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02 (5)

April

Uncertainty

April 1

I was cleaning off my desk. I wanted everything to be ready, just in case. There was a pile of self help books. All designed to help you figure out what you really want to do. I keep starting them, then tossing them aside. I’m not sure I ever really performed the exercises or answered the profound questions. Why do you need so many books to answer one simple question – “what should you do with your life”? I set them aside. Possible lymphoma the doctor had said. Perhaps, if she were right, I’d go through them during chemo.

I boxed up all my paints – oils, watercolors, pastels, stabilizers, thickeners, and brushes. I doubt I’ll be using them any time soon. Perhaps I should give them to some young artist, maybe the Allen boy. Art supplies are expensive and he’s in college. He’d appreciate them.

I found the paint set I got for my tenth birthday, tubes of acrylics in a little wooden box. There were plastic inserts used to mix the paints with just the right amount of water. I used these to create my first masterpiece of a horse, Old Billy, eating grass in front of the barn. The brushes are gone, the paints dried up and the plastic inserts have disintegrated, but I think I’ll keep them just the same.

I keep thinking about my mother, diagnosed with cancer at my age, dead two years later. But I don’t have to worry, I don’t have cancer.

I sorted through some old files and found sketches I’d made in high school. When I was young, I thought I’d be an artist, a painter. I’ve been painting and drawing for as long as I can remember. I don’t know what I’ll do with these old pictures, but I can’t throw them away.

When should I tell my family? My younger sister, Allie has depended on me since our parents died. I don’t want to worry her if it turns out to be nothing, but I don’t want to wait too long either. I just don’t want to worry anyone if I don’t have to.

For more in this story, select the Meet Me By the Gate tab at the top of the page.

 

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(To start from the beginning, check out the Meet Me by the Gate tab.)

July 11

Item # 40 – Pink floral china

Logan, my darling boy,

I hope you aren’t reading this until you are an old man with children and grandchildren, ready to retire with a wonderful wife. But if things don’t turn out the way I hope, I want you to have the pink floral china my mother and I brought back from Europe. And when you are married, I want you to use them often. Those dishes were never used enough.

***

 Charlie has been scarce most of the day. I guess he took my suggestion to get back to work to heart. It’s good for him. He needed to think about something else for a while. It wasn’t long before Allie stopped by. Without Ladies’ Guild, I guess she has time on her hands.

The painting in front of me was of Allie, not today’s Allie, the seven-year-old Allie. The dark lawn in the painting was forested with trees. Evening had set and fireflies flickered among the trees. At the edge of the canvas, just in the corner was the face of a little girl with red pig tails peering over the edge of the canvas. You could only see the top half of her head and her eyes. But those eyes told you a hundred stories of mischief.

“Remember when you left for college, it was just me and Grandma?” she was saying, peering over my shoulder much like the girl in my picture.

Allie picked up a bottle of water and sprayed herself in the face. How could someone look so glamorous and be so clumsy?

“I remember. You missed me so much you never wrote me.”

“Grandma was so sad. I hadn’t really noticed it until you left. When we lost our Mom, she lost her baby, her only child,” said Allie.

I hadn’t thought of what it must have been like for Grandma to watch her daughter get sick and die.

“I became her distraction,” Allie continued. “We’d grab copies of the latest fashion magazines and sit around in the evenings trying to decide which outfit to make next. She’d get out brown paper grocery bags and we piece together a pattern. It was amazing what she could do. Her creations looked like they came from the magazines. I’d try them on and she’d take pictures. I still have those pictures.”

She paused for a moment, staring out the window.

“I never knew.”

“That’s when I found my talent, my appearance. It’s all I really am. I know it deep down inside. I’ve made the best of what I had because I had nothing else,” she said.

“Allie, you’re more than looks.”

I wanted to tell her as long as she believed that, it would be true. The minute she realized she was more, she would be.  It sounded like something your mother or sister would say.

But Logan came bounding in as only a ten-year-old boy can.

“Hey Logan,” Allie called, “Are you going to visit your Dad or are you stuck with Granny Liv all summer?”

“Allie.”

