Travels with My Mom

Terry Castle

Off to a great start at lunch in Phoenix airport: Terrorist Threat Level Orange for ‘high’ as usual, women’s restrooms jammed, and then the waiter in Aunt Chilada’s Cantina – garish faux-Mexican with a jalapeño pepper theme – calls me ‘sir’ when he takes our order. Fume for a second, then descend into bath of elemental shame. Why does this always happen to me? Do I really look like a guy? No doubt, after great persecution, I will suffer the miserable and lonely death of the sexual pervert. Can’t squeak about it, though: my mother is sitting right across from me in her US Airways wheelchair – peering around inquisitively at the lissom Hispanic busboys, off-duty pilots eating lunch, and our monstrously fat fellow diners. She can’t drive any more and hasn’t been out of her house in San Diego for quite a while: this Santa Fe trip is a huge and somewhat nerve-wracking adventure for her. I seem to have been spared: restaurant clatter and the boomy voices of Fox News emanating from the big-screen TV at the bar, thank god, have clearly flooded out her hearing aids. Justice served too: Paris Hilton dragged shrieking back to jail after three days on the lam.

My mother, 81 and widowed for 12 years, is lame, near-sighted, psoriatic and deaf, and apart from a residual compulsion to lament her elder daughter’s unfeminine appearance, has largely reverted in old age to a state of Blakean innocence and moral simplicity. (Little Lamb – you rackety old thing – who did make thee? I have some questions I’d like to ask Him.) True: ravages of macular degeneration notwithstanding, she still spends an hour every morning ‘putting her face on’, with predictably fantastical, Isak Dinesen-like results. (She once had her eyelids tattooed to look like blue-black eyeliner.) She is still in love – in a distant way – with George Clooney, though playing with the Paint program on her computer (adapted for low vision) and writing the news every day to her pals in the Brit Group, a gossipy little chat room for elderly British expatriates, has cut into her movie-watching. And she can still plunge a knife – without warning – deep into one’s narcissistic wounds. Not long ago, apropos of nothing, she took mournful pleasure in observing that with my whimsical new blue-framed glasses, floppy dyed-blonde locks and middle-aged paunch, I was beginning to resemble David Hockney. But she has become a lot less dangerous overall. I take advantage of her inattention and quiz Blakey under my breath: Do you think I look like a MAN? B. gives me an appraising glance but is non-committal. Then everything lands on our table in a steaming, salsa-drenched pile: guacamole, sour cream and chicken tostadas in huge encephalitic, butterfly-shaped tortillas – nacho chips on steroids – and a tumbler-sized margarita for me, even though it’s only 11 a.m. Yummyburgers!

The holiday is a belated 70th birthday present for my mother – very belated, I’m afraid, given her present advanced age. Previous Girlfriend nixed it – back in 1995 – and I went along; my mother is still indignant. (‘I never liked her or her weird diet.’) Said PG was four-foot-ten and 90 pounds – a tiny, frail, somewhat eccentric Jewish-Canadian vegan with gluten allergies who wore rubberised Doc Martens and played the medieval viel. We once visited all the Cathar fortresses together. I miss her a lot sometimes – especially when I’m listening to the music of the trobadors or pondering l’agonie du Languedoc. But I have to admit Blakey is a better fit. B. is solicitous if not saintly around my mother. Helps her fold up her white metal cane from the Braille Institute and calls her ‘Mavis’ in a polite, Boston-bred, upper-middle-class-lesbian-daughter-in-law way – much as Mary Cheney’s lover, one imagines, addresses her in-laws as ‘Dick’ and ‘Lynne’. B. played squash at Yale – is still v. buff – and has pledged to help me push the wheelchair around. Neither of us has been to Santa Fe before but we believe it to be flat.

The trip is also of course an Artistic Pilgrimage; we’re hoping to pick up on the celebrated arty-bohemian Santa Fe vibe: adobe houses with huge ceiling timbers, decorative cow skulls on pure white walls, chunky turquoise jewellery, high desert air and the famous Southwestern ‘light’ – indeed, the whole Stieglitz-O’Keeffe-D.H. Lawrence-Mabel Dodge Luhan-Willa Cather-Pueblo-Cliff-Dwellers-Death-Comes-for-the-Archbishop thing. Maybe we’ll even see Julia Roberts. (The sun-dried actress – a fortysomething Roma tomato in disguise? – has a ranch near Taos.) Our hotel is right on the plaza and has the requisite Navajo rugs; the rental car is good to go; and we’ve got big museum plans for our next three days.

The O’Keeffe collection is the must-see, of course, though I confess that the prospect of Mavis in tandem with Georgia is a bit worrying. Although unable to take up the art scholarship she won in England in 1941 – the Blitz put an end to her formal education – my mother has always been alarmingly ‘artistic’. Through both of her ill-starred marriages – the first to my gloomy-guts father, with whom she emigrated to California, and the second to Turk, the salty old American submariner with five delinquent children whom she married in the early 1970s to stave off destitution – her hobby no doubt kept her sane. (Apart from a much loathed teenage stint ‘in the gasworks’ in St Albans after the war ended she never worked.) She was a member of the Clairemont Art Guild and did monoprints on weekends with her friend Frances, a wisecracking old dame in Capri pants and Simone de Beauvoir turban. Together they inked rollers, tore newsprint for collages and cut do-it-yourself mats while my mother declaimed on the subject of Turk’s husbandly misdeeds.[*] Frances, puffing on mentholated cigarettes, was the raddled and raspy Suzuki; my mother a much abused Cio-Cio San.

