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Filtering by Category: portraits

Walking with Mom


She sits at the kitchen table, clasping a pile of colored pencils in her left hand. She puts them down on the table, rolls them out into a neat line, looks at them for a moment, and picks them all up again. She may do it twice, or 60 times. She may stop and pick out a red one, drawing on whatever is in front of her, be it a card or book or coloring book or scrap of paper. Sometimes words, sometimes decorations, often lines or checkmarks adding emphasis to some portion of it. The longer she spends, the more layered it gets. Boxed, crossed out, repeated, and eventually large chunks are colored in solidly. Pick it up, put it down, be occupied … sometimes precise, sometimes idle … repeat.



I've spent the last few days in a very deep funk. Depression perhaps, but a weird one that I've not experienced before. Nearly blank inside, unable to put any words or depth into what I'm feeling, just full and empty both. Stuffed-full-to-bursting heart, empty head.


I'm trying to tease threads out of the jumble, so I can start unraveling some of the feelings I didn't have time to process over the summer. The summer we just spent parked in my parents' driveway while I helped out with my Mom's care, and the household in general. I'm not sure yet what it's done to me internally, but I'm going to explore a wee bit. I know I've learned a tremendous amount, and some of it is things I never wanted to learn, but apparently needed to.


Caregiving is all-consuming, relentless, and requires infinite patience. It's cruel, beautiful, heartbreaking, rewarding, and ugly. It takes humor, honesty, and endless creativity. It takes hunting … endless looking and watching ... to find the clues that are hidden in demeanor and eyes and body language (and the very few words), to discern what's going on in Mom's head and heart. What's revealed for a moment, and hidden for the next week. What's felt, but not expressed. What's fought, feared, accepted, or enjoyed.

She's sitting in the car in the driveway, having just come back from a walk at the park. Caroline* took her out today, and I'm still in the camper working on cleaning up in the bedroom. I can tell from the sounds outside my window that it's not a hop-out-on-her-own day, and I keep one ear open while continuing my task. I don't want to interfere, and the more people involved the more confusing it gets. After several minutes it sounds like she hasn't budged yet though, so I go out and ask if I can help? I try some of the same things Caroline's likely already tried … repositioning feet, telling her where to put her hands, trying a variety of phrases for “please stand up”, before stooping a bit and looking her in the eyes … “Can you please stand up, Mom?” She looks up at me, defeatedly, “No, I can't”. A first. Tears lurking, we each take a side and gently help her out of the car.



I love that I can still make her laugh … laugh more than I ever remember her laughing, just by choosing the right combination of slightly unusual words or using a touch of wry humor. I hate that she can't respond in kind. I love that she can laugh till she cries, if the joke is good enough. I love the look of wide-eyed-almost-scandalized delight she has in some things, though it's painful too. Where was that delight hiding for most of her life?


Watching her be stripped, slowly, of all the skills and abilities that she's gained since she was born … it's gut wrenching. But also strangely gorgeous. Losing the things that have defined her; service, usefulness, caregiving, card-writing, hospitality, organizing … the ability to control her body, her words, her reactions … it has left very little visible, except her spirit. A spirit that's clearer, simpler, and lovelier than I've ever seen it. Unadorned with expectations, assumptions, guilt, or duty. It's just her. My Mom. In a body that's betraying her and a mind that continues to confound her.


She seems to have accepted what's happening to her, so long as Dad is at her side (or coming home soon). She rests in him, and trusts him implicitly. There are glimpses though, many little ones, that show she is not (and does not feel) defined by her Alzheimers. She often knows and sees far more than she can express, if you watch her eyes and her reactions to conversations. She clearly ignores comments that sound demeaning or patronizing, and laughs immediately and appropriately when something is funny. She looks for things to laugh at too … it's her default way of looking for connection when she wants words but doesn't have them. A shared laugh means shared hearts.


