A Portrait of the Artist as My Mother

Priscilla Warner spent her life puzzled and sometimes enraged by her eccentric parent. Now Riva’s mind is gone. But the mystery — and the love — run even deeper.

By Priscilla Warner

Not the Typical Mother
Growing up, all I wanted was a mother in a black sheath dress and a single strand of pearls who could discuss the Vietnam War intelligently at cocktail parties.
What I got was a whacked-out artist in army fatigues, blouses made of flour sacks, and black patent leather earth shoes. A mother who grew up in Hollywood and never stopped longing for that larger-than-life world. A mother who shunned PTA meetings and instead held dream analysis workshops in our basement in Providence, read tarot cards, took mind control classes, and regularly announced to strangers that she was psychic.
My mother’s flamboyant way of expressing herself embarrassed and confused me even as an adult. Once, out of the blue, she sent me a postcard with a picture of her face pasted over that of a Native American woman. She’d written nothing on the card, merely signing it Princess Prettyflower.
She mystified others as well. In April of 2002, two paramedics arrived at her home, responding to her 911 call. They encountered a petite 73-year-old woman with a wild mane of gray hair, hunched over a cluttered card table, feverishly working on three black-and-white collages. She introduced herself as Riva Leviten and said she felt like she was having a very bad drug trip. The young men were taken aback by that description of what turned out to have been two small, simultaneous strokes, my mother later told me, proudly.
"They couldn’t get over my house!" she said. "They kept asking ‘Do you really live here? Alone?’" My mother had bought her 180-year-old house after my father died. It was her declaration of independence, her playhouse, her stage, her art studio and showcase, crammed with beautiful antique furniture, decapitated dolls, rusty toys, and every scrap of paper ever written by or about her. In the front parlor, where the paramedics found her, 27 pieces of her artwork hung on the walls.
All the collages and etchings in that room were black and white. That’s why it was called the Black-and-White Room. Every room was named. Across the hall was the Napoleon Room, where a bust of the French emperor sat on a table draped with clay beads my mother had made years earlier, in a past life regression workshop.
A small bedroom upstairs was called the Poetz Corner, intentionally misspelled in a pamphlet Riva designed when she turned her home into a bed-and-breakfast for a couple of years. My siblings and I laughed upon learning that our undomestic mother had become an innkeeper. But deep down, we were hurt to discover that she served her visitors fresh croissants, as we’d never been offered much more than stale rice cakes. Riva delighted in running a household for strangers, but when her B&B days were over, we could hardly find a place to sit down, let alone a bed to sleep in, since every surface was piled with frames, artwork, and clutter.

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