Livia’s eyes narrowed. I’m sure Liv was not a nickname she wanted to encourage, let alone Granny.

“I didn’t realize you were here,” Livia continued.

“Cami says if she wanted a little bastard around, she would have had one of her own.”

I was shocked to hear that kind of language coming out of Logan’s mouth. I knew his new stepmom didn’t like children, but she needed to watch her language.

“Who’s Cami?” Livia asked, suddenly perking up.

“The latest replacement unit,” Allie explained. “She’s a socialite wanna be. You know her, she just joined the Guild.”

“Did she? And she called Logan a little bastard, did she?”

Livia’s eyebrow rose at a dangerous level while she drummed her finger nails on the table.

“I think Cami’s about to find Ladies Guild more difficult than she ever imagined,” Livia said, smiling at Allie.

The two of them conspiring together was a bit scary, but I was a happy to learn that Cami’s life was going to get more difficult.

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(To start from the beginning, check out the Meet Me By the Gate tab)

July 10

Item # 37 – Honeymoon photos

Charlie,

I want you to keep the picture of you and me on our honeymoon in New Orleans. I remember a jazz band playing while we danced in a square at sunset. I was dancing on clouds. It would make me happy to think that you will look at it every now and then and remember me.

 *** 

Charlie received a letter today from a little girl, Yamile in Sihisbamyo in the wilds of Peru. She was only five when he last saw her and her younger brother. Now her brother was sick. She wrote to Charlie for help. She begged him to hurry and come save her brother.

He folded the letter, tucked it in his pocket and went back to making my soup. Outwardly he acted as if nothing had happened, but his face had frozen in an odd look of hardened serenity as if it was taking all his will to appear peaceful. Periodically, he would stop what he was doing to grip the granite counter, staring at it, tracing the veins as if they were roads on a map.

He brought me my soup, patted me on the shoulder and asked how I was feeling. When had I stopped being his wife and become his patient? That’s how it was with Charlie and Allie to a lesser degree. I was becoming the sum of my illness. They were both so concerned I might break they were seeing less of me and more of my cancer.

So it was not out of pure selflessness that I told Charlie I was feeling better and didn’t really need him hovering over me. In truth my appetite had returned and my strength with it. I insisted he work on his project, check in with the engineers and students working with him and generally keep things moving. However, I didn’t expect not to see him for the rest of the day, but perhaps that wasn’t such a bad thing either. Maybe we both needed a break.

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(To start from the beginning, check out the Meet Me By the Gate tab)

July 9

Item # 36 – Christmas card from Grandma

Bryan,

I found this Christmas card in some of Mom’s old papers. She kept it all those years. I think she would want you to have it. I keep it in my purse hoping for a good time to give it to you, but I’m not sure that time will ever come. So if I haven’t given it to you yet, take it. They would want you to have – Grandma and Mom.

Remember I love you. We all love you.

Jo

 ***

 Bryan hadn’t answered any questions. In fact, he just added to them sending the table. I was going to make one more attempt to find the brother I was missing, the brother of my childhood.

When I pushed the door open and stepped into his world, I felt a pang of envy. He wasn’t in the main studio. Instead I found myself alone with a completed bronze horse and rider.

I heard the sound of steel hitting steel in the courtyard beyond the studio. I picked my way through saw horses holding plaster molds. Large chunks of granite and marble, their half hidden inhabitants waiting to be revealed. A woman roughed in bronze was reaching for the sky. Her face seemed sad almost pitiful.

In the courtyard, I found Bryan with a hammer in one hand and a chisel in the other working to free a sleek modern form swirling in and around itself from the tan granite. Dust had settled on his head and clothes mingling with his sweat, so that he almost looked like a sculpture come to life.

He saw me and paused mid-swing. It was hard to tell if he was expecting me or was shocked to see me.

“Back so soon. I was giving you a little more time.”

His hammer continued rhythmically slamming against his chisel.

“Why did you send that table?”

“Direct and to the point, you’ve changed since we were kids.”

“Why did you send a table from Olla Podrida?”

