Yesterday I spent the whole morning with my seven -year- old granddaughter.We haven’t been together very much so I was disappointed when at first Sofia declined my invitation to come to my house to see some peafowl that I have just acquired. Hiding my disappointment I accepted her decision pleasantly, saying in a mild tone
“Come whenever you can .” She changed her mind and decided to come right that moment.
I drove up the country road to Rockfield as she played on her brightly coloured little iPad beside me .Unknown to her I had an agenda which was to entice her to spend the morning in the real experience of nature which I was sure I could make as interesting as the abstract experiences on her little machine.
I spotted a lovely abandoned bird’s nest in a branch low over the road and stopped the car.”Lets get the bird’s nest,” but it was too high for us to reach.Luckily the very first man who came along down the road was someone I knew , he was the man in a roadside stall that I often buy breadfruit from on the way home.
He got the nest for us easily and the leafy branch it sat on was so lovely I thought I would draw it later. Right where we stopped there was a little lean to made of a few bamboo stalks.
“What a lovely house for us Sofia.”
“Nonna,that house is very mashed up and doesn’t have a roof!”
“Yes but it would be very cool and airy with out a roof or even a back wall. It doesn’t have any furniture either but we could get a chair for you and one for me.”
“There is no space for a bed.”
“Right but we could get all your animals from your bed at home and make a bed out of the two chairs. Certainly we would have to fit in the tiger- he would definitely have to come.”
She had shown me how she slept at home curled up in her small bed making room for all the animals especially the tiger.
I was enjoying the sweetly puzzled look in her eyes as we had this conversation and could plainly see her thoughts.I know Nonna isn’t serious she is just saying these things but why?I had seen that weighing look before in her father’s eyes at the same age, like him she finally decided it was a game and to just play along with it.
When we got to the house she went immediately to see the birds and to photograph them with her iPad.Her pictures were good and at one point to improve them even more she got inside the cage with the peafowl.
Later she found a small bunch of guineps in the fridge.
“I hope you are O.K with me having these” she said “I love guineps because they take so long to eat and they’re so good.”
“Oh yes…. there are a few chocolates in there too.”Guineps, chocolates and a slice of warmed up pizza -a perfect kid’s meal.
We found “shame- me- lady weeds”, which she called “shy lady”, we made small boats out of leaves to float on one of the rain water tanks, picked off some dead heads and scattered the seeds in the flower beds .She forgot her iPad in the kitchen as we roamed about and then after a long while, she said she would like to go home.I didn’t think it would be wise to press my luck and ask her to pose for me, maybe next time.So we said goodbye to the birds.
‘The next time you come they will be out of the cage.”
As we went to the car she clutched two guineps on a tiny stalk.Why don’t you finish those off?
“I’m taking them for Zoe”.Her sister.
I thought of my father who couldn’t eat a whole mango without saving a cheek of it in the hope that one of us would come by to share it with him.Sometimes the cheek he saved would be way past its prime by the time someone came but he just couldn’t enjoy it all by himself.
“Oh, don’t worry we ‘ll buy some more on the way home.”
I got a big bunch and she broke a small bunch from the big one.
“No they are all for you.”
“”Nonna you are so nice!”
There is such an affinity between the very young and the old.Everything that I have learned in life she knows right now.I aspire to be just like her and feel validated by her enjoyment of the simple things in life. People get muddled along the way,we get complicated somewhere between seven and seventy but if I’m very careful I hope to be more and more like Sofia as time goes on.
Children like animals sense what is genuine and what is not.Sofia knew how much I had enjoyed her company.When she wanted to pick every tiny bit of diced tomato off her slice of pizza I got her a toothpick to help and felt her gratitude for the assistance and my respect for her choices.
The morning had melted like butter in the sun .At seven she is very kind, thoughtful and calm.When I left her my heart was light and I look forward so much to the next time we are together. In the meantime I can’t think of Sofia without smiling.
On Being Seventy
On the day before my birthday I asked a friend why was it that even though one did the work, stayed positive about life, felt love and gratitude and certainly counted one’s blessings, why then, didn’t the underlying anguish of life, that sense of incompleteness, the loss of paradise, Go Away?
She said ; “Because you are paying lip service to it. You are not really counting your blessings.”
