Thursday, July 25, 2013

Putting the Past to Rest

This piece is the most antithetical to my usual process. My typical approach to work when I'm  moving too slow for comfort is to put it on the back burner and pick up another painting in progress, or just start a new one. This was a almost daily building and assembling of smaller pieces. Sometimes it plodded, where I'd spend more time looking than in movement, but it did pick up momentum near the end. I first thought the presentation would be simple, but getting the worlds of the smaller images to relate meant going back into those panels and larger backing plank with more paint, and reminding myself to review and adjust the piece as a larger whole.

The piece is in acrylic inks and paints. Some are metallic so I shot it in different light to get the different effects. (Size: approximately 40x26 inches, assembled wood panels, stretched canvases, and mini frames)

Since my last post I had continued to create various paintings in the vein of my interpreted and invented decorative tree studies and other  dreamscape work. The approach is the opposite of work from direct observation, or impression. (I have also been painting outdoors, and will have future posts on that group. ) The invented/interpreted style, which is intuitive, decorative, patterned, more symbolic than observed imagery, and obsessive has been grounding when I've felt anxious or unsettled.  These past couple of years have been a time of a lot of sad milestones and changes in my life. The work has been a way to stay in motion as I pass through such times.

In summer 2011 until the end of that year, my siblings and I were dealing with mom's cancer, subsequent passing, and the aftermath of our father's care. Up to age 84, Dad had maintained a semblance of physical independence, but his mental health was more fragile. He had long suffered ongoing bouts of severe anxiety. This was compounded by an early but (at the time) undiagnosed stage of dementia. He still managed to present a competent, if somewhat agitated facade to the outside world, and refused residential care or medical treatment for these health issues. It wasn't until he was discovered on his back by the cellar stairs, post-fall (a month after our mother's passing) that he could be removed from the family home for rehabilitative/assisted living.

During Dad's nursing home stay, there was a window of time where my sister and I could mutually communicate with our father with calm and rationality. He had finally been medicated  and we could connect with the good intentioned man behind the static cloud of anxious impulsive outbursts. We wished our father could have accepted this help earlier in his life.

 After this period of some peace and clarity, Dad's health continued to decline.  His suffering of a myriad of digestive problems from a decade's past radiation cancer treatment was compounded by irrevocable increasing loss of all motor control, leaving him bed bound and unable to even swallow food.  Dad died this past December, just over a year Mom left us.

Because of our father's service in WWII, we found he and Mom were eligible for interment of their ashes in a wall at Arlington National Cemetery, just a few miles from where my sister and I currently live. They were on a waiting list, so the service was performed this past June. It was worth the wait. The weather was beautiful, warm but not hot, clear skies and everything green. The ceremony was dramatic, brief, solemn, and silent other than the punctuation of a multi gun salute.


It's a weird feeling to think about the family home. Dad bought the three bedroom stone colonial when mom was very pregnant and near due with me. I was raised there with my brother and sister, then boomeranged back for brief periods during and post college years, until I left the Philadelphia metro area for good at 25. I needed to make a solid break away from childhood. My parents remained there until Mom was moved to my sister's place for endcare, and Dad's accident, so it was the homestead for just over 40 years.



 Other than for cobwebs and debris, it's empty now.

As a little kid, I remember me, my brother, sister, and parents crammed into the family Honda, pulling out of the driveway for weekend daylong excursions. Leaving the rows of pretty, tree lined but cookie cutter well maintained homes of Drexel Hill, we would occasionally pass a dilapidated abandoned home at the edge of some farmland or some solitary crumbling brick structure bordering on between a depressed desolate urban and industrial area. Dad would point it out exclaiming,  "There's a dreamhome!" Being five and not quite hip to the concept of sarcasm, that's what I thought a dreamhome was: a lonely, dark, ramshackle dwelling. The name made sense as I started to have dreams of being lost in them late at night, with no one around as far as I could see. Sad and scared, not sure how I got there, nor how to get home, I'd awaken in my flowered twin bed next to my sister in the sunshine lighting up our blue bedroom.

