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Your Lone Journey: PAINTINGS by M. B. Goffstein for a song by Rosa Lee and Doc Watson (Harper & Row: $12.95, unpaginated).

September 28, 1986|Jack Miles

My wife, a psychologist, leads an informal therapy group for the bereaved as a part of her practice; and knowing this, I have watched more keenly than I otherwise would have for new books on widowhood. The fact is, though, that new books on this commonest of all forms of bereavement are relatively rare. Books on divorce are commoner. Books on the strain of being a modern woman trying to have it all, or do it all, are much commoner indeed.

All of which makes "Your Lone Journey" seem even more the small miracle it would have seemed in any event. In 20 or so pages, M. B. Goffstein illustrates the lyrics of a song by Rosa Lee and Doc Watson. The words--wonderfully simple--could refer to any final leave-taking, but here they are spoken by a woman.

Goffstein's illustrations are called paintings on the title page, but visually their effect is that of chalk, blurred. All is seen as if with dimmed vision or through tears. It is impossible in fact to distinguish features on the face of the quiet, gray-haired woman who is the only figure we see. She could be anybody. If your father is dead, she could be your mother. Thus are you drawn in.

In several of the paintings, two chairs are seen, only one of them ever occupied. In the painting that moves me most, the woman kneels, pressing her cheek to the seat of one of the empty chairs.

This book offers no answers. It doesn't even ask any questions. Despite some conventional religious language in the lyrics ("We will meet in Heaven"), it really just places before your eyes, with extraordinary economy of means, the pain of separation itself and (is this not finally a part of the pain?) the inescapable dream of reunion. Where words usually fail, it finds a few words that don't and a few simple images of the widow alone with her loss. Before reading it, I could never have imagined anything like it. Having read it, I cannot imagine it better than it is.

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