Birthdays. Bah humbug. I was never too interested in them and usually find them quite easy to ignore but this one is quite daunting, bringing as it does, a whiff of mortality wafting in the candles on the birthday cake. Focusing more on what I hadn’t gotten in life and most likely now, would not get, I approached the seventieth birthday a little fearfully; well fear is too strong a word…let’s say I was wary of this one…
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“The light….the light”
Lisa is here. She keeps darting away to the end of the barbecue, I can see her crouching under the otaheite apple, hear her muttering and occasionally screaming in a state of high excitement. This is familiar behavior from her last trip and the one before. Its still quite hard to have a conversation, like talking to a whirling dervish.
“I can hear you” she shouts.”Go on”… What was I saying again?
“Look at this!” she shows me a picture of her own feet crushing the improbably colored, impossibly colored, Schiaparelli pink blossoms under the tree.
Lisa is an artist, which by now, you have probably gathered and one that I am always glad to show my work to because she stands up to me.
“That chair is too big.”
“No it isn’t, I’m actually quite pleased with the chair.”
“I’ll prove it to you.”
She tears a bit of newspaper and rubs some grey paint on it and sticks it over the chair, temporarily covering it up on the canvas.
“Come back here with me and look.”
A revelation. I had been wondering why I couldn’t bring the painting to completion.The chair was stopping the eye from circling round the picture, holding the eye of the viewer too firmly in its well-painted grasp. If I removed it, the painting would be finished.
Another visiting artist friend mutters
“I was trying to tell you that, Judy.”
“Yes, but she made me listen.” I’m so grateful as I scrape out the very chair I was proud of and sacrifice it to the greater good of the painting.
I do this for her sometimes too. Its really just being a fresh eye but so rare and as painters dwindle down to a precious few, so precious.The balance has to be sensitive as well as practical in order to be helpful , coming from an understanding of what the artist is trying to do rather than dismissing the whole exercise with a common and garden
“It looks alright to me” or worse,”Well I think its just fabulous. So, how long did that one take you?’
Apart from painting Lisa cooks. My kitchen counter becomes her studio which is at times quite annoying.
“Why don’t you paint somewhere else for a change?”
“Because the blue tiles reflect the clouds in the sky outside the window.”
“Oh….well….. O.K then.”
Lisa mirrors so much in me that I find completely natural. and validates by sharing it with me what I find most valuable in my life.When she is around I see why The Others react to me the way they do, although I learned long ago to repress this side of me and keep it well hidden from the exchanged looks combined with widened eyes and slightly shaking head which I so often caught to my dismay, when I was younger.We are not crazy exactly, which is the generic explanation, just very absorbed in a different set of priorities and puzzled by the indifference of others to what we find important and equally bored with the enormous list of sensible requirements which we find unnecessary. Its comforting for both of us to spend a couple of days on the same wavelength and a huge part of this shared wavelength is about food, which we eat first with our eyes.
That we can’t have the pumpkin because it hasn’t been painted yet seems perfectly normal to us ; the food is selected for our eyes first and tastes better because it is eaten twice.
To be a painter looks so easy and the rather ruthless ignoring of all the other things that would keep you from it in a day looks so “selfish” to others. This selfishness is judged harshly by the people outside of our cocoons, the ones who feel that as we are doing what makes us happy anyway, we can’t expect to make money too, because then we would have everything and that would not be fair. They won’t listen to our struggles, shutting out our piteous cries with an implacable question
‘WHO TOLD YOU TO BE AN ARTIST ANYWAY? YOU ARE UNREASONABLE AND I HAVE NO TIME OR SYMPATHY FOR YOU.’
Painters know and only painters, the enormous price that is paid daily for their freedom and that is why its so important, so comforting to have a Friend in Painting.
Welcome back Lisa.
It would surprise most men to know how easily women size each other up , as most of them have no idea how to choose a woman especially in the most important area of all, for marriage. So the moment when your only son brings a woman to meet you is a moment of high tension nervously disguised under a patina of careful politeness but full of trepidation for both women.