“I wanted you to know it’s not too late. You have a gift and it’s not too late to put it to use. It might take some time, but you can still be an artist. You have real talent,” he replied.

Bryan spoke in rhythm to his hammer.

“I’m afraid I’m past that now.”

My mind raced ahead to what my last days would be like if I went down the same path as Mom.

“You talk like you’re an old woman. You have plenty of time.”

Metal against metal rang clear.

“I’ve come to a point in my life I’m afraid I can’t turn back from.”

“You sound like Mom. She never had what it takes to make it,” he continued.

“She got sick. She didn’t give up.”

I knew she didn’t give up because, like me she never really started. I felt the need to defend myself through her.

“I know more about Mom’s illness than you ever will,” Bryan yelled.

He slammed his hammer into the granite, cracking the statue in half. The pieces fell to the ground with a heavy thud. His face was twisted with anger.

“What do you want Jo?” he asked.

“Some explanation of why.”

“There’s only pain back there. I’ve finally got my life together and I’m not going to let you drag me back.”

“I just want to know why? What happened? What did we do?”

“There’s no explanations, no answers. Why are you here? After all this time, what do you really want?” Bryan asked.

His voice sounded like his hammer, slamming each word.

“I don’t want anything. I just wanted to see how you were.”

“Is it money? Do you need money for drugs?”

“Drugs?”

Until starting the chemo and radiation, I’d never done drugs in my life and now only for nausea. I didn’t even smoke or drink.

“God, Jo,” his voice softened. “You look like hell. What are you on, meth?”

“Meth?”

He thought I was an addict. I looked at the window behind him. I wouldn’t have recognized the woman there. I’d lost at least forty pounds. My cheeks were hollow, my eyes dark, I looked tired.

“I have connections. I can get you into rehab,” he offered.

I remember how he looked when Mom was sick. He didn’t look that different from me now. He’d lost weight and looked tired all the time. He lost the look of a child, looking more and more beaten. I didn’t want to see him look like that again. Not when he looked at me anyway. He was right. I did want something from him. I wanted to use him as a crutch and he didn’t owe me that. I hadn’t bothered to find him until I was sick, until I needed him. I didn’t need to drag him back there.

I took the card he offered me, from some rehab center nearby. I left letting him think I was a meth addict rather than his worst nightmare.

God, let him have some peace. He seems to have been a long time coming to it. I’d rather he think I’m a drug addict than to know I have cancer.

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(To start from the beginning, check out the Meet Me By the Gate tab)

July 8

Item # 32 – Picture of Cowboy

In the hallway, there is one of Mom’s paintings. It’s of an old cowboy. His face is weathered and worn from decades of sun and wind. But, if you look into his eye, you can still see the sparkle of a young man.

Bryan I want you to have this. When I look in your eyes, I hope to see the young boy again. I know a lot has happened, but I don’t think you could have changed that much. Somewhere the old Bryan still exists.

 ***

 I’ve been thinking about Bryan and Allie and when we were kids.

I remember the time Mrs. Martin accused us of breaking her window. We were nowhere near her house, but Mom made us pay for it out of our own money.

A few days later, we were walking by Mrs. Martin’s house; she was watering her grass with a sprinkler, the old fashioned kind that sprayed water like a fan back and forth across the lawn.

Tick, tick, tick,

As we walked by Bryan noticed the garage door opened.

Tick, tick, tick.

He looked at Allie and me and back to the garage door.

Tick, tick, tick.

Wordlessly, we picked up the sprinkler.

Tick, tick, tick.

And slid it into the middle of the garage.

Tick, tick, tick.

We pulled the garage door shut.

Tick, tick, tick.

Water sprayed the window.

Tick, tick, tick.

The ceiling.

Tick, tick, tick.

The walls.

Tick, tick, tick.

We never talked about it, never said a word, but Mrs. Martin never accused us of breaking another window or much of anything else after that.

That had been the Bryan of my childhood, full of snappy quips. The Bryan who could make everyone laugh. He was a lot like Logan, carefree and funny.

After Mom got sick, he lost that. He stopped laughing. He looked tired, older, like he was wearing an old man’s troubles. Is that what happened? Mom’s illness had been too much for him. Maybe being younger had protected us from a reality that scarred him.

