The woman in Édouard Vuillard’s Woman Sweeping, painted between 1899 and 1900, is Marie Michaud Vuillard, the painter’s mother. She is tall and stocky, her posture—that slight give of the back to the broom, without bending—marking a nonchalant style of carrying out a chore that routine hasn’t made any less complex. As Madame Vuillard sweeps, her gaze seems to fall on the broom or the floor. We might detect deference or humility in such a pose, but the turn of her head, her face ringed with a whitish glow as if lit by an inner ardor, conveys ease. We cannot see her gaze; we are given only the black slash of her eyelashes, which suggests an almost closed-eye intensity. Madame Vuillard is invested in her work and in herself, though perhaps in this moment she does allow herself to be mildly flattered by her painter son’s attention. The slash also conveys a quiet authority; you know that she need not look up to be heeded.
The glow that illuminates Madame Vuillard’s face is also visible on the middle section of the broomstick, where her left hand holds it. There, the brushwork reveals something elemental: her power to enliven the inanimate through the intimacy of work. Her grasp has not turned the broom into a lightsaber; nothing supernatural has occurred. It is simply that through perpetual use the wood has come to appear less lifeless.
This change permeates the room. It is there in Madame Vuillard’s clothing, well chosen and cared for: the neatness of her rich damask housecoat of rust and black, the snowy ruffle of her blouse poking through the housecoat’s neck and sleeves. It is there in that hard-to-make-out black leather shoe that peeks from under her hem, and in her French braid with not a strand of silvery brown hair out of place. The room’s embellishments—the wallpaper, the framed paintings, even that little elegant brass doorknob on the richly grained brown door—suggest a space that has evolved with keen, artisanal patience over years.
Every crevice is bursting with her life. The interior does not simply belong to her, it is her. Everything therein sensuously affirms it. The wallpaper’s heavy reddish brown, ocher, and black seem to culminate in the swell of her striped housecoat. The bed, the chest of drawers, and the open door reflect the expansive gentleness of her presence. Camouflaged by her possessions, she can disappear into her task without relinquishing her personality, because her home, designed so completely in her own image, will always reassert it.
It is as though all the work done by her hands—the sweeping, the dusting, the polishing, the arranging and rearranging of decorations and heavy furniture, day in and day out—is a sort of kindling, a lovingness that these things absorb.
My father’s mother, with whom I lived half the time while growing up, did not at all resemble Madame Vuillard, and yet the first time I encountered Vuillard’s painting, in the library of the university in Mona, Jamaica, where I was a student, I found in it an intimate portrait: of her strict, indefatigable regime of daily sweeping, and much else of what I know and do not know about her. I saw my grandmother every morning with her broom in hand. The swish it made often woke me as she went throughout her four-room house with its polished red floor, from her bedroom at the very back to the veranda. In the evenings she worked in the reverse order. She did not sing or hum as she swept, nor did she break off sweeping to talk or wield the broom to raise me from the bed or the sofa where I watched her.
My grandmother was short and solid-built. She was energetic about the house, and doubly so in the kitchen, as her profession was baking. She baked on Thursdays and Fridays, mostly unaided, for the Saturday market. On baking days, the usual quiet of the house gave way to the oven’s ferocious heat; out of its roar and crackle and the shushed hiss when it opened, above the clatter of pans and metal mixing basins, I would sometimes hear my grandmother’s voice seething with sounds of jubilation. She beamed whenever a batch of dense black cake or a sheet of coconut drops came out perfectly. In that mood she would call me to the kitchen for scraped handfuls of “bun bun,” the bits stuck to the bottom of a baking tin; I would take them back to the veranda or the flat stone I liked to sit on by the side of the house and eat, with gusto, the burnt sweetness. Whenever a cascade of tins fell on the kitchen’s battered butcher-block table, it seemed to rattle the building’s foundation. But in every other way the house was serene, for my grandmother was a serene woman.
