I love sunflowers. They are such a cheerful good-natured flower. If they were people they would be the kind with the wide open faces and big toothy grins. You know the sort. The ones who always see the sunny side of things. The good. The optimistic. The hopeful.
Little backstory: My love affair with this blithe bloom actually began as a seed. As much as I loved the flowers, it was nothing compared to my love for the seeds. Not the healthy versions that you buy in health food stores or in the bulk food section at the grocery store. I’m talking about the ones you buy in the chip aisle or at your neighborhood corner store, the depository for all things so good tasting yet so bad for you. I’m talking the super salty variety in their shell. The ones that you suck, crack open, chew, swallow, wash down with soda. One bag of Giants and your mouth is begging for mercy. This is my idea of the perfect sunflower seed.
One summer The Old Man and I planted sunflowers all around the perimeter of our back yard. They grew tall. Confident. And winsome. They were magnificent. I loved them. The Old Man Loved them. Ma loved them. The birds especially loved them. Everyone was happier that summer. Sunflowers have a knack for bringing out the best in all. Perhaps that explains their popularity.
Ma wasn’t a gardener. She left that to The Old Man and me. Ma was an artist. I didn’t really appreciate her artistic abilities until she turned sixty. Not that Ma suddenly became Picasso or even Grandma Moses on her sixtieth birthday, and then we all took note. It’s more that Ma’s creative talents weren’t so clearly defined, at least not to me. An “Artist” by my limited definition, was someone, most likely bohemian in nature, who had abstract paintings in uptown galleries, SoHo cafes, coffee table books or at the very least was someone like the quirky art teacher in my high school. Not my mother. But her domestic talent was always present, manifested in everything she touched. From the one-of-a-kind clothes she sewed for me to her scrumptious baking and homemade pasta and bread. Everything she made with her expressive hands was a work of art. A masterpiece.
At sixty Ma went back to high school. At night. To study art. Oil and charcoal. I can only imagine the bravery it took to embark on such an endeavor. What a personal challenge it must have been. But also what an adventure. What a magnificent obsession she must have had. I say this because she was so painfully shy and timid. Her voice, at times was barely audible. You had to really listen to Ma when she spoke or you would miss all the good stuff. The wisdom. The gems. The humor.
Off she went. Courage mustered. Heart full. Audacity emblazoned. Once a week she headed out to my old school where she studied fine art. Drawing and painting. Life and landscape. People and places. Her imagination was set free. She was firing on all cylinders and having the time of her life. She was in bliss. Cloud Nine. Heaven. And yes, it was oh so fine.
Ma’s life as an artist could have started much earlier than age sixty. Raising a family, time commitments, financial struggles, shyness and fear aside, there was something far more sinister holding Ma back. She told me a story once that both broke my heart and made me angry. When she was a young girl in grade school she drew a picture. I think it was of a cat. Proud of her drawing, she showed it to her teacher. Instead of praise and encouragement she was met with accusation and shame. The teacher accused her of tracing the cat, berated her, saying that she couldn’t possibly have drawn it so accurately without having cheated. Needless to say, this crushed Ma. Her spirit. Her talent. From that moment onward she kept her artistic dreams a secret. Locked away inside her precious little-girl heart for decades.
I have no idea what the catalyst was for her change of heart, for the unearthing of her secret desire. I don’t know what made her push the fear and shame aside in favor of following her dream. It seems that one day she just did it, as if out of the clear blue. She had a notion and acted on it. And I’m so glad she did.
Ma had many joyful years of painting. In particular, she liked to paint flowers. I remember towards the end of her life, when she was in her late seventies, I asked her to paint me some sunflowers. By then, she had pretty much abandoned her easel, canvases and paints. She simply stopped. Almost as quickly as she started. For no apparent reason. Another notion perhaps. Again I had no understanding of why. It was all a mystery to me. The enigma of Ma. The request for the sunflower painting was my vain attempt to coax her back into doing the one thing in life that brought her such joy, that had nothing to do with raising kids or managing a home, taking care of The Old Man. It was just Ma’s. Uniquely hers. I also really wanted a painting of sunflowers for my living room wall. But she kept putting it off. Said she’d “get round to it one of these days.” Then I dropped the subject. She was getting old. Then she had the heart attack. And everything changed.
After Ma’s funeral, on a cold February night in a small town in Northwestern Ontario my siblings and I visited the home where we all grew up. This would be the last time I would ever step inside this place. It was cold outside but even colder inside. It struck me that without Ma, there was no warmth. This was now just a small wartime house in the west end of nowhere. I visited each room for one last time, collecting little mementos and treasures that once belonged to Ma. My siblings did the same.
Upstairs in the room that was once occupied by my older brothers, then by me, and was one of the places where Ma liked to paint, I found the most resplendent keepsake of all. The sunflower painting. There it was. Waiting for me. Even after she had moved on, she was still giving me gifts. Suddenly the room grew warmer. My heart was light. My face, open and wide. My grin, big and toothy.