Family & Friends

Else Graupe, 1912–2007: A Mother’s Day Tribute

wvfc Grace and ElseGrace Graupe-Pillard and her mother, Else Graupe.

As my mother, Else Graupe, lay dying in hospice, I sat by her side creating a visual diary of the last moments of her life—drawing the wasted, thin, inert body on papers that I had selfishly garnered from the nurses’ station to distract me from the pain of losing the one person who always “had my back” despite our seemingly irreconcilable lifestyles. Pencil in hand, I scrutinized her as I had never done before; the face that I thought was so familiar to me since childhood became an abstraction of lines and forms seen afresh with the wonder of a daughter who sees her mother for the first time through the art of constructing the parts into a whole picture.

I began with the strong jaw—that very jaw that I had argued with since childhood. The jaw that, in a moment of desperate frustration, called her taunting offspring “a bad seed.” I was a disrespectful, iron-willed girl, constantly challenging my mother’s strict rules, not wanting to follow the tightrope of tradition. The same jaw that indicated her strength—the courage she summoned to escape Nazi Germany and come to the U.S. in 1938 . . . a young woman, displaced, penniless and frightened, but alive. She had escaped the Holocaust with the help of my father, to whom she was engaged, but had not seen for four years before they married in New York City—a union that involved deep loyalty and love. My father also saved my maternal grandparents, but was, tragically, unable to get his own parents out of Germany; they eventually died in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

I moved on to depicting her mouth—the thin line that rarely laughed with gusto; her sense of humor had been drained of its euphoria by the experience of exile. I outlined the lips that rarely touched my cheek, for outward signs of affection were frivolous; restraint and control were shields against the wounds of trauma. My mother, who had to leave medical school because Hitler banned Jews from being doctors, became a dress designer. She was able to help support her family in a profession she truly loved, creating beautiful clothes in the small sewing room in our Washington Heights apartment, where she spent the daylight hours beading shimmering gowns for wealthy clients who lived on Park Avenue, delivering the fashionably classic garments, attentively wrapped, through the back entrances of the elite buildings.

My mother’s eyes occasionally flickered open, but remained shut for most of the time in hospice. At one point, though, while I was drawing, she snapped them open, and they blazed with fury as she shouted at me to “stop stealing my face!” Nonetheless, explaining that I am an artist and that is what we do, I drew the heavy lids framing the beautiful, once warily alert gray-green irises, the “yes” and “no” eyes, vividly etched into my memory, that complemented an elegant, slim body; the eyes that my twin sister and I could bring to an outpouring of tears or a ray of pride; eyes that waited anxiously for my father’s arrival home from work every evening at 6:30, and then lovingly closed with relief once he returned; the eyes that were generous to others, giving to charities and strangers in need. Letters clogged our mailbox asking for donations to various humanitarian and philanthropic organizations; she would spend hours reading them, eventually writing checks with the hope of giving a trace of respite to others.

Else Graupe’s face felt weighted down by oncoming death—a release that she had wanted for the past 13 years, since my father’s death, after which she no longer wished to live. She continued to participate in life as though it were a waiting game till they were reunited; that belief and her grandchilren sustained her. bringing some measure of comfort and joy. As I continued my daily drawings, watching the mouth start to open, the tubes being removed from the body, my mother unexpectedly turned to me and said in her heavy German accent: “Gracie, you were good to me, and I never told you . . .” I looked up, my pencil rigid, and said: “Ma, you must be mistaken and think I am [my sister] Florence.” She lifted her skeletal fingers, gripped mine, and told me in no uncertain terms that NO, she was talking to me, her daughter Gracie.

That moment lifted years of conflict and sealed an unspoken but powerful bond. I miss her terribly.

wvfc grace use this photo use this Mother Calvary 1_4_07

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  • grace graupe-pillard May 13, 2015 at 10:38 pm

    Ann – When he was quite young, and we both lived in New Mexico, your brother once told me words which I never forgot-that the relationship between a FATHER and SON is the most complex and difficult to resolve. I remember thinking – wait a minute! it is the MOTHER and DAUGHTER bond that is fraught. I now realize that we all bump into our parents in different ways and we get bruised – be it gentle or harsh. Time gives us perspective and hopefully affords us insights that help to clarify those brittle, tensile and yet fragile cords.

    Reply
  • Maria Cosentino May 13, 2015 at 8:53 pm

    Grace, Thank you for allowing all of us to see the drawings and this article.
    I am so moved and can relate to the times affection was given. The women of that era had so much to deal with; their love and passion always there just beneath the surface.
    We are fortunate to have had such extraordinary mothers.

