My mother excels at many things, but she stinks at selfishness.
Because she’s naturally wired to think first about other people (and I’m not just talking about family members, though she has thrown herself on my book tour grenade enough times to earn a Purple Heart), I decided to show her a thing or two about putting herself first by enrolling the two of us in art lessons.
The seed for this idea got planted back in February, when Mom, my sister Suzi and I took a paint-and-sip class at Spirited Art near Suzi’s home in Richmond. Suzi is one of those maddening firstborns who ruined life for the rest of us by doing just about everything perfectly, so she loves those classes and absolutely crushes them. Same with Mom (Suzi had to get that trait from someone). In fact, the two of them once cranked out such impressive replicas of The Starry Night I half-expected them to come home from class missing an ear.
Their success in those classes seems to correlate directly to their ability and willingness to follow directions. They score high on both axes, whereas I’m almost always on the hunt for a shortcut. And even when I’m willing to take the long road, I still have to contend with my lousy sense of direction.
So on that evening in February, Mom and Suzi listened and painted for the most part. They didn’t care about hitting the sauce, they just gave it the occasional caress before returning to their masterworks in progress. I handled the evening differently. I chose to approach it not so much as a paint-and-sip but as an I’m-trying-to-drink-my-wine-over-here-but-some-guy-keeps-telling-me-to-put-the-glass-down-and-paint experience, with commensurate results.
But the thing that stood out to me most that night was how absorbed Mom got in the process and how happy she seemed while spending time this way, with her daughters. And that made me happy. So under the guise of doing something to make Mom happy, but really out of a desire to fuel my own happiness, I suggested to Mom that she and I take art lessons. I happen to be friends with an accomplished 70-something artist named Peter. Part Zorba, part Nutty Professor and all heart, I thought he’d make a perfect teacher, and his studio is just a few miles from my home.
Mom and I began lessons in March, and Peter started us off with drawing because, as he put it, “Anyone can paint.” (I suspect my enrollment has caused him to rethink that saying.)
Mom seemed intimidated at first, which made sense to me because, at 72, it has to be daunting to take up something totally new. But I should have known Mom’s trepidation would last only a second. My mother may be sweet, kind and ridiculously generous of heart, but she’s also fearless. She’s the woman who, when the two of us were in Greece in 2002, decided to ignore the fact that she has minimal swimming skills and go snorkeling for the first time.
“It was the Aegean,” she said, as if that fact alone made a maiden snorkeling voyage at age 60 mandatory. Compared to that, facing a palette of watercolors must have seemed like nothing.
Mom and I both love these lessons with Peter, and Peter loves to watch Mom at work. He gets her.
“Look at that. Do you see what your mother’s doing?” he’ll say, and we’ll watch her as she approaches a canvas with the stance and finesse of a fencer. She does good work, and he lets her know it, and he admires her quiet determination. But like any teacher worth his salt, he gives her just the right blend of praise and constructive criticism, and it spurs her on. She’s incredible, advancing with every session, even when she thinks she’s not. (I, on the other hand, remain solidly average when it comes to painting and significantly above average when it comes to wine-drinking.)
All in all, these art lessons are definitely one of the better ideas I’ve had (never mind that my ideas have sometimes involved things like jumping off the back of a perfectly good ferry).
Mom and I have another lesson tonight. I can hardly wait to see what she does while I work on putting the finishing touches on this opus magnum, which I call “Fruity Pebble Barf Blossoms.”