It was Christmas at Rockfield and significantly, his father was visiting from America when Sabrina was brought to join us for the weekend. She was quiet, calm and pleasant without being over friendly, what we called in the sixties,”cool “ and this attractive manner was matched by a unique beauty; an hour glass figure and long tangled, honey-coloured hair. She was as easy on the eyes as she was pleasant to be with, a very feminine combination. When they were leaving she said “Thank you Judy, its a long time I have not been in a family.” We both, his father and I, liked her very much.
I did not see her again until about a year later when Alexei invited me to join them for lunch and said “Mom. I’ve asked Sabrina to marry me.” I got up from my chair and embraced him moved by his trust in life,which is really courage, at twenty -seven years old. Afterwards I said to him, “Darling, most men have no idea how to choose a woman, this is a very intelligent choice. We women know each other and this is a clean woman, she looks you right in the eye, no sneakiness, she will never be negative, never pull you down. Best of all, she laughs, and that laughter will lighten life when it gets heavy; this is one for the long haul.”
Very soon after that I had my first woman to woman conversation with my potential daughter -in- law as we drove around Kingston looking for fabric to make a wedding dress.
Its one of my treasured memories that she started the conversation in that soft Italian accent with “Judy, I don’t want any trouble with you”. “ Me neither darling, me neither. We are two intelligent women, so let us decide to love each other right now. I am sorry, but I have to ask you a few questions, just this once I promise.”
She acquiesced and I went on. I had heard a rather alarming story about her to do with her first marriage which needed some explanation but is not for this blog.She reassured me with. “ The last one was for my mother, Judy. This one is for me.” Very quickly into the story of her first marriage I had heard enough and stopped her. “That’s enough my dear, you were right to leave that man, we will never talk about it again, but I understand. And I also understand why you want to marry my son.”
So it began and I stayed away for five years, although often, I was dying to see the baby. I only went to their house when asked. I know full well how difficult the early years are, my own marriage did not survive that terror of losing ones own life in the blend with anothers.
Every time a woman has a problem with her man she blames his mother! I hovered from a distance and offered no advice except on one occasion when I saw a shadow on his usually sunny face. I said, “Alexei, there is only one piece of advice that I can offer a man about women and I’m going to tell you now. You must, as the man of the house always do your duty and be a stand up guy, as you are, but every now and then you must leave the house alone for a little, unexplained, time. Don’t do anything wrong, a beer with a buddy, a walk by the sea but the trick is,when you leave, don’t leave in a rumpled T-shirt …put on your best shirt. You must look gorgeous when you leave.She will be very glad when you walk back in through the door. You never have to do anything else with a woman to stop her taking you for granted.”
It wasn’t easy for Sabrina, our Caribbean culture is not geared towards successful marriages. Ours is a party culture and it delights in mocking and destabilizing the foreigners in our midst, attacking with the persistence of mosquitoes their most dearly held beliefs about fidelity, respect for the nest, the family and for the in-home Madonna, the wife and mother. I would see her at parties on the north coast looking absolutely beautiful and being cold shouldered by the crowd. This treatment is classic in our culture which, feeling inadequate before the foreigner, and anticipating rejection, rejects first. Trying to ingratiate yourself in the face of this attitude is a recipe for disaster. She avoided this trap and stuck to Italian friends. Wherever one goes with Sabrina, even driving quickly on the road there will soon be cries of “Sabri ! Bella! Ciao….come stai?…bella, bella ” and delighted peals of laughter as a hither to unsuspected network of fellow Italians recognize her.
Her Italians ways were very welcome in our family, especially in the kitchen.
‘Judy, do not cook the salad”. Gosh I wonder what she means by that I would think, but I learned that it meant too much vinegar in my salad dressing or on another occasion seeing her with a really cheap brand of olive oil , I asked “Sabrina do you use that one?”
“Oh just get the cheapest Judy, because they are ALL terrible.” She would bring virgin olive oil from Italy for the children’s meals, to pour on pasta finer than rice, and when she opened the bottle the fragrance would hit you from across the room. She missed home and her own family desperately; she missed her language, the thimble-sized cups of coffee with cream, the balls of mozzarella to pop into the mouth, pasta vongole, artichokes, but through all the missing she laughed. If the roof fell in, Sabrina would throw back her head toss that mane of hair and see the humor in most things. Watching her gaggle of friends in my garden of weeds was a revelation…squeals of delight at pumpkin blossoms, to be transformed into light, airy, morsels. What we call “Spanish needle’, they call “Camomilla”, and prize fennel , which I was having weeded out in clumps. She would arrive with a bag of tomatoes and a tiny packet of yeast and in no time we would be eating pizza thin as paper, pure, delicious and not drowned with too much cheese.
