Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Art of Childhood

Margot Daffron and her children some time in the 70s
I haven't posted for quite a while here.  There is a reason for that: I was up in Maine tending to my mother during what turned out to the final month of her life.

I didn't know that would be the case when I arrived, but it was clear a week later - or really before, but we were willing to acknowledge it then - that it was time for her to stop treatment and enter hospice. The chemo was making her sicker, decreasing her quality of life even further, and not providing any meaningful help against the relentless march of the cancer.

Upon entering hospice, Mom declined more rapidly than anyone predicted. I extended my trip to Maine.  I was holding her hand when she died a few weeks later.

Family and friends did have time to say goodbye while she was still with us, although some just saw her bright smile, happy at their arrival, more than gaining from any long chats at the end. She was unconscious for the last days of her life.

There is a great deal more I could say about cancer, about my loved and complicated mother and the life she led, the person she was, about how amazing hospice people are, the enormous warmth of family and friends, and about the dying process.

I'm not there yet.

In fact, I'm trying hard not to think about those last weeks in Maine, her pain and kindness, my panic and erratic competence, friends and family and stress, the complicated mix of personalities and relationships in difficult times.

Instead, I'm thinking about Christmas in red pajamas.  I'm thinking about coloring Easter eggs and that smell of vinegar from the dye.  I'm thinking about collecting zillions of seashells and mild sunburns on Florida beaches. I'm thinking about curling the stems of dandelions walking home from kindergarten, going back to those early childhood years.

And I'm thinking about art, because art is always my refuge, even when it's not, when it's processing that which cannot really be understood.

In Maine during bleak times, art still provided some escape. I took photographs.  I re-read favorite childhood books. I stared into the art on the walls of Mom's house and talked to her one day about a small abstract painting near her bed, about the movement of paint that to her looked like dancers.  From early on, Mom instilled in me an appreciation for beauty.

Flowers & purple house, with
creative spelling of my name: Chthia
Flower, tulip, house, tree,
dog (maybe?), swingset
In Maine, my sister and I spent an afternoon going through childhood drawing dragged up from moldy boxes in the basement. We laughed until our stomach muscles hurt.

Some clear themes rose up through each of our portfolios of art. Susie had skill in creating dog and horse drawings, as well as flowers.

Tree & house painting
Hand-sized turkey bird, Xmas tree,
purple house and huge flower
She never drew trees then though, as someone once told her she did it wrong, so she didn't draw them again in elementary school. Thoughtless comments can collapse dreams and effort so easily.

Meanwhile, I was obsessed with drawing, in some combination, a square house with cross-pane windows and a pointy roof, enormous flowers, over-sized turkey birds (using my hand as the template), and other holiday figures over and over and over again.

I did draw some trees, often the standard lollipop tree, a green round blob on a brown trunk, unless I was feeling Christmas-y, in which case it was saw-like evergreens.

Lollipop trees, 2013
I learned recently that my tree technique has evolved very little in 30 or 40 years.  

Upon my return to Oregon, I signed up for another painting class through Klamath Community College. We started
with painting trees.  My first attempts were sadly similar to my nursery school drawings, even with Joni's reminders on adding light, medium and dark.

Later attempts came out mildly better - more tree, less lollipop - but it's still clear that, ahem, I can't really draw, and that limits my painting.

Sort of strange tree, 2013, but
at least not lollipop-shaped
If criticism can lead to a tree-drawing strike, praise can inspire greatly. A number of those childhood drawings had tape still stuck to them, or black marks from refrigerator magnets. Susie and I handed our artwork off to our mother and thrilled when the good pieces got a place of honor on the fridge. And many of those homemade holiday cards were tucked away for safety.  My father still has a drawer full of them, and many of Mom's cards appeared in those boxes, saved through several decades and multiple moves.

Cathedral Fire
acrylic on canvas
Cancer is a particularly brutal way to die, a disease that chips away at you from the inside.

Losing someone you've known your entire life is horrible, a shock even when you know all along what is coming.

In my mother's house in Maine, along with many paintings of the flowers she so loved, also hung one of my more recent paintings.  Mom requested it as Christmas gift a year or two ago.  It made my artistic ego happy seeing that painting up on a wall (it being way too large to fit on the fridge).  The painting is an abstract - no lollipop trees - but in it I hope my mother saw the same message contained in all my early drawings of flowers, houses and enormous Thanksgiving turkey scribbles, and writ large in cards:

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