Her presence imbued every object. Whatever she brought into the house, the useless or the useful, was there to stay. Better to say that the useless was transformed into a useful, durable part of the household over time: tin cans of condensed milk, once emptied, their Betty or Carnation labels stripped off, became the utensils for scooping flour or sugar out of the big pails in the kitchen to make cake batter. The shapes and sizes of these cans, along with the free measurements of her hand, decided the amounts of the ingredients that went into a cake mix (for a batch of rock bun, “two Betty scoops of flour, one Carnation scoop of sugar . . .”)
The basins in which she mixed the batter were repurposed metal or plastic washtubs no longer suitable for laundry, likely because of slow leaks, but fine for holding the thick cake mixture. These tubs, scoured to a wispy silver, remained stacked in her kitchen long after her death. You could not throw them out, just as you would not throw out a precious china teacup of the sort she stored, untouched, in the floor-to-ceiling cabinet in the living room.
I cannot recall this cabinet ever being opened. I used to stare at the things behind its glass panels, trying to calculate exactly how many crystal-looking wineglasses belonged to the wide-spout decanter, how many plates were stacked there in similar shades of white. These things were kept pristine, as were her overused plastic mugs, washed and turned upside down to dry on the dish rack. They, too, were given such devotion that you could never discard them. There were in fact two dish racks by the sink, the second completely buried under a large, many-colored hump of plastic dishes and bowls.
We ate from these dishes and bowls throughout the day: cornmeal porridge; gungo (pigeon pea) soup; the unflagging mixture of boiled yam, banana, and potato, which was always served with a “meat kind” (anything from shredded bits of salted fish to, though I did not eat it, layers of stewed oxtail). Sometimes we allowed a large pile of unwashed dishes and bowls to grow in the sink for one big wash in the evening. No matter how high that pile grew, I never saw what the dish rack looked like, a fact that puzzled me. Equally frustrating in their mystery were my grandmother’s long cast-aluminum “Mercury dime” forks, spoons, and ladles, which hung from a strip of wood nailed to the wall above the dish racks. Their uniformity dazzled me—they seemed to have come out of the same foundry at the same time—but it appeared to be a kind of trick, for they either grew or shrank in number each time I went in and out of the kitchen. I stood before them on every visit, counting and recounting and never getting the same tally.
Immediately adjacent to these forks, spoons, and ladles were the two shelves above my grandmother’s oven, laden with blackened “Dutchies”—cooking pots also made of heavy cast aluminum. These stockpots, frying pans, sauté pans, and saucepans were routinely rubbed with charcoal ash and left to season out in the yard.
The same devotion was given to the oven, the pride of the house, which stood at the entrance to the kitchen. Dark grayish blue, of unknown age and undeterminable brand, it reached my grandmother’s waistline and was about twice her width. Once a week my uncle cleaned it with baking soda and a steel-wool Scotch-Brite. He was the only one of my grandmother’s six children to have remained at home; he lived a few yards down the hill in a one-room shanty my father had built in 1982.
My uncle was about an inch taller than my grandmother, and the muscles of his arms bulged as he scrubbed the six-burner stovetop, the exertion making him sweat profusely. He would go out to the backyard to wash the burner grates and the oven’s racks, which had been left there to soak in a basin of soapy water, before returning to kneel and scour the oven, the top half of his body swallowed into its black hole. On cleaning days, wherever I was in the house, I could hear his long exhalations as he sudded off bake splatter in the unseen-to-me parts of the oven. My grandmother would come into the kitchen as he scrubbed. My uncle would look out at her, waiting for the glance that meant his work was done. It was not always quick to be given.
Sometimes, while my uncle was Scotch-Briting the oven, my grandmother swept the other rooms. The broom, which was kept, as if on display, in the V-crook of the wall between the cabinet and the entrance to the kitchen, was summoned to her. I would rise to fetch it, poppy-showing on my way to her, twirling it around in my hands as if it were a javelin or spear. It had a lithe feel, which I loved. The worn wood felt glassy, maybe from a wash of varnish applied years ago. I knew it was older than me. I felt the fragile strength in it as I spun it around, cutting down my invisible enemies.
After my grandmother took her broom from my hand, there was always an infinitesimal pause before she began to sweep. Something had arrived to her that she had called for; now it was in her palm, a reality clicked into place. My role as broom bearer deserved no notice (broom bearing was one of many non-errand errands I was called to do). My grandmother’s pause did. It marked what, in retrospect, I would call, using the words of William Morris, “the natural solace of . . . labour.” The labor Morris is speaking of is art.