Twelve years, three children, thirty-five or so birthday parties, and now I have her first two daughters living with me during the week to go to high school in Kingston. In their reflection of her, if I had never known Sabrina,I know her now. They are, its an old-fashioned word I know, one my mother would use,“unspoiled.”
Francesca said recently when her mother was in town during the week which is cause for a celebration; “I can’t believe it Nonna. Japanese food for lunch and for dinner, Indian. I feel bad.”
“Why do you feel badly dear?”
“I haven’t done anything to deserve it”
All this time I hoped Sabrina would love me one day as much as I loved her right from the start.We started as very different women with only one thing in common. Her presents to me were always the best ones I got at Christmas, crystal wine glasses, designer scarves, never anything cheap. I could see her affection growing but she is much more comfortable giving than receiving and rarely asked me for anything, while thanking me profusely for every little thing that I did for her.
Recently she threw her first Jamaican party, for Alexei of course and used Rockfield as the venue. I worked as I have done so many times to hone the house and garden for the party knowing that she was very nervous as the party is at the heart of north coast culture where they are now happily integrated with a nice group of Jamaican friends. This was something that I prayed hard for and a mother’s prayers are very powerful, but Jamaicans judge inadequacy in the area of parties very harshly , even prayers can’t help you and nowhere is this judgment harsher than in St Ann, where parties are very serious business. She was to my mind strangely worried about the mess.
“Listen Rockfield has survived parties that more resembled hurricanes than anything the word “party” suggests.Have it first and we’ll worry about cleaning up afterwards.”
“No Judy. Its not my style.”
I primped and honed and got out of there as the guests started to arrive.
The next morning early, I drove up to the house.
Not a crushed blade of grass on the lawn, the verandah immaculate. I continued with my eyes bulging through the house, there was no trace of the party. I have made more of a mess up there when I am alone in the house! There was a chunk of exquisite birthday cake decorated with orchids, the remains of what seemed very exotic food in the kitchen some plastic bags with rubbish to be disposed of. a few bits and pieces. As I walked through and saw the respect with which she had treated my house and my life, I knew that I had earned Sabrina’s love. She cherished me as I did her.
I’m not going to Barry’s funereal on Sunday. I need every precious Sunday now to paint.The days grow short as you reach September and I know he would understand.
When I was young, still at high school at Wolmers and before starting art school in Scotland at the age of sixteen, Barry Watson was Art in Jamaica.
I was sent to him for classes in a big wooden studio on the second floor of an old building on Constant Spring Rd.
In those days I painted with pure colour straight from the tube. Yellow was yellow, it was raw, I placed it next to red, I was an expressionist.Barry painted in tones of grey and the subtle colors of English art schools of the period. That huge painting of his wife lying on the bed with the little boy on the potty beside her was classic trained painting at its peak, a great example of what the post diploma art school in Britain was aiming to turn out.It was also brilliant and till today unsurpassed as an example, regardless of subject matter, of European painting. It was As good as Them, it joined the line and I was deeply affected by it and very proud that it had been done by one of us.It was a flag of what was possible.
At class I aped his slick, sophisticated line drawings like the little parrot that I was and got very good at it. So good that a portfolio of these drawings alone, when sent to the art school I was trying to get into, was enough to get me admitted me at a glance.
In painting though, awed as I was by him, I was stung when he criticized my violent colors and my wild brushstrokes. I loved my colors and thought his were muddy and ugly and untrue.
One day he mixed a dab of colour and placed on a blank area of my canvas as an example of what he wanted me to learn.
“What do you think of that?” he said.
“I think its mud.”
He mixed another
“Mud “ I said. The tears were welling up but no one was going to ridicule me out of my Van Gogh colour straight from the tube. A third time
“MUD “ I said like a little donkey.
He shouted and waved his arms to encompass all the paintings in the room,
“So ALL my paintings are MUD!”
“YES! “ I said and left the room.
I am sure he was very amused.
