Every year for Christmas, she’d give us roughly the same thing. My sister and I would sneer and groan at the oversize art books on “how to draw faces” like the ones you’d see in a Michelangelo painting. One time, my giant book came tucked inside a black portfolio–the real kind like actual artists carry their work in. I liked it well enough, but I remember doodling horribly in those face books. My markers acted as a stand in for make-up and I marked those beautiful faces up good.
One year, she sent a box of pastels. Another time, a set of oil paints–to a six year old. It’s fair to say I had no appreciation for these gifts at the time. I wanted a Barbie, some Exclamation perfume, maybe even a tea set. She never asked what we wanted. Part of me thinks she might not have remembered anyway–her mind, a tangled web of dark corners and mysterious illnesses both feigned and real. She suffered from debilitating depression, but art brought her a joy I didn’t understand until years later.
She loved beautiful things and even in her stormy seasons, she tried to encourage us to love them as well. She wasn’t the Grandmother my friends had. She was dark and distant most of the time. On many occasions, when we visited, she rarely left the back bedroom of that long, low, South Florida rambler.
On the Sunday’s when she did join us, she’d try to keep up with the conversation, smiling through her graying teeth and her bold pinky-red lips. On her good days, her eyes glittered like blue topaz.
In my memory, I always see her wearing some varied shade of turquoise or teal, and to this day I can’t look at that color without seeing a flash of her pass through my mind. It was her signature color.
As a child I knew her to be sick. I didn’t know the term depression then, but even a child knows a wounded soul when they see one. I wish I’d spent more time sitting in that back room with her. I wish I’d let her comb my hair, or show me how to draw the faces in those expensive, misused art books. I wish I’d asked her more about her upbringing and her interior decorating business.
Now my memories of her run fluid–a stream of missed opportunities of trying to know her better. I didn’t know Jesus then and I didn’t know how to love well. Now, I credit her with my love of art and interior design. Really, she is likely the source of my love for fashion; a trait she passed on to my mother, who passed it on to me honestly. And I have grown to love turquoise, maybe because it’s beautiful, but mostly because it reminds me of her.
She’s not here anymore and I reflect on these memories with a bit of hollowness hanging around my heart. There’s a longing that will remain unfulfilled for the should haves and could haves that I forsook when she was still here. I remember her often though, and in doing so, feel a small connection to my history. I’m returning to my roots artistically, so to speak. The other day I drew a picture in my journal instead of writing, then I picked up a paintbrush as well. The feeling of sliding burnt umber across the page surprised even me.
Some days, when her face comes to mind, I allow myself to wander through that ranch house with the brick floors. I imagine myself touching the velvet flocked wall paper in the bathroom and sitting at her vanity, admiring all those tiny bottles of expensive perfumes from Paris. I remember the beauty that surrounded her and I wonder if art and color have the power to beat back the darkness when the edges begin to blur?
In my own life, I believe this is true. Just this morning I read it:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:8-9)
I’m spending more time thinking about art these days–more specifically, the ways art heals and connects us to God. I am thankful for the lessons my grandmother was teaching me, even without her own awareness of it. I only wish I’d made the connection when she was still here.