After my stepbrother Jeff killed himself in 1982 my mother made the little upstairs room that had once been his into her creative lair – nine feet square of dense, paint-flecked, Crazy Glue squalor. Francis Bacon’s famously naff South Ken studio (now re-created in a Dublin museum) is a neatnik’s in comparison. Tracey Emin’s Bed? Pristine and fresh-smelling. The mess is still intact; my mother stopped using the room ages ago but never cleared it out. Now, living alone, she can’t get up the stairs. True: Ruskin says one should not indulge in the pathetic fallacy, but peeking into this dust-laden camera abbandonata during hurried visits to the maternal hearth, I can’t help feeling that the crumpled tubes of acrylic paint, pots of dried-up gesso, broken picture frames, old bits of bubble wrap and rotting cardboard are moping. They yearn for the past, but the past is a dream. They miss their Prime Mover and her passionate ways. They lie about, higgledy-piggledy and disconsolate. They seem to reproach me silently when I slip in to purloin rubber stamps or the odd box of pastels. My mother once had a museum reproduction of a Calder mobile hanging above the work table. I love colour more than anything else! she is still wont to exclaim. Turk, in a fit of subaltern rage, went in there one day and smashed it to bits.

The problem – grotesque daughter that I am – is that I could never bring myself to like my mother’s work very much. Colourful it is; Matisse the big influence. The aesthetic is relentlessly sunny, cheerful and pretty: the baleful milieu in which many of the pictures were created – the Mavis-Turk ménage – is never in evidence. My mother’s great subjects are flowers and women’s faces, with the occasional female nude thrown in. (I don’t want to paint men! Women’s bodies are much more beautiful!) Granted, in her prime she occasionally hit it: made a still life or watercolour portrait of such informal ravishing loveliness one felt one’s own complex sort of gratitude. (Jane Freilicher’s gorgeous gouaches come to mind.) Beauty is Truth. But she seemed not to realise when she had produced a winner. Her pictures hang on the walls indiscriminately; the stunning ones mixed in with a lot of mermaids, dreamy girls in kimonos, elfin-looking flappers in cloche hats, simpering angels and the like.

To put it as churlishly as possible, I’m a bit nervous about pushing my mother around the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum because I fear being swept back – annihilatingly – into the world of ‘my mother’s taste’. My whole life up to now – as even the slow-witted reader may have deduced – has from one angle been a fairly heartless repudiation of maternal sentimentality: all the bright, powerless, feminine things. Now especially, her world is largely one of kitty cats, splashy floral bedspreads and pillow shams, Mrs See’s peanut brittle, cheap coffee mugs with jokey inscriptions (Because I’m the MOM – That’s Why!), sympathetic female friends. It’s all very Calendar Girls: cute, full of kindness, irretrievably downmarket, and, to me at least, weirdly depressing. At this point in her decline her house has become a hellish Knick-Knack Central, the chaos of the upstairs studio having spread ineluctably downward since Turk’s death. The kitchen in particular is a veritable Mavis-midden: overflowing with feathers, beads, glue-sticks, bits of decorative ribbon, tweezers, little embossing guns, and a myriad other implements she uses for her main artistic pursuit these days – making strange looking necklaces out of polymer clay. Notwithstanding the huge magnifying glass she uses to see what she’s doing, most of these recent concoctions – alas for those who receive them as gifts – have a pendulous, lop-sided, somewhat barbaric look: the perfect thing for a stylish Aztec to wear to a human sacrifice. But she spends hours creating them and enjoys herself enormously. Who but a monster – or an Yma Sumac-hater – would begrudge her? The surrounding disarray is all part of some sweet yet decisive revenge.

Rightly or wrongly, I can’t help associating O’Keeffe’s work – colourful, vegetal, Modernist yet compromised, endlessly reproduced on tatty notecards, posters and datebooks – with my mother’s abstracto-feminine creations. Like the beetle-browed Frida – you know the one I mean – O’Keeffe has become a sentimental icon, the culture heroine of a generation of (now increasingly elderly) female amateur artists. After all, it’s said, she was a feminist of sorts: earthy and independent; muse to a host of eminent men (Stieglitz, Paul Strand et al); lived almost for ever. Best of all, she is supposed to have celebrated – fairly unabashedly – something called ‘female sexuality’. Who can contemplate those swelling pink and purple flowers – or the roseate canyon-wombs opening up within them – without thinking of the plush, ding-donging joys of female genitalia? Georgia, by god, must have had orgasms to spare. Until the 1990s – when the Asian-minimalist spa aesthetic finally took over – there was hardly a hippy-dippy hot-tub establishment between Baja and Mendocino that didn’t have an O’Keeffe poster (or several) decorating the premises. The fact that the artist seems to have been a frightful old harridan who ended up leaving her entire $50 million estate to an unsavoury boy-toy sixty years her junior is seldom allowed to tarnish the legend. Oh, and by the way – to judge by the famous Stieglitz snaps, she looked JUST LIKE A MAN.

