Sunday, July 31, 2011

Time and Tone and Depth of Field

Time and Tone and Depth of Field

The morning sunlight falls through the wooden blinds in long white rectangles onto the floor beside us. We sit at a table littered with three or four cardboard boxes of chalk. She would call them pastels, I think. The edges of the boxes are frayed and the pastels are worn down to various lengths, some of them no longer than a match.

We are speaking in low tones. Not everyone is awake yet.

She reaches for one of the pastels and holds it between her thumb and first two fingers. It is the color of the first blush of sunrise or an unshelled shrimp. She turns it sideways and swipes it deftly in two short strokes across the curve of the ripening peach she has drawn on the heavy paper.

The movement of her wrist, the swivel from left to right, the rotation of ball within socket is so slight, so finessed, that under other circumstances it would hardly be noticeable, but I can’t help but notice it. I cannot see the mark of the pastel itself, but I can suddenly see peach fuzz, stubby and shimmering.

She lifts her hand, leans back in her chair, tilts her head to one side. I can tell she is pleased. I am amazed.

We have been friends for a very long time, the artist and I. We were Brownies together in second grade, beanie caps and Bridge Ceremonies, and stayed in the same Scout troop all the way through elementary school and junior high. We went to birthday parties and sleep-overs and Youth Week activities. We built floats and put together yearbooks. She was with me the first time I saw the ocean, the same ocean and the same beach that lie not too far outside the window where we now sit.

She was always the artistic one. Those floats needed posters and those yearbooks needed illustrations and she provided them in large flourescent graphics that matched our clothes. But it wasn’t until later, long after the insatiable adolescent need for group identification began to wane, that the talent coerced its way into the light. Now she paints landscapes and still lifes in colors deep and intense and nuanced. One of them hangs at Sandhill.

She holds the drawing at arms’ length, lowers it, and picks up another pastel, this one darker. She makes a few strokes on the background, picks up a paper towel and buffs. The depth deepens. The two-dimensional drawing is becoming a three-dimensional image.

We talk about how she came to acknowledge her gift, the people who encouraged her. Tears fill her eyes. We talk about how hard it is for children who are different, even if it is a good different – artistically different, intellectually different. We talk about how lucky we were to have parents who loved us and loved each other. Tears fill both our eyes. We talk about how easy it is for a child, anyone’s child, to lose her way and how important it is to remember that they always come back to what they know. We wipe our eyes. With our hands, not with the pastel-streaked paper towel.

The drawing is done. It will be a gift for the folks who have given us this time away at their beautiful home at the beach.

"I will have to spray it with hair spray," she says. "I didn’t bring any fixative."

"So I don’t get to smell banana popsicle?" I ask.

My friend – my good friend, my old friend – throws back her head and laughs. Loudly. Forgetting for just a moment that not everyone is awake yet. I smile back at her thinking that a little color and a deft touch is all it takes to turn a two-dimensional moment into a three-dimensional memory.

Laughter and tears in the early morning light of the ocean. This is the day that the Lord hath made. I will rejoice and be glad.
Copyright 2011

Monday, July 18, 2011

Sharing the Landscape

Droughts have personalities. The late-blooming adolescent who appears only after hope is high and the corn is tall and then proceeds to turn the green satin fronds into cardboard tubes. The chronic melancholy who arrives on the train that picks up winter and hangs around so long that, by the Fourth of July, she’s just another face in the crowd at the parade. The manic-depressive that explodes the afternoon in a twenty-minute three-inch downpour and then slinks away to pout for two weeks without so much as a cool breeze. This drought, the one that presently bears down on the asphalt and the tomato plants like a panini press, the one that seems almost impossible in light of the flooding in other parts of the country, well, still I’m trying to figure her out.

She is, like all the others, selfish and megalomaniacal, but I have observed one distinctive trait: This drought has had a very strange effect on the various species of wildlife around Sandhill. I saw it first in the mockingbirds, noting an exhibition of both good sense and manners as they – contrary to past behavior – didn’t seem to be relentlessly ramming their heads into the windows or relieving themselves on the front porch.

Then I noticed the squirrels, dark ones, sitting on their haunches in the middle of the fields first thing in the morning and late in the afternoon. They were big enough to be prairie dogs and looked a lot like them with their tiny hands folded across their chests as though in prayer. Squirrels are not usually still, certainly not in such an exposed position, flat open acreage spread out around them on every side. And, yet, these seemed to be not bothered at all by the noise or movement of people or vehicles.