Of course at art school, the line drawings not withstanding, I was so ridiculed for my “Jungle colour” by the other students that I tempered them soon enough.
I didn’t want to paint like Barry, but in my own way. I did want to be as good as him. When you are young you don’t even imagine that that is going to be difficult.
As the years passed and I returned to start my own career in Jamaica my educated eyes totally respected his portraits, his greys, his drawing and the courage with which he took on huge and difficult subjects.
He never patronized me, as his fan club certainly did. As I grew, stuck to it and my exhibitions increased he treated me like an equal and was always glad to see me and to watch me looking at his work. Painters are always lonely for other painters especially in Jamaica, where there is so sense of community. Even a short visit with another painter has a comforting and also inspiring effect.
One day he said
“No matter how well I paint, I am always dismissed as “Technically competent”. I thought but didn’t say “Et tu Brute?”
“ I’m going to form a group called The Technically Competents, would you like to join us?”
“Oh, I would be honored to be considered technically competent”.I can never think of it without giggling. It was the same when Huie once pointed at a misshapen arm in a painting and whispered to me “We can’t get away with that can we?” It was like being in a secret society of those who had declared their intentions boldly, without disguise, without cover or convenient excuses, so that if we failed it was immediately obvious.
By now the full enormity of how hard this type of painting was, of what it was going to require of me, the years of practice that it demanded had set in and as this realization grew, the more I respected what he had achieved. He bought one of my portraits and I was inarticulate with pride to measure up in his estimation.
As I grew older I not only respected him, I loved him too, for what he represented, for being a survivor, for standing up to ignorance and insensitivity and for his big, brave, example.
On Being Seventy
On the day before my birthday I asked a friend why was it that even though one did the work, stayed positive about life, felt love and gratitude and certainly counted one’s blessings, why then, didn’t the underlying anguish of life, that sense of incompleteness, the loss of paradise, Go Away?
She said ; “Because you are paying lip service to it. You are not really counting your blessings.”
Birthdays. Bah humbug. I was never too interested in them and usually find them quite easy to ignore but this one is quite daunting, bringing as it does, a whiff of mortality wafting in the candles on the birthday cake. Focusing more on what I hadn’t gotten in life and most likely now, would not get, I approached the seventieth birthday a little fearfully; well fear is too strong a word…let’s say I was wary of this one and wished I could …just have a little more time, just a decade or so more time, but suddenly, like a deep sigh, here it was. I was seventy.
The day dawned in a completely unremarkable way. It looked just the same as the day before; there was no split in the sky with a huge placard appearing in Cecil B deMille style, written in red across the pale blue “IT’S JUDY ANN MACMILLAN’S SEVENTIETH BIRTHDAY” accompanied by trumpets. The universe seemed sublimely indifferent to the momentous importance of this day.
I prepared their breakfast and drove my grand daughters to school.
It was of symbolic importance to paint today and the quality of the light, that November light, Albert Huie called it “the beautiful month” was too precious to miss, so I quickly cleaned up my paint box, did a quick check that everything was in it and put it in the car. If you glanced into that falling apart cardboard tray piled with rubbish, you would not be impressed but every thing in it, including the bit of string to tie the canvas on to the easel, the rusty razor blade for scraping, or the small bit of plastic ruler for doing straight lines quickly, is essential. Turning off the phone is also essential.
Driving up the familiar road I passed by many motifs of past paintings stretching back to my teenaged years; that mango tree, that clump of bamboo, that deep corner were actually lifelong acquaintances and seeing them again has always had the same effect, the comfort of well known faces aging before my gaze. But today the ordinary seemed significant, more intense, almost charged. Was it the light? No, it was more than that.
I am painting the mountains behind Kingston viewed from the lawn of an dear friends house, where the luxury of steady ground, a place to wash my hands, protection from the elements, combined with a spectacular panorama of utter beauty equates to perfect conditions. For painting landscape this delicate balance is rare.As important as the rest, is the pleasant feeling of being accepted here. The jug of water placed within easy reach says “This is all we can do for you, but we share your hope”. There is no anxiety about when the painting will be finished. Not only is my work respected, but also what it takes to do it.
A well loved “helper” (how I hate that word) brings the water. I whisper to her ;
”Its my birthday”
”Oh Happy Birtday Miss Mac!”