How to cope with it all? I’ve been imagining the Santa Fe trip as both a fulfilment of daughterly obligation – it’s costing me a bundle – and a sort of spiritual Trial of Taste. (It’s not just the O’Keeffe, of course; almost as soon as we arrive and begin exploring the town plaza, I realise I shall also have to guard myself against copper bangles, polyester tees adorned with Native American pictographs, pony hide rugs, postcards purporting to show a family of jackalopes squatting in the desert, pimply valet parking attendants in Stetsons and cowboy boots.) Still, I’m not entirely unprepared. I’ve secretly inoculated myself with what I consider the ultimate Connoisseur’s Good Taste Vaccine. Everywhere we go, I tell myself, what I’ll really be doing is looking for the Agnes Martins. Agnes, I’ve decided, will be my private talisman – my anti-O’Keeffe. Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Southwestern Style, I will fear no evil. My aesthetic invulnerability assured, I’ll be able to enjoy everything else ironically, starting with the jackalopes and the women who love them.

And who, precisely, is Agnes Martin? Her semi-obscurity is exactly the point. True, her paintings now reside in all the fabled modern collections and sell for millions of dollars. True, like O’Keeffe she lived near Taos and Santa Fe for much of her life. But she remains a cult figure – an artist’s artist – legendary among the cognoscenti for her reclusive style of life and the zen-like austerity of her vision. I first read about her in the 1970s in a weird stream-of-consciousness piece in the Village Voice by the then-radical-lesbian writer Jill Johnston. Johnston – herself once a fixture in the New York art world – described making a kooky pilgrimage to New Mexico to find Martin: a sort of sapphic Quest for Corvo. I don’t remember much about the article, except that Johnston quoted a gnomic comment by Martin on death: you go out either in terror or in ecstasy. I recently saw some photos of Martin in her studio just before she died and thought she looked a bit like Gertrude Stein: stocky, impassive, the same Julius Caesar haircut – only dreamier, blue-eyed, more aerated somehow. Her emotional remoteness seemed absolute.

Yet Martin’s story has always enthralled me. Born in rural Saskatchewan in 1912, she moved to New York in the 1940s to study art at Columbia. After a spell as a graduate student at the University of New Mexico she moved to Taos, where she supported herself for a number of years – barely – by painting and teaching. In 1957 she was discovered by the Manhattan gallery owner Betty Parsons and moved back to New York. There, alongside Rothko, Barnett Newman and Ellsworth Kelly – fellow Abstract Expressionists seeking a new way forward after the death of Jackson Pollock – Martin won acclaim for her delicate, somewhat cerebral experiments in geometric form. She was touted by the critics and attracted the attention of wealthy collectors. Success notwithstanding, however, Martin was repulsed by art-world gamesmanship and one day in 1967 simply loaded up a pick-up truck and drove back to New Mexico. There she built a small adobe house with her own hands at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains and began a new life as a hermit. She stopped painting and for seven years wrote poetry and studied Eastern philosophy. (Hatje Cantz published a book of her writings in 1992.) When she began producing work again in the mid-1970s – her prices having escalated astronomically in the meantime – she refused, despite the pleas of dealers, to relinquish either her privacy or the ascetic mode of existence she had embraced.

The modern world left her cold; in the stark New Mexico landscape she found a spiritual clarity unmarred by material entanglements. Daily life was spartan. Though she liked classical music she never owned a stereo; nor did she have a television. She had no pets. One of her obituaries reported that when she died – in 2004 at 92 – she had not read a newspaper for 50 years. Two years before her death she allowed a persistent woman film-maker to shoot a documentary about her: it was entitled With My Back to the World. Leaving no survivors, she directed that her estate be used to fund a foundation for artists but insisted that it not bear her name.

The paintings are reticent in turn – pale, spare, barely there. (Martin rejected the term Minimalist in favour of Abstract Expressionist, but if she wasn’t a Minimalist, it’s not clear who would be.) Her pictures seldom reproduce well; and at first one looks much like another.

Martin’s basic technique stayed the same for years. She began with a square canvas – precisely six feet by six feet – and primed it with plain white gesso. On top of the gesso she then laid down faint horizontal lines in pencil, followed by exacting, ultra-thin washes of oil paint or acrylic. Sometimes she added vertical pencil lines, creating delicate grids; at other times, she made simple horizontal stripes. The bands of pigment were usually matt white or off-white, sometimes tinted a pale gray or yellow. Later in her career she added a nearly invisible coral pink and a faint blue pastel to her palette. And that, kids, was that.

It is impossible to overstate their self-effacing beauty. Martin herself wrote that she believed the function of art to be ‘the renewal of memories of moments of perfection’. Making art seems to have been a kind of meditation for her: she meant her paintings as aids to contemplation – ‘floating abstractions’ akin to the art of the ancient Chinese. And it’s true, though they are built up line by line, by almost imperceptible increments, that after a while her pictures begin vibrating on the retina with strange energy – flipping gently back and forth between metaphysical registers, like one of Wittgenstein’s playful visual paradoxes. The sense of calm they evoke in the viewer is similar to the liturgical mood Rothko’s work can produce, but Martin is less morbid, theatrical and self-consciously ‘profound’. Facing down the void, Rothko can at times be downright bombastic. Martin is more humane and in some way stronger: smaller in scale, indifferent to sublimity (though her paintings achieve it), uninterested in making statements. It’s the difference, perhaps, between Lowell and Bishop.