We're in the living room long after supper, Mom and Dad and Michael and I, and it's nearing bedtime for Mom. I'd had the radio on for her sake earlier, and the classical music had switched over to Folk Night or some such thing. Odd little bits of song floated into the conversation, were mused over a bit as to their appeal and meaning, and then dropped again. Mom watched and listened from the couch, tracking every word out of Dad in his chair across the room, sharing amused looks with Michael and I, and taking obvious pleasure in it all. Dad eventually made a comment about it being time to head off to bed, and then launched into a medley/riff on the songs that had been talked about, personalizing it towards Mom and bedtime. Mom's amusement turned to delight, echoed heartily by the rest of us. Out of character, and an entirely perfect way to end the day.



I spent the summer looking for the positives, to keep my heart from entirely breaking. Looking at how the dynamic between her and Dad has totally switched, and how I joy at seeing her at rest in a way she's never been. A more visible tenderness, a slowness, a sweetness of time spent together. It may be very very quiet in that living room when they're alone, but the love that's been put in for the last 53 years makes a mighty fine marinade in which to sit side-by-side. Also seeing, and marveling, at the acceptance that marks my Dad's approach to the entire journey. One day at a time. Planning but not fretting. Taking it from God, and keeping an eye on the big picture while still living moment to moment. Not lashing out at what he's lost and what's being taken away, but enjoying what can be enjoyed, and bearing what's been given him to bear. Knowing that it's costing him in terms of his own health, but not even considering that relevant.



Those are the pretty threads. The gold in the pile of Other Stuff. Things like the grief I can't access right now that says I want to TALK to my Mom. Have her reach out with words, tell me what's in her heart, and how she feels. Tell me things I never asked when I could ask … didn't take the time or the care to ask, and now I can't. Ask her why she made the choices she did, and see if my guesses are right. Ask her what she regrets, misses, feels, wants. Aching regrets for things she never got to do, and never will now. Things she accepted, but never wanted. Seeing the beauty of her without guilt and duty and burdened about with much serving … and wishing it didn't have to be at the cost of everything else. Wishing she could have tasted it long ago. The refreshingness of being cared for, of being free of burdens and expectations sometimes. I see what she's reduced to, and I DO see the beauty of it, but it makes my heart ache abominably. I want more barefoot and bare-headed days for her, and I guess in a way she's getting them now. Hardly a care in the world, but oh … at what a cost!


There were great weeks, and scary weeks. Days she could walk a mile and not be winded or tired, and days she forgot how to walk at all. Or couldn't remember how to tell her muscles to behave so she could stand up. Days she laughed like crazy, days she slept much of it away. Days she came out to the kitchen to help when she heard dishes rattling and chopped veggies like she used to (always snitching a few!), and the day she went catatonic at the dinner table. The May days she could almost play Boggle though she mostly copied my words, and then the June she felt intimidated by the concept of it. By August I finally acknowledged it wasn't going to happen again, and put it away.


It's a winding down, a slow shaving, a hah-it's-back! but no-that-was-just-a-momentary-blip kind of slide into fewer and fewer things that she can do. Watching the skills fade into that part of her brain that she can't access, and knowing that it might reappear for a bit, but isn't likely to last for long. A reduction, an essence, a distillation … a stilling.


I miss her cards (and I know I'm not the only one). Her desk just off the kitchen still has her monthly-card-holder notebook that she used for years on it, fat with all the cards-to-be-sent tucked into its pockets. The calendar that hangs behind it still has mountains of birthdays and anniversaries listed on it, and the roll of stamps is still plump. She hasn't touched it in years I don't think. She does still enjoy getting cards though, and hasn't quite lost her ability to read cursive, so if you're at all inclined to reach out, now would be the time. She has baskets of them in the living room, and pores over them often. Photos too. She still knows some faces, and can dredge up some surprising names too if you happen to catch the right moment to ask.


