Creating All The Things

There are two distinct phases of my memories of my grandmother: before and after her hospitalization. Before she ended up in the hospital and almost died, I remember her as being old and tired. She really wasn’t that old, but she acted old; semi-permanently laying down on in her couch, under a blanket, insisting on afternoon naps, and chain-smoking.

That smoking and inactivity is what landed her in the hospital and almost killed her.

I look back on that period now and think about how it may have been/probably was depression that had overwhelmed her. How I spent my own almost two-year period on the couch in college, mired in a depressive episode.

When I learned that adhd was hereditary and was coming to terms with my own diagnosis, I thought immediately of my grandfather, who never stopped moving, always building, always fixing, always curling, always golfing, always doing a crossword puzzle. And while it may have been the case, I always had identified more with my grandmother – while Granddad worked, we sat. It drove him crazy. That’s not what adhd “looks” like after all.

The second phase of my memories of Nanny was after she got out of the hospital and had largely recovered. She had to quit smoking (which she did successfully) and she took up painting, a hobby she had done previously. Nanny signed up for lessons at the community center, and turned one of the bedrooms into her small studio.

She painted and painted and painted and painted and painted and painted and painted.

Soon, the house was filled with her paintings. Our house was filled with her paintings. My aunt’s house was filled with her paintings. Her basement was overflowing with her paintings. My grandfather bought her her paints and canvases, grumbling a little about the cost, but when his own hobby of woodworking required expensive and intricate blades and bits, not to mention the wood, he couldn’t say too much and in fact understood. Where he balked was how much it cost to frame the paintings. For a period of time he tried to do the framing himself, but it wasn’t the kind of work that he liked to do and eventually just accepted that this was the cost of doing business and supporting his wife.

Nanny painted hundreds, maybe even over a thousand oil paintings during those twenty or so years between when she was hospitalized and when she passed away. Some she sold at local community art shows, many she gifted to friends and family, but most of them lived in their basement, unframed and piled wherever there was space. She always had more than one painting on the go, so that she had something to work on while waiting for another project to dry. The majority of her paintings were landscapes, and on top of the easel and her paints and her brushes and whatever projects she was working on, there were stacks of magazines and wall calendars everywhere, precarious piles with little sticky notes jutting out of them, marking a landscape or other image she wanted to maybe one day paint. We would add to those piles with our own finds or suggestions, something we saw that maybe she would like.

By this point I was a teenager, but I made sure that whenever I went over, I would ask her to show me what she was working on, and she would excitedly describe what she was currently painting, what the tricky bits were, and also what she was planning to do next, rummaging around her stacks to try and find what she was looking for.

“I know it’s in here somewhere…I just had it the other day…”

She painted more paintings than she could even give away in her lifetime, more paintings than we knew what to do with after she passed. Between when Nanny died and when Granddad passed away, there had been an overflow of family drama, which I remained largely free from because we had moved to the States. What I am saying is, I have no idea what happened to all of Nanny’s paintings once Granddad was gone. I have enough of my own that she gifted me or that my mom claimed on my behalf, but I wish I knew where more of them were.

I just hope they are on someone’s wall somewhere making someone happy.

I think of Nanny now when I look at my own sewing practice – making more dresses than I could really ever hope to wear. Slow sewing, they say, but I have a pile of planned projects, an overflow of fabric, and more patterns than I will ever made. I don’t have precarious piles, but digital stacks instead of patterns I have accumulated. My sticky notes are kept in a project planning app, but they do stick out from my phone, from my laptop, from my brain, at odd angles, constantly being planned and replanned depending on my mood.

I don’t remember if it was when I moved away for college or for my PhD, but Nanny gifted me a small hand-sewing kit, a must-have as far as she was concerned. She filled it with some thread, some needles, some loose buttons, and some pins. I still have it, but the thread is brittle and the pins are dull and the buttons are dated. But the needles still work and when I hand-sew buttons, it’s still the ones she gave to me all those years ago that I use.

I used to worry about legacy, about what I was leaving behind for my kids. Ok, I still do, a little, but those painting or those things that my grandfather built were gifts but also passions they were able to share, to try and show us that we can indulge, so to speak, in what we enjoyed, even if it never found a home anywhere (although Granddad needed his work to serve some practical purpose more so than Nanny). Another lesson I learned from watching Nanny was that it was never too late – if Nanny could re-start sewing in her late 50s, why couldn’t I start sewing in my 40s?

There are a series of six small watercolors, all flowers, that Nanny painted that overlook my sewing machine. She never really got into watercolors, so these are exceedingly rare, and quite beautiful. If I wasn’t so worried about ruining them (I’m pretty sure Granddad built the simple green wooden frames for them), I would scan them and make fabric with them. Using Nanny’s creations in my own creations.

I love it when people come over and compliment the art on our walls and I can tell them that most of the paintings were painted by my grandmother. It’s the same thrill I get when people are impressed with the clothes I make. And even if no future generations will admire the garments, I take heart in knowing that I am continuing the family habit of Creating All The Things.

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