Yet there is no doubt that Martin’s work will always be caviar – the very palest of pale fish roe – to the general. Who better, then, to serve as my guardian angel? The artist would no doubt be appalled to hear it, but admiring her work aloud is now a fail-safe way for the upwardly mobile poseur to signal intellectual depth and all-round ahead-of-the-curveness – like subscribing to ArtForum and actually reading it. Martin is the sort of artist show-offs show off about, know-it-alls know about. I think I like her – the whole chaste package – because she was so obviously unlike me, so seemingly unencumbered with envy or the need to strategise. Thinking about her has a soothing effect – like imagining myself reincarnated as a smooth and shiny pebble, glinting in sunlight at the bottom of a cold, clear mountain stream.

Meanwhile my mother is emitting plaintive yips. Even as we propel her round Santa Fe, B. and I – wheelchair-pushing novices both – keep rolling her into unexpected cracks in the pavement. Each time she pitches forward melodramatically and gives a little squeal of fright. Is she faking it? Hard to judge: we are pretty inept. I make feeble jokes about getting up speed and running her off the top of a pueblo cliff dwelling to her death. She huffily maintains she can walk a bit, but after one or two arthritic attempts, is happy to plop down in the chair again and gaze about expectantly. B. and I are both reminded of Andy in Little Britain (we just got the DVDs) – the dough-faced, lank-haired, supposedly paralysed invalid who climbs trees, assaults people, swims in the sea at Brighton and even bounces on a trampoline whenever Lou, his kindly yet moronic caretaker, has his back turned. We try to explain the joke to her and even act little bits out – B. doing Lou, me Andy – but Mavis isn’t really paying attention. We’re outside a Häagen-Dazs place and she wants one.

I get my first inkling that my daughterly snobisme (it sounds even worse in French) is about to be compromised when my mother spots the rubber-stamp store. We’ve been indecisive so far about what museum to do first; just then Stampa Fe floats into view. One of my mother’s polymer clay pals has said it’s great and she’s instantly psyched. Panting a bit, Blakey and I hoist her and chair up the stairs (it’s on an upper floor and there’s no elevator) and I wheel her in – unable to suppress my own rapidly growing excitement. For I too, I’m chagrined to confess, am a rubber-stamp addict. As Bugs Bunny might say: a weal wubber-stamp fweak. I’ve got hundreds at home; they’re taking over all the drawers in the work table in the spare room. Blakey rolls her eyes, sits down, pulls Richard Rorty out of her bag and prepares to wait for several hours.

I guess I left this part out earlier: that I’m as ‘arty’ as my old mum. Can’t help it: it’s a mutant gene, like homosexuality. And though I can neither draw nor paint I’m fairly good at working around my limitations. Like numerous five and six-year-olds – or Max Ernst and Hannah Höch, as we ‘creatives’ prefer to say – I do collage. Rubber stamps, along with scissors and glue and glossy pages ripped out from The World of Interiors, are an essential part of my praxis. (I have the art-world jargon down pat. Yeah, I work in mixed media. Gagosian’s doing my next show.) It has not escaped my notice that even in London at the very centre of the intellectual cosmos – the London Review Bookshop on Bury Place – there’s a rubber-stamp shop right next door. Titillating to admit, but as local surveillance cameras would no doubt corroborate, I have sometimes been seen to nip into Blade Rubber (‘the biggest range of stamps and accessories in London’) even before I go next door – Game Face on – to peruse the latest tomes on Stalinism or global economics.

What sorts of subject have I tackled? Blakey informs me that it is called ‘blog whoring’ to publicise one’s blog in print, so I won’t even mention Fevered Brain Productions, my digital art website. Oops, it popped out. Let’s just say I’m a neo-surrealist – a bit dark, a bit Goth, a bit grunge – a sort of lady Hans Bellmer. As a child I was enchanted by the Surrealists’ Exquisite Cadavers game – the one in which you make comic figures out of mismatched body parts. This love of the grotesque has never gone away: even today, I enjoy putting dog or cat heads on human bodies and vice versa. Always on the lookout for detached torsos, legs, feet, hands, eyeballs, lips etc – anything to dérégler the senses, if only a teeny bit.

In Stampa Fe my mother and I go on a mad bacchanalian spree. Piling stamp blocks into my basket, I am even less restrained, I’m sorry to say, than she is. (Given her eyesight problem and seated position she has to struggle and claw a bit to drag things down to her level.) I try to pretend that the stamps I’m grabbing up are ‘cool’ – that my choices express my highly evolved if not Firbankian sense of camp. Thus I eschew the ubiquitous Frida K; ditto anything with Day of the Dead skeletons on it. I avert my eyes from a stamp showing Georgia O’Keeffe in her jaunty gaucho hat. But somehow I end up with things just as bad: a Japanese carp; multiple images of the Virgin of Guadaloupe; a slightly dazed-looking cormorant; a sumo wrestler kicking one of his fat legs in the air; a woodcut style picture of little people with sombreros on putting loaves into a mudbaked Mexican oven. Despite a longstanding ban on rubber stamps (or coffee cups) with sayings on them – Cherish Life’s Moments, Happy Easter, You Make Me Smile – I succumb to A NEW THRILL FOR THE JADED. I’ll stamp the envelope with it when I send off my next property tax bill.