“ You know how old I am today? I’m seventy”
She pats me kindly on my arm
“Yu look it Miss Mac, yu LOOK it!”
No sympathy here…I chuckle for the rest of the morning.
Of course there is always something, some unanticipated something.I can deal with insects, heat that makes the eyes water, I can cope with with the very curious to the slightly ominous onlookers, but the wind, I can’t cope with the wind. My heart sinks because the wind today is capricious, vicious and satanic. I know that Jamaica’s evil imp lives in it and He loves to play with me. He greets me today with a delighted “Ahhh…. ah you!” and pitches over the easel right away. Game on.
A superstition, one of my own devising, is that if I don’t paint even a little bit, when I have psyched myself to start, the painting will not turn out well. I am better rewarded when I strive, when I overcome, maybe because the difficulties pull energy from a deeper place. I brace the easel with a wrought iron verandah chair and settle for working on a small hill in the distance that can be seen from under the cover of the verandah. The awnings batter against the railings, the air is violent with movement, noise, distractions, the canvas shakes and I gnash my teeth with frustration because the light, the light is so perfect. I limit my choices on the palette to simplify all this added sensation and to my surprise, a reward for the years of experience, I actually get three hours done. Impossible to tell if its any good, I’m too busy looking and responding in paint, a balancing act of hand and eye, hand, eye and emotion to look at the painting now. That will be later when, away from the hurly burly of its production, I “see” the collection of responses and in that first glance, I will know if its good.
On the drive down I learn that a young thief in a stolen car went over the precipice and dropped so far down that the car was out of sight. I thought of Breugel’s Fall of Icarus. In the painting, which is of an absolutely serene pastoral landscape a tiny figure can be seen plummeting into the indifferent sea, the event unnoticed in any way by the universe.
What does it really mean that platitude “count your blessings’? Today, because it was my special day I was conscious of everything that usually was cloaked in habit. My everyday routines had become a half state but now I was sensitized to the nuances, aware of my satisfied tiredness, glad for my crisp salad at lunch and the messages on the phone when I turned it back on. Thirty- three missed calls, ten for each hour that I had painted. On the computer was an overwhelming amount of internet love, an abstraction of good wishes , lovely messages.I answered them, grateful for the affection. At the hairdresser there was no charge, an unexpected birthday gift and afterwards there was still time in the day for a little rest before dinner.
There are a lot of great books out there with stylish, clever writing but my favorites are those with a great idea. One such is A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. A hellish day is described in a Russian prison, a day of misery such as can hardly be imagined by the reader but during which some tiny joys are experienced that set it apart and at the end of it Ivan feels happiness, because from his viewpoint, he has had a lovely day.
My family took me to dinner in a favourite restaurant. There were balloons, presents and a birthday cake. Yes I felt loved, grateful and yes, I felt blessed.
The miracle though was in the consciousness.
At seventy I have no illusions about the future, it will certainly be smaller than the past. This life of mine, this accumulation of days, unremarkable except to a handful of friends and family, is a result of past choices made long ago. I painted this picture but it is not the picture that matters, it’s the painting of it that always was the true experience. As time grows shorter this is all that matters, to live my small, individual days intensely, to welcome the changes that come into the days…..to see each day as a gift.
At first I thought Zoe didn’t like me.Eleven years ago when she was born she would be brought up to the house on Sundays to visit Nonna,a completely round infant, a collection of circles with the blank expression of a Botero. She would fasten her eyes on me in a fixed stare and her expression never changed so it was a little unnerving.
“I don’t think she likes me.”I said to her mother who gave me a tired smile at the very idea.
On her first birthday I burst into their house clutching my tawdry present.It has always amazed me how these beautiful beings could be made so happy by a cheap piece of brightly colored plastic that I was embarrassed to give them.She was sitting in her high chair when I came in and said
“MY birthday, not Franci’s”.
My heart broke right open. Franci was the first child,the older sister whose strong personality was already fully formed by the time Zoe came along.I understood in that moment the vulnerability of every second child on earth.
“I know its your birthday Zoe,I came specially to bring this present for YOU.”
