March 27, 2017
Recently I painted my living room, replacing a soothing cocoa with a grassy green, to nobody’s surprise. Painting for me is a delicacy, revered but seldom indulged in during my childhood. When I was seven, my mom went to an oil-paint class and developed a migraine so severe someone had to drive her home.
Years passed and Mom dabbled. One June when I was nineteen, we snuck into the backyard of her childhood home at dawn, bearing ladders and cans of white latex house paint. My grandfather—a self-taught commercial artist whose glasses and tools all bore splashes of paint—popped his head out the door and asked, “What should I buy you at Burger King?” His vote of confidence warmed my heart.
My tiny Norwegian grandmother was not so sanguine. She stood at the backdoor in jammies. “You get out of here right now,” she bellowed. “I’m calling the police.”
“What are you going to say?” Mom didn’t flinch. “Help, my daughter’s painting the house?” She returned to the car for more paint cans. Grandma disappeared inside.
Mom handed me a metal scraper. “I would never have dared say that growing up.” She pointed out patches, eternally flaking because of an inferior base coat, the only paint available during World War II. “Maybe she’ll call Betty.” Mom scowled. “The family expert on paint.”
Indeed my oldest aunt’s paintings were plentiful and exquisite.
While we brushed broad strokes, white latex dribbling down our hands, Mom told a new-to-me story: about the time she drew a rabbit in elementary school. The teacher liked the rabbit so well she sent home a big sheet of paper, instructing Mom to draw a larger version for the bulletin board. Back home, Mom’s sister Betty, a teenager in high school, took the paper and drew the requested rabbit instead. And Mom, knowing it looked nothing like her original drawing, sadly returned to school and passed the work off as her own.
That story mattered because of its meaning to Mom: that she had no talent—or permission—to create art. Deep down, she believed that message. Unspoken, it made her physically ill. One might ask why my teenaged aunt felt compelled to compete with a child: Betty’s refined talent speaks for itself. There’s got to be another story buried there. Those unspoken narratives have a way of coming out sideways.
I’ve struggled through my share of migraines when I meandered too close to painful internalized tales. Though it can hurt like hell, I’ve found the best escape from such stories lies through them—peeling away layers, feeling them fully, and hearing what else they’re saying.
I heard Mom’s rabbit story several more times after that day. She walked away from each telling angry and fired up. She hasn’t told it for several years now.
Framed images—oil and watercolor and acrylic—grace her walls, painted by Mom and her grandkids. Take a look at the seascape she gave me. It’s wild and vibrant and edgy.
I’m glad Mom told that story—long enough to move past it and paint.