When we finish our sweep and I’m swaying groggily at the cash register – my mother slumped in her chair behind me like a satisfied pythoness – I’m forced to confront a terrible possibility: that Mavis and I may actually be more alike than I prefer to believe. (B. has sometimes intimated as much.) Even as the plastic machine regurgitates my Visa card with a malevolent whirr, I’m flooding with self-doubt. Whom am I kidding, after all? Is a lurching sumo wrestler in a loincloth really any less vulgar, aesthetically speaking, than my mother’s mermaids or kitty cats? Than a frog wearing a top hat? A poodle playing a tuba? An abyss seems to open up for a moment: I see, as if in Pisgah-vision, the appalling triteness of my sensibility. Forget Agnes Martin: I’m as banal and bourgeois as any of the hundreds of thousands of middle-aged ladies who do ‘scrapbooking’. (See Google for depressing lowdown on this new billion-dollar US leisure industry – the postmodern white-suburban-female equivalent of cyberporn.) And with my mother egging me on, just as she did when I was a child, I clearly can’t control myself. When B. finally comes to drag us away from the place we look like the survivors of a jungle plane crash who have had to resort to cannibalism to survive: the same foam-flecked lips, hollow cheeks and shifty, demented expressions.

After Stampa Fe I am chastened – subdued. Despite fifty years of walking and talking on my own, I realise I’m already starting to devolve – to morph back, as if inexorably, into that hungry, unkempt, much loathed thing: My Mother’s Daughter. All the familiar insecurity is surging back up in me – along with the lower-middle-class family mania, seemingly inbred in both of us, for talking endlessly and anxiously about what things are ‘nice’ or ‘not nice’. Infantilisation hardly encompasses it: even as we trundle from boutique to boutique I find myself reflexively chirping back my mother’s aesthetic verdicts: in part (I tell myself) to make her feel secure in a strange place, in part for the simple reason that I am becoming more and more disoriented. We’re like a mother-daughter ventriloquist-dummy team – only one in which the ventriloquist, for some odd reason, is sitting in the dummy’s lap. Delivered trillingly yet forcefully, over the shoulder, Mavis’s opinions become my opinions; and as I push her along, my wooden jaws – loosely secured by pegs – start clacking up and down in a strange parody of the maternal speech. She’s sitting down but leading the way. I’m getting blurry by comparison.

Connoisseurship – the whole fetishistically cultivated power of judging for oneself – goes out the window. Which would look ‘nicest’ in my living-room, I hear myself asking: the primitive figure made of wire and bottle caps or the little wooden cross studded with milagros? (Well, you know I don’t like religious things. Some of the people in my polymer clay group do crucifixes. I don’t like that, do you? Still, I am not an atheist: I’m an agnostic. Maybe there’s a God but we can’t know. Your little guy is cute but I like this one better. I do sometimes pray to your grandmother for help when I’ve lost my keys or something. I missed her so much after I married your father and went to America. I ask her where they are. Hah! Then I always find my keys!) Should I buy two of the Pueblo Indian street vendor’s embroidered table runners since they are both nice? (Ooh! Why not? That might be extravagant, though. Tracy’s got a horrible lot of credit card debt. I’m so worried about her. The three of us love to shop, don’t we! We’ve got the shopping gene! I think if you really love something you should get it. That one you’re holding up is quite nice but I think this one is better. This one is nicer too. Do you really need two? Why don’t you go ahead and splurge?) Though confidently broached the Sibyl’s recommendations are not always compatible with one another: I am filled with mental confusion as well as shame and guilt.

Blakey – who will increasingly leave the pair of us to our own devices over the course of the week – is amused but mostly indifferent. She has the aristocrat’s disdain for shopping and no urge to acquire little sentimental knick-knacks. Or even big sentimental knick-knacks. Her own aesthetic preferences are virile, insouciant, unworried – majestically upper class in the classic down-at-heel way. She happily wears ancient sweat pants from her Yale days, moth-eaten pullovers and frayed Oxford cloth shirts – the latter sometimes put on accidentally, with a charming lack of paranoia, inside-out. She has no interest whatever in home decoration or in what colour the dog’s leash should be. Her academic specialities notwithstanding – 18th-century literature and the theory of mind – the contemporary art form she holds in highest esteem is no doubt the Pixar feature: marooned on a desert island and starved for companionship she would take Wallace and Gromit over Locke and Hume any day.

We get a brief Mavis-respite the afternoon we drive to see the Taos Pueblo – the ‘longest continuously inhabited settlement in North America’. The pueblo is a strange and dusty desert encampment by a stream: a massing of ancient-looking adobe huts in varying states of dilapidation. Ratty dogs run free everywhere; they don’t seem to belong to anyone. The Pueblo Indian residents have developed a highly efficient tourist-processing operation: parking lots, admission booth, regular ‘walking tours’ with native guides. (No photos of the Elders without their permission. Please remember you are on the sacred land of our ancestors. Do not throw garbage in the stream. At the end of the tour you will have the opportunity to buy authentic handmade pottery and beautiful silver jewellery from the traditional artisans who still live and work here.) There’s no escaping the whole degrading set-up, in which everyone – tourist and ‘native’ alike – is forced to play his or her prescribed role: Put-Upon Noble Savage or Sympathetic but Clueless White Person. Even the babbling brook gets roped into it. The foreign tourists, of whom there are a lot (since the dollar’s in the toilet), seem to have an easier time of it than we Yanquis do. They obviously don’t think of themselves as the spoiled descendants of murderers and thieves. We know we’ve got some of General Custer’s DNA and feel bad about it.