What did that table mean so tied to our childhood, to our Mother? Maybe sending the table was his way of trying to come home again, an apology of sorts.

I’m going to visit him again. Maybe this time I’ll find Bryan, my brother, the one who put sprinklers in garages and shuts the door.

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July 6

Item # 29 – Grandma’s cookbook

Allie,

You should take Grandma’s cookbook and find someone who will actually use it after you. I didn’t give you Grandma’s patterns because; well I’m just a little more shallow than you. Yes, it surprises me too. Now you can have them both.

Love,

Jo

 ***

 Allie brought me Grandma’s old cookbook today. I didn’t even know she had it. I don’t sew and I have her patterns and Allie doesn’t cook and she has her cookbook. Between the red and white cover are standard recipes and Grandma’s family recipes handed down for generations. The lightest, fluffiest biscuits you’ve ever tasted; the best chicken and dumplings; and pies of every type. Except kidney pie I was always grateful that her recipes didn’t include kidney pie. She gave me Grandma’s cookbook saying I’d make better use of it.

I remember Grandma spending days in the kitchen baking at Christmas. Grandma was full of country wisdom doled out over the mixing bowl. One thing she use to say was you don’t have to be the smarter or prettiest or even the kindest, but you have to be willing to stand up for yourself. How long has it been since I believed in myself enough to stand up?

***

Being an “artist” is a lonely path. You paint and work and hope, pouring yourself into your work, with the hope that it is good enough. The only way to know if it’s good enough is by the judgment of other people. In the appreciation they express when they are willing to spend money to possess a little bit of your passion, to share in the glory of your work. Then you are an artist, a real artist, not just a woman who plays with paints, dreaming of her chance.

I had Allie put a few of my smaller paintings in the car so I could take them to the gallery I went to weeks ago. It’s the only one on my way to treatment.

I took two of my lighter works inside. Since I started smoking the cigarettes, my paintings had become less dark. Instead of blacks and grays with the occasional reds and gold undertones, my paintings sang of blues, greens, indigos and violets. Some soaring with color like jewels others more muted like the warm shades of a spring afternoon.

I walked inside with my stomach swirling. My shoes echoed on the floor like I had entered a sacred place where I didn’t really belong. I felt myself shrinking in size and importance. Another black clad young woman approached.

I decided to tell her directly my interest. I didn’t have enough time to play.

“I have a couple of paintings I’d like you to take a look at.”

I started unwrapping them.

“Whose?” she asked.

“Mine.”

“And you are?”

“Jolene Randall.”

“Never heard of you,” she said, turning to walk away.

“I know you’ve never heard of me. I just want you to take a look at these.”

I held them out for her to examine.

“New artists must submit eight by ten glossies of their work. Once we review the work, we’ll contact you if we feel your image is in line with ours,” the clerk recited.

“How long does that take?”

“Eight to ten months.”

“I don’t have that kind of time.”

“No one ever does,” she sighed.

“You don’t understand. Can’t you just look at them and tell me if I’m wasting my time?”

“You don’t understand. We have hundreds of inquiries. If I took the time to look at everyone’s work, I wouldn’t have time for anything else.”

“I’m just asking for a few minutes.”

“The name on the door isn’t yours. The owner decides what we do and don’t do here. And we don’t review artists’ works in the lobby. If you want any hope of ever showing in this or any other gallery, you’ll learn to follow the rules,” the pale clerk said.

As I started to leave, she continued, “And I don’t have to take a look at your work, I can look at you and tell you’re wasting your time here. You aren’t the kind of artist we’re looking for.”

When Allie heard the results, she wanted to kick some skinny, black clad, snooty butt, which wouldn’t have helped my cause.

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July 5

Item # 25 – Plans for my studio

Allie,

I had the plans for my studio framed. I’d like you to have them. They really are a work of art.

 ***

 I remember when I was a child, my Mother use to forget her birthday. I never did understand that. How can you forget your birthday? That and she use to say chocolate was too sweet. When I was a kid I was completely baffled. How can chocolate be too sweet? I confess I’m still baffled over that one. I’ve never found chocolate too sweet.