Making a home would have been strenuous for Madame Vuillard, a widowed mother of three and a seamstress born in 1839 in Cuiseaux, in the Burgundy region of France. For my grandmother, a black woman born in 1930 in Portland, a rural parish in northeastern Jamaica, the difficulty must have been near insurmountable. To this day, it is unclear how my grandmother built her house, or even when exactly the construction began and ended. With the exception of one of my aunts, her firstborn, all her children grew up in that four-room house. By the time they were grown, her husband, my grandfather, whom I never knew, was long gone. He had hardly been around before he finally disappeared. He seemed, by all accounts, to have been a prolonged incident in my grandmother’s life. He was first a name and then a shadow and then nothing.
When asked how she had built her house, my grandmother’s answer was simple and final: “Through baking.” No details, no stories of the countless sorrows and troubles she must have endured. She was thirty-two by the time Jamaica gained its independence from Britain, in 1962—too old and too far from the center of power to have benefited from the short-lived prosperity that followed.
During the plantation period, property ownership, even for freed blacks, was more or less illegal, and in the era afterward the majority of Jamaicans still did not own property, thanks to all manner of delegitimizing practices. For a brutally disenfranchised people, owning a house was an unassailable achievement, perhaps the only signifier of true independence.
The question of when my grandmother acquired her land should have been easy to answer. But the original document of purchase was “lost,” a trope of bureaucracy in rural Jamaica, where business often began in thoroughly unofficial ways—on a veranda, in a rum bar—before slowly creeping into bewildering officialdom in places known by their initialisms rather than their functions. The PMC (Portland Municipal Corporation) was one such place. Under its aegis fell the land registry and deeds for the parish of Portland. When I first visited with my grandmother in the IBM-crazed nineties, dressed in my khaki school uniform, I sat sweating on a bench in the overheated filing room, staring at wall-to-wall shelves of unsorted land documents, some of the coiled and yellowing papers certainly dating back to the muddle of Jamaica’s pre-independent period. I was struck with an unnamed revulsion, as if someone, out of sheer spite, had broken up a jigsaw puzzle right in front of me.
The land around our house was indeed like a jigsaw, one shattered by an even more disconsolate reality. Officially referred to as Crown Land or Queen’s Land, it was known to the locals, with common‑sense honesty, as “Capture Land”—captcha, in the Jamaican pronunciation—where people who wished to own property but could not afford to would seize a plot on which to build a shanty. The governmental authorities could show up at any time, and often did, mowing the dwellings down. By this method, people were booted out of the only homes they’d ever known.
The unsanctioned settling of the territory caused ugly disputes among family members. Strangers sometimes arrived to claim the properties, raising the specter of an “original owner,” some ancestor dead for several generations. Of course, documents rarely existed to prove such claims, and so other methods were frequently employed to uproot the “trespassers.”
“There can be no title in bush,” V. S. Naipaul once coldly wrote, and on Capture Land this was borne out violently. It was not unusual to see men circling each other with machetes during flare-ups over ownership. It was not unusual to see entire households from different factions, grandparents down to toddlers, cheering on these machete-wielding men. Sometimes blood was spilled over a patch of ground as if in a grotesque sacrificial rite. These confrontations were passed down through generations and became known as “tribal wars,” a term that itself compounds the dehumanizing legacy of colonialism with the tinderbox politics of postindependence Jamaica.
Our family never had to experience any such displacement or strife. In this mad milieu of protracted imperial confusion, my grandmother legally owned property. How? “Through baking.”
The threads of what I knew about her life were so few. Of her start in baking I had only the faintest outline. When she was not yet quite a teenager, so ran the family lore, she apprenticed herself to the second-largest bakery in Port Antonio. CC Bakery, still located across from the marina on West Palm Avenue, was owned by a family rumored to have recently immigrated to the island from China. CC’s slogan—“Taste the goodness! Home of the holey bulla!”—was known across the island, its legend only enhanced by the fact that no one knew exactly what “CC” stood for. To a good many, the slogan was a mantra of industriousness, tied to the vision of Jamaica’s folk creativity that emerged with the tourism industry in Port Antonio in the late 1800s.
