Drawn from the Sunny Side

One could argue that there was a time when being a mother was simple, bake cookies while wearing a shirt waisted dress kept neat with a ruffled apron, and always smile. After all kitchen gadgets and vacuum cleaners had made those household tasks so simple that there was plenty of time to read Dr. Benjamin Spock's treatise on raising the perfect child; and oh my, were mothers reading and watching congressional hearings on television and becoming involved in community projects and politics. A decade that began with women living the life of Leave it to Beaver's, June Cleaver, ended with doors opening on expanding opportunities. The big picture is easy to see 50 years later, but from my limited view as a preschooler, the woman I knew as "Mom" had no aspirations other than making sure that I had a perfect life, whether I wanted it or not. Children rarely get to meet their parents and get to know the people that raised them until after the fact, and I was no different.


When I was in grade school, my dad commissioned an artist (Knud Hogarth) to paint a portrait of my mother. The canvass still hangs in her living room flanked by many of her own paintings and photographs of her children and grandchildren. As kids, we made lots of jokes about the painting because it shows my mother the woman my father fell in love with, not the woman we knew as Mom. First, the background has earth tone blues and greens. We all knew that nothing else was allowed in the living room that was not in one form of beige or another with designer names to disguise the fact that it was still just beige. Second, the painting shows my mother posed in a strapless evening gown. We all knew that Mom never wore anything strapless in her life! But what do kids know?

A local newspaper named her mother of the year or month or what ever their feature was that allowed her to be interviewed for a feature story. She sat under her portrait and talked to the reporter about what it meant to be a mother of five (or were there six of us by then?). We of course were in our Sunday best and on our best behavior during the interview and following photo session. Except for my older brother who for what ever reason was a late arrival. The article ended up referring to him as Tommy which just made him mad because he had outgrown those extra two letters at the end and preferred the vastly more mature Tom. The rest of us, who had to sit and behave during the interview, were hardly mentioned, imagine, the article was focused on her! I know I read it, but do not remember what it said because it did not say much about me.

About the time that my older brother and sister entered middle school, my father packed them up one day so that they could sit for the same artist that had painted the picture of my mother. For Christmas that year, my father brought in the first two pastels of her children. As each of us reached the appropriate age, it became our turn to pose so that we could be added to the hallway full of freshly scrubbed young faces seriously studying a future that our mother was convinced was full of nothing but bright sunshine.

Of course, time has a way of changing things. When the last of my younger brothers started spending his days in school and Dr. Spock was being convicted of anti-war activities, my mother left her apron and cookie sheets to study art. The basement became her studio. The pool table that had kept me occupied for so many hours, became the perfect surface for her paintings and sketches. She finished a degree in art history and continued to take classes in painting.

When the last of her children reached the age of the pastel portrait, the artist who had 7 previous members of my family pose for him had retired and moved from the area. I suppose that some other artist might have been found to do one pastel in the style of the previous six, but my mother chose to tackle the last one herself. My mother has painted or sketched hundreds of landscapes or still life fruit bowls, but the number of portraits can probably be counted using Mickey Mouse's fingers.

The result of her effort is remarkable in what it says about the vision of the artist. When seen as a group, there are six portraits of teens with serious expression and somewhat formal attire. My two brothers and I are shown wearing ties (they got bow ties). The portrait of my youngest brother is the only one of a figure with shoulders square to the viewer. His is the only image of a smiling face. He is shown in shirt sleeves. Finally, as much as my mother tried to maintain the formal tone of the other pictures, she could not do it.


The problem is that my mother never saw a half empty glass, a cloud not lined in silver or a person whose positive traits did not wash away their faults. I know that no matter what any of her seven children do, she will always see the smiles and triumphs. The tone of my brother's portrait is as distinctive as the woman, the artist, that is my mother. None of this has anything to do with being a mother in the 50's, it just defines the character of the woman who raised us.

To know my mother, compare the two portraits. One was done by an artist that cannot bring herself to paint sunsets, only sunrises.

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