I don't regret one moment of this summer, despite feeling it to be incredibly difficult. The hardness was balanced with a richness that I can't measure. To sit of an evening while listening to stories and family history from Dad, taking walks together, playing eye-games with Mom, tending to her needs, coloring together. Sitting side-by-side. Appreciating, soaking up perspectives and wisdom and a sense of how it feels to look at life from closer to the other end of the spectrum. A sharpening in my heart of what really matters, and what doesn't. An example of acceptance on such a profound level that I'm still grasping it. Peace that truly passes understanding.

How could I not find it all beautiful, while bursting into tears with an ache that comes from my very bones?



I've finally finished running around gathering the detritus scattered around the house and the camper, and everything is stowed. Michael and the boys have hitched. It's time to go. Very clearly time to go, despite the wrenchingness of it all. It just is. Mom is sitting on the front porch in her chair, watching the hubbub and scurrying as it eddies into a slow swirl of goodbyes and hugs. I go up and crouch next to her chair, resting my head on her knee. I've done this hundreds of times before, but it's been 35 years since I last took the opportunity. It was Grambie's lap in my teens and twenties and thirties. I look up at her and tell her how much I'm going to miss her, and she repeats it back to me, twice. I rest my head again, pain mingled with peace making it hard to breathe. This is exactly how it should be. She is my Mom.




* Her regular caregiver

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Market Square Shuffle


The first time I went to Market Square to draw portraits, I made $101 bucks.  That was the day after the Chalk Walk and I haven't finished writing about it.  The second time I went to Market Square was after two weeks of rain on a Saturday.  The Farmer's Market was underway, and my grassy area was full of tents for the 200th anniversary of the Civil War.  I made my way to the main square and waited an hour for the vendors to pack up.  I chose a nice spot in the shade of a fenced tree, and set up. 

It wasn’t long before a large black man with a bellowing laugh engaged me in conversation.  I could tell by the way he scoped the square while he talked that he was hustling something.  Turns out he’s an artist named Shawn.  He showed me the Mother’s Day card he was selling prints of for $10 dollars.  It was nice.

You’d have to be pretty charming to sell them for 10 bucks, but he was.  He was very at ease and each time he let out a laugh, he’d study its ripple to the far ends of the square.  As we talked, a grungy girl of maybe 30 trudged past, loaded down with sooty bags.  “Hello,” she said.  I was looking at Shawn at the time and assumed she was talking to him.  I waited for him to respond.  “I said, HELLO!” she said indignantly.  I looked up.  She had stopped and was staring at me.  I thought, what’s this homeless girl with attitude want from ME?  Shawn kept his mouth shut.

“Hello,” I said guardedly.

“Unh!”  She turned in disgust and headed for the shade of the next fenced tree.  I watched, puzzled, as she plopped her bags down, keeping her back to me.

“That’s Foxy,” Shawn confided.  “She’s a spray paint artist.  She’s very, umm … temperamental.”

“Ohh.” Now I saw I was possibly in her regular spot and I had not responded to her attempt to be friendly.  Whoops.

Shawn wandered off and I began to draw a portrait of Bethany from my phone.  An older man, maybe 58, in a straw hat and dress shirt ambled up.  He watched me draw for a minute.  “You new here?”

“I was here 2 weeks ago.” I replied.

“I could tell,” he said, “I’ve not seen you before and I know everyone in this square.”  I kept drawing.

“Have you met Foxy over there?”  He nodded her way.  “She’s a good friend.  She has her ups and downs,” he made a roller coaster with his hand, “but she makes nice work.”

“I said Hi to her,” I allowed.

“And down there at the end of the square … that’s Harley.  The Magician.  He’s a friend of mine.  And over there …” he pointed, “that’s my buddy Hank.”

“You must spend a lot of time in the square,” I observed.

“That I do,” he said, pleased I was catching his drift.  “Truth be told, I do a little drawing myself.”

“Really?” I said.  I put my china marker down.  I could tell he wanted my full attention.

“That’s right.  Portraits, like you, only I do mine in pencil.”

“Oh, Yeah?”  I was remembering that event services said there were no portrait artists.  I was also realizing he was doing a territory dance.