The respite comes when B. and I find we can’t manoeuvre the wheelchair on the dirt paths well enough to take my mother on the walking tour. After much discussion she tells us just to leave her in the shade somewhere – it’s hot and windless – and do it without her. We’re hesitant but park her under a tree next to a trio of elderly Pueblo ladies who are selling necklaces and rings laid out on an old folding card table. Mavis insists she will be OK but when I look back I can’t help noticing she looks pink and exhausted and a bit frightened of the ladies.

The tour, led by a somewhat zombie-like young Native American woman, turns out to be perfunctory. She recites a canned history of the place in somnambulist fashion; shows us the Indian cemetery and explains that everyone in it is buried upright. We see adobe huts under repair and hear about the bricks used; she points out the mud ovens that the year-round inhabitants – some of whom are gazing suspiciously out of their dirt windows at us as we go by – use to bake bread. Though the Taos Pueblo is without electricity, gas or running water, she explains, residents are forbidden to use the nearby stream for bathing or cooking or anything else: it belongs to the spirit-ancestors and cannot be sullied. We, the gaping white tourists, all have the same question: then where do people go to the bathroom? Our guide remains impassive and unsmiling: she’s obviously heard the question a zillion times before. Either they go to some communal toilets at the little shopping centre outside the Pueblo’s main gate, she says, or else they use a utensil. Some of us laugh uneasily at the thought; a rake in the group yells out: chamberpots! More awkward tittering. Still as if in a trance, the Indian maiden announces the end of the tour, drops us in front of the souvenir shops and coolly collects all the tips that the hard-looking woman back at the ticket booth – a fat and somewhat sinister personage with homemade tattoos, pockmarks and huge brown bloodshot eyes – has instructed us to pay her.

It is with some relief that I spot my mother still under the tree. Alone in her wheelchair she looks vulnerable and dignified. It’s starting to hit me that she really can’t walk any more. That her vision is failing and won’t come back. I try to imagine such debility but can’t. She seems to be OK, though: she’s been chatting with the Indian ladies about jewellery-making and spreading the gospel of the internet and polymer clay. They all wave goodbye as we wheel her off, back through the ancient sawhorse barriers to the car. The late, lazy afternoon scene – turquoise sky, lofty ribbons of high cirrus, distant blue-black mountains on all sides – imparts a kind of tristesse. My mother and I are in some baffling place; I’m with her yet I miss her. I get pissy and crabby loading her back into the car. We eat a huge overpriced meal in Santa Fe – all those zucchini blossoms really add up – and my mother chatters away through most of it.

Yet at some point during our remaining days a lot of the daughter-angst starts to drop away. Like some frantic, dusty, overturned bug, I finally stop waving my many legs about and lie still. I will simply wait – I decide – for someone either to turn me right side up or squash me underfoot. (Can the latter indeed be much worse than a very intense massage? Cr-runch! A-h-h … !) I’m definitely calmer – even starting to enjoy myself. Maybe it’s the spirit-ancestors. Or maybe it’s Agnes. Because we do catch up with her: we find the small but exquisite room devoted to her at the Harwood Museum in Taos and make a beeline for it.

The space is bijou – only about fifteen feet across – white-walled, octagonal and windowless, with the same low light Tate Britain has in its Blake room. Seven paintings are on display, one on each wall; you go in through the eighth side of the octagon. Though plain and unadorned the space is the opposite of austere. The pictures seem alive and sentient and even to be regarding one another across the space – enjoying each other’s company in a friendly familial way. It’s a tiny orgone box of a room – full of faintly pulsing energy currents, but also strangely full of grace, a promise of contact. The prosperous matrons of Santa Fe are allowed to hold private yoga sessions in there.

The paintings are from 1993-94 – a late period as extraordinary, in its own quiet stone-butch way, as that of Titian, Milton or Yeats. You’d call it a flowering except there aren’t any flowers; just the same old pencil lines and stripes. But the lines and stripes have become positively floral in their glow and poise and breeziness. Most of the pictures are pink and blue – the same pale hues used to indicate sex in the world of baby clothes and Sippee Cups. The familiar stripes have been laid out precisely and painstakingly, like the military rows of tulips in Uncle Toby’s garden in Tristram Shandy. Yet far from being insipid – the work of a saccharine or enfeebled talent – these late pastel zips vibrate with joy and renewal and intelligence. Martin never minded repeating titles: she saw nothing wrong with using one she liked over again or giving a new picture a title very similar to that of an earlier one. But in the late work this repetition becomes almost rhapsodic, at times even oddly sexual. Martin’s last paintings all have names like Beautiful Life, Lovely Life, An Infant’s Response to Love, A Little Girl’s Response to Love, I Love Love, Loving Love, I Love the Whole World. Though Martin seems to have banished any hint of the erotic from her life – at least in her hermit years – Stein and her work again come to mind: the babyish, burbly and hypnotic love-language, say, of ‘As a Wife Has a Cow: A Love Story’, dedicated to Alice B. Toklas.

