In the months before she died, my mother obsessed over a single event from her early life—a time when she scrawled an image on the kitchen wall, displaying her skill and testing the bounds of parental authority. Why she returned to that event, telling the story over and over despite the fog of dementia, no one can ever say. But I speculate her passion for creative expression had a lot to do with how she lived her life, what she chose to remember about it, and what she was proud to pass on.
Over the years, I’ve marveled at how her talent, one microscopic gene on a tiny strand of DNA manifested itself in each of her children. In my younger sister’s case, it’s at the surface —sometimes in physical appearance, when the light is right and she holds her head at a certain angle. She paints and sculpts, meeting the technical definition of an artist, but labels her work “completely mixed media.”
Not the word my older sister would likely use to describe herself, and yet, she too has a good dollop of my mother’s legacy. In her case, the inheritance is more a liberal sprinkling of creative dust, like a first winter snow across the landscape.
Recently, she took up the almost forgotten art of quilting. While our grandmother taught us to knit and crochet so many years ago now, my sister’s quilting is self-taught. Quilting is a process she describes as creating pattern out of chaos. Though influenced by available colors and patterns, she says the quilt comes together only after experimenting with myriad arrangements of pieces of fabric. Her “quilt in progress” is a compilation of hexagons in a dozen ice cream colors, sure to delight a three-year-old granddaughter in her pink phase. Assembled on a spare wall where she can arrange and rearrange the pieces, the effect is more free-flowing than a series of straight-edged hexagons might suggest. Still as she contemplates the design, my sister wonders if she’s made chaos out of pattern rather than the other way around.
My mother’s batting three for three, so to speak.
As I consider her endowment, however, I realize how much or little I know about my siblings. I know, of course, they are wives and mothers and grandmothers and aunts (or in my brother’s case a husband and father and uncle). But, if asked, I couldn’t say how each would describe their life’s work and their legacy.
From the perspective of a writer (the creativity manifestation I’ll claim), I challenged myself. I’d explore my sister’s psyche from a distance. The effort, familiar, like breathing life into a fictional character.
Let’s call her “Liz” and say she is five feet three inches tall with blond hair and blue eyes, though the sterile description offers little insight. Instead, I could say, she has my mother’s hands, slender fingers with nails in perfect ovals compared with my flat and stunted ones, or she wears her hair in close-cropped curls that conceal gray more effectively than any salon’s dye. Still, these are barely more than physical attributes. And I want to give my character more flesh, more color, more life.
As we’re separated by considerable distance, we see each other only once or twice a year. So what I have to complete the exercise are bits and pieces of a life, images and memories of her logged away in my head. They’re like little hexagons and squares and rectangles I have to arrange to reveal the woman, or, in quilting terms, make pattern out of chaos.
In her role as mother, and endowed with another family trait, a love of food, my sister cooked countless family dinners. Occasionally, she shared recipes she’d borrowed, tweaked, worked and reworked, and perfected. While I experiment in the kitchen, and sometimes relegate an entire meal to the garbage disposal, a few of Liz’s recipes are family lore. If her thanksgiving specialty, caramelized pecans and sweet potatoes, is absent from the table, everyone is disappointed.
And, while I am on the subject of mothers, let me not overlook the art of motherhood. Liz is mother to three—all adults, all gainfully employed and all with families of their own. Not one has robbed a bank, dealt in drugs, or run off to join Ringling Brothers, at least, not that I know. It’s an achievement deserving of the word “art” in capital letters.
Liz also has a facility with words, this perhaps inherited from my father’s side. She’s a wordsmith, someone I would not want to tangle with in a game of Scrabble, or “Words with Friends”. She’s fluent in French, a language we both learned as children. I long ago forgot all but a token tourist phrase or two, but somehow the language stayed lodged in her brain and on the tip of her tongue. She’s worked as an editor and copy writer and authored a children’s book. She’s a voracious reader and devours two or three books a week. And, as far as the more traditional visual arts go, she’s painted landscapes and still lifes, even sold a few.
As I reflect, I realize how many pieces and shapes I’ve unearthed from memory. Perhaps, if I tack them to the wall, step back, and squint my eyes, I’ll see my sister as a whole woman. Sister, daughter, wife, mother, aunt, grandmother, and artist.
One you can expect to see in disguise in a future novel.