However, the birthday thing I get. I had completely forgotten it was my birthday. I don’t think it’s that unusual. When you reach a certain age, though it may be different for us all, we start letting ourselves forget the passage of time. But this year was different. I didn’t try to forget it. I didn’t ignore it. Time has started to lose meaning. That happens when you’re spending the majority of your time sleeping.

Charlie, Allie, Logan and Livia came in with a vanilla cupcake singing happy birthday. I’m happy to say I was able to enjoy the cupcake without incident. The four of them insisted that I go outside with them to see my gift.

I thought perhaps they’d gotten me new plants, lawn furniture or a porch swing. We got to the edge of the yard where the old workshop stood.

When Charlie and Allie pulled the doors open light came pouring out. The old beams were still exposed between the soft white walls. My paintings hung from the finished walls. The garden and creek were clearly visible outside the wall of windows. Plumbing had been run to rinse brushes and dilute paints. There must have been ten easels ready for use. The table Bryan sent sat in the center of the room set for a birthday party.

I had a studio.

“When did this happen?” I asked.

How did I miss the construction going on in my own back yard?

“The past few weeks. It was mostly Allie,” Charlie replied. “When she sets her mind to something, nothing and no one is going to get in her way, not even construction workers.”

“An artist needs a studio,” is all she would say.

I don’t know that I’ve loved anything so much. I have my own space, my own studio. I am an artist, well almost.

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July 4

Item # 22 – Button Box

Allie,      I know you thought I was a nut for keeping the strange odds and ends when we had to move.  In my bureau is one of those things. I have an old wooden cigar box covered with buttons. Mom made it for Grandma when she was a little girl. Inside is a tube of glue. Over the years, buttons have fallen off and I glue them back on. Now it’s your turn.

 ***

 My college years were filled with dark, desperate days. I felt like I was born old. I didn’t have time for parties, drinking or smoking. I was busy working during the day, going to school at night and taking care of Allie in between. So when Allie and Charlie told me they had something for the nausea, excuse me if I didn’t quite get it.

Allie came in grinning. Charlie closed the bedroom door.

“Have we got something for you,” she almost sang.

“Shhhh,” Charlie reprimanded, “I don’t want Logan to know.”

“He won’t. We’ll just call them “cigarettes”.”

Allie handed me a homemade cigarette.

“I don’t smoke,” I protested.

What idiots? Here I am puking my guts out and they want me to start smoking.

“These aren’t regular cigarettes. These are special cigarettes. They’ll help with the nausea,” Allie said, pulling a home rolled cigarette out.

At this point I was ready to try anything.

So I sat up, leaning against the headboard, my bowl handy just in case.

“Here, I’ll show you how,” Allie volunteered, grinning.

You couldn’t wipe the grin off of Allie’s face if you wanted to. Charlie looked sheepish and shrugged.

Those little “cigarettes” as we call them have turned out to be a life saver, literally. I was losing fifteen pounds a week and since using them, I only loose a few pounds. I’ve actually had some weeks when I haven’t lost any weight.

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July 3

Item # 17 – Small box in top bureau drawer

Logan,

This box contains a sticker Livia found under her saddle one day. I’m sure you remember the day I’m referring too. Livia knew what you’d done, but played along. She’s a better sport than I imagined.

 ***

 Logan was excited when he came back from his first riding lesson.

“Mom, you should have been there,” his voice rose with each word, until he was practically yelling. “Livia’s horse went wild. He was bucking and started running. You should have seen it. It was so cool.”

“It was nothing an experience horse woman couldn’t handle.”

Livia folded her hands across her lap. She was the picture of gentility, sitting stiff backed, ankles crossed. But today, an extra smile played across her lips.

“She stayed on his back like one of those cowboys at the rodeo,” Logan continued.

I asked what happened.

“I don’t know,” he said.

He sounded a little too innocent for my liking.

“These things happen,” Livia confirmed.

After Logan ran upstairs, Livia told me the truth.

“That little rapscallion put a cockle under my saddle.”

