This morning, I received a text from my mom at 7am. One of those heart-stopping “you shouldn’t be texting right now kind of texts…” But before I go on, I’d like to share a story.
Several years back on a trip to the south of France, my mom and dad were walking along one of the art gallery lined streets and my mother noticed a painting in a window that she liked. My father, also an art guy who had dabbled in a little painting of his own was taken by the painting, but not as much as my mom. She needed it. The only problem with the painting is that it cost about the same as a small luxury automobile and given that the trip was the annual big splurge, buying a painting quadruple if not more than the price of the trip itself seemed excessive.
The next year, as was usually the case, my sister and I returned to Oklahoma for the family Christmas. Christmas over the course of the years in the Payne family has always been unique. While the wine flows and gifts are exchanged, the past ten years in my family, Christmas has coincided with a stroke, a crippling snow storm, the precipice of two divorces, a terrorist attack, and a homicide so while we make an effort to enjoy the Christmas, and each has had certainly had its moments (my grandmother in Italy dancing around in a giant bra outside her sweater with flashing lights where her nipples should be), thematically, it has been a trying holiday.
This particular year was the exception. In a lobster and wine-induced near-coma, after the family had left Christmas Eve dinner, we usually exchanged the more good-humored gifts. Guides the bird scat. Marshmallow guns. That type of thing, but this year, my dad told my mom that he had something special for her. A minute later he comes down stairs with something flat covered in a towel. Having forgotten all about her trip to France, my mom curiously removed the towel, not quite sure what it could be. As she removed the towel, her jaw fell upon and tears welled in her eyes. It was the painting from France.
Over and over again she kept saying “you got me the painting?” and with each rhetorical question, her voice shifted slightly from a tone of absolute elation to abhorrence. My dad just kept asking if she liked it. “Of course I like it but are you crazy? Do you know how much this cost?” She asked.
“I didn’t buy it,” he told her, adding confusion to the many emotions on her face. “I painted it.” He had gone back, photographed the painting and spent the next several months replicating the piece of art she had loved so much.
And with that, we all fell apart in what has become unquestionably my favorite Christmas memory.
But what came of that was much more. Not only did the romantic gesture reaffirm my parent’s relationship after more than 30 years of marriage, it created a new one.
My dad, whose desire to paint was re-inspired, decided he wanted to paint more. In Carmel, CA, he found an artist’s work that spoke to him. He inquired as to the artist’s name and managed to get in touch with her. She was not the high-brow “art-eest” that make most people’s skin crawl. Instead, she was a vivacious lady well into her 80s named Jane Bradford. She wore bright orange lipstick, loved a glass of wine and despite her age, still loved to paint every day. My dad asked if she’d be willing to help him with his own paintings. The bright orange corners of her lips turned up, child-like.
Having recently lost one of her children and going through several frustrating relationships, it was a lonely time in Jane’s life. It felt in many ways like the end. My dad, whose mother had been an artist had passed away years before. There was a clear empty spot in his heart when he painted that painting of the French Riviera for my mom. He’d wished his mom had been there to share in his enthusiasm.
Suddenly, as he filled the empty spot in Jane’s life where once her son had been, she filled the spot in my dad’s heart that had once belonged to my grandmother. The friendship has lasted for years. Every time my parents would arrive in Carmel, she’d show up with a pot roast. When my dad finished a painting, he took it to Jane who quickly sent him back to work. When she finished a painting, my dad would find someone to buy it for her (and if no one bought it, he usually did.)
While I only met her a few times, I adored her. Of course she was a character, she was talented and she didn’t mind more than one glass of wine, but mostly because of the love she had for my mom and dad and because my family’s love for her. Through this strangely discovered relationship, the world, at least ours, became a better place.
This morning, at 7am, I got a text. My reaction was the only reaction anyone has to an oddly early text from home. Something bad had happened. Before I read it, I thought of all the people I knew and loved. I went down a list. It was a long one. It was the kind of list that make you grateful to be alive. I finally flipped on the phone and there was a name I had somehow forgotten. Jane Bradford had passed away. And for forgetting her, as I thought of those important to me in that moment before I looked at my phone, I’m truly sorry. She was as good a person as anyone I’ve known, and I’ll miss her.
That day on the French Riviera, my mom and dad looked at a painting and the reaction was that it was over-priced. Some pompous French painter inflating prices to take advantage of vulnerable tourists caught up in the romance of all things France. If only he knew just how valuable that painting was. RIP Jane.