So this post is a little sad so be forewarned and I’ll be posting a perkier one later but it’s a moment I experienced the other day that I really want to hold onto and really wanted to share with someone, and felt like this is a good place for it.
My mom had a friend Carey who she knew for years and years and years through the art community, and they were part of this little group who called themselves the Art Force and they all had fantastic nicknames for each other (Carey is Private Puff, Mom is General Chaos…I can’t find Judy’s and John’s nicknames though I’ve been sorting through old forwarded emails now…) and after they all moved away in their later 20s and 30s and started lives and families, they’d send sketchbooks in the mail that they’d take turns creating art in, and later they mailed each other artist trading cards, and it was always long stretches of time in-between but they still stayed in touch. I have clear memories of these streams of art trade painted throughout my youth. I remember sketchbooks being mailed, being kept by someone too long, getting lost. There is a painting in our house that is forever burned into my long-term memory of my childhood: it is parrots on a branch in a lush green setting and there are random brushstrokes that make up the jungle behind them, and two or three in particular that as a 4-year-old I was convinced was a blonde woman in a pink dress pulling weeds but no one could see it but me. Carey painted it.
And then just two years ago he and my mom and their friend John started becoming more in touch again, and the magic of music and SPECIFICALLY THE UKULELE brought them together because Carey played and my mom and dad had a few weekends here or in Chicago where they would get together with Carey and his wife Jill and drink and play ukes and mandolin and sing and do art all weekend. It sounded pretty magical. My mom has turned my old bedroom into her art studio over the last few years and I have never seen her so happy, but she is also struggling to find her artist’s voice again after being out of the game for so long and Carey had organized a few “Boot Camp” weekends for the Art Force, where he taught his painting methods and everyone got whipped back into shape. One of them took place in my parents’ basement and I was home and I got to meet him once in passing. I had a Skype date with my French roommate, and Carey was in the zone teaching and was very diligent about his art and he seemed serious and shy and I didn’t want to interrupt their weekend so I introduced myself and went back upstairs to babble in French. In person in those few moments he was stoic and focused. But through his quiet calm he was also phenomenally clever and wildly funny; Mom shared a lot of their email exchanges over the last few years. He was clearly a wonderful person. Their mutual friend Johh, a talented potter, has a daughter Kerri who, according to an old email from Mom, was named after Carey; the two men were best friends and Carey clearly left a mark. Since those Boot Camps, I have never seen my mother so motivated to paint and study and create art and play music.
Then last year around this time, Carey suddenly passed away. He was in the kitchen making coffee for breakfast and just collapsed. It was really horrible, because he and my mom had just recently reconnected and as she said, they could have been having these art and music double-date weekends and Art Force Boot Camp weekends for the next ten years. Which is the part that makes her incredibly sad. But she is also incredibly thankful for the two music-with-spouses weekends they did have, and the Boot Camps and all of the art exchanges they created. You have to look at it that way or you’ll go mad. And you better spend the time you have creating something beautiful because you really never know when you’re gonna go.
It’s been a really bizarre thing to witness, watching someone reconnect with a loved one only to lose them so shortly after. His wife told my mom to come get his music books and his unfinished paintings, as they would be more use to her than anyone. John was a close friend but my mom is a painter (potter-turned-painter) and he is a potter and she would be able to make something of the unfinished canvases.
So I was home the other day and my mom was showing me the latest painting she was working on in her studio, and then said with a smile, “I’m working on a painting with Carey, want to see it?” “..What?” “I’ll show you. It’s in the basement.”
We went down to the basement “studio” (tarp spread out on the ping-pong table covered in canvases and brushes and paint) and there were two canvases she was stretching and working on. “Carey was working on these before he died. I’m going to finish them.” We took a closer look at them. “Look at the subject matter–It’s candles and birds flying away. And it was his last painting.” We were both silent a moment. She looked really sad for a moment, then took a breath and started working. She was suddenly so calm and happy with it and at peace about everything, and it was so beautiful and I quietly started to cry. She finished showing me her plans for them, and the stack of about 6 or 7 other half-finished canvases standing against the wall that she has plans to be working on next. It’s a way their 30-year friendship doesn’t have to end.
I had things to work on and wanted to leave her alone for a bit, and then later on she was going to drive me back to my apartment. I went to my room upstairs and after awhile I finished what I needed to, then walked into the hallway and yelled “Mom are you ready to go?” I was really confused because I heard music like it was coming from another room in the house, then realized it was coming up from the vent in the basement. It was really haunting and beautiful and I remember stopping in my tracks because my mom almost never listens to music. Not totally true–she listens to it plenty but she’s a very active listener. She only listens to music when she wants to really hear it. She’s never been a background-music type of person, she prefers silence. So I never pictured her painting with music playing. I was really drawn to it and moved by it and I wanted to hear it so I walked to the top of the basement stairs. This is what was playing. I don’t even think she realized how fitting it was, I think this was one of those rare times she was just painting to beautiful background music. But it was strangely perfect for the moment and it moved me:
The lyrics made me tear up again because I realized they fit perfectly with the situation. The title alone is perfect: Long Lost Brother. They found each other again later in life and it was as if no time had passed.
“I wanna do better / I wanna try harder”- I listened to that as she was painting with her friend who taught her so much and watching her work hard at improving her own art. I walked all the way down the stairs and watched her for a bit–I felt like I was interrupting a private moment, but she knew I was in the house and she knew I would be coming downstairs eventually so I wasn’t really spying, it was more like I didn’t want to interrupt the moment. There was such a magical energy and it seemed very healing. And it wasn’t just a lyric for that moment. We all want to do better at something, try harder at something…
“Into the arms of forgiveness” We all have to remember to forgive ourselves for things. For not getting things done, for not making the right decisions, for not being brave enough, for not being kind enough, for not being true to ourselves enough, for not spending more time with someone when they were around. “I thought that we’d be further along by now”–for the times when we feel we need to forgive ourselves for where we are in life if we’re not satisfied with everything in that moment. And then put all that aside and be thrilled with what we can bring to the table. The times we got more than enough done, the times we made tough decisions, the times we were courageous and bold, the times we went out of our way to make someone happy, the times we stuck to our guns, and the good times we made with the people who mean the most to us.
I feel lucky I got a chance to meet him. This post is dedicated to Private Puff.