“Oh darn, lost my page.”
“What a beautiful bookmark,” my seatmate says.
“Thank you. It’s a birthday card that I laminated. From my mother. One of her watercolors.”
“Gosh, it’s beautiful. I paint a little myself. Your mother is very talented.”
“Was. She’s been gone eleven years.”
“You can almost smell those daffodils. They’re translucent, as if you could see the sunlight shining through their delicate petals. That’s not easy to do.”
“I’m not a painter, but I agree with you, they’re special.”
“It’s called a flat wash. You achieve that kind of nuance by brushing successive strokes of color on wet paper. It gives the petals that gradual gradation of color. Seemingly without a beginning or end to the color value.”
“We used to pick flowers for her, bring her bouquets to paint.”
“Better than buying them, like I’ve often done.”
“Whoa! That was quite a bump!”
“I’d better pop to the bathroom, too, before they tell us we can’t.”
My seatmate dashes up the aisle just as the pilot comes on the intercom.
“Looks like we have a bit of rough air for the next fifteen-twenty minutes. I’m gonna ask you to return to your seats and fasten those seatbelts until we’re on the other side of this. There should be smooth sailing the rest of the way into Minneapolis. Sit back and enjoy the flight. I’ll let you move about the cabin again, once it’s safe.”
The seat belt light dings on and the flight attendants zip up and down the aisle ensuring compliance. I flip through the pages of my book, unsure of where I was last night before dozing off. Giving up, I place the book face down on my lap, and cradle the bookmark in my hands, my thoughts drifting to the mixed feelings it produces in my heart.
Mom, if interactions with grandparents met the deep visceral needs of my insatiable childhood appetite for life, the opposite can be said of my relationship with you, where most every interaction left me wanting. It would be easier if I could write you off as just an impervious alcoholic. But it’s never that simple, is it? Like your watercolors, some of the washes are translucent but others opaque, resisting the passage of light, hindering the reflective qualities of the particles inside. It was impossible for us to read you, but that only made us love and want you more.
This bookmark reminds me of our hardy daffodils, which often had to poke their way through the remaining snow to tell us winter-weary Wisconsinites that spring was around the corner. I’ve always liked plucky daffodils. Maybe you knew that when you painted the bookmark for me. Maybe not.
Like most of the children in our town, we four kids spent an enormous amount of time outside, no matter the season. We knew the local flora and helped with the gathering of currants, blackberries, strawberries, and even wild asparagus along country roads.
Do you recall the time you and I went for a walk in the fields behind our property? It was not long after the morning when the three of us sisters found a patch of what appeared to be tiny white lilies. We tiptoed through the back door and into the dining room, hoping to surprise you with our beautiful bouquet.
“Mom! Look, we found these lilies for you!” Already they were beginning to droop.
“Oh, oh, oh…” you said, gently gathering them from our hands. “These are trilliums. Snow Trilliums. Where did you find them?”
“Out back,” I answered.
“They are very rare. Because of that, we shouldn’t pick them.”
You placed the flowers in the old cut-glass vase and filled it with water.
“Can you show me sometime, where you found them?”
My memory is blurry about when you and I walked into the fields. But I am certain it was just the two of us, because this moment felt as rare as those trilliums.
We took the path along the barn, past the old wooden doghouse the previous owners had fashioned with the silly cow jumping over the moon above the door.
I followed behind you when we ducked under the overgrown lilac bushes and past the perennial garden you’d started with Grandma’s help. Past the pony shed that was currently empty. The sheep that was supposed to keep the grass under control had died earlier that spring, and we didn’t yet have any horses.
We reached the ridge at the back of our yard where the land dropped down a few feet into the grassy acres of natural prairie.
“Follow me,” I said, springing off as if leaping into a swimming pool.
I led you along dirt paths where we chased and played with neighborhood friends. I can still see those trails, so firmly are they anchored in my memory, transporting imagery like the axons and synapses in my brain. We played hide-and-seek around the cottonwood trees, built forts, imagined ourselves cowboys and Indians, shooting at each other with L-shaped sticks.
As we walked along, we could already hear the ‘cheerie’ of the red-winged blackbirds calling amongst the cattails at the edge of the pond on the other side of the railroad tracks.
As we approached the “forbidden” tracks, I slowed my pace, allowing you to guide us. We climbed the embankment, then stopped to look both ways and listen carefully before crossing the double set of rails. I don’t remember that you took my hand. In fact, I can’t ever recall that gesture from you. Family photographs show you flinching, ducking. Was it shyness? Embarrassment? Were you abused as a child? I only know that whatever it was, it locked us out, too.
