I was an unusually verbal child. As my mother told it, after my father died I’d sit between the legs of our round oak dining room table and talk to myself for hours on end. My way of coping with loss, she thought. As the years went by I adopted increasingly more sophisticated stress reducing activities – cooking, sewing, dancing, jumping rope, crossword puzzles – adding them to my repertoire as needed. Decades later, in 1998, when my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I regularly took refuge in a distinctly different kind of stress-reducing ritual – that of tweezing my eyebrows. Mind you, it was not some wild frenetic action, but a very deliberate and exact one like a draftsman working on an architectural plan, the calm stillness of which centers me and focuses the tentacles of my emotions in one place like very few things can. As it did the Friday evening I came home to an email from my brother telling me my sister’s boyfriend was in the hospital and wasn’t expected to make it through the night. And as it did on a snowy day before one particular Christmas when my favorite Man-and-his-Beagle-Named-Maisie duo suddenly announced they were moving two hours away from me and the Island of Manhattan.
On one of my trips to see my mother, I sat with her in the activities room of her senior day care center with a tin can of Crayolas and a child’s tablet of black and white line drawings spread open on the crafts table. My mother had been an avid gardener and loved flowers, so I opened the booklet to a bouquet of tulips. Her arthritic fingers made it difficult for her to select a crayon herself…they were packed far too tightly…so I chose one for her and said, “How about green?” She looked at it and purred “Ooohhh,” and nodded her approval. She tugged at the three-inch stick, impatiently watching me peel back the paper rim to expose more wax. She could no longer speak or read, but she could distinguish the leaves from the stems, the stems from the flower petals, and the flower petals from the ribbon that tied the whole bouquet together.
She gripped the crayon, studied the drawing and eyed a specific leaf to fill in with forest green. Concentrating to stay within the lines, the flattened nibs dulled from overuse, she slowed down when she got close to an edge and worked carefully, making a clean line and perfect sweep of color. I watched her face, so serious, like that of a little girl, innocent, intent and sweet, as I imagined mine had been when at six years old she first took me to art and dance classes at the University of New Mexico. She leaned against the cool metal back of her chair to survey her work and turned to look at me, sharing her immense self-satisfaction, a faint “Ha!” pulling her lips into a gentle smile.
Her left hand, steadying the paper, was absent the simple Navajo silver and turquoise ring that had for decades kept company with her simple platinum diamond wedding band, which she had given me years before along with her gold high school graduation ring. Gone too was her favorite Navajo bracelet that I had coveted since I was a child, with its perfect row of oval blue-green turquoise stones, replaced now with a simple plain stainless steel patient’s ID bracelet. She still wore her watch on her right wrist, a habit I copy, but there was no longer any reason to wind it and it remained forever twelve o’clock in my mother’s world. As she tapped the nail of her middle right finger on the table, I noticed the bulbous permanent callous next to the nail bed, a silent tribute to her years as an inveterate letter writer. I had kept every one she had ever written me.
I took in my mother’s 87-year-old hands and sifted through years of memories. All the sourdough-infused loaves of bread she’d punched down in an old crockery bowl she used to perch atop a painted electric-blue metal stool in front of the wall heater in the breakfast room to let the dough rise. The times in winter she would shake down an ice-cold thermometer and put it under my tongue, and rub Vic’s Vapo-Rub on my chest when I got bronchitis. The Saturday afternoons when, as a teenager, I would wash and curl her thick graying hair and paint her nails – red – because she could no longer afford a trip to the salon. And all the pink roses she used to cut for the cobalt blue and amber green glass bottles she collected and lined up on the kitchen windowsill that looked out onto her beloved Sandia mountains, leaving them to gather dust because she thought it gave them character. At the end of an afternoon in the garden, we would fill old Italian wine bottles with buds that were never going to open, and clean our fingers with lemons and rub Vaseline into our thorn cuts standing side-by-side at the sink.
Will my hands look like hers when I am old? The nails dry and ridged, the joints heavy with arthritis, the veins sitting slightly atop the bones, the fingers slender and delicate, the skin thin and pearly and freckled with age spots, but the grip of a woman who worked with her hands all her life still strong and engaging and defiant.
Watching my mother color suddenly reminded me of how I shape my eyebrows, using a slim angled brush to fill them in with a shimmery taupe powder, sometimes with a soft brown pencil, tapering the outside edge to a slightly smudged point with the same deliberate and focused technique she used to color in the leaves on her tulip drawing. I too lean back in my chair – a tapestry-covered one in my bedroom – holding my mirror at arm’s length to take stock of my work, and in those private moments a sense of well being washes over me. I, too, need to make a clean line and a perfect sweep of color. In times of stress I, too, need to create something ordered, something artfully shaped.
Insistent that she had no talents of her own, my mother always said that I got my artistic sensibility from my father, who was an architect and an engineer, and I always accepted her assessment. There had been something romantic about identifying myself with the talents of my dead father, foolish and presumptuous as that might have been. The truth is that whatever love for artistry I shared with my father could only have resulted from mutual genetic material, for surely there had never been an opportunity for me to sit with him at his drawing board. And that afternoon at St. Joseph’s Senior Care, my mother’s theory unraveled when I realized how much my inspiration to design jewelry, my love for color and fresh cut flowers, my life-long letter writing habit, the strength and steadiness in my hands, my intensity, concentration and need for perfection, even my personal beauty routines, all came from her.
When I answered the phone at 8:00pm on April 26, 2004 to hear my sister say our mother was in the hospital with pneumonia, and found myself once again reaching out for the grooming tools that I knew would stop my heart from racing, I could not have known that my weekly ritual of tweezing my eyebrows would, from that moment on, forever evoke the memory of a peaceful afternoon spent with my mother and a coloring book. An afternoon that quietly revealed a side of my mother I had never been able to see, a side that might never have been revealed were it not for the silent visitation of Alzheimer’s.
Now, whenever I shape my brows for the pure pleasure of it, I can see my mother’s hands and the look on her face as she worked to make a perfect leaf of green that crisp spring day in New Mexico.
And I remember her as the artist she always wanted to be.
P.S. Green Leaves and Eyebrows was written in 2004 and is an excerpt from a book I am writing.