at Length

The Goodbye Door

—Lesley Jenike

“When I was little we had bright yellow curtains in the library and when we went away for the summer, they were put in a box. And I imagined them in that box, glowing, all summer long.” –Joan Mitchell


Joan Mitchell, The Goodbye Door, 1980, oil on canvas.


Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris has just acquired a polyptych by Joan Mitchell called The Goodbye Door in which the idea of a garden is abstracted and protracted across four huge canvases—bright blues and greens—until it’s as if we’re standing at a door left ajar, looking into a new sort of garden.

Mitchell wanted to paint on larger and larger canvasses—bigger and bigger gestures—but hadn’t the room, so she painted multiple smaller canvasses, one at a time, only organizing them later in series of twos, threes, fours, fives, like splicing together shots in a film.

So Mitchell gives us this four-part view of a garden, only it’s an ecstatic version of a garden, a gestural take on garden-ness, as if seen quickly, you having climbed over a wall to receive the pear, the apple, the host, the bone, knowing soon someone will open the Goodbye Door and say, No, you can’t have him back, so you take in all of it in a hurry—the fruit trees, the lawn, the building with its shut door just there, beyond the swing-set that sits atop an ad-hoc graveyard, only you don’t know this yet.


Near Tuam, Ireland, where the Mother and Baby home once was, a living child finds a dead child’s skull in the muck and, thinking it a toy, runs around with it atop a stick. No, no, his mama says. That’s not for playing with.


Not so long ago in Ireland, some children conceived out of wedlock died unloved and were thrown down a septic tank or buried in loose soil by nuns of an order called Good Help in French, but no nun was ever even mean to me, so I can’t talk. My mother and sister, neither of them Catholic, taught with the nuns in schools across Cincinnati in old fusty buildings where the floors were regularly swabbed in an orange-scented cleanser that made the school children sick. Nuns love bourbon balls, my mom would say. Nuns love to laugh, my sister would say, anecdotal evidence coupled with personal experience plus a little methodical research. I went to Catholic school too, and at thirteen and unconfirmed, I followed my classmates up to the altar at mass, and when I reached the priest, I opened my palms and he dropped God in. I ate God. The next day in religion class, my teacher the nun said, The unconfirmed may not eat of the Body of Christ. My face got hot. Much later in graduate school, a fellow student and I defended nuns to our professor in a Shakespeare seminar. We were discussing “women of the sixteenth century.” It was a thought experiment: there weren’t many options, we said. The convent, we said, didn’t have to be a tomb. My fellow student said the convent could be a door to education, and education is a door to freedom.

Today I watch a video in the New York Times about an old man in Ireland who is looking for his baby sister.1  He sees her name in a registry, same as his. Then—nothing. She could’ve been sold to a family in America. She could’ve died of disease, malnutrition, same as she could have been murdered, her body dumped in a mass grave on top of which the town had built a playground. There’s a kind of ceremony to my miserable thoughts these days—a kind of ritualistic, slow procession into terror. First, I watch the video: an Irish sky like crumpled sheet foil, a little stone wall around a garden, a few apple trees. Next, I imagine finding the bones as a child. Next, I imagine those bones belong to my child. Next, I imagine being forced to leave my child in a place that may turn him to bones. Wasn’t it St. Augustine who found God breaking into a stranger’s garden to steal unripe pears? They tasted sour. He didn’t even want to eat them; he threw them to the hogs. It was the act of stealing itself—sin for sin’s sake—that motivated him. In Ireland one day in the early 1970s, children scrambled over the wall to fetch some apples. There was no door to the garden, only a stone wall with glass embedded on the top. These kids climbed over somehow, somehow over the glass, and in their scramble for apples, stumbled across a cache of little bones, little human baby bones, under a concrete slab, in a septic tank. If you came to the Mother and Baby Home pregnant, you gave birth in squalor, and then you were separated from your baby. After all, your baby was born without a daddy’s last name and is therefore of a different caliber, best snuffed out. Sickly. Unlikely. Probably going to die anyway. I wonder if the separation was ceremonious, if there was a ritual to it, a performative anticipatory waiting in the little theatre of one’s brain, and then, when the actual thing went down, if an evensong was sung. Sometimes mothers would come back and stand at the door and rap on it until the nuns answered. But the answer was always, No. You may not have him back.


Joan Mitchell’s father wanted a boy and he told her so. For the rest of her life, in fact, she cursed her gender or, more likely, just got on with things. In an Oral History interview recorded with Mitchell in 1986, she says, “I think it’s very masochistic to sit and cry in my spilt Scotch for areas in my life that have been very creepy and that I should have cut, left sooner.”

Her parents were distant, preoccupied, wealthy, so she was raised in part by strict German nannies—those nuns of the nursery. Patricia Albers, in her biography of Mitchell, says, “In fact, Joan did harbor lifelong fears of abandonment, so ingrained that she refused to say routine good-byes and might explode at the mention of the word.”

