My mother died on January 25, 2011. She had been ill for years, and this last time she’d gone to the hospital in congestive heart failure it was clear she would not recover. Kept comfortable by the hospital staff, we waited around her bed for her last breaths.
Later, after several phone calls, a visit from a friend and more calls, I had my time alone and was up quite late. As I sat outside in the quiet of the January night watching the snow gently fill the air and fall in a soft blanket on all around me, the poem came to me in nearly one complete piece. I carefully went inside and tiptoed to my desk and quietly went back outside to the swing, wrote it down slowly, line for line, all as if I was afraid I’d scare it away, all the beautiful words I’d been thinking, or maybe I’d break it, like a bubble. I changed very little in a rewrite.
I read this poem at her memorial. And I had decided I would go through with my poetry reading, just two days after my mother died, because it was an opportunity to share her with others to read the new poem.
I could never encapsulate 85 years of a life into one blog post or one photo or one poem, so I won’t even try, but I want to share this. The photo above is the one we placed in our mother’s casket, her wedding photo from 1946 when she was 21 years old. The little scrap of red in the lower left corner is the shirt she wore, the one she loved best, and I knew she’d want to be remembered in it; our mother was one who could wear a red chiffon blouse in her casket and be proud.
About My Mother
Regardless of the many outstanding qualities any person may have
we are essentially remembered for only one of them.
In my mother, all would agree
this one would be her remarkable beauty.
All through her life the compliments trailed her
as she carefully maintained “the look”, her look, so glamorous,
from tailored suits to taffeta dresses to palazzo pants,
hair perfectly styled, nails manicured and painted
a collar set just so, cuffs casually turned back,
hair worn long, past the age of 50,
a dark, even tan and shorts into her 80s,
lipstick always perfectly applied,
and even at 84
people marveled on her perfect skin,
dark curly hair,
and big bright smile.
I see that smile
when I see my sister smile,
and I see my mother’s active, athletic bearing
when I look at my brother,
and her gray eyes are mine.
In each of her grandchildren
I see her round face,
graceful hands, pert nose,
proud upright posture
and a million other of her features and habits
and in all of us
her wild curly hair
is part of her legacy to us.
When we look at each other from now on
we will see the part of her she gave to each of us,
this little cluster of people who came from her
and who were her greatest treasure,
and when she looks at us from wherever she is
she will know that
she cannot be forgotten.
They traded Andrew McCutcheon
and I had to call my brother and
hear his side of the story,
I don’t care what the Pirates do
or really anything about sports
but my brother lived for it all
and I liked to hear
his normal voice discussing
games and stats and history
as if it was the history
of the world,
the one without the
vodka or Jack Daniels,
quick and clear,
but he is not.
I will not call,
but I will enjoy that moment
that might have been.
Every once in a while we want to share a moment with someone who has died, and sometimes this is painful if we’ve momentarily forgotten they are gone. I knew my brother had died when this moment came up, but still I wanted to hear his answer, and that voice speaking from who he might have been. My brother died in 2016, somewhat unexpectedly, but perhaps not considering his lifestyle. Through the years, even back to his teens, I had grown so tired of the rambling drunken conversation that though I really don’t pay any attention to sports I would hear some nugget of information that I knew he would talk about. The Pittsburgh Pirates really did trade Andrew McCutcheon, who seemed like a great guy as well as a good player and was extremely well-liked by the team and the city which was how I recognized what this trade was news. I knew Mark would have a lot to say about this one.
I just drafted this poem and for the moment I’m pleased with it. I may find some things to change about it in time, though. I don’t mind letting poems evolve.
My garden waits under a blanket of spring
gently rippled snow comforting the earth
drowsing buds protected undercover
will burst and pour forth
hot, humid mornings, big yellow spiders, baskets of green beans
this heavy cover now protects, will melt and nourish.
When I look at my garden, surprised at all its hillocks and gulleys remembered full of life and covered so deeply and densely with growing things, I wonder how the miracle ever happens again that I have baskets of beans and tomatoes just a few months later when all seems frozen and gone. It’s really not. As one of those ironies of nature where unrelated processes fit together like a puzzle to make a whole ecosystem, it’s the icy blanket of snow that would seem to smother and freeze and end the potential that actually keeps the spark of life warm.