“The name’s Doug.”  He stuck out his hand.  I shook it. “Yeah, I’ve been doing this for about 21 years now.  I haven’t set up yet this year.  I’ve had a bit of money come in and haven’t needed to.  But I normally sit at that table over there until about noon then move to that table to stay in the shade.”  As I turned to look, he took the opportunity to lean his bag against my easel leg and sat down in the customer chair.  This was an act of aggression.  I considered starting to draw him but sensed he’d find a way to sabotage it.  My best course was to keep playing nice.  “You had any problems with the police?”

“Not yet.” I said.  “I talked to a couple cops two weeks ago when I set up.  They didn’t seem to know what laws applied to me.”

“Well, I’m good friends with the sheriff…”

What followed was an hour of him giving me advice that was largely unnecessary and telling me stories that revolved around how well connected he was.  I had to pull out my “I worked in Times Square” card to take a bit of the wind out of his sails.  Eventually he left, and I went back to drawing my wife.

Within 10 minutes I felt a presence watching.  I looked up hoping for customer, only to find a balloon vendor rocking on his heels and grinning a practiced stage grin.  “Hello! I’m David and you’re new here!”  He stuck out his hand.  It was a welcome contrast, this straightforward communication.  I seized his hand. 

“I’m Michael!” I belted back. “And I am!”

“Well, that’s a firm handshake!  And you have a very professional setup!  AND you do very nice work!”

“Thank You!”  A flat wire basket hung from his neck at chest level, in which he kept his twisty balloons and a hand pump.  Several pre-twisted balloons and a sign were attached.

“Are you, sir, aware of the laws governing your table?”  He asked.

“This, my good man,” I retorted, “Is NOT a table.  It is an Easel.”

“Well put!  An Easel!”  He marveled.  “Good answer!  For you know, it is Illegal to set up a table without a permit.  That is why I,” he gestured to his basket, “carry my table with me.  I can see you are an articulate man,” he flattered. “Let me ask you this: How much do you charge for one of your portraits?”

“Nothing,” I smiled. “I ask only for a donation.”

“Another good answer!” he exclaimed.  “We are not allowed, as buskers, to SELL our wares.”

We proceeded to have a lengthy conversation concerning the laws of the square, in which he was very well versed.  His speech and approach were so like my Father’s, I found it quite enjoyable.  He told me stories of encounters with event services and the police.  His lawyer/girlfriend, Peggy, researched and provided printouts of the most current legislation.  He used to set up a balloon tent with a helium tank.  He also plays clarinet.  He used to bring drums and instruments in for the kids to play.  He’d play the clarinet while the kids played drums and had balloon sword battles.  I was delighted!  Then they changed the law to disallow tents for buskers.

While on this topic, Doug returned looking a little redder in the nose.  I could tell from his approach that he was seething with aggression.  He planted himself standing almost between David and I and folded his arms.  There was the slightest hesitation in David’s story but he went on “ – and so I removed my tent and I replaced it with a table.”

“Only an asshole would set up a tent,” Doug declared.

“That’s true!” David smiled in agreement, as if Doug meant breaking the law.

Vehemently Doug said “No!  YOU’RE an asshole!”

David took a step back, bowed his head and said “Thank you sir.”  Then stepping forward again, “I don’t believe we’ve met.  The name’s David.”   He stuck out his hand.

Doug took a step back, arms still crossed.  “I know You and you should know me, I saved you from getting punched in the face.” David looked at him for a second.  “Thank you,” He said sincerely.

Then turning back to me, he continued. “And then they changed the law to exclude tables.”

It then fell to me, whether I would continue conversing with David, tacitly agreeing the matter was settled and the interruption was over, or would I respect Doug’s misgivings as to David’s character and seek to delve deeper into the mystery of its origin.  I reasoned in myself that even if Doug’s assessment of David were true, his method of conveyance broke social protocol and made him appear to be the very thing he accused David of.  Our anger at others, more often than not, is directly proportionate to our intimacy with that very shortcoming in ourselves.  I concluded that David’s graciousness had netted my attention.  “So that’s when you started wearing your table?” I asked.