To my surprise – my mother and I have gone into the orgone box and I’m spinning her around – she is an Agnes Martin aficionada. (Oooh, they are nice, aren’t they? You know she became a recluse? I think she was strange. I’ve always liked her, though, more than the other Minimalists …) My snob-self is frankly stunned at this unexpected display of maternal hip: it’s as if Wally and Charlie, my dachshunds, were suddenly to begin discussing Hans-Georg Gadamer. (They were even using the word hermeneutic!) But it is soon matched by other feats of critical discernment. She and I tour the Ernest Blumenschein Home – Blumenschein being one of the major New Mexico painters of the 1920s and 1930s – and she finds his sickly greeny-yellowy paintings of adobe churches and Indian squaws as hideous as I do. Those wretched Fauves have a lot to answer for. We are in ecstasy together at the Museum of International Folk Art; neither of us, we realise, has ever seen an Ikat fabric or a 19th-century Punch and Judy puppet we didn’t like. My mother even condescends to admire some of the rusty retablos – Mexican religious images painted on tin – that I am slavering over: the colourful naive style, she agrees, makes the fact that they depict Jesus, the Virgin Mary, St Francis and various other creepy individuals far more palatable.

By the time we finally roll into the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum – late on our last afternoon – we are in a state of bizarre, even uncanny amity. The museum is a set of blocky adobe buildings just off the historic Santa Fe Plaza. Predictably it’s packed out, almost entirely with women. (The one or two men standing around in their Teva sandals look sheepish if not a bit anxious – like errant hunters in a Renaissance painting who’ve blundered into a sacred grove and see a troop of maenads coming to rip their guts out.) I get heavily cruised by the butch German number running the ticket counter – something that happens to me now about as frequently as an asteroid strike – and immediately subside into a warm and jolly mood. One can’t help noticing that the gallery is crowded with ladies – ahem – of a Certain Persuasion. Everywhere you look: big no-nonsense gals in polo shirts and purple fanny packs, all sporting the same grim grey clippered haircuts, like space shuttle astronauts.

Blakey wheels Mavis off to the main rooms and I lose sight of them in the throng. I’m stuck in a sort of antechamber where a huddle of fans are staring reverently at a series of cheesy photographs – by Cartier-Bresson or somebody – of the artist in her later years. She’s a grisly old thing indeed: picking herbs in her Ghost Ranch garden, making the perfect little salad for one, displaying a cow skull, standing (arm theatrically raised) in front of a canvas. What a ham. She’s usually dressed in black – in a sort of Medea outfit – typically accented with white scarf or blouse and the signature black hat. Everyone coos and chortles in front of one picture especially: O’Keeffe on the back of a motorcycle driven by a comely young man, the parched New Mexico desert in the background. O’Keeffe wears dust-covered dungarees and grins at the camera coquettishly. Georgia’s a brand, a franchise, a Gap ad, a sitcom star. You go, girl! No problem if you look like a man!

But something odd is also happening. The paintings, when I get to them, are not, I notice, as huge and blowsy as I was expecting. Several in fact are quite small. Not Vermeer small, but definitely smallish. And one or two, I have to admit, are pleasing – especially the pre-New Mexico ones from the 1910s and 1920s. Hmmm. Addled connoisseur-brain starts gently powering up again – trying to process the unanticipated subtleties of the situation. Okay, they’re all still flowers, but aren’t some of them at least as good as ones by those American Modernists you like so much? You know: Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth? If you didn’t know they were hers, wouldn’t you be impressed? Aren’t you being hard on her – as is your perverted wont – because she’s a woman? I keep looking round for more of the expected monstrosities – lewd river basins, vaginal canyons – but have only intermittent success. A few throbbing pink and yellow horrors float in and out of view in the distance, of course, but the worst offenders in the O’Keeffe Anatomical Fixation Department don’t seem to be here: that ghastly, fart-in-your-face Jack-in-the-Pulpit picture, for example, in which the gargantuan botanical specimen flaunts what looks like a little purple-black asshole.

Mavis and Blakey roll back into view; then B. slinks off to the museum bookshop to read up on O’Keeffe’s financial shenanigans and the punk-gigolo boyfriend. As soon as she’s gone my mother flips into girlish-conspiratorial, faintly passive-aggressive mode. Blakey is so great. I can see you obviously enjoy each other’s company. She’s so smart! I am just in awe of her intellect. I guess that’s why she’s so moody. It’s nice how she sometimes wears a skirt, isn’t it? Soon unveiled, however, is the fact that B. got bored looking at the pictures and whizzed a certain elderly party round the galleries in careening breakneck fashion. I couldn’t see anything! It was all a terrible blur! I know she meant well. I was afraid I would fall out of the chair! Mavis wants to go back and read all the wall labels, me pushing this time.

But the quaint reversion to maternal archetype seems more for old times’ sake than anything else. We have a fine time, it turns out, just trundling along from picture to picture. Indeed, were I wearing white rubber-soled shoes and a little nurse hat we’d look exactly like an ad for a light-filled, nicely decorated assisted-living facility. Except we’re also eyeballing the paintings, like a pair of regular Bernardette Berensons. And amazingly enough, whether through divine grace or telepathy, the complex verdict I’ve formulated on O’Keeffe – yes, showy and easy (though the works do look better when you see them in a group); early stuff preferable to later; loathe all the famous pictures but sort-of-like some of the more obscure ones (My Last Door, from 1954, could almost be a Malevich) – turns out to be identical to my mother’s. We have our different semi-favourites, but neither of us feels like enforcing our choices on the other: we have arrived at our views independently and now weigh them dispassionately, like grown-ups at a committee meeting. I lose my surly-insecure edge – feel suddenly less tormented by filial ressentiment and incipient acid reflux. Mavis is judicious, even stateswomanlike. Harmony spreads to the blighted corners of the earth. We both agree that, like it or not, O’Keeffe really makes you look. I don’t say it aloud, but I rue and dread the day when such looking isn’t possible.

