Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Painted Lady


Wanting to believe it was Grandma in that painting drew me to the window in the mall every time I happened to go shopping or eat my lunch there. I would make a special trip upstairs to the art gallery tucked into a very quiet corner overlooking the cacophony of mothers corralling toddlers, of teenagers shyly flirting, and of weary men trudging behind their wives to Sears or J.C. Penney. So frequent were my trips to see that woman in the painting who looked frighteningly, yet, amazingly like her that I would ever so slowly, so as not to attract the attention of the staff inside, move my way window by window, painting by painting, to the shop case outside the doorway where the very large painting was displayed alone, leaning lazily against the metal easel.

To gaze at her, sitting in the wicker chair on the emerald lawn, watching the children playing tag around her, was to take me back to the visits with her when I was young. So enthralled with the scene, I would search that painting for the face of my mother amongst the women gathered near the picnic table, gingham cloth beneath the spread of potato salad, fried chicken and half-empty iced tea glasses.

 I would scrutinize the men too. Was that my father, head half-turned and throwing a comment over his shoulder as he threw the horseshoe towards the steel pin in the ground to the left near the bushes in the background? Perhaps. Maybe. It was possible, wasn't it?

And then my eyes would always return to the painted woman who was my Grandma, and I would carefully study the participants in that game of tag, and hope that this time I would see a child that looked like me.

But I never did. In fact none of us, save for my Grandma, was there on that emerald lawn, or at the picnic table, or in the horseshoe pit, or even on the covered porch of the farmhouse, to enjoy the curve of her lips as she smiled in that chair.

And I would feel a longing so great for her that I would have to close my eyes to see her again. To hear her laugh, to smell her cinnamon rolls, and to taste her creamed peas. I would visualize her black, cast iron skillet sitting on the back burner of the stove next to a covered tin labeled "Grease," and think about the meals she would prepare after she would reheat the grease, the farm way. I would remember the way I would watch my parents play pinochle with Grandma and Pappy, their laughter scattering across the linoleum as each heart was laid down at the kitchen table. I stood behind them stroking Peanuts, Grandma's mongrel dog, who had one lower tooth that stuck out past her shiny black lips, and would try to stay quiet so as not to be told to go outside and find something else to do. Eventually, either my curiosity would get me banned, or boredom would prevail, and I would scurry outside or into the living room to vie with my sister for the button organ to play Moonlight Sonata over and over, since that was the one song we had both perfected.

Then my thoughts would go back to the summer I spent an entire week in that little prairie town with Grandma and Pappy when I was in seventh grade, and remember feeling quite honored and finally oh-so-grown-up. She taught me to make pie crust from scratch one day that week, and then how to fill it with the creamy satin of the custard we had made together. We waited expectantly for the edges of the pie circle to brown, and I was thrilled when I was able to proudly remove it from the oven and serve it to my grandparents with the cream we had whipped by hand.
That week I was also privy to her much-coveted recipe for her home-made cinnamon rolls. The taste and smell of the sugar and cinnamon as we rolled the dough out on the kitchen table was mouthwatering, and to say that I was in dessert heaven that week is an enormous understatement. I loved that week getting to know my Grandma better, and was sad when it ended, even though I was getting a little homesick and, yes, missing my Mom and Dad and sisters.

However, heaven seems to come at a price here on earth. After I entered high school, I learned a secret about my Grandma that made me realize that all people have human frailties.

My Grandma was addicted to Valium.

Now, it was the belief of the medical community back in the late sixties and early seventies that Valium wasn't addictive, and could be dispensed at will. I don't know what circumstances first prompted my Grandma's doctor to prescribe the anti-anxiety pills so profusely, or even when, but it was later discovered that her need grew so great that she would visit more than one doctor to have her prescriptions renewed. After the family found out and tried to take them away from her, she became more secretive and would hide them in plastic bags in the toilet tank, or between the mattresses of her bed. Ironically, she did not die from her addiction but from a heart-attack many years later. Perhaps she overcame the need for the pills, I am not sure.

This is a Grandma I did not know - did not see.

To me, she is still the woman who fell in love with the much older man who had staked a claim with his brother, and had a farmstead on the wind-whipped prairie. Who married young and had nine children. Who lost two infant sons and survived the Great Depression. She had my mother and gave her the spit and fire of her spirit. She is that woman who taught me how to bake, who took me bowling for the first time, who proudly guided the family along the tawny ridge of a hill to see the "dinosaur tooth" she had discovered while arrow-head hunting with Pappy, and had to finally give up after weeks of trying to dig it up.

She is that painted woman in the wicker chair watching over her family with the smile on her face.

The painting is long gone. So is the mall. As is my youth.

But the vision of that emerald green lawn and the wicker chair lingers on.

I miss you, Grandma.

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