My Aunt Mary and I were having this conversation in e-mail about the usual stuff. I shared this thought I’ve been having lately, about something I remember Ron Howard saying on an interview on Entertainment Tonight a long ol’ time ago, which is that we spend the rest of our lives getting over our childhoods.
I think it’s going to take me a lot longer than that.
So this picture that you see here is of Marblehead, Massachusetts. It’s the beach at the end of Jersey Street, where my mom Pat and Aunt Mary grew up. I grew up hearing stories about Marblehead and how it’s the most magical, wonderful place for a kid to be. The cast of characters included the mean kids, Jimmy and Tippy who lived across the street, Mr. and Mrs. Silly who lived on the old Looney farm, with action packed adventures in the woods, the rocky beaches of Marblehead, all with their loveable mut of dog Jeep. When I got to Marblehead finally last year, I felt like I’d been there so many times.
There’s one part that sticks in my mind right now and that was the tuberculosis epidemic. This was all before World War II, to put a time frame on it. Maybe because in my six year old mind, I couldn’t fathom how my mother at age six was taken away from her family to live in a hospital for the next three years. Or how her own mother was taken away the year before. All eventually made it home again, but memories such as these never registered in my mind as particularly difficult times, just realities of the times, either because I was too young to comprehend or perhaps its just how my mother told the stories. It was just a detail, but not the only detail, from the Adventures from Marblehead. We’d hear these stories before bedtime all the time. “Tell us another one,” Maggy and I would say when Mom tucked us into our beds. And she’d would lull us to sleep with her tales, and we’d be transported back in time, back before there was television, when houses weren’t surrounded by fences and you could ride your sleigh down Jersey Street in the wintertime and run and run through the woods in the summer.
What I never picked up from my mother was that life was hard. Maybe she was shielding us from the truth or maybe that’s just how she wants to remember it. Through this act of story telling, she created a reality that she could live with. This is what I like about story telling. We can take the good parts and embellish them a little bit. And then we can tell these stories to our friends or our kids or you name it. And we might get some laughs out of them, which turns the memories into something else, something maybe a little bit better than what really happened.
Which makes me think about my Boppy, my mom’s dad, and all his stories about growing up on a farm in Hampton, Nebraska. He even wrote some of these stories down and I have them somewhere. Or my mom does. Somebody does. How we’d laugh and laugh at his tales about chasing a ram and getting caught in a barbed wire fence, or how he fell off a horse and broke his arm and had to wait for the doctor to ride in from town to fix it. That one was hilarous for some reason.
But why. What’s so funny about breaking bones. And yet, I break bones all the time and people laugh. It’s just easier to laugh sometimes. What else are you going to do.
My own Grandma was a story teller, too, and she, like my Aunt Mary and my cousin Nell, could also tell stories in paintings. I have one hanging in my dining room. It’s of my Grandma and her brothers Clyde and Ray as little kids, dancing while their mom played Chopin’s Mazurka on the piano. You can see their grandfather’s feet on the footrest. They’re having a ball, their arms, legs and hair all crazy and wild.
Other paintings depict harder times, like the smallpox, bears and the threats of Indian attacks on the South Dakota plains. My gramma used bright, vibrant colors and all the people have auras. Because she could see them, she said.
My Grandma started these paintings for my Boppy when he dying. She wanted to help him remember his life and her life. And then I guess she really got going. This is the pain you don’t see in these paintings. She turned it around, bringing the past back to life for us the way she’d want us to remember it. Now her memories will live forever. And in a way, so will Grandma.
“God bless whoever it was who taught my Grandma how to paint,” I told Aunt Mary.
Then Mary told me about her chickens. Now, I’d always wondered about her chickens. They’re all over her website. They’ve toured galleries all over the U.S. and even the U.K. These chickens are going places. So what’s the deal with the chickens, I wondered. My Aunt Mary writes:
I remember telling Pat last year that the chickens I’ve been drawing for two or three years have something to do with Grandma Myrtle clobbering one of the family hens when we visited the farm.
I was only two and depend a lot on stories and old pictures for my stuff. But I sure remember all the eggs that were inside that hen after she stopped dancing around the kitchen. I also remember thinking Myrt was tough. The drawing on my website, Egg Runner, is about that moment. End of history lesson. with love, Auntie M
God bless you, Auntie M. You’ve brought all those chickens back to life.