The illustration above is a sampler of all the shades of pastel I’ve used while painting portraits and sketches of people of all different “colors”, skin tones and ethnicities. Tell me, who is “black” and who is “white”? And what does “colored” mean?
In truth, we are all “colored”. Each of our faces has the darkest and lightest tones and all those in between, and even some colors we’d be surprised to find in skin tones. I can tell you that all the colors I smudged there have appeared in the highlights and shadows and mid-tones of every face. It largely depends on where you are standing in relation to the light.
Some people have suggested that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of black children and white children going forward hand in hand, the ideal of seeing a person not for the color of their skin but for the content of their character, had the goal of a “colorblind” society. That’s a noble ideal on one hand, where we just don’t notice the color of a person’s skin in any situation and go on from there.
But does that truly bring justice to wrongdoing and change society in a way that makes the injustice people have suffered because of that color unacceptable? To suddenly begin to ignore the color of a person’s skin and jump immediately to integration is to jump right over the injustices done to people because of the color of their skin. It’s also ignoring an essential part of another person, shutting the door on a section of their life, a part that makes them distinctive. King did not use the term “colorblind” in any speech or written document, but his point is described by historians as a more “color aware” society where we recognize our differences, celebrate them and thereby heal through those very differences among ourselves.
When I create a piece of visual artwork I look for what makes the subject inspiring to me, what makes it distinctive, what makes me excited to share it with you. I like contrasts, I find what makes my subject different in its class, what makes it stand out from its surroundings. It’s my joy to find and share “the extraordinary in the ordinary”. If everything I painted looked the same, what need would there be for artwork?
Looking at people has always been like looking at a field of flowers for me—I find it hard to settle on one before I skip to another while I enjoy the visually exciting effect of all those different colors and shapes and heights and structures. Then I can can pause on each one and get to know each in its own unique detail.
When I rode the bus, long before I painted anything let alone a human portrait, I quietly studied all the faces around me for color and shape and texture, eye color, the hair that framed it, accessories and jewelry, and was often started by a stern expression of someone who didn’t understand why I studied them so intently. I was just looking for the things that made them unique and beautiful—not in the classic sense of beauty but in the classical sense, in that beauty is truth, in being true to who we are inside showing that on the outside, like the flower in the field that can’t help but be what it is.
If we are colorblind, we intentionally ignore some of the fundamental differences that make each of us irreplaceable. That denies a basic part of our personal existence and of human existence as a species; it denies a portion of our very identity as an individual.
That takes an awful lot of effort. Why not admit to our differences and get to know each other in full, and find the beauty in each of us. We have always been and will always be different from each other and might as well get used to it.
“Aurora Borealis”, a sketch I did for an illustration for a book about two polar bears who…I don’t remember the story line, but I do remember checking my voice mail at home while I was at work that last autumn I was at my day job, and listened to the message from the small press publisher who’d found my art online. He had an idea for a book that incorporated text and art, and he liked the style of my pastels and how I treated animals in my paintings, and he also saw that I was a graphic designer and freelanced as a book designer. He wanted me to illustrate and design the book.
That one call was “it”. I had been freelancing full time nights and weekends as well as carrying a schedule of new paintings and art exhibits monthly and was still working full time, but knew the time was near. I could live on what I made from the book publishers and the other customers I had at the time, one of them a home builder who had me create artist’s renderings of his house plans and flyers from that. The art sales were gravy. My office was set up, my car was paid off and the only other debt was my mortgage, money in the bank, health insurance and retirement set up. But was I really ready? I only needed one good nudge. That call was it.
In fact, I suddenly felt a little panic. Had I waited too long? Should I be home right now? Was I missing calls? That was why I checked my voice mail during lunch, but without caller ID, how would I know if someone had called and not left a message? I had to be at home!
January 1 is the anniversary of the day I began working at home and it’s very easy to remember what year I’m celebrating because that day was January 1, 2000. I still remember that first day, going to sit at my desk in the room downstairs even though it wasn’t really a work day. I’d been freelancing and working at that desk in the corner for a few years already, and looking out the two big windows to watch birds at the feeders and observe the neighborhood, my desk and the windowsills lined with my family of felines, happy I’d be sitting still for a while so they could get in a good bath and nap on me and my papers.
I had done the sketch during the evenings while still working, but photographed it to send a print to the publisher on pretty much my first day working at home, along with photographing some other artwork, and some other photos on that same roll, reference photos that later became award-winning works.
