in NYC during this time period. Well, he was painting in my grandparent's basement.  Mom was a toddler (for her delightful recollections, read Starving Artists Run in the Family).  Throughout my life Mom would recall watching Uncle George, music blaring because of his hearing, stump swinging while he furiously threw paint on the 4 or 5 canvases he worked at once. He painted different styles under different names for New York department store commissions. Here's one of his oils, aka Jane Wilcox, in my cousin's home.

Uncle George left an untold number of paintings with my grandparents when he moved on, but they bartered some with the butcher or green grocer for unpaid bills when times got bad later on.  I did the same with my art during our last recession; so perhaps it’s fortunate our family retained any of his paintings at all.

It’s been interesting to go into my relative's homes and discover more of his art. He signed this Anne Hathaway cottage watercolor using his real name, since he gave it as a gift to his sister-in-law, Nancy. Suffice it to say that because that memory remained accessible throughout Mom’s final Dementia years, it must have been pretty significant to her.

It made an impression on me, too; Mom’s lesson in perseverance. George Thompson Pritchard  subsequently became a well known artist and his paintings are collected around the world.  This oil painting of a Dutch sailing vessel (which,until this story was corrected by Sis, I assumed was a Chinese junk) now belongs to me, but since it won’t fit in my RV, Sis has it in her house. WANTED:  wall space!
Granddad's false nose

Mom’s parents were energetic and fun loving until hard times finally hit them, too, forcing them to move to a modest second-floor apartment.  The chain of events from good times to bad affected my Mother dramatically, since everything she’d known as ‘normal’ turned 180 degrees, including her parent’s moods. She watched once vibrant Nancy retreat into herself, until she became ill and died at age 51. Mom searched for and found the comfort she needed as a teenager in Christian Science, which then became, in all probability, the MOST significant event which changed her outlook, if not her circumstances per se.

An advertisement for a free class at an Arthur Murray dance studio (somewhere) in New York City grabbed her attention, no doubt suggesting the world of opportunities open to participants. Her overbearing-at-times father wasn’t particularly supportive of her self-improvement project, but Mom didn’t let that stop her.

Eventually Mom became good enough that she was asked to teach, and had to lie about her age. She taught businessmen, entertainers and men just wanting to dance at their daughter’s wedding.  Mom was eventually asked to participate in a dance exhibition down in Virginia Beach, but she lacked suitable clothes for hob-nobbing around the hotel; and didn’t expect her father’s consent even if she did.

“Don’t outline,” her Sunday School teacher admonished, a phrase she was fond of repeating to us.

And don’t you know…someone told Mom of evening gown samples on sale and she picked up 5 for 5 dollars each. Granddad rose to the occasion and presented Mom with a beautiful matched set of luggage along with some spending money. She went on her Grand Tour, had a terrific time, and gained a whole bunch of confidence along the way. While writing, I can't help wondering if one of Uncle George's paintings paid for that, too; but something else Mom taught was, "Don't question your supply."

Save, save, save for that rainy day she tried to teach us as well as herself; but in my case it didn’t take hold so much as the live, live, live philosophy Mom shared with Patrick Dennis's character, Mame, along with their abiding sense of optimism.

“Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!” 

My Dad owned a modest graphic design business in Manhattan. Money was certainly tight, yet my parents tried their best to expose us to as much of life as possible in order to discover our 'passion' or at least find a hobby. Skating lessons, ballet and tap, sewing, swimming, horseback riding, piano, even painting, now that I think. 

After Sis married and money became more flush, I was treated to trips into NYC to experience museums and galleries, exotic restaurants and Broadway shows, including:  Hello Dolly with Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway and Broadway’s first all-black cast; Applause, Applause, B’way’s All About Eve, with Lauren Bacall; Richard Kiley as the Man of la Mancha; and Two by Two, with Danny Kaye hobbling around in a cast as Noah. Watching Liberace’s dazzling display of showmanship was, well, you had to be there.

Decades later Mom forced her way to Richard Chamberlain to be certain both grown daughters received his autograph, as he graciously begged,

“Yes, Madam, one moment, please,” 

placing his things inside the waitings limo.  I made some stupid comment about sibling rivalries, to which he gave me the most gorgeous Father de Bricassart smile, ahhh...