The holey bullas, sweet, dry, gingery cakes with a hole in the middle, were sometimes still warm from CC’s when they reached my hands in the playground of my first school, Boundbrook Basic, only a few blocks away from CC’s brightly colored concrete building. I ate several for my snack or lunch. The hole in the holey bulla made me feel cheated; I took umbrage at that, and by the time I was in high school, CC’s was no longer just the innocuous place I walked past almost daily. How could I not have complicated feelings about eating pastries from the same kitchen my grandmother had sweated in as a girl?
My grandmother, certain of her value as a worker, would never have spoken of struggle or of a system set against her. To her, progress meant doing something for and by oneself; anything else was, like my grandfather, incidental to her survival.
“Through baking.” History will not hear her saying that phrase, the “through” in her accent, which is to say in her rebellion, cutting the ears like “true.”
My grandmother’s house brought her immeasurable joy. The twice-daily sweeping of all four rooms gave her a sixth sense of its every nook and cranny. Countless times I saw her stare at a ray of sunlight streaming through a rip in one of the lattice windows of the living room. The light always seemed to rest on the wall above the mauve wool sofa, where an undulating string of Hallmark Christmas cards hung.
These winged cards came from her children in the States and in England, and some dated back to when I was a toddler. But the majority of them were from later on, from a time when I could read, and I did read them to my grandmother, along with the many bundles of letters in thin, white airmail envelopes. Even before I had gone more than a few miles outside our hometown, I knew well the addresses of a few streets in England and the States. An itinerant uncle was a waiter on the Royal Caribbean cruise line and sometimes sent letters or cards from places with strange, intoxicating names. The foreign postal codes especially mesmerized me. It was from the envelopes, too, that I first discovered that Jamaica was located in some place called “the West Indies.”
My grandmother would request a certain card from the line, or a letter, as if it contained the words to ward off any oncoming terror. I was summoned to read them in the same way I was summoned to bring her the broom. Even after a landline was installed in our house, sometime in the late nineties, she continued to ask me to read them aloud, though her children now simply called to talk to her. More rarely, I would dial the phone operator, someone I pictured as a dubious but efficient stranger to whom I must speak “properly” in order for my grandmother to be connected.
Our house was one of the first on Stony Hill Road to have a phone. It was like a slab of white marble with pressed digits, on top of a frilly white runner. The phone meant that people now showed up to our house to receive calls from relatives abroad, just as two decades earlier, apparently, they had stopped by for ice, because my grandmother’s house was one of the few with a fridge back then. Such were the things that made my grandmother into someone—“inna somebody,” in the Jamaican saying, which has more to do with an upright character than upward mobility.
After a few years with the phone, the readings grew rarer. Almost no new letters or cards came from those foreign addresses; slowly, country area codes and the accents of the dubious operators began to supplant the postal and zip codes in my head, and certainly, before long, the word “Caribbean” came to supplant “West Indies,” making me, in that improbable phrase, “a modern.” Within a couple of years, my grandmother had stopped selling at the market, so her baking slowed to orders from customers, some of which were phoned in. I took them down, adopting a phone operator’s voice, and in this way, the phone nearly replaced her oven as the pride of the house.
Our home was respectable, with the additional appeal, surprisingly scarce in our coastal region, of being built on a steep hill with a large veranda facing the Caribbean Sea. Stony Hill was above a dense green valley. Behind us, an even higher hill, Shotover Hill, descended along a trail of the Rio Grande at the foothills of the Blue Mountains, which led east back out to Norwich. We were haunted in more sense than one by English names. My high school, also visible, in the distance, from our veranda, was called Titchfield—a name that appears in the Domesday Book. The position of the veranda meant that there was constant airflow throughout all four rooms during the day. We never had an electric fan, on account of the breeze from the trade winds—something my grandmother, who loved to “take air,” was quite proud of.