Livia produced the offending sticker.

“Are you ok? I can’t believe he would do something like that. I’ll have a talk with him.”

I fully intended to ground him to Livia’s care for the remainder of the summer and hard labor during off hours.

“Not necessary. I’m taking care of it,” Livia insisted.

“Are you sure?”

“Oh yes, dear. You just worry about you. I can handle one prepubescent boy.”

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July 2

Item # 11 – Grandma’s Blanket

Allie I want you to keep Grandma’s blanket and think of me. And when I’ve gone, I’d like you to see that it’s passed on to Logan. I’ve spent a lot of time under this blanket lately. Picking out the fabrics from Grandma’s shirts has become a pastime for me these days. I’ve found great comfort in this quilt.

 

***

 

I wrapped myself in Grandma’s tattered, old quilt today. The stitching was coming apart, but for once I didn’t worry about trying to repair it. Some of the fabrics were rotting away. The green and white polka dots had disappeared, leaving small holes in their places. I didn’t try to fight the eventual decay and destruction; I just let it be what it was intended to be, warm and comforting.

It’s by no means beautiful, mostly cotton fabrics, truly random, – plaids, solids and florals. I always look for one fabric in particular, an Indian boy paddling down a green river. Every color from pastel blues, pinks and yellows to dark brown, black, grey, and indigo was present, darks and lights, happy and sad, more happy than sad. I took comfort in that.

These squares of once vibrant cottons, now muted with age, were the remnants of Grandma’s shirts. I could see her out in the garden; straw hat, pedal pushers, and a wheelbarrow, wearing a colorful cotton shirt.

We’d cook and can all summer. At Christmas, we’d open a jar of pickled okra, when memories of fried green tomatoes had long since passed and remember summer days all over again. Those memories come back to me now.

The quilt had been lost, tucked away in Grandma’s closet. Its memory lost with it. After Grandma was gone, the house and everything in it was being sold.

“If you want anything, you’d best take it,” the voice on the phone had said.

We went back one more time; Allie and I. Everything of value had been taken. Allie was sentimental to the end. She sat in the middle of Grandma’s sewing room. I suppose she was looking for the Holy Grail. Something that would have special meaning that was quintessentially Grandma. Something she could hold onto.

When Allie was a girl, she was always at Grandma’s side, out in the garden or standing at the edge of her sewing machine. Allie had turned to Grandma when Mom died. So Grandma’s death had hit her particularly hard. After Grandma died, Allie was more drawn into her own world. Allie-land I sometimes called it. Things seemed to be more about Allie and less about everyone else.

That’s when I snagged a box of dress patterns from the nineteen forties and fifties. She had looked at them longingly.

“I’m the one who sews,” she said, implying they would be better off in her hands, perhaps she was right.

“I’ll share them with you.” I reassured her, lying.

To the victor goes the spoils, I thought.

Bored, I moved onto Grandma’s sewing closet. It was like a dimly lit, walk in pantry. The shelves on three sides were loaded with fabrics from floor to ceiling. The strong smell of musty mothballs brought a tickle to the back of my throat.

On a top shelf, I saw an old quilt, falling apart.

I thought someone could make a pillow out of what’s left.

I noticed five or six black smudges on the edge of one corner.

“Tar, I don’t know if I can get that out.”

I looked closer. It wasn’t tar. Jolene was written on one corner in faded black marker. It was my quilt. Grandma must have always meant it for me.

Since that time, I’ve tried to shore it up with stitching to hold the pieces together, but not tonight. Tonight I wrapped myself in Grandma’s quilt.

Logan brought me a book that I read to him when he was younger. He asked me to read it to him again. I started to say no, but then thought what am I doing? When will I get this chance again? So I started to read.

It wasn’t long before he pulled up a stool and sat with his head leaning against my knee. Charlie pulled up a chair and we sat together listening to how Dorothy made her way through Oz.

Life’s too short not to live it. I may have weeks left or I may have years. Either way, I have a lot I want to do, so I need to stop wasting time. I need to stop wasting time being angry and start doing what matters with the people who matter.

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