May 2, 2017

May 2, 2017
Mary with collage and clutter

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Grandma and Grandpa

Grandma and Grandpa are eerily realistic, three-foot tall, apple-faced dolls who hold hands and look vacantly towards the middle of our dining room. They came to live with us after a high school auction at a school where my partner Ann was consulting. I had come in late from work at my own school and gone through the silent auction by myself. I was the only person who bid on Grandma and Grandpa: $27. Heck, I thought, they’re lovely, and the bench they’re sitting on is worth that much.

They looked a lot like older people I’d met in the small town where my dad grew up in Eastern North Carolina: Grandma has white hair pulled back in a bun. She wears a pink lady’s hat that matches the pink flowers in her lacy dress and holds pink flowers in her hand. Her neck muscles are taut with age and her brown socks are sliding into her comfortable black shoes. She’s clearly aging but sits tall, looking strong.

Grandpa is more stooped. His hair is thinning, and he has heavier eyelids. He’s dressed in black overalls and wears a bow tie, like I imagine my grandfather might have had he lived past sixty.

Both Grandma and Grandpa used to have glasses, but when my nieces Lucie and Gretchen were in town for our wedding, they wore them around the house and broke them. (It was worth it: the girls had fun and made us all laugh), and now both Grandma and Grandpa look myopically into the air in front to them. Most days, they hold hands and lean towards one another, though if my friend Ellen has been here they’re in some compromising position: maybe Grandma’s hand is on Grandpa’s crotch or maybe Grandma’s lying on top of Grandpa. (Grandma seems to be a bit feisty in Ellen’s imagination.)

I love Grandma and Grandpa. When I picked them up from the auction table to pay for them, Ann said, “What are you doing?" Then, "Where are we gonna put them?” That’s always Ann’s question when I buy something new, and I appreciate her leadership in keeping our home uncluttered, but one must find room for art. I think I told her that. She rolled her eyes and nodded, resigned to our new housemates.

Two men in line to buy their own auction items laughed to see my prize and one said, “I wondered who would have to take those home.” He clearly didn’t see the treasure I did. The woman running the auction thanked me for buying them and told me the story of their purchase, twenty years ago. She was visiting in the Appalachian Mountains and fell in love with them, so she called her husband to see how he’d feel about her paying $400 for something he hadn’t seen. He said he trusted her aesthetic, so she bought them, but when she brought them home, he hated them, and they’d been a source of tension for twenty years. She was glad to be unburdened, and I was glad to have paid $27 for such a treasure.

When Ann and I brought Grandma and Grandpa in, we weren’t sure where to put them, so for about a week, they sat inside our front door, facing the bottom of our staircase. They were so realistic that we both jumped each time we descended the staircase. I think Ann suggested we move them to the cold and wet basement, but I found them a more comfortable spot near the fireplace in the dining room.

Guests always notice them, some more adoringly than others. When ten year-old Sylvia and her younger brother came over, Sylvia called them “creepy.” When the two of them asked permission to explore upstairs, Sylvia asked if there were any more creepy dolls up there. At first I said no, but then I remembered my childhood doll that Grandmother had had refurbished years ago and now had dusty skin and a missing eye as she rocks in my child-sized rocking chair. It looks like it came from the set of The Shining. “Just one,” I said. Sylvia and Eli stayed downstairs.

Older women who visit always have a different reaction. When our neighbor Annabella, now 95, comes into the room, she always speaks to Grandma: “Hey, Girl! How you?” she asks, and then she laughs in a burst. Another time, Sister Josephina, a visiting nun from a small town in El Salvador who seemed uncomfortable around American affluence, seemed relieved to see Grandma and went immediately over to talk with her. (Apparently, Grandma understands Spanish, and the two hit it off.)

Grandma and Grandpa fit in with the folk art in our home. Most art is from travels, from cultures that have challenged my own assumptions, but Grandma and Grandpa are from the land where I grew up. They remind me of who I am, or at least where I’ve come from. They also reinforce my idea—formed since my brain tumors—of myself as an artist. 

I’ve always had glimmers of this identity: when I was in second grade and adults were always asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up (a ridiculous and problematic question), I always answered that I wanted to be an artist. In fourth grade, a classmate splashed water all over a drawing that I had been working on for weeks in order to submit to a contest, and the world of art suddenly seemed a transient one for me, so I moved on to other ideas. I was always a quirky, oddly intellectual child, and loved poetry that others found impenetrable, which seemed artist-like. In college, I remember a disapproving professor stopping class to ask why my overalls were two-toned, and I replied, “What do you have stripes in your tie?” (I am still pleased with what seems to me to have been an insightful comment on the prevalence of art is our lives.) When I taught in Dallas and strangers learned I was a teacher, I was often asked if I were an art teacher, probably because of the bright colors I wore and the outfits that wouldn’t have been sold as Geranimals but somehow worked. (Most women who turned out to be lesbians are asked if they are PE teachers.)

However, I have always recognized my aesthetic limitations. For example, I can’t draw a convincing line, and I can’t sing a note on key. In college, when friends and I were making buttons, my friend George drew two lines and a dot that were artistic in a way that no button of mine ever would be. For a while, I got into photography and thought I might teach art instead of English, but then I could not manage a course on the technical aspects of light, speed, and meters. Plus, I wanted to live comfortably with a degree of affluence that artists often do not experience.

For years, Ann and I have collected and displayed folk art from around the world. In addition to Grandma and Grandpa, there’s a wooden carving that stands three feet when it’s off its pedestal. The carving, from the Ecuadoran mountains, is of a man carrying a watermelon and a walking stick. He wears a hat, his jeans have a hole in the knee, and he’s wrinkled and stooped. He looks sad to Ann, and she's always telling him to cheer up. I call him “Woody Madera” or "SeƱor Madera" when I’m being formal.

We also have a painted horse from Guatemala, two paintings from the small Chinese town where friends adopted their first daughter, the framed poem “Desiderata”, which I calligraphied in high school, a cloth embedded with mirrors from a friend’s journeys in India, elephant candlesticks from Tanzania, a wooden head from my sister’s travels in Peru, “Susannah”( a clay doll from Cuba), baskets from Ethiopia, and so on, and so on…and photos I took in places ranging from our yard to Africa.

I own a book with photos from the poet Pablo Neruda’s home, filled with artifacts from the sea, and I think our home looks like an artist’s home, except that it’s less cluttered and more tidy.

Since my brain tumors freed me of practical worries about how I’d live or what I’d do with my life (I can’t work to earn a living anyway), my sense of myself as an artist has grown. I present a quirkiness that has me sharing poems with passers-by.  I lead a poetry club at an assisted living home, and I write and share my writing whenever I can. I attend friends’ readings and write and read blogs. I get four poems each day in my inbox. Though I haven’t published much, yet, I now introduce myself as a writer (and a social worker), and sometimes I forget to brush my hair before I leave the house. This seems truly artsy to me.


Perhaps I’m coming to a new sense of who I am, or perhaps I’m newly discovering who I’ve always been.

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