The hedges of croton trees planted in front of the veranda were also not typical of poorer rural households like ours. They ran the span of the house, reaching as far back as the unused old pit latrine by the chicken coop at the farthest west boundary of the plot, beyond which lay woodland. The multicolored crotons with their leaves of different shapes and sizes, especially the Joseph’s coat, which my grandmother loved, added to the pleasure of sitting on the veranda, with her or alone, watching the sea. They were “bushed”—that is, hemmed into a rough evenness—by my uncle, some flat enough for my grandmother to spread out her laundry on. These crotons mystified me. I often asked my grandmother to tell me when they were planted. I got her usual silence.
We both loved the two Adirondack-style chairs we sat in. Their slats, made of blue mahoe wood, were painted alternately blue and white. I was astonished that the slender slats could endure so much of my now and again insane rocking. Our neighbor, the carpenter Mr. Bell, had told me the name of the wood after I asked him one day how the chairs were so strong. Mr. Bell had not made the chairs himself—his thing was cabinets and coffins—but he worked, he told me, with the same wood. He spoke the name of the tree as if handing off a shibboleth regarding the strength in all things. “Is because a blue mahoe.” It was that ordinary.
No such secrets were passed to me from my grandmother’s corner of the veranda, where she sat beside me, not close but not far away either, looking down at the long vista of the Titchfield Peninsula straggling out into the Caribbean Sea. Beneath us, a bamboo bench was nailed to the ackee tree in front of the house, a tree presumably older even than she was. When I asked, “Is who plant the trees them here?” or tried to glean something of what she’d been like as a girl, she didn’t dismiss my questions outright. “Me never creamed my hair,” she said. “I come see that ackee tree here.” But she never gave a sustained story about her past. From the right-hand chair I questioned her like a bailiff’s understudy.
I asked her about CC’s all the time. And when did she leave to bake on her own? When did she set up her stall at the back of the Musgrave Market next to West Harbour, in the heart of Port Antonio? I used to visit her there on Saturdays as a boy, falling asleep on layers of cardboard under her unlabeled stall when the heat knocked me out. Was it true that, for years, she used to sell at the very front of Musgrave, by one of the giant iron gates, out of a stall labeled HOME OF AUNT MAY’S BAKERY AND THINGS?
It was utterly mind-boggling to me how she had navigated that life for forty-odd years. My grandmother was not the “higgler” market-woman type, and when I saw her those Saturdays, she made no attempt to sell her “bakes and things.” She sat calmly on her stool, her entire disposition the same as when she was at home. Yet her market days produced a stunning career. Out of it she built her house and raised her children.
“How you make your house, Grandma?”
“Me? Through baking.”
She sat, taking her air, implacable, silent, and secret.
Mysterious, not secret, would be the right word. Mystery can be shared even when not communicated. Not speaking of a mystery can be its own unique form of communication. The house, painted yellow on the outside and a faded cherry-peach inside, was intricately bound up with our communication. When we talked indoors it often felt as if in some profound sense we were talking with the house.
At night, this sense deepened, and the bond of our communication was like a thaumaturgic scene out of a lost Apocrypha. Every night before sleep I read her verses from the King James Bible, lying in my bed one room over from hers. As if to match the deep quiet of the house, I read in a low voice that carried through the concrete walls to her ears.
She was nearing seventy, her hearing growing dim. Still, she heard me clearly, and I heard her breath clearly, too: the metronome my voice adjusted to as I read. As I listened to her breathing, I felt I could see where she lay on her back, a kerosene lamp placed on the little table by her bed. The light from the lamp was a bronze haze. Her head, covered in a nylon-stocking cap, was raised on the pillow.
Her wardrobe; her chest of drawers with several old leather suitcases on top; her two brown barrels, which, like the suitcases, were sent to her by her children overseas; her enamel chamber pot and washbasin—they all seemed to levitate in the bronze haze. The smaller items—her pill bottles and vials filled with herbal brews or a home remedy of rum, pimento berries, and nutmeg bark—gleamed with a healing force.
One night, after reading the Bible to her, I turned off the light and went to bed. Sometime after that I heard her calling my name. I was certain I was asleep. The call could not truly be coming from her bedroom. Her voice sounded very close to my ear. She called again, angrily, and I bolted up in bed.
