77: Art Lessons

77: Art Lessons

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Messages from Heaven

Art Lessons

The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone.

~George Elliot

When I saw my mother’s little red car parked at the curb as I returned home from work, I knew I’d find Mama Anne inside giving my five-year-old son Anthony an art lesson. The kitchen table would be covered with watercolors, jars of water and brushes. Mama and Anthony would be bent over their sketchpads creating colorful scenes.

At sixty-seven, Mama finally had time to get back to what she enjoyed most: teaching art. Although even she would admit she could not draw a straight line, or any recognizable creature, she somehow had the gift of inspiring others. Since she had successfully taught elementary students art, she now would teach her grandson.

Arriving in her red smock topped with a beige beret, she looked like a Parisian artiste. She would help Anthony put on his sneakers and they would head out for a walk, sometimes around our neighborhood and often at the beach. During their walks, she would ask Anthony what he was seeing, such as a bird of paradise flower or a seagull. She would ask him what shape it was, what color. Back at the kitchen table, she would talk about what they had seen, and ask him to make a picture. On the back of each picture she would write the date and describe what Anthony had observed on the walk. I could expect to find the latest rendition taped to the refrigerator.

One January evening, I came home to no Mama Anne, but instead a message from her on the answering machine. In her Georgia drawl, Mama reported her whereabouts.

“Don’t worry. The doctor had me check into the hospital for a few days to get over this chest infection. Don’t bother driving in to come see me tonight. I’m fine. Tell Anthony we’ll finish working on his bird picture when I get better.”

A few days in the hospital turned into eight and her condition worsened. She was transferred to ICU where no children were allowed. The doctor told us the prospects weren’t good, but there was hope. “Hope springs eternal” was Mama’s favorite saying. For her, I tried to remain hopeful. Anthony drew and painted cheerful scenes for me to take to her, but what she really wanted was to have him visit.

A friendly nurse helped us smuggle Anthony into ICU to see her. We donned surgical masks and walked in. He carried a picture of flowers he had drawn for her. Wearing a serene smile, Mama Anne took the picture from him and praised his work. She asked if she could hang it on the wall along with his other drawings and paintings I had brought in previously. I asked the nurse for some tape.

Perhaps knowing this might be her last time seeing her grandson, she made a special effort to appear upbeat, although I could see she was weak. When we returned home that day, Anthony spotted her red Toyota parked at our curb.

“Look, Mama Anne is here,” he shouted. In his five-year-old mind, he assumed Mama Anne had simply checked herself out of the hospital and was once again waiting inside at our kitchen table with sketchpads and paint. He was very disappointed when I explained my sister had parked the car out front, not Grandma. She was still back in the hospital.

A few days later, Mama stopped breathing and the doctor had to put her on a respirator. In the next twenty-four hours, we prayed and hoped she would get better. Just after sundown on a Sunday, Mama died. I went in to see her after. She lay on her bed clothed in white sheets and looking radiant. She no longer had to struggle to breathe. She looked free. Back at home, I tried to explain her passing to my son.

“Where’s Grandma?” he asked.

“She’s in heaven now,” I told him.

“Will she still come see me?” he asked.

“No,” I answered. We both cried and hugged each other.

We took her south to Jackson, Georgia to bury her in her native red clay. When we returned to California, I was overcome with grief. Not a day went by that I did not feel the pain of Mama’s death. I kept hoping the phone would ring and she would somehow be there so we could talk again. I wanted to tell her how much I missed coming home to see her in her beret giving Anthony art lessons at our kitchen table.

On a chilly February day a few weeks after the funeral, I walked at the beach with only a few wandering sandpipers keeping me company. Mama had loved the sandpipers, the beach and the sight of the sun sinking into the sea. I glanced up to take a look at the setting sun, a sight Mama would never see again.

The clouds had transformed into pink cotton candy, not only to the west but to the east, north and south. The sky behind was awash in shades of gold and rose. As I looked at the brilliant sky, I knew Mama was sending a sign. My sadness lifted, and I began to feel hope again. I rushed home to show Anthony.

“Mama Anne is in heaven painting with God,” I told him as we stood under the glowing dome.

“Mama Anne sunset?” he asked. I nodded and hugged him. From then on, every time we saw a sky streaked with warm colors dotted with pink cotton candy clouds, we called it “Mama Anne Sunset.” We talked about Grandma Anne’s walks and art lessons. Even though she no longer wore a beret or sat at our kitchen table, she still continued with her art lessons. Not with paint and brushes, but with a much larger palette, the infinite sky.

~Janie Dempsey Watts

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