Look somewhat familiar? Yes, it’s the reference photo for the art that’s in the header for The Creative Cat, “Warm Winter Sun”. Only in January does the light stream all the way into the kitchen like that, not even in December is the light that color. And another photo next to that one…
That’s Moses sleeping in about the same spot as Namir in the other photo, but she had been there earlier. The sun is a little higher on the bookshelf. I remember debating between the two and I had intended to paint both, but only painted Namir. Fifteen years later, I can’t tell you why, but I do know that one of my goals was to focus on photography generally, photograph my cats more often so I had lots of reference photos, and get around to painting them way sooner than before, like paint them as soon as I got the photos back. And so I did, because instead of waiting a decade as I had with other photos I entered the painting of Namir and won Best Pastel in South Hills Art League’s 2000 Annual Juried Show. I’ve sold framed prints of the photo of Moses, but I think this spring I’ll paint the one this photo and we’ll see what 15 years of experience in painting has done to my style.
Another photo on that roll…
Yes, Cookie really did lie about on her back like this, and I decided to take her photo. The image stayed with me, and a little later that year I suddenly visualized the hand-colored block print you’ll see by clicking on this link. I decided making a block print, something I could reproduce but was still an “original”, would be ideal for donating to shelter events and to sell at animals events I attended, and so it was. I didn’t get to do it right away but waited until 2001 when I had the time and the idea for a set including “The Roundest Eyes”.
And also because my brother had suffered a traumatic brain injury in April 2000 and became my responsibility as he moved through his recovery, and then my mother developed lung cancer and had surgery and barely recovered, both of them incapacitated with multiple medical conditions and in care for the next decade as I was legal guardian for my mother and POA and representative for my brother. We never know what will happen to change our plans, and those two medical emergencies certainly changed the business plan and list of objectives I had spent a decade determining.
But my felines were there for me, unconditionally, at the end of a long day at the computer; below, my desk in summer 2006 featuring Stanley curled next to Sophie, Kelly bathing, Namir and Cookie curled in front of me and Peaches having a good scratch on the file cabinet, six cats….
…or an all night project, or when I came home from a long day at one hospital or another, or a day of doctor appointments.
Over the years my customers and work projects have evolved as has my family of felines, though lying all over my desk never went out of style, even in the wee hours when I was up with a project as in the photo above from 2010 with Peaches on a box, Mimi on the windowsill, Dickie on my desk, Cookie having a good bath on my paperwork, and Giuseppe being vigilant. It really was 3:00 a.m.—there were plenty of times in my mother’s last years that I was off at a hospital unexpectedly for hours to see to her care that I just worked whenever I could, and my cats took it all in stride.
And yes, Stanley and Moses and Cookie and Sophie and Namir and Kelly and Nikka were very glad I just quit going to work one day, and we’ve never looked back. I’m so glad I was home for their last years.
Last autumn I once again repaired the keyboard shelf on this desk and I remembered that, including the time I’d spent freelancing in the 1990s, I’d been working in this same corner of the room for 25 years and at this desk for 20, and as much as I love the views out the windows, the convenience to the kitchen and outdoors and all the memories, I was really tired of that spot! About three years ago when my keyboard shelf first fell off my desk, rendering it unusable for me because of where I need to have my keyboard positioned to avoid repetitive motion strain injuries, I temporarily abandoned the desk and set up shop in my studio, and currently split my work between the two places, design as well as art. I resisted a computer in my studio for years because I would repeatedly check my email and other electronic things, but now I’m pleased to have two computers networked and two equally suited workstations.
Most of all I also enjoyed the change in scenery and found the room conducive to writing as well, and began moving more and more of my writing up to my studio. As my work has included more fine art, writing and creating gift items and less commercial graphic design, I’ve been spending more time in the studio and enjoying every minute. For many years it was the “spare kitty room”, holding many memories of sitting in that room and looking out that window while trying to tame or comfort or treat a rescued cat, and may still serve that purpose again if it’s ever necessary, but I think I’ve moved that operation to the bathroom for now. I think my family of felines appreciates the change in scenery too, or they just like to make sure I am properly supervised as you see Jelly Bean, Mewsette, Giuseppe, Sunshine and Cookie on the chair.