Immediately, the pond came into view. Ducks paddled in pairs, bullfrogs croaked, and birds flitted in and out of the cattails. We circled around the swampy edge and continued into the woods beyond the water. Everything was green and lush, the ground soft in comparison to the hardened prairie. We approached another open pond — no cattails, and no snow trilliums. You stopped along the mossy shoreline to splash your fingers in the icy cold, spring-fed water.
Lime green lichens covered the rocks along the shore, and at one end, you stooped down to run your hand over a patch of Windsor-green leaves.
“Watercress,” you said, and you picked just enough to add to our dinner salad.
At the far end of the pond, weeping willows dipped feathery, umber-tinted fronds into the water. To the side, a stand of variegated ferns curled up toward the sky. It was impossible to see through the dark green foliage beyond, but we could hear cows stomping loudly as they grazed in the waning afternoon light before heading back to the milking barns south of our property.
This natural wonderland formed the backdrop to my childhood, yet I have just this one memory of walking there with you. How can that be? Now I wonder, had you been drinking? Was this the unusual decision of an agoraphobic under the influence of alcohol: to wander beyond the delineated boundaries, over the forbidden tracks, to a paradise that I would not return to until later in my teenage years, when I stole out there with a boyfriend, guitars strapped to our backs and a bottle of Boon’s Farm wine in our pack?
The plane drops and a few people “whoop!” in response to the buzz in their stomachs. Out of habit, I tighten my seat belt a smidge. My seatmate returns from the bathroom holding on to the seat backs until she is safely buckled in.
“Wow! Glad I made it back!”
“Yes. Shouldn’t be too much longer.”
I continue to hold the book on my lap, but my thoughts are still with the wild daffodils. It doesn’t take much to slide back into the emotional roller coaster I’ve tried to shut down with therapy and time. I’m not sure that carrying you around with me is a good idea, after all.
Or the many framed pieces I have hanging in my home that are testaments to the ephemeral images you painted when we weren’t around. Your rebellious bouquets emerged in our absence, on 16 x 20-inch Strathmore paper, clipped to the top of your easel. We’d come home from school, drop our bookbags on the hearth, and see the paint-splattered palette sitting on the maple table, brushes still resting in a cup of muddy water. We’d find you on the couch, napping, though soon the percolator bubbled with fresh coffee, and the aroma of sautéing onions and green peppers wafted through the house.
One of us inherited your gift. She says you called her an illustrator, as if she were less an artist than you. Our now almost 80-year-old cousin has continued to produce abstract ceramic, glass, and steel structures that grace many public arenas, including Milwaukee International Airport. You labeled his work “arts and crafts.” Were you so insecure about your own status as an artist that you refused to acknowledge the artistry of anyone else?
The plane lurches to the right, a few passengers ooh and ahh, and I am still riding the crest of the tidal wave in my head, recalling your pouty poinsettia that hangs in a corner of my living room. Do its sad colors — burnt sienna and ochre rather than crimson red — reveal your response to the stresses of Christmas, or was it really that color when it drooped from lack of water?
The riotous bouquet of purple phlox and wild daisies that hangs in my bedroom appears to be a rebellious spoof of the art of flower arranging. But maybe it represents how you felt, yoked to the domestic confines and responsibilities that came with a husband, four kids, and too many pets.
The plane drops again, but less severely, and now the pilots take us to a higher altitude, looking for smoother air.
Was it alcoholism? Was it mental illness? Or was it just feckless parenting?
The plane rumbles over the rough air, but now more like a boat smacking over another boat’s wake. It finally levels off, and my seatmate releases her grip on the armrest.
“Seems like we’ve climbed above it,” I say to her.
“Good. I don’t really like bumpy plane rides.”
“No one does.”
At times you seemed happy, Mom, and in some ways, you encouraged us to see the world through your eyes. I haven’t forgotten. We always had a large basket of crayons and Elmer’s glue, and an unending supply of paper from Dad’s office. All our greeting cards were handmade, never purchased from Hallmark. We even made name cards for table seating on the rare occasions when we all sat down to dinner.
There was no shortage of creative energy, though I have few memories of moments around the oak table with you. You never actually sat down with us. Maybe that’s why I carry this bookmark with me everywhere. I keep asking myself, where were you?