I could tell that she was sitting up. “What wrong, Grandma?”
“Someone in the house.”
I paused and listened to the house. I heard her breathing, and the night insects, but nothing else.
“No, Grandma. Me lock up the place. Everything all right.”
She insisted, “Him in the living room there.”
I could picture her pointing with her mouth to the living room. But the house was quiet.
“I don’t hear nothing,” I heard myself say. I wondered if a malignant spirit had overtaken her or the house. Late nights in rural Jamaica, people took extra precaution with what they said, lest they upset an evil spirit, a duppy or a troublesome “rolling calf.”
I opened the door that led from my bedroom to hers, so rarely used that it was more or less forgotten. Even before I held her, I knew she was shaking.
“It all right. Nobody not here. I don’t hear nobody, Grandma.”
“Him in the kitchen now. Him there in me kitchen.” Her voice sounded like tears, but she was not crying. She held my wrist. I stayed an endless moment.
Without saying anything, I got up, walked past her wardrobe to the curtain dividing her room from the living room, and drew it back on one side. I looked into the living room, toward the front door: the door I had locked and bolted a few hours ago was opened wide. A clear night sky shone on the veranda. Terror cramped my belly.
I passed the V-crook of the wall with the broom by the cabinet next to the kitchen entrance. I looked through the strings of hundreds of plastic beads that separated the kitchen from the living room. No one, not even somebody with the greatest catlike stealth, could ever get through them without triggering a gnashing windmill—not even me, and I had practiced trying to part them without a sound for years. But there I saw the back door of the kitchen, wide open. I looked both ways, to the veranda and back to the kitchen, again and again, in disbelief. The two doors, front and back, stood open.
My mind raced through a barrage of questions, a million actions to take, including, to my horror, killing the intruder.
Then I heard my grandmother’s voice, almost returned to its usual calm. “Him gone already.”
My grandmother was illiterate. Such was common among women of her generation, especially those from the rural areas of Jamaica. My grandmother’s mother, Lillian Renford, would have been born only three or at most four generations after the end of slavery in Jamaica in 1834. She was married several times and lived in Bellevue, a district in the rugged Rio Grande Valley of Portland, which was often flooded out by the river. She died there in 1988, when my grandmother was fifty-nine or sixty and I was five years old, but I never met her. It was probably my great-grandmother who brought her firstborn daughter, May, to CC’s to learn the trade of baking. I do not know, and no one seems to know. What I do know is that working at the bakery meant my grandmother did not attend school. The scant bit of literacy she got came from attending church. She was able to write her name, though, curiously, she marked an X for her signature on certain documents. She had worked out a letter system for cake orders: R for rock cakes, G for gizzadas, and so on.
In the living room of our house was a low center table of an obsidian color. On top of it was a big off-white faux ceramic bowl in which were piled exotic plastic fruits: purple grapes, green pears, figs, and some others I could not identify. As if guarding this horn of plenty were two collie figurines, the breed we knew from the old American TV show, Lassie, which was popular on Jamaican television. The left collie had no ears, the right no tail. Beneath them, on the base of the table, were the four books of the house: the King James Bible (which I returned there every morning from my room after the nightly reading); a Church of God hymnal (most certainly given to my grandmother by her denomination of the same name); the Jamaican phone directory (called, with distinct civic pomp, The Island of Jamaica Directory, the crisp copy changing yearly); and, lastly, a worn, illustrated copy of John Steinbeck’s The Pearl.
The first three made absolute sense. They were typical for any respectable rural household. The Pearl needed justification. Steinbeck! How did my grandmother come to own this book? It did not belong to my father or to any of his siblings, some of whom had gone to school and others not. No, The Pearl had the imprimatur of another of my grandmother’s own possessions, acquired for herself and for her household.
When I was a boy of about ten, a visitor, perhaps there to pick up a cake order, pointed to The Pearl from the doorway of the living room. His face lined with more concern than curiosity, he asked, “What that ’bout?”
I blundered the plot to him: “This man him name Kino with him woman name Juana and them boy name Coyotito . . .” The consternation on the man’s face worsened. I plowed on, oblivious to the social anxieties behind his question, which in a few years would trouble me, too. (“Yea, for real, what that actually ’bout, star?”)
