She was so beautiful, all dark hair and wide eyes, standing there in the kitchen where the late afternoon light was the best. The room smelled like linseed oil, a streaked canning jar of the lemony cleaning solution more potent than potpourri. Her easle and canvas were on the island, tubes of oil paint spread out around the old fishing tackle box where she kept them during the week. She was in her element, lost in the swirls of colors and the soft strokes of her brush.
I always slid into the house quietly after school, a child-sized phantom, opening the door slowly and slipping in before pressing it silently shut.
If the house was dim, I knew she was still sleeping, worn out from work the night before.
At the worn church pew that served as a bench, I would step out of my shoes in the entry hall and slip quietly into the kitchen for a snack. It was a game for me, to see how quietly I could take a plate down from the cabinet, open the refrigerator, make a sandwich without making a sound. To this day, in my own home, if I make too much noise in the kitchen I find myself looking nervously over my shoulder.
If the house was alight though, lamps on the entry table glowing, I would dump my backpack on the floor with a thump and call for my mom. When she was awake she wasn't one to sit down, so I had to find her...in the laundry room? Her garden? Cleaning something upstairs? When I found her, I would start talking, about my day, my friends, and she would keep working, often saying "I'm listening, walk with me..." as she bustled around the house, a basket of clean clothes or a duster in her hand.
Trying to keep house like her own mother, cook, raise two kids AND work full time, she didn't have time to slow down.
When I was nine years old, my brother just three, she came home from work one Saturday afternoon and announced defiantly, "I am taking a painting class!"
"Oh?" My father responded, briefly peeling his eyes away from the television. She had been gone on a two day trip for work and the living room around him was trashed.
"Yes," my mother said, nodding emphatically.
"Why?" I asked, all innocence. This was the wrong question, but I was just in third grade. How did I know?
"Because, " she said, a hint of beligerance in her voice, "I need something just for me. All I do is work and take care of this house and I want something that is mine."
This was quite the declaration. My father muted the t.v. and leveled his gaze at her.
"And when are you taking this class?" he asked, quietly.
Even at nine I could see something big was happening here.
"Every Thursday at 7:00. I'll leave dinner on the stove for you and the kids." She held his gaze steadily, daring him to argue with her.
My dad cocked his head, a buck deciding whether to run or charge. He nodded slowly.
"You've always loved art," he said carefully. "You'll really enjoy that." Then he turned the volume up on the t.v. again.
She started with baby steps, simple pictures like a basket of flowers, or a grassy valley beneath a cloud-scudded sky. She soon moved on to creating more complicated works filled with detail and light, homages to her her favorite painters - Renoir, Monet, the Impressionists. She hung her pieces around the house, Ann Hathaway's cottage over the mantle, crowned cranes flying in the dining room and sailboats on the Mediterranean by the bath. To my young eyes they were masterpieces and to her, a declaration of her agency.
As I grew older, I would often slip in after school to find the lights on but when I called for my mother she wouldn't answer, wouldn't hear me, so engrossed was she in her painting. I would find her in the kitchen, barefoot in a shaft of light from the window over the sink, tapping the wooden end of a paintbrush against her front teeth as she puzzled out how to balance the roofline on a cottage or what colors she should mix to get just the right hue for a sunset-illuminated cloudscape.
Now retired, she has been creating art for 30 years this fall. Oil on canvas is her love, but she'll take requests - like the grist mill scene my uncle asked her to paint on a four-foot log saw for his cabin in Kentucky, the mural she painted at an elementary school. She no longer goes to classes but runs one of her own, teaching friends to make art on her sunny lanai in Florida. When we went to visit at Thanksgiving, her old easle was open on the deck, the paint speckled tackle box close by, her home full of the beautiful art she created.
I learned so much from her about what it means to be a parent and a person.
It is important for people to have something that is their own, something more than just work and home, something that makes you stretch and makes you proud. You shouldn't be afraid to try something new and you are never too old to get started. You may not be the best at it when you begin, but that is ok, you are doing better than most just for taking the leap and trying. With effort you can surprise even yourself.
Finally, creation is good for the soul. Be it painting or home-brewed beer or an entry for an online writing contest once a week, take the time, MAKE the time to create, and revel in the ability to make something wonderful out of nothing much at all.