Blakey likes to point a moral at times and that evening in the hotel – our last in Santa Fe – she outdoes herself. As I maunder on about the day, my mother and the odd vagaries of taste, she delivers an irresistible challenge: name ten female artists of the 20th century who are better than O’Keeffe and I will clean up all the dog and cat poo in the backyard for ever. I start off confidently enough: Agnes M. (natch), Popova, Goncharova, Sonia Delaunay, Hannah Höch, Eva Hesse, umm … Living artists aren’t permitted, or photographers, so, gosh, Louise Bourgeois and Imogen Cunningham and Berenice Abbott and Kiki Smith and Cecily Brown and Marlene Dumas and Ida Applebroog and scores of others get knocked out at a stroke. (Nicole Eisenman – please know I worship you!) Marie Laurencin seems far too feeble to mention; so too, I’m afraid, does Vanessa Bell. Gwen John? Not exactly a she-titan of the brush. Elaine de Kooning? The canonisation of wives has never seemed to me an effective feminist strategy. Dame Laura Knight? I love her, but does anyone else? Joan Mitchell? Marvellous but … uhhh … I peter out at Number Seven or Eight in a welter of anguish and indecision. If only Kandinsky or Andy Warhol had been a woman.

But my moral understanding is also in need of enlargement. Having entirely lost interest in my feckless responses, Blakey is now propped on the bed with her laptop and engrossed in the online Daily Mail, her favourite source of celebrity gossip and all-round human drama. By some freak of synchronicity a big double-spread – My Daughter’s a Lesbian and I’m Devastated! – is the day’s leading non-celeb story. There are pained interviews with both mother and daughter (now apparently estranged), complete with dramatic photos. The mum in question is a big, somewhat trollopy-looking lady with cavernous décolletage – very Edna Turnblad – living somewhere like Hove or Eastbourne. Mandy, the twentysomething daughter, sports a pale but noticeable moustache, black T-shirt, studded leather belt and lip piercings. Mandy’s obviously the town fright, eager to terrorise OAPs in the local Tesco’s. Her unnatural tastes are hardly the worst of it, her mother avers: Mum’s greatest fear is that ‘society’ will discriminate against ugly headstrong Mandy and make her life a living hell: ‘I don’t want to see my little girl get hurt!’

I’m hardly surprised by Mandy’s Amazonian riposte – that her mother’s expression of concern is simply a hypocritical displacement of her own deep maternal homophobia. After all, that’s what I used to say (or thought I might say) when I was her age and my mother made similarly doleful observations. I am entirely unprepared, however, for B.’s thunderous jeremiad – complete with fist-pounding on the fluffy duvet. I hate that fucking Mandy! What an idiot! I hate fucking lesbians! She looks like a pooch! I feel sorry for that poor mother! Of course she’s devastated! Anybody normal would be! That Mandy should go live in the gutter and drink piss! While I balk slightly at B.’s subsequent suggestion that we cease being lesbians at once and begin an internet breast-feeding service, her impassioned moral commentary leaves me abashed, rather like Emma when Mr Knightley takes her to task for her unkind words to harmless old Miss Bates.

How should a Santa Fe Diary end? Today we set off on the arduous eight-week stagecoach journey back to California. Though rough and indelicate in manner – as I learned to my dismay when one of them was so careless as to miss the spittoon adjacent to where I stood awaiting our departure – the young gentlemen in Stetsons at our hotel in Santa Fe were most eager to help us secure our heavy boxes. I wore my pretty yellow calico dress for the journey; Miss Beaverbrook had chosen her usual frayed blue gingham suit with the buttons missing. So as not to delay our embarkation I thought it wisest not to mention that her muslin petticoat was besmirched with some small unknown foulness.

The day was fine and bright and despite an oft-expressed fear of those savages who might molest us en route, my Venerable Mama proved a delightful travelling companion. Though frequently requiring short stops so that she might admire the picturesque desert landscape – scores of them in fact – she was a constant source of useful and enlivening information. Miss Beaverbrook and I listened raptly and the hours (and miles) flew by. Struck by a pithy reflection, Miss Beaverbrook several times registered her pleasure by closing her eyes and breathing deeply and slowly, as if to cogitate upon my mother’s worthy sentiments more thoroughly.

When we drove past the sign marking the road to Roswell – a place where the local Indian tribes, I am told, worship a god who takes the shape of a large flying disc – Mama observed that my great-aunt O’Keeffe had once travelled the old Santa Fe Trail too. Before, that is, she disgraced herself for ever in the eyes of God and man. I boldly inquired as to the precise nature of Aunt Georgia’s offences but no doubt out of solicitude for Miss Beaverbrook’s youthful sensibilities, Mama refused to expatiate. Our only terror of the day – thankfully brief – came when an enormous jackalope sprang from the mesquite and into the path of our coach, requiring our driver to pull up short in a swirl of dust and neighing horses. The jackalope was at least twelve feet tall and gaped at us menacingly, revealing hideous yellow snaggle-teeth. The men shot at it with their rifles, however, and the monstrous beast bounded away – huge antlers flashing and large white cottontail bobbing – into the sagebrush. We all thanked Providence for our deliverance.

[*] Terry Castle wrote about her stepfather and his family in the LRB of 18 December 2003.