Sunday, December 18, 2016

Life Is What Happens

Each year around this time, I break out paper and pencil and do two or three cartoons with the intent of putting them on a card for my little family and one for my mother. In those hours, hunched over my desk, drawing like I did so much more back in my youth, I inevitably find myself wondering why I never found a way to turn this effort into a growing concern. In my teens, I imagined a studio where I would churn out greeting cards on demand, but not for just one or two customers. I envisioned a franchise that would eventually spin off into merchandising: bed sheets, T-shirts and breakfast cereal. My mother thought my designs were good enough to put on our Christmas card, why wouldn't I be successful in that great big world?
Well, as it turns out, there are a few dozen other folks with that very same idea. The difference between me and them would be a certain amount of motivation and willingness to promote themselves in ways that I never could. Or would. I can't say that my dreams died hard, because they were replaced with others. Some of them were more immediately realized than others. Some continue to elude me. Still, every year, that little spark comes back and I savor the glow of appreciation my mother lavishes on me and my ability to put marks on paper.
This past week, I got a big, loud connection that started to make all of this into sense. Or something like it. This time of year is also when packages begin to arrive at our door of various sizes and postmarks. Sometimes they require a phone call to confer with the sender as to the contents: gift or not? wrapped or unwrapped? secret or not? A large, flat parcel was waiting for me when I arrived home this week, from my older brother. I called for security clearance before slicing open the packing tape. I asked him if he wanted to be part of the experience, as long as I had him on the phone. He seemed interested in what I might think, so he stayed on the line.
What I found inside was a poster-sized pastel drawing of a carnival scene. I searched for a signature or a label that might tell me who was the artist. My older brother waited patiently for me to run through my incorrect assumptions. Who did this? "Your mother," came the answer.
My mother? My biggest fan? She was the creator of this object d' art? Fascinating. As my eyes rolled over the scene, filled with people engaging in all manner of carnival activities, I couldn't help wondering what the backstory was. In the lower right hand corner was a little girl who had just dropped her ice cream cone. Across the top there were half a dozen little stands, one of them labeled "Hot Dogs," all with someone leaning on the counter awaiting their next patron. Along the bottom was a young couple, taking in the sights, next to an elderly man pushing a blonde girl in a wheelchair. But my eye kept coming back to the lower left hand corner, where two young toughs were duking it out, one of whom had just been tagged hard enough for his cap to come flying off his head. All of these little vignettes played out around the centerpiece: The Octopus, an eight armed ride reaching out in all directions, tying all these little stories together.
My mother.
She drew this when she was in high school, and her mother kept it safely tucked away for all these years in a locked trunk, along with several other works that had not seen the light of day for almost two generations. I had witnessed my mother's skill with a coloring book, part of the reason I shied away from that art form. I had seen her sketches of the wildflowers that bloomed around our cabin, but I had only heard whispers about her artistic past. Hadn't she made sketches for the sections in her high school yearbook? Was she the frustrated scribbler that I was?
Once upon a time. Before she was my mom. Before she devoted her storage space to her sons' paintings and creative misadventures. Beneath all those boxes of folded and rolled paper from three different boys' public school careers were stacked on top of the bales and trunks filled with the work my grandmother saved from her little girl. My older brother was helping organize these relics when he discovered The Carnival. He had it framed and matted. He sent it to me. Now it hangs in my home, next to the paintings my younger brother has done and the paper mache masks my son created at his elementary school. Generations hang on my wall. Maybe someday we'll find a way to make all this creativity pay off, but for now it's enough. This was the art we made while we busy making other plans. And it's fine.

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