At five years old, visiting the 1960 exhibition of the work of Grandma Moses, I became hooked on folk art. Mom dabbled in painting for a time, too, I think because of Uncle George's influence, but her real interests were sewing, decorating, gardening and writing letters. She could win classical music quiz shows and was sharp as a tack on a variety of subjects. Her one addiction was tea, with tablespoons of sugar, and suffered debilitating withdrawals; but there are worse addictions for a mother.

Dad taught me woodworking and the fine art of sarcasm in the garage as we built skate boards and go-karts with old roller skates. He called me George when no one was around. I took golf in college after Dad took up the sport; but it takes me 4 hours to play 9 holes so I only like driving the cart.  Nobody realized, because I couldn’t explain my whacked vision, that with these eyes I can’t hit the target in anything.

In 1963 we finally moved out of the Concrete Jungle and closer to the Ponderosa, at least that’s what I thought when my parents returned to our Sunnyside, Queens apartment and announced they bought a Cape Cod in the country. We moved to a new Levitt and Sons development in what was called Strathmore-at-Matawan, near the ‘Jersey Shore;and thus began our countrification. Dad continued to work in Manhattan while Mom jumped into suburban life with both inherently-wide Pritchard feet.

Tom Jones’s, “What’s New, Pussycat,” accompanied the ladies at Mom’s water ballet class in the community pool.  She planted vegetables while regaling me with sad tales of having to pick through day-old produce with her Mother when times were tough.

She might have been referring to the kind of discount bins I occasionally frequent nowadays, but compared to what she was used to it must have been shocking. Mom didn’t continue to grow vegetables as much as flowers, but perhaps just the idea that she could was enough. I know I was disappointed to discover green peppers grew without stuffing.

We took driving vacation to Niagra Falls; explored our history in Williamsburg, Gettysburg and New England; toured the White House while the Kennedy’s were away; and spent nearly a week on a train trip from New York to California. But I’d have to vote for the 1963 World’s Fair as a highlight and defining moment in my life for a variety of reasons which would only bore you. At least that’s what I’ll put in my obit…biography. I'm still waiting to see some of the futuristic stuff they promised.

After Sis and I married, Mom and Dad moved into a larger house; which I now suspect may have reminded Mom of one of her childhood  homes.  She lived there for close to 30 years following Dad's death until Hurricane Sandy and dementia forced her to leave her beloved home and move in with my sister's family until her death.

In writing this, I decided to check and see if Arthur Murray still exists or if I’d need to add an explanation.  Hey, a sales clerk just asked me to explain the term hostess gift. Long story short, I emailed to ask when the local AM studio has their free lesson (they've already replied).  I’d like to learn country-western, salsa and the tango, and I don’t need a partner, although I do need a ride.

“Don’t outline.”  What was good enough for Mom is good enough for me.

Mom remains just as alive in my mind now as she was over a year ago. She taught me that lesson when I was a child, after hearing of a dear family friend killed in Vietnam. 

"You haven't seen Paul (Sawtelle) in years. He is just as alive in your Mind today as he was yesterday."

That’s another one of those significant moments I'd have to include in my obi...biography. A few simple words which made future events in my life more bearable. So Mom's not really gone.  I just can't see her right now.


Notes: The Kelp Gatherer by George Thompson Pritchard (right, behind Mom) now belongs to Sis. He reproduced this theme a number of times, but because it has always been in the family, I suspect this painting is the original from his time spent painting in New York City.

Any living relatives of GT Pritchard who would like to comment, correct or just dis-cuss the story, please write to me. I've tried to be as accurate as possible, but stories get a bit mixed up through time.

The Duart House in New Zealand has many of Uncle George's paintings and a more comprehensive biography.

I discovered the Vietnam Veterans Wall of Faces while researching our family friend.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this Andrea! I had wanted to write in my own blog on the first anniversary of Mom's passing, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. You've captured her 'essence' perfectly, and reminded me once again how fortunate I am/we are for having had her for our Mother, and Dad as our Father. I'm lucky to have you as a sister, too!


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