In The Goodbye Door, there’s an air-infused mass of blue rising from a blacker plane—what we might interpret as earth—framed on either side by green. One can imagine what’s buried in that plane, and what’s causing the blue’s rise. One might say that, inspired by Monet, Mitchell only pushed the expression further into abstraction. But, for comfort, one might nevertheless look for the trappings of a story in the piece, the way my daughter begins all of her stories now with a setting and with characters, although she has yet to develop a knack for conflict. Perhaps time and experience are required to recognize conflict. For now, my daughter only seems to understand characters moving through landscape, color and color and color, like a threesome of nuns crossing a city street.


Everyone else went up to receive the host so I went up too I opened up my hands I was always a quick study they said open your hands and the priest will drop the wafer in then put the wafer in your mouth cross yourself walk back to your pew kneel down consider that God is inside you now you have received God what’s he doing in there rearranging your receptors concocting a hormonal stew no wonder patrimony can be hard to pin down and God is in there whether you asked for him or not reshaping your cortex playing the good host no wonder patrimony is sometimes hard to pin down there was a garden at the Catholic school back behind the main building the old building with a statue of Mary overlooking the river come spring we’d walk out to sing to her to wreathe her in flowers in that little garden Mary conceived without sin says a medal among the two dollars’ worth of old costume jewelry I bought for my daughter at the thrift shop let me think of all the gardens and all the gardeners Chance the Gardener the garden at Vetheuil where Joan Mitchell channeled Monet also the garden behind our little townhouse where my husband planted coxcombs for me where there were pollinators unconcerned pollinators with tiny wings a square plot of land hemmed round by hedgerow and chinked metal fencing no fruit trees to tempt the children no children at all when are you going to have children my husband combed out a plot of gravel for my chair so I might sit with the coxcombs and watch the clouds and paint the clouds if I had even one panel two panels three panels four panels it’s all about conflict not as in story but as in hard // soft // empty // full // rising // falling there were helicopters constantly but no grocery store no place to hang out if you didn’t have your own little garden your own little oasis our landlord called it so children loped through the streets on bikes on skates on foot but they weren’t mine and I had nothing they wanted no fruit just a little garden a square plot of land hemmed round by hedgerow and chinked metal fencing and coxcomb and pollinators and a square of gravel this was all before my daughter when I thought I’d be nothing but an artist forever.


Art is ceremony but life is not, no matter what the priests say.


You were marking time.

I’m trying to stop time, or frame it.

Do you think there’s a synthesis—a moment when there’s no separation between life and death?

Well, if you want to go into it in time—of course—daylight, night light. All is in time. What is death but time?

Actually, from looking at your paintings, I thought you thought death was light.

Read that again. Light is light.

Life continues decay, a dust, a leftover or premonition, a memory . . . In your descriptions of sunflowers . . .

I was just saying that . . . Oh, just read it.

Joan, I don’t want to copy other interviews. Okay, there’s an effervescence to light that could be associated with life and great joy which your paintings contain.

            [ . . . ]

. . . And light in time and space contains past, present, and future. And future also contains death.

It sure does. (laughter)

            [ . . . ]

You use a very concentrated yellow pigment, a yellow dust, in the sunflower paintings. Dust to dust. You also talk of a sunflower’s sadness as it’s wilting—there’s a great dignity in their death.



Who were the nuns who threw those baby bones into the cistern in Ireland? Who were the nuns who shut the door? Who were the nuns who were told God was inside them, shifting furniture, rearranging the view? Perhaps when looking into the garden they saw a unified, single canvas, and, afterward, Joan’s Mitchell’s four-part disconcertion. Or maybe I mean the opposite. Some say, having come from the French and raised on catacombs, they meant to build a sanctified ossuary, that there was ritual in the burial; it’s just unseen and unknown to us now.


Joan Mitchell, Edrita Fried, 1981, oil on canvas.

When I look at a Joan Mitchell painting I’m suspended by a tether hovering above a garden that is St. Augustine’s garden and also the garden at Tuan and also the garden in Ohio where we trespassed accidentally the summer before I gave birth to my son and I am eternally pregnant perpetually pregnant I will always be pregnant and I wonder if I should cut the tether and drop down so I can steal some fruit for stealing’s sake or whether I’m truly hungry is that wrong I don’t know maybe the baby inside me is hungry because I’ve grown so large is it wrong when I look at a Joan Mitchell painting I’m alighting a nest of color I’m just about there I’m almost there I’m nearly folding my wings into myself but not quite I’m at the threshold, at the door // hello // goodbye // nuns were never mean to me so I can’t really talk they never rapped me on the knuckles never jerked down my rolled-up uniform skirt never told me to keep my legs closed never said I was a bad girl made me to do the washing the swabbing the dishes stuck a rag down there to staunch the bleeding took my baby and said get out of here and get yourself together so when I see them in their habits three of them in a row below the building where I work crossing the street two in sunglasses one with a cane all agile and with purpose crossing the street in dappled sunlight I take their picture and look at it occasionally with pleasure


Joan Mitchell was a synesthete. This might mean she experienced her conversation with Cora Cohen and Betsy Sussler as dialoguing colors, colors seated together on a divan in her studio in the French countryside: blue and green and foundational black are the characters. In other words, the brain under synesthesia confuses the experiences of one sense with that of another. Mitchell experienced her world in terms of hue, light, and also the lack of it:

I’m not talking about God as another being who exists. I’m talking about this search . . . This need for faith, to hold things, for love.