The last time I was in the family house was during a brief trip with my sister.  I was to gather any remaining  mementos: letters, photographs, and art.  Jan collected the important documents and financial records.  The place had already been overhauled by a local so called samaritan who offered his services to sell the family furniture, crystal, and other items of value for our father, but then pocketed the proceeds. As a final courtesy to the neighbors, (not being sure when the bank would claim the property) we did a little yard work.

In the dark master bedroom, superimposed on the dusty, strewn, unfurnished, picked over leftover...stuff, I could recall the final version my mom maintained during a previous caregiving visit. Like the rest of the house, it required renovation, and there was some help needed with the housework (I pitched in), but it still had Mom's touch. Up to that time, she had kept the home colorful, comfortable, and reasonably clean as long as she could.  Even when she was too ill to stand, she wanted to be productive, so I'd fetch clean laundry from the dryer in the basement for her to fold in bed, while she watched her tv shows. Junior the cat would be lounging by her hip, gazing besottedly at her all the while (I never met a cat so...fixated on a person than that little fuzzy tuxedoed gentleman), purring.

Her bedroom was the unofficial family gathering area. In the early evenings we (any number of us: me, my siblings, or even my siblings friends ) would bring up ovaltine and snacks hang out on the pushed together twin beds and chat over the primetime lineups or cable movies. Family pets would flank my mom's bed or simply drape themselves around her. Sometimes Dad would be there, but more often he was away working the nightshift for IBM fixing computers around town. He later took over other bedrooms as we grew up and out of the home, due to his ingrained sleep schedule.

In the surrounding neighborhood I had picked up the lifelong habit of long walks. Once, as a hormonal stressed teen, I had impulsively bolted out of the house for a run through the dusk spring night. Never being athletic or even all that physically active, I couldn't go that fast, nor could I keep the pace up for long but I did get the sensation of a tightness in my chest loosening. I slowed to a walk and just observed the trees and sky overhead for a several mile loop. The anger and anxiety lifted and I felt, (although couldn't really articulate it), a sense of "flow".  I set out again the next night, and it became a regular activity.

The running didn't do well for my shins or ankles (I'm sure my form was shit), so I transitioned to just walking. I'd skip bus rides  home in favor of hoofing it. I'd hike in the early evenings after dinner on school nights in all weather and seasons.  Sometimes I enjoyed the company of Mom (she developed endurance and we would walk and talk for miles, a treasured memory) or with a friend, but usually it was a solitary activity, where I passed through nature and time at a rhythmic steady clip.

That "passing through" is what I think of when painting those symbolic succession of profiles in this piece below. I understand they could be interpreted as ghosts, which can be a fun narrative to creatively play with, but I don't really believe in them, nor an afterlife. The living are haunted with memories of loved ones who can't be reached anymore. Some are deceased, some have permanently split ways as the bonds that were once strong and genuine have withered or been severed.

Houses aren't haunted, but they haunt dreams.

A repeated dream: walking at night from 69th Street Terminal to the house like I used to, expecting to see my mom's bedroom light in her window, maybe Buddy the cat on the porch roof peering in and meowing for her to let him in (his own way of coming and going when he was alive). Instead I arrive at a dark dirty, empty place and I can't find anyone. Only then I notice street lights have gone dark and so have the neighborhood homes. The area is abandoned. The only sign of life are the overgrown trees,shrubs, and unmowed lawns spilling over the sidewalks. I think about turning around and heading to the city, but then suddenly remember that too many from my circle of early adulthood have also passed away recently. I search on my phone for other contacts, but can't find or make a successful connection. There's noise, they talk but can't hear me, or I can't hear them. We drop off.

 I don't know where to go.

I wake up at my sister's apartment in Arlington, relieved to be in my current life and shake off the plaintive, creepy pull of the dream. Sometimes it helps if I imagine a young couple moving in our old residence, making repairs and setting up their new life.

 I wish them the best.

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