I saw now that in the enormous lidded eyes,the unsmiling face was a huge ,inarticulate love for me and it was a serious ,very deep love.Zoe is the lover of our little family,a born femme fatale an live-in, home and garden Eternal Feminine.She will be adored by men because she accepts herself completely.She never strives but sits on her pedestal without anxiety,wears her tiara without a shred of doubt, serene as a Madonna.
One summer I said
“Now when Franci goes to Italy to see her Italian Nonna,we are going g to spend some time together alone and I want to paint a portrait of you in your pink dress.(As you may guess,pink is Zoe’s favorite colour) You will have to sit very still.”
I never had such cooperation from a child so young,she didn’t move or complain.
Just before the portrait was finished thieves broke into the house and stole the painting along with several others.
“But why do the bad men want a picture of ME Nonna?”
Bad men have been stealing Madonnas for years I thought grimly.
I didn’t have the heart to start another and in what seemed like minutes afterwards the little pink dress was too small,the wave of time drowned the moment and moved on.
A tooth came out one weekend while she was visiting and she wanted to put it under her pillow due to some arrangement with the tooth fairy. Francesca declared decisively
“There is no tooth fairy and what is more,there is no Santa either!”
I thought this was a little hard of her, blasting through Zoe’s illusions just because she was a little older so before the tears welled up I came to Zoe’s defense.
“Well,that may be true but you have to believe in the tooth fairy and Santa anyway.”
“Because if you don’t you will grow up thinking that only things you can see are real,and that means you will grow up without any imagination”
There was a silence as they both absorbed this and then Francesca said
“Its true Nonna,because in Italy, there is a mouse, that brings money for the poor and I HAVE SEEN THE MOUSE!”
“I rest my case.”
Franci is impatient with her sisters extreme femininity.Zoe can’t have enough frills on her clothes,adores every Disney princess ,dreams of having a prince, of being a wife and mother,and is the ultimate victim of the toy designers with an endless collection of Barbi dolls.I remember playing with dolls too,loved playing dolly house,having tea parties and plastering on my mothers red lipsticks, but never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined as many Barbi dolls as Zoe has in her collection.
“She is so girly,its ridiculous!” says Franci storming out to ride horses and play football and be the best at everything she tries, leaving Zoe at home watching that movie about Ariel the mermaid again; content,feminine, dreaming.
When is time to draw and paint Zoe happily draws an enormous flower humming a little under her breath ,quite happy and completely uncritical of her efforts.Francesca attempts a portrait of Nonna ,which would be difficult even for Manet ,frets over every mark,practically has a nervous breakdown with frustration and threatens to tear it up.With a little help ,she loves her finished portrait in the end enough to sleep with it under her pillow. Temperamental,courageous Franci will accomplish many things but of the two,sensitive Zoe has more potential to be a painter because, without angst,corrections or struggle she really likes her flower.
So in her own quieter way Zoe’s personality is just as strong as Francesca’s and her growing expertise at karate class indicates that “girlie” or not she will be able to defend herself as well.
Recently one of Zoe’s long day dreams became reality and she played the starring role in the end of term school play.She played the part of Ariel the mermaid and was very natural on stage ,but we ,her family knew that she had been Ariel for years.
The circles lengthened and became long oval lines,long legs developed,and we heard that she wanted to be a dancer when she grew up, which seemed very feasible; with such long legs, I could see her onstage twirling her skirt to the music.We have stopped comparing her to her big sister,because she is her own person.
As her shyness goes, she is becoming very outgoing,has heaps of friends and is I’m told the Queen of the Sleep Over.I watch fascinated,in a sort of suspense as the angel of the family,this second grand daughter becomes more confident,more conscious of her beauty. Young as she still is I anticipate the blossoming of this flower, when she realizes the enormous natural power she was born with.
I suppose I’ve known for years that this day would come. I am sitting at Joya’s bedside while she dies. Joya is my neighbor in St Ann , although we can’t see each others houses our properties join at some bushy unfenced border.Ours is not the sort of countryside that one can walk through without using a sharp machete in order to hack ones way, so although I was her neighbor popping in for a cup of sugar was never part of our relationship.
I met her father first, he was living at Winefield when I bought the house next door.Eddie Hairs, Joya’s father was a Jamaican version of a squire in England,he was amused by my punk rock ex-art school style at age thirty,my ignorance of all things rural and he was very kind to me.I heard about the daughter who lived far away in Central America and one year she, reluctantly, came home.