            [ . . . ]

Your brushstrokes are in suspension, a state of grace. There’s a sensuality to the way you apply paint.

I don’t dislike the word sensual.

Oh, you don’t like the word evoke.3


Now you come to a door ajar and, looking through it, can see all the way back to the sanctity of your choices. Form and function can’t be parted from one another, no matter what the priests say, and no, all the men we’ve had sex with don’t ghost around in our brains, though male chromosomes can sometimes be found there. It’s called microchimerism. It comes from the babies we’ve had and the babies we lost, whether we knew they existed or not. And we must discount the female babies (though they leave their traces too) because it’s nearly impossible to distinguish their chromosomes from ours. The woman, articles say, who discovered the secrets at Tuam—the garden, the babies’ bones, the goodbye door—was just an ordinary woman who grew up there. I read that she wears a lot of plain, black clothes these days, is very quiet and ruminative, almost like a priest herself, though she gave up any deference to the Catholic Church a long time ago. She’s made a little model of the place where it happened, so survivors can walk all around it, around and around it.


Isn’t it odd how Joan Mitchell’s permutations grow more permeable the more you look, the way a blueshift river runs back to its font, how it was like ice, then water, now vapor—the three states of water, as my husband teaches our daughter. Dying demands material: an empty bottle in the blue morning and a truck to take it and make it back into sand again.

The Musée de l’Orangerie was built to shelter Napoleon III’s orange trees in winter, a kind of greenhouse, with a south-facing façade that is made of glass in order to keep in the heat and the light. Now Mitchell’s The Goodbye Door hangs at the entrance to the garden-cum-museum’s Jean Walter and Paul Guilluame Level. All four of its enveloping panels are symmetrical, but, at its heart, it’s a rendering of the baggy spirit, too big and full of air to fit anywhere.

so it floats.

Sometimes I wonder if, long ago in Paris, a few children looked through l’Orangerie’s glass, saw the orange trees in their artificial weather, and considered chucking a rock through a panel so they could climb through to feel and peel the fruits’ waxy, orange skin, to throw the rinds to the ground and stomp them. If, sometimes, when they were tucked up in their beds or at their lessons or prayers, they imagined the glowing orange trees in that glass box of a building, alone and waiting.

Color has a life even if we aren’t there to see it. It goes on without us.

Think of all the paintings in all their galleries closed for the night, like yellow curtains folded in a box, still glowing.


“There’s a big Joan and a little Joan. Big Joan is the superego who says Little Joan is awful . . . and Big Joan protects Little Joan too. Little Joan paints.”


Yes I ate god I wasn’t supposed to I’m sorry does he know he’s in the stomach of a sinner an unconfirmed unvouched-for unbaptized sinner and does he wish I’d just throw him right back up again I’m too fat anyway I heard about nuns holy women who ate nothing but god and saw colors an event of synesthesia and so painted with scent instead of oils and brushes the music always ends even the book you’re reading this passage right now you’re reading will end but a painting never dies never ever you don’t have to say goodbye to a painting4 you don’t have to close the door on a painting it never ends it is both continuous and still when you come to the door and ask to have your painting back the nun the holy woman who ate nobody nothing but god says why it’s always with you inside you anyway so there’s no need for me to go fetch it because it’s already with you still with you inside of you I’m sorry goodbye Joan just go back to your painting now okay it’s okay just go


Draw Thunder! my daughter says. But thunder, I tell her, is a sound. With crayon on the shampoo sill, tub lip, and tile, we’ve drawn dolphins and moons along with all the other daycare kids, and dogs, kites, daddy’s beard. We’ve drawn eclogues to shit of all kinds, toilets, piss falling from shit-shaped clouds (potty training). Our pictorial wit is famous to ourselves. Draw thunder! Is it like a god peeling skins from rocks? Maybe it’s the universe clinking cheers with itself. Or, a bottle that heaves itself off an unfathomable, heavenly, incoherent shelf and clatters down to shatter the porcelain. I don’t know. Her next demand: Draw the air! I let my hand hover above the white wall.


Lesley Jenike’s nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, phoebe, Waxwing, Diode, and The Account. Her poetry has appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, Rattle, and many other journals. Her most recent collection is a chapbook of poetry titled Punctum :, published by Kent State University Press in 2017. She teaches literature and creative writing classes at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio where she lives with her husband and two small children.

1. The New York Times featured several pieces on the mother and baby home in Tuam, Ireland recently, including this documentary.

2. The conversation quoted here took place at Joan Mitchell’s home in Vetheuil, France in 1986 and also included artist Cora Cohen and Bomb editor Betsy Sussler, published in Bomb.

3. See again Mitchell’s conversation with Cohen and Sussler.

4. This is Joan Mitchell’s idea, per her interview with Yves Michaud.

All images are courtesy of the Musée de l’Orangerie and Art News.