In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future.
~ Alex Haley
This Monday will be Family Day in Ontario. It's a time meant to be spent with family members. I will at least try to spend time on the phone with my boys who both live a fair distance from me, now that I'm out in the country. On this Family Day weekend, I'd like to tell you a bit about my grandmother and mother - both of whom are long gone.
I never knew my maternal grandfather. He passed away several years before I was born, so my grandmother, who lived with us, had always been a widow to me. Having settled in Montreal, she met and married her love - my grandfather, a Polish-born man who knew a fair number of languages, and developed his career as a court interpreter. I remember hearing stories of how he would come home from work exhausted at the end of the day. Granny would be anxious to get out of the house and check out one of those new picture shows at the local movie theatre. His disappointing but understandable reply was an incredulous "Why on earth would I want to do that? I see more than enough drama all day long in court."
Granny was a native-born Russian who moved to Canada when she was just a few months old. She was a short, stocky woman who walked with a limp from an injury she sustained in a car accident sometime before I was born. In her later years she struggled with failing sight and hearing, but maintained her strong sense of humour. She loved to watch wrestling (wrasslin') on television and she could often be seen feigning her horror by holding her splayed fingers over her watchful eyes, while loudly expressing her disgust for the brutality that she opted to see.
She was fiercely proud of her family, and she experienced hardships that no parent should ever know. She had five children and was pre-deceased by three of them - one in infancy. Surviving such losses is unimaginable to me, yet Granny was content to be surrounded by her remaining family in her declining years. She became a great-great-grandmother before her death at aged 96 in 1973.
Granny up on our apartment balcony in Montreal.
My mother viewed herself primarily as a care-giver for my sister and me, Dad and Granny. She had a selfless, giving nature and she was happiest when she was doing for others. For a number of years, she worked in our family-owned business - a small but busy variety store. Mom could be found behind the cash most days. She also handled the bookkeeping for the store and prided herself on her excellent math skills, a gift I did not inherit. Mom had a way with words as well. Her vocabulary (or Vocal Berry as she often referred to it) far surpassed her education, and she was proud of her ability to spell exceedingly well. Mom could read music, and played piano quite beautifully. Though I inherited her piano, her musical talent sailed right over me and landed squarely on my younger son Alex's hands.
Toward the end of Granny's life, my mother found a hobby to help dissipate some of the stress she felt from caring for her ailing parent. She learned how to paint. I don't believe that she took more than a year or two of art classes, but she quickly discovered different techniques and soon developed her own style. She put her oils away shortly after my grandmother's death, and despite our encouragement, she never did pick up her paintbrush again. There would be many times over the following years that she might have benefited from its therapeutic effect but it was not to be.
While walking one summer's day, a few years back, I saw several Monarch butterflies flitting about, one of which obliged me by pausing just long enough to be captured in a couple of photographs. As it turned out, one of these images was quite similar to a favourite painting that Mom did, which hung on a wall not far from my computer at my old place and which will find a similar place of honour here at our new digs. My mother evolved as an artist during the difficult period of my grandmother's decline. Much like a butterfly emerges from a cocoon, Mom was transformed. There is no telling what talent or beauty might free itself from darkness.
Mom and Dad, and their shy daughter - yours truly.
This Valentine's Day, Mom would have celebrated her 100th birthday. She has been gone for over twenty years now but her colourful artwork continues to brighten the walls of family and friends. Below are a few of her paintings which I inherited.
This Monarch paused on a purple thistle just long enough for me to focus and snap the shot. I rotated this image by 90º so that it seems to mirror the butterfly in my mother's painting above. Is it life imitating art, or the reverse?
This is one of her first paintings. She used a palate knife to create this stucco effect, a technique with which she continued to experiment on many of her pieces.
Mom got most of her ideas from photographs. She'd mark pages in magazines which had images that she felt she'd like to paint one day. She preferred nature scenes over most.
Another favourite subject was children. Mom loved the work of artist Edna Hibel who is known for her series of Mother's Day limited edition plates, each depicting a mother and child. Since imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, she reproduced the above plate entitled "Colette and Child" on canvas in 1973.
This painting of a young girl and her dog was styled after a photograph found in a magazine - quite possibly National Geographic.
Of course no post about the women in my family could be complete without including a brief word about my only sister, Andrea. She's my sister, my friend and the only person who remembers some of the same things that I do. I will write about her more extensively one day but for now I'll just include a photo of the two of us circa... a long time ago. Thanks, Andi - for scanning the slides and sending these old photos.
My big sister and me.