I don’t think any of us knew what a profound effect it would have on our family when you quit going to art shows. It changed everything.
By the time I entered the fifth grade, we had lived in San Diego for a year. You and Mom traveled to art shows most weekends across Southern California and into Arizona on occasion. Outdoor art shows on the West Coast happen on a schedule that follows the pretty weather: Heavy rotation April through October, with slim to nothing happening in the cold months of winter. This meant that our income fluctuated too. There were times that we went all month without an art show. In the age before there was an Internet to market to, this meant no income. This meant more fights at night. More loosening of the thin, fragile thread that bound us to one another.
One of your favorite sayings was, “You can’t eat the paintings.” You were a horrible salesman, Dad. You’d give your paintings away if it meant a sale. Mom was the one who got us through. She could sell rocks to Mother Earth if she needed to, in order to feed her children. Before you grew tired of art shows and the manual labor that they involved, I had no idea what a warrior Mom was. But you changed all that the day you quit.
There are things you learn at an art show as a kid. You learn, first, that there are not many kids at art shows. This came in handy. I befriended some of the artists, and when they needed lunch, something to drink, or a trip to the bathroom, they would ask me to watch their booths for them. In exchange, I got an odd assortment of things: a Coke here and there, a screen-printed T-shirt with Dalmatians on the front and back, a Disney Pocahontas charm necklace. I learned how to listen to what sports games were happening in the towns where we had shows scheduled, because it meant lower attendance at the show. I learned how to weave unnoticed through a thick crowd of bodies, snaking past elbows and strollers with my hands full of gyros and barbecue sandwiches en route to hungry artists. I learned to calculate sales tax and what it meant to earn back the financial investment we had made on the show before we could make a profit. I learned what it felt like to be hungry, wishing for a sale so that Mom and I could split something to eat.
When an art show is busy, time flies. When it’s slow, it feels like watching yourself age, which, to an eleven year old, takes a really long time. It was neither of those things on the first day of my first show, because on that day, it rained.
Rain at an art show is a four-letter curse word. The word hangs around all day, buzzing in people’s ears. Potters don’t have to worry unless there’s wind, because the water won’t hurt their work. Sculptors care. Weavers care. And painters care.
The moment the first drop hit, all the artists went running. They dashed to their booths no matter where they were—in line at a food stand, talking to a buddy four booths down, in the Port-o-Potty. Everything stopped when the heavens opened.
This was the kind of storm that threatened from afar and then roared in on you, the sky turning dark in minutes and pouring out everything it had at once. Whatever customers we had in our booth vanished. Mom yelled orders to me over the wind, both of us soaked to the bone. It didn’t matter though. There’s only one thing that matters in the rain, and it isn’t your clothes. It’s the paintings.
Mom always kept a box full of ratty plastic sheets behind the booth for rain events. She was behind and back before I’d even known she was gone, a stack of stained plastic in her arms so tall I couldn’t see her face. She threw it on the ground and barked out commands to me: Hold this end up, clip this end here. We blanketed the booth with the plastic from end to end. Not an inch of it wasn’t covered by the time we finished—except us. We didn’t have a fancy canopy to stand under like some people did, so Mom and I clung to one another under an umbrella, and we waited it out.
That was the moment I realized the amazingness of my mother. As I looked up at her, the rain pouring down around us, I realized what she did every weekend when she left us with Grandma B. She gave up everything when we moved to San Diego and started doing shows. Gone were the days of cuddling on the couch watching Who’s the Boss. Gone were the days of a steady income and security. In the year since we’d moved, my mother had blossomed into this mysterious thing that I was only now learning about. She was a warrior, fighting in the way you had asked her to fight. By spending every waking moment dedicated to the very thing you were dedicated to: your art. And she did so without a second thought.
I had always loved Mom, but I fell in love with her that day, as the sky poured down around us. I looked into her eyes and knew everything I wanted to be. I could not be the brave that you wanted me to be, but this…this dedication and sacrifice and sheer determination of will. This was the bravery that I had inside me, Dad. This bravery, I could do.
The next day the sun shone so bright it was like it was making up for past mistakes. I watched Mom sell your work, and slowly, I memorized her sales pitch. I learned about you, through her.
Yale, William and Mary, paintings owned by Rodney Dangerfield, the vice-president of Disney, and the Walter Chrysler Estate. I didn’t know who these people were, but the customers who came into the booth did. One guy liked my spiel about you so much he bought an $80 framed print. That was my very first sale. Not bad, for a rookie.
