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Author Interweaves Faiths in Book Devoted to Loss of Mother

Literature: Like the illuminated manuscripts of medieval days, Anna Ruth Henriques' paintings blend Jewish Stars of David with Catholic crosses and the feather and bottle of voodoo.

September 27, 1997|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hers is a faith that defies convention.

She's Jewish, yes, proudly so. But she speaks easily, with reverence, of the symbols of Catholicism. There's a touch of Hindu in her, too, a whispering dream that souls cycle ever after until they reach perfection. And from her native Jamaica, she has learned superstition--superstition and fatalism and voodoo.

Anna Ruth Henriques folds all these strands into "The Book of Mechtilde" (Alfred A. Knopf, $35), the mournful and yet celebratory story of her mother's death from breast cancer.

It's her first book. It is, indeed, the first time she has matched her prose and her poetry to her art.

She has done it by modernizing the illuminated manuscript of medieval days. Her paintings, small and achingly bright, trace the sad trajectory of a mother stricken, of daughters bereaved, of solace sought in nature. Her text, at once spare and lush, gropes for a moral to the story.

"A holy book of devotion," New York magazine called it.

And indeed, "The Book of Mechtilde" surges on Henriques' devotion--to her mother, of course, and to the rich interweaving of religious faiths that sustain her.

Her paintings blend Jewish Stars of David with Catholic crosses and the feather and bottle of voodoo. To represent herself, she chose yet another symbol: an open eye. "An eye," she said, "delving into the past."

Delving into that past was difficult. Her family had long shut it away, preferring not to prick the pain. Henriques, though, did not want to be stoic. She wrote "The Book of Mechtilde" as a personal catharsis. It turned out to touch a much broader chord.

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The Jewish Museum in New York is exhibiting it as art. She has been interviewed on radio and television. At book signings, cancer patients come up to her, grateful, telling her the book brought them comfort.

Henriques, a Jamaican-born artist who lives in Tokyo, pronounces herself overwhelmed. "I'm surprised people paid attention to it, really, because it's such a personal book," she said.

Personal, to be sure. Yet also universal.

Henriques, 30, framed her mother's story with the Book of Job, the biblical tale of a good and pious man whose faith is tested when he loses wealth, health and family in one catastrophe after another.

Job's lamentations, printed in tight gold letters, spiral around each painting of Henriques' mother, cushioning her in an ancient text. The book opens with a deliberate echo of the Bible: "In the Land of Jah, there lived a good woman named Mechtilde. . . ."

*

Unlike Job, however, Mechtilde does not survive her torment, does not prosper in the end. She died in 1978, when Henriques was 11, after the cancer had drained her fires and left her a white-wrapped shell with "powder-gray / Hairless head" and "bumpy-blue / Breastless chest."

As a symbol of her mother's decline, Henriques painted a shofar--the ram's horn blown on the Jewish High Holy Days.

Traditionally, the shofar is not a symbol of grief. Its high-pitched call is supposed to remind listeners to better themselves in preparation for the Messiah. It is also supposed to commemorate the moment when God was crowned king. But to Henriques, the shofar has a very different meaning: It sounds like the wailing that marks a Jamaican funeral.

For her, Yom Kippur--the Day of Atonement, the most solemn day of the Jewish year--is a mournful holiday. As a child in Jamaica, she would sit in synagogue with her mother and her sisters on that holiest of days, listening to the rabbi intone the names of the dead.

One Yom Kippur, her mother was added to the list.

"That is the day I most remember her," Henriques said. "More than the day she died, or her birthday."

This year, Henriques has been forced to remember her mother quite publicly, as she tours from city to city reading aloud from "The Book of Mechtilde" in her silky Jamaican accent. In Miami, relatives sobbed as she read, and she, shaken, was unable to meet their eyes.

But although some of her poetry groans with grief, the book was not meant to depress.

It was intended to console. In writing "The Book of Mechtilde," Henriques wanted to help her family see her mother as a treasure, "as a blessing that once was, and not simply as a loss," as she wrote in the author's note.

Her mother, Sheila Mechtilde Henriques, was a Jamaican beauty queen, a striking woman of Chinese, Scottish and African heritage. Born Catholic, she converted to Judaism when she married.

Her daughter remembers her as a saint.

Mechtilde wears a beatific smile through much of the book, and a robe adorned with a scarlet cross--symbol of her Catholic roots and also of the cancer that was her cross in life. Yet for all her saintly qualities, Mechtilde does not ascend to cloud-cushioned bliss at the end of the book.

Instead, she plunges into a gaping grave, "Sliding down the walls / Sinking underneath the seats / Swallowed into the yellow dust."

Or, as Henriques put it in a telephone interview: "Ashes to ashes."

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