At the end of his life, my father told me that my mother had done more for his career than anyone else. "She was my greatest promoter," he said to me unsolicited one afternoon. He went on to talk about the many projects that they had worked on together--from the Vincent Price Art Collection at Sears to the cookbook, from his 1950s "visual autobiography" to the museum they started together at East Los Angeles College. All were my mother's ideas.
There's a reason my mother's name is first on the cookbook. Without Mary Grant Price, not only would the book never have been written, but it also would not have looked as beautiful. As someone recently commented to me, "The cookbook emanates luxury and has the imprimature of a family Bible." That was exactly what my mother intended--and without its opulent look, feel, and heft, I don't think it would be the eighth most popular out-of-print book of any kind--the culinary cult classic it has become!
On Thursday night I was talking to a friend on the phone as I drove into Boston when I suddenly burst into tears. I hadn't realized until that moment that I hadn't been back to the city where my mom had lived on and off for the last 25 years of her life since just after her passing. I was flooded with emotion--not because she was no longer there, but because I realized how many memories of her and of us together in Boston that I had.
I had a loving but difficult and conflicted relationship with my mother--one I have been trying to sort out for most of my life. Last year at this exact time, I was in China. My mother grew up in Shanghai--the daughter of two British colonials who ran the dairy that brought pasteurization to China. I had always wanted to take my mother to China when she was alive--but it never happened. And so I took her in spirit--in my mind and in my heart--hoping that, if I could find out more about who she had been as a child in China, I could release some of the ways that she and I had become stuck in my thinking.
My mother's voice in my head is that of my Inner Critic. Her high standards, moral authority, need for perfection, manner in which she brooked no wrong--I have used those for years to beat myself up. But going back to China--the place where she had been the happiest, where her family had momentarily broken out of its downward spiral and had experienced a privileged world to which she dedicated herself to returning and preserving--helped me see that she had spent her whole life struggling with her own sense of inadequacy, and all she wanted was for me not to do the same.
All the lessons, the high expectations, the perpetual teaching of excellence were for my benefit. I just didn't always feel it that way. It was a lot easier to learn from my dad--whose love of life manifested in fun, adventure, joy. My mother loved life just as much, but she struggled against her underbelly of fear--learned during a difficult childhood. That legacy of fear has done battle in me against my father's legacy of love for as long as I can remember.
Many of my friends question the fact that a 51-year-old woman has spent so much of her adult life writing and talking about her father. In their concern, I often feel accusation--would I be doing this if my father wasn't famous? How long will I ride his coattails and avoid inhabiting my own life? But I also feel their love--as they try to assure me that I am talented and interesting in my own right. And, in fact, when I was younger I tried everything I could not to have people even know who my father was--a habit since my parents' divorce, when my mother, ashamed at having been left by my father, asked me not to tell anyone who he was.
But the gratitude I feel from my father's fans when I show up is why I keep doing this--and when I do, I experience something extraordinary. I remember joy. I must have needed to bring that bandwagon of joy to Boston. . .because there is only one restaurant in the cookbook still in existence in Boston, and it features one dessert recipe. And yet I felt driven to come, but until I saw the Boston skyline and started to cry--I didn't know why. Turns out that, like the cookbook, I, too, was written by Mary & Vincent Price. . .It was time to reclaim the love and joy in the other half of my legacy.
I began Friday by driving past many of the houses where my mother had lived in Boston. When she first moved there, she rented a room for years in a rather down-on-its-luck residential hotel with the perfect location on the corners of Massachusetts and Commonwealth Avenues. She found it hilarious but unsurprising that someone eventually recognized the value of that real estate and turned it into a chic boutique hotel with an apparently excellent restaurant. She lived there while working on five properties--and eventually moved into one on, as she liked to say, "the sunny side of Commonwealth Avenue". A beautiful 1870s brick building with high ceilings and an open floor plan--it was a beautiful space and perfect for one person. But her passion was the South End--a mixed neighborhood teetering on the verge of gentrification where she had purchased four pre-Civil War brownstones overlooking a large square. There she threw her considerable efforts into helping transform the neighborhood, and into making her home a Victorian masterpiece.
Mary Grant originally came to the United States on a dance scholarship--but her own high standards prevented her from pursuing it professionally. She felt that she could never be as good as many of her friends--and since her closest friend at the time was Merce Cunningham--the bar was set pretty high.
