Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Grandma colored her hair black and always wore bright red lipstick even though she rarely got out of bed. Her legs hurt from arthritis. And so her bedroom was the living room, and at family gatherings, holidays, and Sunday visits, her grandchildren would pile onto her bed and watch TV with her, snuggling deep into her soft, Opium-scented grandma-ness.

Above her bed for as long as I can remember there was a picture she'd painted years ago of a forest landscape. "Let's take a walk in the forest," she'd say, and with two fingers as legs, we'd play hide-and-seek behind trees, swim in the stream, and stop to pet a baby deer.

Grandpa kept pigeons and rabbits behind the house. You could follow him out to feed them if you stayed out from underfoot and didn't touch any of the droppings on the cages. Passing the two-liters of diet Pepsi stacked by the back door (Grandpa was diabetic, and I hated diet soda), you'd be met by the strong smell of bird feathers and rabbit food as he pushed open the creaky metal door.

Many years later, I learned that the rabbits weren't exactly pets, and the "alligator stew" Grandpa made didn't exactly have alligator in it.

But on ordinary Sundays, if you were hungry Grandpa would boil you a hot dog. No matter what time of day, and no matter how much your mother objected that you had just eaten.

And if you were bored, Grandma would lead you into the back bedroom, which was stuffy in the summer and cool in the winter. And she would clear off her art table, setting out real artist paper, watercolors, and expensive brushes. If you asked for crayons, you were given pastels or colored pencils. And whatever you created was given an "honest" artistic critique. "Well," said Grandma every time, with her eyebrows drawn into serious consideration. "This is marvelous use of color. Your lines are very clear and your figures have wonderful shape. This is very good work!" It made me giggle with pride every time.

When I was in high school, Grandma gave me a box of her art supplies, explaining that she was old and her legs hurt, and she didn't think she'd use them anymore. I remember feeling annoyed with her. At 16, I was immersed in creating and studying art. Art was everything. You didn't just give your paints away, that was like giving up on living. I refused to take them, but she insisted. So I kept them in the box and refused to use them.

Grandma died Friday. After her funeral, I didn't go to the gravesite. I went home. I got out her box of paints and her brushes. I noticed that a fan brush was stained pale blue from the last painting she'd done – a landscape that now hung in the hall of my parent's house. I decided to paint the girls' names on their bedroom doors surrounded by flowers and other girly things.

Four hours into the project, it occurred to me that I could have spent that afternoon doing anything I wanted. And instead of painting in my new studio, or playing the piano, or journaling, or doing anything for myself, I wanted to do something nice for my kids. I wanted to make them smile, even for an instant. That's the reasoning, I suppose, behind why I am in possession of Grandma's paints in the first place.

No comments: