The Ansonia Hotel was not your usual hotel. But we were not your usual family. By the time I was born in 1945, the Ansonia had suffered years of neglect. The live seals that once frolicked in the lobby fountain were long gone. So was the fountain when I lived there as a child with my mother and father. Many times my mother told me how bad I was. At least once, I was worse than bad. I was, as she put it, “DISGUSTING!” One day I found myself alone in the bathroom of our furnished one-room apartment. I don’t know how this happened. My mother always accompanied me when my grandmother, who lived on the floor below, wasn’t there. But this time I went by myself. I was four. When I finished, I got up and turned to look at the brown doodoo that had plopped into the bowl. These wondrous coils had come from my body! I scooped them up into my hands. They were soft. Squeezable. I brought them to my nose, breathed in the smell. They smelled nice, like fresh doggy doodoo on the street. I pushed open the door and smeared the doodoo over the bare white wall next to the bathroom. I stood on tiptoe, reached as high as I could. I made swirls. I squished it all around. It felt good. It looked so pretty. But my mother didn’t agree.
“OHMYGOD! OHMYGOD!” she shrieked. “You miserable child! What do you think you’re doing?”
“Playing,” I said. I didn’t know then I had made my first abstract painting. It was 1949. Jackson Pollock and other abstract expressionists were making history.
“I can’t take my eyes off you for a second!” my mother screamed. Tears flooded her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. She grabbed my arms roughly, shoved me into the bathroom, ran the water in the sink. She scrubbed my hands and arms until they were red.
Between sobs, she kept screaming the word, “DISGUSTING!”
I didn’t know what “disgusting” meant. But I was shocked and hurt. I was sure it meant something worse than bad. My doodoo is nice! I told myself. It comes out of me. It’s mine! It’s my mommy that’s disgusting! I decided then that I would never be anything like her.
My mother washed the wall with a bucketful of foamy water and a large sponge, sobbing while she worked. “I should leave this for your father to clean up! He likes everything natural! Well, I’d like to see how much he’d like this!”
Roberta Allen is the author of eight books and a visual artist who has exhibited worldwide, with work in the collection of The Met.