One knew very soon after meeting her that she lived by her decisions, win or lose, that she did things her way.In many ways I identity with that although our ways were certainly very different . Joya is Old School, she was not amused by my ignorance and I have to admit it, my boredom, with rural lore because she was very much a part of the way of life that I dipped into on weekends and short stays.She saw me as an outsider and worse one who wasn’t sufficiently awed by her rural credentials and my new residence in a Eighteenth Century house which although falling down, imbued me with an undeserved, improved social status. For my part I was puzzled by being patronized and didn’t like it. I had very little desire to fit into the hierarchy, because what she saw as superior I saw as faintly ridiculous. Her attitude was mirrored by most of the property owners of her generation but after my book was published, my endorsed status gained me a grudging respect and the outsiders that came into the area after me, although sharing a common interest in cattle ,horses, grass lice and building impressive mansions made the cheeky little upstart from Kingston seem more desirable by comparison.
Life has worn down most of these abrasive edges by now, I am no longer the idealistic art student who swore to never, ever use the word “staff”. Joya has suffered trying to hold on to the position she inherited and has done remarkably well in the face of a whole way of life ,cattle rearing, that has died.She is almost the last symbol of all that feudal style in the area and deeply respected by the village people who acknowledge the noblesse oblige of her time in a way that that I will never know.
“Miss Joya was de first place me did work.She teach me a lot.”
I sit, not sure whether she knows that its me, holding her hand, filled with wonderful memories of Winefield in her father’s day.It was so beautiful to me then, its stone foundation walls, well cut pastures, high-ceilinged rooms that never changed, and its old garden with spectacular stag horn ferns on the trunks of the Royal Palms.Its still beautiful to me now.She lies in her pleasant bedroom with innocent, loving people affectionately taking care of her with lovely music playing.The big sash windows are open to the gracefully bending branches of an old poinciana outside.The routine of cleaning the pastures continues, the rows of raspberry bushes are covered in weeds,but the place still exudes a past order, a heartbreakingly fragile model from another time.
She is almost gone herself, I doubt that she weighs forty pounds and she is ready,more than ready to go.I knew she had given up two weeks ago when I asked what I could do for her and she said
“Just shoot me.”
That was unprecedented because Joya ,true to her upbringing never complained.She acknowledged misfortune with a gritty, quite hilarious humor, and her mind remained sharp as a pin,unimpressed ,acerbic, baleful but there was no whining, no self-pity, no sentimentality.There was under the English stoicism a layer of Latin American cynicism that was very dark,mocking and irreverent,and it was this combination along with her chiseled features,the beautiful hair springing out of her head that gave her the quirky personality that was completely her own.
I realize sitting here that I am going to miss her very much and I say a prayer of gratitude for my youth, for those early years in St Ann, for all the lost beauty of those years.
I hoped that she would die in the deep sleep that I left her in, but that heart beat stubbornly on, refusing to cooperate with her desire to go.
I thought about her all the next day.There is not a single woman that I know who does not admire Joya: she sets a huge example to all of us of courage, spirit and in my case its almost too close for comfort .I am one hill over from a similar fate which I am still young enough, still healthy enough, to deny.
The next evening I went again.This time I think she knew it was me there.I told her that I had always admired her and that everyone did. I thought that she had done remarkably well all by herself and that it was well done and more than enough. Winefield was still beautiful and so well cared for under her watch that I had never come there unmoved. I told her that so many friends sent love for her and I held her tiny crippled hands again, silently saying goodbye.
One thing I know about death-we must reach the point where we want it more than life and for those of us who adore life, its really hard to let go. We are used to life’s struggle, we are used to resistance,we are used to being strong. Overcoming has been a lifelong habit .For people like Joya and I have to say,myself,its really hard to surrender.
After this was written,surprisingly Joya rallied and lived many more months.We had several more visits but there was no improvement and I knew she wanted to go.
Her mind was sharp till the end,talking, laughing and thanking her staff for all they had done,sending messages to friends,cracking jokes.She was what the American’s call “a class act” right to the end.
Vaya Con Dios dear Joya,we will never forget you.