Six Portraits of my Mother
Liza, why don't you come outside with me?
The mourners are wearing bright colours, at the request of my late mother. She hadn't been fond of black, except in photos, and she certainly never used it in her paintings. She always said it deadened everything.
I can almost hear my mother's voice in my mind:
For shading, mix the colour of your subject with its opposite on the colour wheel, and then even the shadows will come to life.
Looking around, I notice my siblings are all sitting together in a row, on one of the polished wooden benches facing the front of the room where the urn is. They are waiting for the service to begin, likely tired of small talk and the receiving of condolences.
At one end of the bench is Janet, the lawyer, who left home at seventeen and never looked back, often too busy to even come for holiday gatherings. Her work is her life; even now, she is speaking into her cellphone, one finger pressed against the opposite ear to drown out the quiet din of the room.
Beside her sits Theresa, super-mother of four, and a moderately successful painter, one of the few who actually manages to make their living that way. She is like my mother in so many ways, brilliant and gentle. For the moment, her talented hand is clasped in that of her partner, Clara.
At the other end are my twin brothers, Jared and Cole. Their shoulders are touching, and they sit silent and staring. They've always been the quiet sort, probably because they communicate with each other half-telepathically, as twins so often do. The boys—men now, I suppose— have taken over the family farm, and their necks are a matching shade of deep reddish-brown, a testament to their hours spent in the sun.
I am the middle child, currently unemployed, the one who's always been searching, never quite fitting in anywhere. I'm the traveler, the wanderer, the one who still "needs to settle down," according to Janet.
I walk around the room of the funeral parlour. Near the entrance is a table, adorned with photographs and cheerful bouquets of wild flowers—my mother's favourite—as well as a guest book for well wishes.
I pick up three specific photos in their frames from the table, and continue on my slow stroll over to the opposite wall, where a selection of her paintings are on temporary display.
They are all of the same subject matter, an old barn that stands across the road from my parents' farmhouse. My mother has captured it at different stages of its transformation over time.
The first painting, done in the 1960s, shows the barn in the golden years of its prime. Admittedly, the boards are a little grey and worn; but, if anything, their weather-fading adds character and charm. The orange-rust of the roof compliments the blue sky, handled in loose, confident brush strokes. A nearby crab apple tree is decked out in pink blossoms, a few of them scattered like a late snow around the base of the tree.
My mother would have been in her early twenties then, newly married and freshly arrived to her new life with my father, a farmer. She had come from the hustle and bustle of Toronto, where she grew up.
I select one photo from the three I'm holding, which portrays my mother from around this time. I lean it against the wall beneath the painting. In it, my mother stares up at me from her perch on a wooden swing under the big oak tree in our front yard. Her look is straight at the camera, and she is smiling with a twinkle of mischief in her eye.
She is confident; her youthful energy radiates the hopes she must have held for a future full of possibility. The photo can barely contain a sense of excitement, the bold confidence and determination of a young woman beginning a new chapter.
In the second photo she is older, with her hair cut to shoulder-length and permed into loose curls. Her bangs are feathered up, looking poofy and soft in the style of the times. This one was taken in 1984, the year my brothers were born, eleven years after me.
"An accident," my father would say of the twin's arrival, and my mother would shoot him a harsh look. Eventually he stopped saying it. In fact, he stopped saying much at all. He had been forced to sell part of the farm after a tractor accident that had him bedridden with a broken femur for three months. He seemed to recede inside himself, turning to the bottle for comfort and companionship.
It had been a tough summer. A sympathetic neighbour had tilled the fields for us, but he was busy with his own farm, so my older sisters and I had stopped school early that year to help with the planting. My mother had her hands full with the new babies, and with my father incapacitated and no one else to ride the tractor, it had been a poor harvest, despite our best efforts.
In this photo, my mother looks tired. She's sitting on a blanket in the yard with the twins, smiling in a mildly impatient way, or maybe it's just me who can see that, as it was me who took the photo. I remember she hadn't really been in the mood, which was unlike her; she normally loved indulging her children.
I place this photo under the middle painting, the barn in late summer. There are several boards missing now, and the roof has a deep sway in the middle; it droops like the back of a worn mare that's half-ready to retire to the grazing fields, yet accepts that there are many working years still ahead.
The sky is full of fluffy clouds, those fairy-tale-in-the-sky kind, bright and almost solid-looking. They cast long shadows on the fields below, which are dotted with complimentary yellow and purple flowers, asters and goldenrod, the late blooms of summer that provide sustenance for pollinators during a time when all the other plants have gone to fruit and seed.
My eyes drift over to the third painting on the wall, set in late fall. The old apple tree is bare except for one stubborn fruit, still clinging. The quite lop-sided barn looks even more advanced on its journey of returning to the earth; the roof is entirely collapsed on one side, and several support beams are leaning, looking strained under the weight of what remains of their burden.
In its wizened state, most of the boards have fallen from the face, revealing a vast interior. It lacks the human clutter you might expect; there are no rusting tools, no broken machines, no old paint cans or storage boxes. But if you look closely, you will notice several Barn Swallow nests in the angled rafters, abandoned after another year of housing hatchlings.
The mother Swallow can be seen in flight from the cavern, her wings spread wide, and her tail splayed in the tell-tale V. She looks joyous in her ascent; perhaps the bird is leaving for her migration, the long journey to another place, a different home.
The last photo is of my mother in her mid-70s, likely taken just weeks after this final painting was created. It's a close-up portrait, black and white, and there are deep, beautiful lines around her eyes. I imagine as a young woman she would have enjoyed drawing the older one in this frame, fascinated by the line and shadow of age.
There is a slight frown to her resting face, giving away the stress and heaviness she must have felt as an inevitable part of life's responsibilities. I know I'm the cause of one or two of those creases between her brows, being the wandering child who doesn't quite know where she belongs, let alone how to put roots down.
Liza, why don't you come outside with me? Go ahead, take your shoes off; let's go stand under the oak tree. Can you feel the coolness of the earth? And how solid it is beneath your feet? Take a deep breath, my love. Breathe in the life of the sky.
My mother also cared for my father long after all their children had left the nest, nursing him during his recovery from alcohol, then through the Alzheimer's that eventually claimed him.
I always thought she must rather be spending those countless weeks outside, painting. I remember asking her about it once; wasn't she angry at so often having to set her own desires aside, to constantly be putting her boiling pot of creativity on the back burner, turning it down to a simmer?
She had looked thoughtful, and glanced at her bright paint palette, which was sitting in wait on the corner table. It was a mirror of her own colourful character, messy and wonderful.
"Maybe I'm orange, and your father is blue," she had said, "a contrast to each other at first glance. But mix us together, and you get a nice earthy brown. Your father grounds me, Liza; without having him to look after, I might just fly away."
Then, smiling wryly she had added, "But I must admit, some days I do dream of doing just that."
I realized then that her tending him— her tending of all of us— allowed her to discover the endless depths of her capacity to love. She gave so much of herself. I see now that each wrinkle is a day, an hour, that marks her quiet heroism, her unsung everyday achievements as a mother and care-giver.
I place the third photo beneath the last painting. I smile into the warm eyes looking back at me, for I recognize a fierce light in my mother's eye, and realize that over all those years her fire never went out. I look over at my sisters and brothers still sitting on the bench, and know the same fire must live on in them. And in me.
In the painting, I notice again the Swallow in flight.
"Fly away now, Mom," I whisper, "We are all okay."