On her brother's advice, she fell back on the talents she had used to pay for all of her high school dance lessons--her ability to sew and her incredible color sense--and she moved to New York where she apprenticed in the garment district. A fan letter written to a Broadway costume designer resulted in an apprenticeship, then jobs, and then one day her own Broadway show. From there it was Hollywood--where she met my father. During the 1950s, she gradually shifted her focus from costume and fashion design to architectural design and even product design for Sears. Eventually, during the late 1970s, she became one of the leaders in the burgeoning historic preservation movement in Boston, while also working extensively in Los Angeles and Honolulu.
As a student at Williams College, in the northwest part of Massachusetts, I was always eager to come into Boston--and when I visted, my mom and I always went to the Museum of Fine Arts, where we ate lunch in the formal dining room before viewing the collection. I hadn't been back in at least 15 years. I was blown away by the new modern addition--and how much it has added to the museum. But the restaurant was just the same--its muted taupe color scheme overlooking the muted taupe winter courtyard below. I treated myself to a delicious salad and Littleneck clams in a lemon butter sauce while thinking about all of the lunches my mom and I had had there over the years.
Memory is such an interesting thing. Being in that elegant room, I was able to strip away the darker moments and pare our past down to its essence. I could finally feel what was underneath it all. . .the arguments, awkwardness, judgment and difficulty. Her desire to be the best, do the best, give me the best--it came from Love. The fact that I've ended up using her high standards to beat myself up--never to feel good enough--that would have broken her heart. Sitting in that dining room, I knew it was time to trade in my fear for that Love.
I spent the next few hours in the museum, visiting some of our favorites--their extraordinary collection of Sargents and Homers, their beautiful Asian collection. I have long had a weakness for beauty--and the MFA always satisfied that itch with its light-drenched Heades, its delectable Sargent portraits, its misty Whistler nocturnes.
But while studying at Williams' world-famous art history department, I dedicated myself to the "earnest" study of German Expressionism, as it was influenced by the "primitive" art from its West African colonies. I tried to resist the purely beautiful for an increasingly intellectual appreciation of art.
I could feel my mother's intimidation at my growing knowledge. And then, one day when I was 21, she asked for my approval about a painting she had just purchased. In both Boston and Honolulu, she befriended local artists and put together a strong regional collection of art. She did this because she had learned to love art during her 23-year marriage to my father, but she was always quick to announce that she was not college educated like my father and me, and only knew what she liked. I loved this painting--in fact, I loved everything she bought in both places. She had a wonderful eye--particularly for color. I enthusiastically affirmed her choice, but as I did, I felt a wave of pity. And in that moment I realized that a part of me had always felt sorry for my mother, had always known how much she was ruled by her insecurities. This was just the first time she had let me see them so openly.
From then on, I saw her in a different light. Even as she grew increasingly rigid and hurtful in her judgment of me and others, I could always feel her fear. And then, one day, at the end of her life, we finally had a heart-to-heart conversation in a brightly-lit coffee shop in Waikiki, where she put words to what I had always known.
"I am afraid of fear," she told me. "And I have always been afraid about you. I saw how much your father loved you, and I was terrified that something would happen to you. I was so much older than any of the other mothers, and I was scared to let on that I didn't know anything about how to be a parent. I felt isolated and alone."
My mother buffered her fear through the art of accumulation--the "getting and spending" that Wordsworth warns us will "lay waste our powers". She bought and sold houses, art, antiques, until she ended up virtually imprisoned in the dark Victorian splendor of Boston's South End.
It would be easy to leave her memory there, to write off all the ways that she controlled, judged and hurt me and then walk away from her memory. But I can't. Because my father's fun-filled approach to each day, his love of learning, omnivorous appetite for living, his generosity of spirit, all his enthusiastic elan would have amounted to very little without my mother--and I'm not talking about the cookbook here. I'm talking about in me.
I modeled myself after my father, but without my mother's discipline, her metaphysical underpinnings, her high standards and follow through, her tough love, her refusal to coddle or enable me as yet another celebrity child, I wouldn't have made it. Could she have done it better? Probably, but that's not really the point. Until I came to Boston, I didn't see it: My mother was the backbone to my father's joy, the tether to his kite. My mother was the staff on which my father's musicality was released to the world. And in me, all those traits have come together.
Sure, the Renaissance Man that was my father may have manifested in my own workaholic multitasking, but he also allowed to love all the things I do, giving permission to my passionate interests in art, design, photography, literature, nature, animals, travel, people. But the discipline, metaphysics and high standards of my mother are the rhythm section to my life--the bass notes that ground me, my foundation, my stability, my core belief system.
Like the cookbook, I was authored by Mary AND Vincent Price. But it took coming to Boston to bridge the parts of me by remembering something very simple--the joy my mother and I had together when we were just two people spending a Sunday afternoon together in a museum sharing what we loved.