My mom and I are fighting. Which is weird. It’s our first fight since the ‘70s, when I may or may not have scratched the family car (in families, there is no statute of limitations and everything you say can and will be used against you, forever). So far we have battled to a draw. Not surprising. She’s little, and 83, but possesses the Stubborn Irish Gene (SIG) which makes her seem bigger and younger. I have it too, thanks to both her and my dad. When he died two years ago, he left behind my mom, four children, one son-in-law, one daughter-in-law, seven grandchildren, and one dog. We all loved him and were sorry to see him go.
The fight isn’t exactly over my dad, although he is accidentally responsible for it. We’re fighting over my dad’s other family.
He was a writer, and a good one. He was also a furniture-building carpenter and, last but not least, a painter, self-taught. He didn’t get serious about his art until after he retired. I’m guessing he painted about 50 pieces. He had three art shows later in life, sold a few, and gave many away.
His overall theme could best be described as biting social commentary. Or, perhaps, people behaving badly, which he considered redundant. “I Got Mine” features a rich man, with his rich wife and rich kids in the background, defiantly flaunting a mean middle finger. Another, “Winning Is Everything,” shows a large trophy reading “Number One” on the edge of a huge diving board-looking thing, and people pushing each other off said diving board-looking thing into the abyss in an attempt to get at it. “Tenure” depicts a teacher writing on a chalkboard -– using faulty grammar. In “I’m Going to the Library, Mom –- That’s Nice, Dear,” kids are lined up to use the public computer –- so they can watch porn. They are, like my dad was, smart, funny, real, and a little dark. True story: my dad’s doctor came to his first art show, saw his paintings, and said “We need to get you on anti-depression meds. Right now.” And he was serious.
Although my parents had a large house, with plenty of walls, none of my dad’s paintings ever hung there. “They’re rough,” he would say. Whether he meant style or content, I was never quite sure. Maybe a little of both. Maybe a lot of both. Or maybe my mom just hated them. No one ever said.
Eventually, when the art shows were over, the paintings were stored up in the rafters in their garage. Surprisingly, considering my dad’s attention to detail and his propensity/obsession with erring on the side of being overly cautious about just about everything else, the paintings were just stacked up there, uncovered and unprotected.
My mom hasn’t been the same since my dad died. Understandable after 55 years together. It has been generally presumed in my family that had my mom never met my dad, she would have become a nun. We often read about a person dying and the long-term spouse following quickly due to a broken heart. Although I love my mother and want her alive, part of me wonders if those other couples are not the lucky ones. Is death better or worse than living in misery? I don’t dare ask her. I don’t want to know.
My mom and I live 80 miles apart. I travel to her two days per month, just to help out with whatever she needs help with. Maintenance isn’t really an issue; half the house is closed down now. At first I was greeted with lists, there was a lot to do, but in recent months it’s become clear she doesn’t plan ahead for my visits. In between “Hello” and “Goodbye” she always, always, says “If you want something from the house, take it. I need to get rid of things.” I don’t take anything. I don’t need anything. I don’t want anything. I need to get rid of things, too. We all need to get rid of things.
My last trip up, I decided to revisit the paintings my dad left behind. I now consider them to be his other family, a real extension of himself. As a writer he usually did what others needed him to do. In his furniture, though he had artistic license he also had practical considerations; a bookshelf needed to safely hold books, and a chair needed to safely hold a butt. But with his art, he had no rules to follow. He could select the canvas size, the colors, the subject, the completion date. Hell, he could color outside the lines if he wanted. It all went from his head to his hand to the paint to the canvas. No middlemen. Just freedom. It dawned on me that his paintings were even more “him” than my siblings and I were; he’d needed our mom’s help for us.
So while my mom was away, I backed my dad’s car out of the garage (my mom refuses to drive it but won’t sell it; if you ask her why not she flashes the Stubborn Irish Gene and simply says “Because I want it.”). Then I set up a ladder and started pulling down the paintings. There were more than I expected –- 21 in all. I carried them through the house and stacked them on the enclosed back porch -– another room no one uses anymore -– dusted them off, and catalogued them. Title, size, date. My dad was fastidious with details (some might suggest he vacayed on the OCD spectrum), neatly printing them on the back of the canvasses.
Except, I noticed, for five portraits. Just random faces. Out of place with the others. Nothing biting about them. None are titled, sized, or dated. Or even signed. None ever made into one of his shows. Why this was, my dad took with him. If he even knew.
So later I explained to my mom that I had taken the paintings down. I told her that the next time I was at the house, I was going to bubble wrap them, arrange to transport them, and put them up.
My mom was, in a word, horrified.
“Put them up where?” she needed to know. In my house, I told her. I have a few already, they’d go great here. And one of my daughters asked about owning one. My mom e-mailed me. “You’re not taking all of MY paintings,” she wrote, the caps hers. Now it was my turn to be horrified. It reminded me of the moment in “The Exorcist” when the girl’s lips move and the demon’s voice comes out. If this were fiction, my mom’s response would have been deleted as being “out of character.”
Mom, I reminded her, every time I go up there you tell me to take whatever I want. So I finally say okay and you say…? Stubborn Irish People HATE to have their own words used against them! But, clearly right, I backed off. Fine, I finally told her, no problem, if you want to keep them, keep them, go ahead and put them up. “I can’t put them up,” she replied, “It upsets me too much to see them.”
Ah. Now I get it. The paintings are like the car and the car is like the paintings. Except the opposite. She can’t reject the car and can’t accept the paintings. My mom and I are in total disagreement, yet very much on the same page. When we see the paintings, we see my dad. This makes me happy. It makes her grieve. I think, “But if you don’t want to see them, why not just let me take them?” But I don’t say it out loud.
My dad is dead. But his paintings live on. So does my mom.
R.J. Colleary is a writer living in California. Next month he may smuggle a painting or two out of his mom’s house. Shhh.