Many things have changed in my commercial art life each year for the past four or five, the printers I use, the projects I work on, the amount of design work I have. Things changed in my art life too as I’ve loosened up and feel much more free in my work through the practice of my daily sketches, and I’m looking for more opportunities to market and sell my art and merchandise. I’ve also continued to find more places to publish my articles and stories, so I’m deriving more and more of my income away from graphic design.
When I talk to students about being self-employed I tell them two things I’m sure they don’t listen to: learning to run a business is more important than performing your skill, and expect everything to change on a regular basis.
Her tears, somehow cold as they emerged, mingled with the melting of snow that relentlessly pelted her face as if to add volume to the fountain that poured forth from her swollen eyes. Her face was numb in the blizzard wind that scoured her bare skin in the frigid night, turning the tears and melted snow to ice on her chapped cheeks, constantly scraped by the glassy crystals that swirled around her head like angry bees before finally embedding their sting into her skin. She visualized her face as the smooth pale marble of a statue of some unknown saint in a church courtyard, an eternally sad and enigmatic expression in her colorless, sightless eyes, the carved lids and cheeks slowly gathering snow yet pocked with tiny droplets of blood where each crystalline snowflake had broken through the stiff skin. It had all become so surreal she played with the idea she was actually dead and hallucinating this walk through the woods as some bizarre after-life travel through a tunnel toward “the light”.
But even though she could barely see through frozen lashes, and the pain of snow crystals forced into her eyes when she tried to open them further, she knew there was no light ahead in this tortuous place, no end of the tunnel of trees rising on either side, their canopy above, the views ahead and behind obscured in the blizzard haze, and her other senses dulled by the persistent hiss and scraping and numbing cold of the storm. It was as if she walked in a bubble of her own suffering, made worse by a few falls into the deepening, drifting snow that chilled her to waves of uncontrollable shivering and obscured her footsteps, and the smooth path of what she dragged behind her. She had thought to follow her path back if she felt in danger at any point, despite any consequences, but as if to mock her the storm had worsened quickly as she traveled, its force not even broken by the dense woods, and closed in around her. Though these woods had often been a refuge, the isolation created by her dulled senses and deepening cold had made it unfamiliar and hostile. Fear began to push aside the veil that blinded her senses as she slowly acknowledged the reality of her situation.
She stopped, caught her breath, tried to still her shivering and looked around, trying to focus on objects, rocks, trees, things that were solid and tangible, trying to find a familiar pattern that might identify where she was in the woods. The wind and snow pressed against her, forced into her eyes and nose and mouth, invasive, almost smothering, even when she turned to face behind her, away from the wind. Is this real? Am I freezing to death? Was her life really in danger? What had she done? None of this was what she’d intended. She knew it would be risky at night in winter to begin with, but she knew these woods, even with paths covered in snow because their shape was easy to find as they wound clearly among the tree trunks, free of brush. Animals also trod the same paths, those familiars with whom she felt a kinship as she walked, alone, for that welcome respite of solitude and silence. She had often wanted to simply stay once she’d entered the woods and shed the cacophony of everyday life, feeling the relief, breathing more easily, smiling, feeling graceful and balanced and in time forgetting her own self, simply feeling a member of this woodland community, even in winter.
But that familiarity was not true knowledge. She only knew what she enjoyed and found familiar, not all that was there, and certainly not the woods in a life-threatening blizzard.
I got myself into this. I knew I didn’t really know the woods. I walk everywhere in all weather, but not in the woods. I should have known I wouldn’t be able to handle the weather and finding my way. Was it really worth it to take a shortcut through the woods because I didn’t want to walk all the way around on the streets, even though I was leaving later than I’d intended? Am I going to die in these woods tonight because I had to get this rocker out of someone’s trash pile and get it home before the storm hit?
This short story was a submission for the Winter 2016 Writer’s Weekly 24-hour Short Story Contest. You sign up ahead of time, and on the day and time the countdown begins, always a Saturday, the page on the WW website that includes the topic goes live and entrants get a link in e-mail. I actually won a sub-award, one of 15 door prizes.
I don’t remember the topic exactly and didn’t copy it down, but I do remember that in it the person was dragging something through the woods at night.
You don’t need to use the exact text or even the scene described, just use it as a starting point. The instructions said they liked surprise endings. With my recent experiences outdoors in sub-freezing temperatures and musings on the tenuous nature of life, I thought I’d share this story this Sunday.
