A Life Well Lived

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Cross-posted on The Huffington Post

My mom passed away last week. I would deal with the difficulty of this loss without writing about it if it weren't for the fact that she was too extraordinary for silence. Not because she was my mother, but in deference to a remarkable person who lived through iconic times and left her mark upon them.

You see, Rosalie Ritz was a reporter and courtroom artist who covered trials for Associated Press and CBS ranging from the McCarthy hearings to Sirhan, from the Pentagon Papers to Patty Hearst to the OJ civil trial. My mother was also a painter and a sculptor who placed in juried shows at the Corcoran, the Smithsonian and Flower Galleries, with many of her courtroom sketches finding a home at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library.

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Rosalie Ritz , a premier courtroom artist who for four decades chronicled dozens of high-drama trials, including those of Charles Manson, Patty Hearst and O.J. Simpson, has died...An accomplished artist while still in her teens, Ritz began sketching live events when she was living in Washington, D.C., and got into a closed session of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. A CBS-TV producer offered to buy her sketches, and they were shown on the Edward R. Murrow news show.

An artist's work lives beyond them. I know this. I also know another side to the terrific woman who was my mother and who was such a large part of our lives. I know this through my experience as the youngest of her four daughters and through her photographs and her memories: The worried child, the seventh of ten children, whose father died when she was nine, leaving her mother to face the Depression with her large brood alone; the fresh-faced seventeen year-old who drew portraits with fellow artists during the Second World War; the brief foray as a sought-after starlet who bore a striking resemblance to a young Ann Bancroft; the queen of the dance who'd charmed the young athlete just home from the war, a handsome hero who courted her by walking on his hands down the steps of a Washington D.C. monument and swam across a lake to prove himself to her.

My father asked two things of my mother when he proposed to her: Learn to play golf, learn to play bridge. She loved him enough to marry him despite the un-artist-like requests. But he must have seen her potential, because she became a scratch golfer, the best any of us have seen, a swing was that pure its accuracy. She also regularly beat my father at bridge, hoist on his own petard, as it were, as she struggled to raise the first two of her four dynamic and rambunctious daughters while her patriotic husband fought the rising paranoia of the McCarthy years.

Her entry to that world came when she brought her sketchpad and drew the scenes as his patriotism was challenged and then emphatically reaffirmed; a series of sketches that went on to become a career.

This came through a promise my father (whose story is just as remarkable) made to himself during the Korean War; a stopover in San Francisco that became a yearning to move there. A wish fulfilled fifteen years later when a career opportunity presented itself; not an easy proposition for his wife, an artist growing in popularity in our nation's capital, to pack up and follow her husband across the country to his new job in public service with her young children in tow.

But she did it.

I can remember, as a little girl, stopping at the door of the plane (no loading bridges then), blinking up at the deep blue of the California sky. Our family getting lost on the drive from the airport to the East Bay, a side trip through Berkeley that was fascinating to me and worrisome to my mother. A new world without friends or family or career.

She found schools for her daughters, fixed up the house that took three months to be ready, introduced us to California artichokes dipped in butter, painted a remarkable golden tree on an interior wall to give the new house character and then found herself as she sat on a bench and sketched the colorful characters that inhabited the Haight-Ashbury district of the late sixties.

The sketches were picked up by a city magazine and then in the city newspaper. Talent that could not be ignored. From there, a local news station contracted her to sketch a trial and then another and another (there were so many big trials in California those days). Then the wire services took notice, a career reborn that included facing some of the best and worst of history, sketching entire scenes in minutes, emotions and action, rushing to the station to turn her work in, then rushing home to feed us.

During which she was presented the AP Award of Excellence.

My job as her youngest was two-fold: one assigned by my mother and another I took upon myself. The former, to sharpen her colored pencils in the morning (manually -- I look upon the automatic sharpener as one of the great inventions in history), the latter to quietly break my mother's cigarettes in two and place them back in each new carton and then to run like the devil that I was to the pasture where I kept the horse she had gotten for me. I would lay upon my equine friend's back while he ate and I read my latest book -- I lived for books then -- and look up to find her leaning on the fence with a look on her face that said: how are we going to work this out?

We fought about it for a while, that period of time every mother and daughter faces when they're trying to figure each other out. Then, finally, we talked about it. She'd been given the cigarettes during the Second World War, like so many of her generation, tricked into an addiction that was not in her personality, a chemical dependency, the anger at which was the nascent beginnings of my environmentalism. Then she did what she always did. Took the trouble to think about my concerns.

And in the middle of her stress and her work and her responsibility to take care of her children, she threw out the cigarettes and never smoked again.

More trials and triumphs followed in my parents' work and in their lives. A famous boxer (before he was famous) that both my parents believed in and supported; my father's decision to begin his own business; the drug addiction recovery foundation they helped to become established; the many friends that covered trials with my mother, reporters and lawyers who would fill our house with literate and erudite conversation. Her fascination with politics, the careful reading of newspapers, the discussions of the latest 60 Minutes episodes, a ritual in our household; the patience my mother showed as I began to show abilities with music and writing, the way she would shush others and listen with an understanding at the deep place I was exploring, a muse with which she was exceedingly familiar.

I can remember, as a three year old, one of my earliest memories (the other was climbing up to my father's chair while he was reading and identifying the word "the" on the page), standing at the door of my mother's studio to let her know I had to go and her expression, torn between helping me and the desire to sculpt my pleading face with the clay in her hands.

She did both.

My mother once gave me a book, Chaim Potok's My Name is Asher Lev, the story of an artist torn between the obligation of his cultural tradition and his talent. I knew, as I read it, this was her story and it would have been mine, had she not warned me to face my art and my life and to realize that I would be required to balance the two.

"My girls can do anything they put their mind to." That's what she would tell us. My sisters, each of them accomplished and amazing women, lived up to that prediction better than I have, but she gave me the courage to believe that I could.

It was the cigarettes that got her in the end, though she'd quit decades earlier, after a life well lived and the loss of the beloved husband she'd shared her life with for sixty-one years of marriage. I told one of my sisters, as we faced the numbing truth that this elegant pillar of strength would no longer be with us, our lives would be boring without her. Her art will live on. Our love of this country, our fascination with its politics, her unique way of looking at the world, all that will live on through her children, her grandchildren and a new great-granddaughter she faced her illness to meet. It was her courage that sustained her in the end and it was impressive. Life will be more boring without her.

Rest in peace, Mom.