My grandmother, of course, never told me how she came to own The Pearl. It existed and that was all. Its existence, for me, was, like the house, another enigma of her life, which I came to accept as part of my natural inheritance.
If I’d had the words then, I might have said that my grandmother fused the archetypes of Kino and Juana. Like Juana, she would have tried to cast back the pearl into the sea. Like Kino, she would have taken a chance at keeping the pearl if it meant that she could get her fair share without compromising her integrity. And me? I was Coyotito, through and through. But I would not be stung by a scorpion, though a scorpion’s sting, a good one, was bound to develop in me.
The Pearl, however it came into my grandmother’s possession, made her worldly, and it demanded that I, too, become worldly. I read it around the age my grandmother would have been working as an apprentice at CC’s. Reading it for myself, and the Bible for her at nights, demystified all of literature for me.
There is a peculiar spirit level at play in Woman Sweeping. Vuillard violates the expected horizontal and vertical angles, and leaves us with the uncanny sense of having entered the miniature of a vast world. The effect is like experiencing music or light in a small space, their properties widening the environment to mythic proportions. Here everything verges on a kind of Euclidean relation, in which the largest items are nearly equal to the smallest. He paints with an incorruptible intimacy, allowing the stories implicit in every object to decide the form and line. It is an aesthetic that, in Elaine Scarry’s words on what art can do, “ignites the desire for truth by giving us . . . the experience of conviction and the experience, as well, of error.”
The truth is that, for all its neatness, the room has its disorder: every bit of space is taken up by something. Paintings, perhaps Vuillard’s early efforts, hang awkwardly on the wall; the bottom of the large frame on the left is forcing the small one beneath it off its hook. Behind the door, a black chair is rammed against the wall and the chest of drawers, with a crumpled stole, a touch of elegance, lying on it like a snake’s discarded skin. There is a sinuous quality to the thick, muted pastel hues of browns and ocher, which makes the atmosphere of the interior slightly gaudy, even gauche. Madame Vuillard seems to be spreading these dominant colors into a dark patch on the floor, making the pale bristles of the broom appear all the more luminous. Her sweeping—that mixing of dark and light to create order and intimacy—has an ineluctable connection with her son’s vocation. “Maman is my muse,” Vuillard once said.
According to his journals, not so long before making this work he had given up using models to paint from memory. This is significant: Woman Sweeping is not strictly a record of Madame Vuillard holding a broom, which would have made it nostalgic at best. Its power is that Vuillard, working from memory, so thoroughly infuses the interior with his mother’s subjectivity as to create a new and more comprehensive memory of her.
The urn on the top of the chest of drawers offers another key. Like the gleaming pill bottles and herbal-medicine vials by my grandmother’s bed, it is a small, constant reminder of mortality. But the urn is not really so small. Its plump shape closely mirrors Madame Vuillard’s ample body: the two bold stripes at its base and middle are multiplied on her housecoat, and the band that circles the urn reverberates, even more boldly, in the French braid around her head. The placement of the urn as the crowning object on top of the interior’s centerpiece leaves us with little doubt that Madame Vuillard herself values the act of remembrance above all else. Why? Because it is the imperishable gift she will pass on to her son.
Vuillard lived with his mother until her death, at age eighty-nine, when he was sixty-one. By then, material inheritance might have held less value to him. A childless lifelong bachelor, he had become a fully entrenched member of the haute bourgeoisie, moving in circles that included his former schoolmate Marcel Proust. Julian Barnes has written that, on seeing Woman Sweeping at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., he felt it was “a wise painting, filled with the tenderness of age.” He was shocked to learn that, in fact, Vuillard was just a young man when he made it. At the time, Madame Vuillard was a year or two retired from her seamstress business. Knowing this, one might ask why Vuillard has not depicted her in the more conventional posture of the retiree, reclining with her feet off the ground. What is clear is that this painting, like his confession—“Maman is my muse”—is not a solemn tribute to his mother’s kindness and help but an attestation to the intrinsic value of artistry. In Woman Sweeping, Vuillard had discovered his subject, and was embarking on a lifetime of striving toward her example. The result is an astonishing corpus—more than five hundred paintings, and countless drawings, prints, and photographs—memorializing her, and confirming work as the supreme earthly ethic. It is the concentration on the task at hand that gives the broomstick—the brush—its life-giving glow.