FOR THIS LAST SUNDAY before the end of the year I thought I’d share some observations brought to mind by the darkness of the season, the solstice when the sun is less and less, each day shorter, some very old part of our brain senses imminent danger then by a miracle the light returns and we celebrate. Unlike my other essays this is equally photos and words so that you can see my inspirations.
In these darkening days it’s easy to curse the darkness and miss the delicate beauty only found at this time. I took my walk to Main Street for errands and found a wonderland one heavy, dark, overcast day in a place I had thought so familiar. I called it my “gray day walk” as a shorthand for those moments of exploration when time stood still for me, unexpected on a busy afternoon.
. . . . . . .
I have had far worse days. Overwhelmed by the demands of commercial work as my customers and I prepared for the holidays along with merchandise orders and custom portraits and my own preparations for ending the year and beginning the next as a small business, I left the house at 4:00 p.m. destined for the post office and bank just before they closed.
Though I had walked this half mile route from my home to Main Street for years, I had lately been driving, using the need to save time or the awkwardness of a pile of packages as an excuse for wasting gas and a chance at exercise and fresh air. The day was hardly inspiring—five days prior to the winter solstice the days were frighteningly short, sunset less than an hour away, and in a series of heavy dark days typical of this area in late autumn and early winter, dense pasty clouds hanging low overhead and so dark it had felt like dusk at noon, and now some of the street lights on Main Street were already alight. I nearly always take photos on these walks, and while I laid the strap of my camera bag over my shoulder I was glad that, for once, I would probably not find anything to photograph and take time from my day in conditions like these.
Traffic was heavy so I took my route under the bridge, next to the creek where traffic noises faded and birds sang, a trickling sound as water flowed smoothly past over the rocks in the shallow waterway. And in the dim and fading light a world so familiar at first appeared dark and nearly colorless until my eyes adjusted to the light and found such wonders among the wildflowers along the way, standing upright though dried and every shade of brown and tan and umber I found fantastical birds, abstract sculptures, amazing complex patters among the dried flower heads, exposed and broken seed pods, leaves clinging curled to stems.
I could not stop for the post office and bank both closed at 4:30, so I walked as fast as I could with my camera bag on one shoulder and a large canvas bag of packages on the other so that I could amble back through this wonderland on my way back to my neighborhood. The light was so dim then, as the time approached sunset within minutes, that I had to set the ISO of my camera on 800 to get anything but vague images floating in sepia darkness, even with all my settings to admit as much light as possible.
These plants had sprung up from seeds tossed here on the wind and water, carried by birds and people walking past, sprouted in spring, housed birds and insects in summer, borne their flowers in summer and fall. I had walked among them many times with my camera and sketchpad, I knew where each stood, when they bloomed, their botanical names and history, I looked for them each year and anticipated the best times to compose the images I visualized, but this was a gift in its unfamiliarity.
Now, after several frosts, autumn storms and snow, the weak parts had been stripped away and the strongest parts of them were burnished by adversity and stood dignified in the dimness, with just enough sheen to highlight their most interesting shapes, textures and combined patterns.
The background now, rather than the usual details of other plants and flowers, was darkness, the more perfect to silhouette each delicate construction as if in a gallery featuring the finest art.
Milkweed pods became flocks of fantastical birds, or individual exotic species clinging to stems. Tightly curled dried flowers or clusters of puffy seeds set loose, sere and twisted leaves and flowers of another time. Even the holiday decorations in a shop front, capturing the blue from the late afternoon light with highlights from the store within echoed the shapes and patterns of the natural forms outdoors, as the raindrops that would soon fall.
I arrived home with dirty shoes from walking in mud, and dirty knees from kneeling in wet grass, bits of leaves and stems and seeds flocked with frills to carry them on the wind on my skirt and jacket, in my hair, on my bags, souvenirs of a timeless magic, both in letting go of the time of day, and letting go of time altogether for that period. I only let go and rejoined the day because it was too dark to photograph any longer.
I am grateful to this gift of creative vision that releases me from everyday cares for just a short time, exercises those aesthetic senses and relaxes the overused worry lines, and gives me these wonderful gifts of images to share, just for noticing the inspiration was there.
There is always something new to learn about the things we think we know well. Never forget that when the light seems dim there is much to be seen with the heart, and when adversity has taken away the quick and obvious beauty, the strongest parts remain, dignified in their naked and twisted strength.