    Reply
  • Deborah Harkins May 13, 2015 at 8:26 pm

    Ann, I think you’re right about that generation of mothers’ concern about giving too much praise as a potential spoiler of their child’s character. Now children get excessive indulgence. Where’s the happy medium?

    Reply
  • Ann Dermansky May 13, 2015 at 3:22 pm

    Could it be that our mothers were from a generation that distrusted their daughters? Could it be our mothers did not show us how much the appreciated us until they were leaving us because they thought love and acceptance were “spoilers,” that which they dare not give.

    Reply
  • liz May 13, 2015 at 3:02 pm

    beautifully expressed!

    Reply
  • leigh sorensen May 11, 2015 at 9:46 am

    Grace, an amazing grace note for your mother’s final days. Thank you for sharing your memories. I too am haunted by a strong and critical mother; she speaks to me daily; I too shared a grace note with her during her last week when she was 65 and I, age 36, was pregnant with my third child. That child is about to have her first child at age 36.

    Reply
  • Franc Palaia May 10, 2015 at 10:51 pm

    Grace, thank you for sharing your beautifully written farewell to your mother. I knew her a little but I was surprised to learn she wanted to be a doctor but couldn’t.
    You had an amazing relationship. I remember you talking about her all the time.

    Reply
  • grace graupe-pillard May 10, 2015 at 8:28 pm

    I thank all those who have commented and opened up with their own stories. We each have a tale to tell and each and every one is worth hearing.

    Reply
  • Diane Dettmann May 10, 2015 at 4:24 pm

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful and powerful tribute to your mother.

    Reply
  • Cynthia Mathews May 10, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    Oh, Grace can I relate to your relationship with your Mother. I too could never quite measure up to her exptations,but the last time I was with her she held my hand so tight. I think that she knew that, that was the last time we would be together. For several years she said that she didn’t know anyone by the name of Cynthia. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of her and of all the wonderful things that she exposed me to. I now know that she loved me very much, as I’m sure that you do too. Lovely sketch.

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  • Toni Myers May 10, 2015 at 2:05 pm

    Beautiful. Many thanks!

    Reply
  • Marcia G. Yerman May 10, 2015 at 12:20 pm

    Thanks for adding this tribute to the drawing series I have long admired.

    Yes, art in all forms is how creative folks process their experiences.

    We all internalize our parents, whether we want to or not.

    Your mother would appreciate this piece.

    Reply
  • grace graupe-pillard May 10, 2015 at 12:20 pm

    Fiona – well said and oh so true!

    Reply
  • Madelyne Ryterband May 10, 2015 at 11:09 am

    I was deeply moved by this article. I had to get up and wipe my eyes in order to finish it! On my mother’s death bed, I asked if she wanted to say a private goodbye to her grandchildren. She was grateful for that opportunity. Having already said her goodbye to my sister, it was then my turn. My sister had lived with and cared for my mom for many years and their relationship was complete. I apologized for not being as thoughtful as I could have been. Her last comment was, “Oh, you weren’t too bad”.

    Reply
  • Fiona May 10, 2015 at 9:47 am

    You sketch so well the lifelong, push pull that is the relationship between a mother and daughter. Thank you.

    Reply
  • Lisa Montibello May 10, 2015 at 9:41 am

    Beautiful essay, Grace. Mother’s Day is fraught with conflicting thoughts for me, thoughts of love, resentment, regret, and forgiveness. Your story helps me remember that, after all, mothers are people with their own stories and histories. We all bring those to the table in our relationships. I hope, like your mother hoped, that I am doing my best being a mom. I love the drawings of your mother and I am glad to have met her. She was a strong woman. Thanks for this beautiful remembrance of her on Mother’s Day.

    Reply
  • Y Tsao May 10, 2015 at 9:09 am

    A very vivid, moving account of a woman’s life experience, and of mother-children eternal bond.

    Reply
  • Claudia Klein May 10, 2015 at 8:01 am

    Grace, your writing moves me as much as your art. I am glad that your mom told you what you needed to hear before she was gone. Those few words can change the course of years to follow.
    I am so glad I’ve had the blessing of getting to know you and appreciate what you do for the world. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
  • Mechele May 10, 2015 at 5:00 am

    What a rich, moving remembrance and release piece. Thank you for sharing in Mother’s Day.

    Reply
  • grace graupe-pillard May 10, 2015 at 4:59 am

    Thank you for giving me the opportunity to write this Mother’s Day article. I am very grateful for the opportunity.

    Reply