The painting, countering any gloom that the urn’s presence might cast, remains undiminished in its human warmth. That warmth resonates most powerfully in the ember-gold and brown of the door, a chunky slice of honeycomb. Perhaps the midday sun is on the other side of it, illuminating her hand and her face. But the true source of the radiance is Madame Vuillard herself. Thinking of that radiance, I recall the one time my grandmother, taking out a cake or putting one in the oven, gave words to its meaning while I stood holding the hanging beads on the threshold: “Work is worship.” That was all.
Behind Madame Vuillard’s buttocks, almost imperceptible, is a built-in shelf with a sparse few books. What kind of books? Knowing would tell us much about her—too much. Their presence allows us to imagine her sitting in the black chair with the brown stole over her lap, reading them. Picturing her this way, I think of a passage in Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, “A Chair”:
A widow in a wise veil and more garments shows that shadows are even. It addresses no more, it shadows the stage and learning. A regular arrangement, the severest and the most preserved is that which has the arrangement not more than always authorised.
A suitable establishment, well housed, practical, patient and staring, a suitable bedding, very suitable and not more particularly than complaining, anything suitable is so necessary.
That is one of her pleasures. Another, we can also imagine, is being read to: one of her children seated in the black chair, Madame Vuillard dozing on the bed nearby.
As we move counterclockwise from her posterior, we encounter the three objects in the room that are larger than Madame Vuillard: the bed, the door, and—oddly—the chest of drawers. Certainly, we expect the chest to be broader than her, but for its height to be exactly equal to hers? We are asked to consider the chest and the woman, at least superficially, together—to wonder what those drawers might contain, besides her oversize striped housecoats, her white blouses, and perhaps bolts of cloth from her workshop. What could be tucked between and underneath these garments, locked in this varnished brown vault?
While my grandmother was living, no one, not even her beloved grandson, was allowed to open her chest of drawers. It stood in a corner at the head of her bed, the only forbidden area in the house. Most, if not all, Jamaican households have such spaces, inner sanctums in plain sight. You see them and you let them alone.
The summer before my grandmother died, she was allowed to come home after a stay in the hospital. In her bed, she went in and out of a kind of delirium—“traveling,” my aunt called it, giving the word its old usage, which goes back to the time of slavery, meaning that my grandmother was leaving this life to go “back” to Africa. One day when I visited, my grandmother drew herself up in bed and looked around. And for an hour or so I talked with her nonstop, the lucid look on her face growing into a grin.
The grin widened when I told her that a minister had recently officiated a groundbreaking at the old harbor, a block away from the Musgrave Market, for the first Kentucky Fried Chicken in the parish.
“Him did pray?” she asked.
“Yes, for the holy, holy fowl them!” I said.
She cracked up laughing.
When she died the following October, her bed was pulled away from the wall. The suitcases were taken down and the drawers were opened. The expected things were found inside: the clothing sent by her children from Kingston or the States or England, including dresses, many of them never worn, and several multicolored silk scarves, which she loved and always wore, sometimes rakishly, anytime she went into town, in place of the faded and torn “yard scarf” of orange, blue, and white that she had on every day as she swept.
In between the clothes, in little plastic bags, were letters from some of her children. In large manila envelopes were the various iterations of the deed and land-survey documents, riddled with stamps, that we had acquired after many trips to the PMC. Then there were several little swaths of paper money tied with threads, and stashes of religious tracts, undoubtedly given to her by the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Mormon missionaries who frequently came to our veranda. Scattered throughout were heaps of notebook papers.
Covering these, in large, shaky handwriting, were hundreds of looping letters, incessantly forming a web of shapes, as if there were something she was trying to write, over and over. It seemed she had been doing it most of her life. Whatever she was wrestling with she hid, and yet she did not succumb to resignation. These writings, in all their mystery, were an inventory of her survival. What I have saved of them, along with her yard scarf, are the most precious things I own.