On the drive home, we tuned the radio to a soft-rock station and belted out Whitney Houston and Sheryl Crow at the top of our lungs as Mom drove, the windows down so that the cold air helped keep us awake. We couldn’t sing for anything, Dad, not like you could. But that’s what made it that much better. We didn’t have to be embarrassed. We were free to like what we liked and sing until our chests ached. We both liked this song Sheryl Crowd had released at the time. About how all she wanted to do is have fun. You hated this kind of music, but you weren’t there. So we cranked up the volume, and sang.
From the time I was eleven years old until high school, I spent the vast majority of the weekends in a year alone with Mom at an art show. During the summer, she and I could pack the van and leave Saturday morning at five a.m., return Sunday night after C and J were already fast asleep, and do it all again, weekend after weekend.
As the years ticked by, Mom and I grew closer than I would’ve ever imagined. We spent all our time together. During the week, I sat at the kitchen table after I got back from my dance lessons and helped assemble prints while Mom cooked you dinner and you sang along to Frank Sinatra and Julio Eglesias at a volume so loud you had to shout to have any sort of conversation. Sometimes, when we had to travel to a show that was especially far away, I would get out of school on Thursday and take Friday and Monday’s schoolwork with me to do at the show.
Art shows were hard, exhausting work, physically demanding, and simultaneously rewarding and demeaning at the same time. I learned what it felt like when adults attempted to hide the judgment and pity on their faces as I struggled to sell something to them. I loved the camaraderie of the artists at the shows, but I hated selling. I hated talking to strangers and the looks in there eyes, the judgment too strong for them to hide. I hated those faces, because I didn’t want their pity. I wanted their money. I had a family to help feed.
And in every moment I spent at shows, growing closer and closer to Mom, you and I drifted.
Sometimes, when the afternoon was slow and the heat bore down on me to the point that I wet a washcloth and draped it over my forehead as I sagged into the Director’s chair behind the booth, I wondered what you and C and J were doing right then. You didn’t have a car, because the van was with Mom and me. Were you walking to the park behind the elementary school so that C and J could play on the swings? What did you cook for dinner? Did the three of you sit on the couch and watch movies together? Did you make breakfast for them? It all seemed so mystical, a far away reality that I couldn’t relate to.
What did I lose while I was off gaining something else?
This was the time that made our family what it went on to be. These years spent separated from one another, weekend after weekend. As you, C and J bonded, so did Mom and I. We became two teams, each playing our part in this life we had built, separate and together in the same breath. I knew everything about you on paper, but in reality the only way we spent any time as just the two of us was when you picked me up from my dance classes on weekdays. We drove to the grocery store, and I stood in the wine aisle with you and helped you pick out what you and Mom would drink during dinner that night. This was our ritual. Our Sheryl Crow. You told me what vintage you wanted and we scanned the aisle until we found it. Then you held the bottle while I found the alcohol content and read it aloud to you.
“How about this one?” you’d ask.
I’d squint at the tiny numbers on the corner of the label. “Thirteen percent,” I’d say.
How must we have looked, Dad, as we stood in that aisle, appraising wine together? You in your straw hat and torn jeans, and me in my pink tights and black leotard, reading aloud from a wine label as you considered the price. You drove home and we went our separate ways, only to repeat the cycle the very next day.
This was the cycle of our lives. Mom and me at art shows, and you, C and J at home. You and I existed in our own spheres, orbiting one another like moons. When we argued, it was over inconsequential things, like my determination for grass to grow in our barren front yard. You didn’t understand my constant desire to appear normal. Why, why, why did I constantly strive to blend in? It was so opposite of everything you believed. Yet I came home from school every day and watered the dirt in front of our house, and every afternoon you told me I was wasting my time. Nothing would grow where there was nothing to nurture. But still, I persisted.
And slowly…slowly…over time, slivers of green broke through the nothingness.
These were the years of our nurturing, Dad. The years we spent planting and harvesting on opposite sides of one another. They were the years that I gave up my childhood in exchange for lessons and life. I did it because you asked me to. Because we needed me to. Because I could give Mom what she didn’t get from you each night as you screamed at one another: laughter so great your sides ached and Sheryl Crow’s voice blaring from the van speakers on high as the night air raced through the open windows. Love so strong that it could endure whatever the week brought us, no matter the alcohol percentage.
I did it because C and J needed a home and food and whatever ounce of normalcy I had to give them. Because I could help Mom take the tangled threads of our life and mold them into something stronger. I could do all of this because this was my family and you were everything I had, and I loved you with such a fierceness that I would spring life from dead earth if it would to make us survive.
We were a family, and I did not care what my name was or what I gave up or whether you hugged me the same way you did C and J. I would do it. Because I am my mother’s daughter, and because this was the kind of brave that I could be. The quiet kind who smooths the seams of fraying thread while no one is looking.