Even the deer, normally almost invisible during the summer, especially during a very dry summer, started galloping across the fields at unexpected moments. Just the other morning a doe and twin fawns stood in the road in front of my car, nonplused at my appearance and convinced to move out of the way only after an assertive pressing of the accelerator.

The oddest occurrence of all has been the nesting of a pair of quail under the boxwoods right outside Mama and Daddy’s front door. They coo almost constantly and scurry out whenever somebody approaches the front door, their fat little bottoms swaying. One afternoon I watched Daddy sitting on the deck, cracking peanuts and tossing them over the rail toward an open spot in the hedge from which the two of them would rush out to grab the shelled nuts and then dash back into the cool cover.


If climate change is, in fact, happening – And I really don’t see any reason not to believe that it is. – , it occurs to me that this could be just the beginning. That everything we think we know about the critters that share our living space could turn out to be as useless as the 1973 Edition of the World Book Encyclopedia. That the whole "they are more afraid of you than you are of them" philosophy of dealing with snakes and raccoons and assorted other varmints may need to be seriously reconsidered. That I may soon be sitting on the front porch in the rocking chair with rabbits at my feet and cardinals in my hair.

Eventually the drought will end. What should be green will be green. What has been brittle will be soft and flexible. And the animals will, most likely, revert to their ordinary personalities. They will move back into the periphery. They will stop looking me in the eye. We will startle each other again with unexpected appearances and sudden movements.

I will miss them.
Copyright 2011

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Exit, Laughing

The little town where Mama grew up was so small that, whenever there was a funeral, any child who wanted could leave school to attend. The church bell would ring and teachers would announce, "If you are attending the funeral today, you may leave now." Mama, whose career goal at age 10 or 12, was to be a "funeral home lady," never missed an opportunity to show respect, express condolences and observe the tricks of the trade.

On one particular day she happened to have garnered an aisle seat at the little country church where the deceased was being remembered. At the close of the sermon, the minister invited the congregation to come forward and take one last look at the dearly departed. One of Mama’s classmates was coming back down the aisle and caught Mama’s eye. Mama smiled.

The next day at school everyone was talking about the fact that, God help us all, Frances Anderson smiles at funerals.

It was hard not to remember that story earlier this week as I sat in a small country church, beside two of my girlfriends and along with many others, to remember the life of another friend’s mother. She was one of those women that women of my generation know we will never be. She had a strength and a resilience that manifested itself in quiet devotion to her family and her church. Her response to any accolade was, "I’ve just been so blessed." It would have been easy to turn her into a caricature.

Except for one thing. You see, she reared two very human children, one of whom was a daughter who ended up, through a series of not-so-unusual circumstances, becoming a friend of mine. And then my friends and her friends started overlapping until they became our friends and on this particular June morning there we all were – most of us sitting in the pews, but one of us standing in the pulpit.

Deborah is a gifted minister and, with a close relationship of over 30 years upon which to draw, the portrait she painted of my friend’s mother was respectful and realistic. She shared stories that highlighted the talents of cooking and sewing. She emphasized faith and generosity. She mentioned the profound effect on her own life that had been made.

Then, right in the middle of an absolutely lovely eulogy, she glanced over where I and the other two were sitting, and spoke a single sentence that elicited a most unfunereal response: we laughed. Out loud. Surrounded by church members in dark suits and sensible shoes. Sitting on the second row right behind the pallbearers. Lord, help us.

Later, standing outside under the noon sun, sand from the churchyard cemetery scooting its way into our high-heeled sandals, we all talked about it. Deborah had been totally nonplused by the outburst. She shared with us that she’d suspected there might be such a reaction and that the looks on our faces had confirmed she’d done the right thing by including the slightly-comic relief. That was a comfort.

And, to tell the truth, I suspect that the laughter itself was something of a comfort, a gentle reminder in the midst of unbearable sadness that the heart can still recognize and yield to humor. A call from whatever lies beyond this life to acknowledge the grief and endure the sorrow with grace. A souvenir for the pockets of those lining the creaky wooden pews, a talisman to clutch in the days to come when absence threatens to overpower sweet memory.

We sang "A Mighty Fortress" at the funeral, all four verses. The third verse goes, "The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him." And if that one little word is said with a smile or, better yet, while laughing, well, as far as I’m concerned, that’s all the better. I am, after all, my mother’s daughter.
Copyright 2011