“It is!” David beamed.  “Now I carry everything with me and wander freely about the square.”

Doug stormed off in a trail of obscenities and entered the nearest bar.

“What do you suppose that was about?” David’s eyebrows were raised.

“I don’t know.  You handled it very nicely, though.”

“Why, thank you!”  He gave a little bow.

“Perhaps he felt that I was his territory since he spent an hour telling me, the nubie, the ropes of the square,” I suggested.

“Hmm … very insightful,” he mused.  “Perhaps.”  Then  he launched into the story of how 16 nails had been pounded into all 4 tires of his car while in a parking garage some years back and the culprit had turned out to be a bar owner who had recently gotten out of prison for laundering drug money for his brother.  (That bar right there, actually, where Doug had gone in.)  David didn’t know why the guy hated him, but he’d gotten a brand new set of tires out of it, from his insurance.  He said he has a strong personality and it sometimes has that effect on people.

While he talked he noticed my attention drifting to Foxy, who was explaining how hard and stressful being an artist could be to a glazey-eyed couple.  They kept nodding soberly. “That’s Foxy,”  David pointed with his chin.  “Steer clear of her.  She’s Manic.”  Well, everyone can agree on one thing, I thought.  “At least she’s out here making art,” I said.  

“Well, I should let you get back to drawing.  It’s been an unparalleled pleasure!”  David bowed and sauntered away.

I went back to drawing Bethany, but my phone was dying.  I was getting antsy.

Finally, around 7:00, two young black girls approached. “How much are your pictures?” one asked.

“They’re for a donation,” I said.

“We only have two dollars,” she mourned.

“Have a seat,” I commanded.

While I drew them, I felt a presence lurking.  I knew it was Doug without looking.  After a lot of throat clearing he leaned into my space and said “I’m gonna leave my bag here, I’ve gotta go to the market.”  He started to put it against my easel leg.  “You’ll be here for awhile, right?” 

I didn’t look up from drawing, but pointed.  “Not on the easel.   Put it against the fence.” I commanded.  He tried to say something else but I was really focused on the portrait.  He left.  I did a respectable job finishing and the girls were delighted.  Unfortunately I had pulled in no more business and was sitting idle when Doug returned.  He was fairly drunk.  I leaned against the fence to help him avoid using my chair.  He leaned beside me and offered me some corn liquor from a water bottle.  I declined.

“Sorry for embarrassing you, earlier.  It’s just that guy is a … well, he’s been really nasty to some good friends of mine.  The owner of this bar here.  He’s a really good friend.  He lets me draw in there late at night when the crowds out here die down.  That’s a good gig, you know, people are really generous in a bar, of course you can never draw for long because people keep buying you free drinks!”

“Well, what did he do to your friend?” I ask.

“It’s a long shtory,” he said, with a sidelong glance to see where my loyalties lay.  “Too long to tell,” he decided.

“Well, I gotta pack up and go home to my wife,” I said, realizing how much I was missing her.

“Will you be out tomorrow?” he asked.

“Maybe,” I said flatly.  I packed and left.

As I carried my things past Foxy I glanced at her work.  It was painstakingly wrought.  Not the slick caliber of the NYC spray artists, but at least it was her own, not formulaic.  I thought, You go, girl, but I did not engage.

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Mother and Son Portrait Commission


Michael put the word out last month that he was available for portrait commissions, and one came in almost immediately from a friend, to commemorate the birth of a mutual friend's first child.  The photo that inspired the project was the work of Trina Dinnar Photography,  one of a lovely series of newborn family portraits of M&R and their delicious baby B. 

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Portrait Drawing


We went to the local Knoxville Homeschool group's climbing outing yesterday, and while I belayed kids, Michael drew portraits upstairs on the balcony.  Not a lot of customers, but happy ones!  He had a chance to draw a great pic of Douglas in between customers ... look much like anyone else in this family?! 

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