Last summer when I was wrapping up my exhibit at the Jones Library in Amherst MA, one of the staff with whom I’d become friends asked: “Aren’t you afraid?” She was referring to my heading off into the unknown, the next stop Texas. I looked at her and asked: “Afraid of what?” My point was that life is an adventure and yet realizing most people wouldn’t tackle such a thing, I thought it a telling question on her part. Life was safe for her. No risks, no worries. But in fact she had many worries particularly with trouble at home. Fear had trapped her into a routine that made happiness rare.
There had been a time in my life when the thought of doing what I’m doing would’ve scared me too. What this project did from the very beginning simply by painting in public, was to open my eyes to the rest of the world and see people as fellow voyagers each of us on some life path.
Now a year into this journey, I have a few weeks to reflect on the past as I look forward. What does lie ahead? The time in Palm Springs has been wonderful by both the acceptance of the director and staff as well as many of the docents.
I was raised by a father who, I later puzzled out, was afraid of life in so many ways that anger became it’s by-product. We grew apart all through my teens and early twenties. Eventually we came to understand our weaknesses and fears and he eventually told me how proud he was of my accomplishments by the time he died. I learned that fear had kept him from trying to become a professional pianist. As a fifth grader I remember him sitting down to play on our first piano and hearing Rachmaninoff piano suites roll from his finger tips. I was astounded by how beautifully he played.
That insight into fear became a tool as I’d traveled the country. No longer worried about what people thought about me, I was free to be myself. I’d seen a lot of intolerance toward others who were outwardly different from those standing in judgement. Where did this fear materialize? As a teenager, I kept waiting for a time when one magically reached that age of adulthood. It took decades to realize not everyone gets there.
The last month before heading east (I no longer call Virginia my home), I stayed in a bedroom of a house belonging to one of the docents at the air museum. It was free but as I’ve learned, nothing is free. It meant co-existing with this 80 year old woman and her 84 year old live-in partner. I called them Lucy and Archie – named after the characters from the sitcoms I grew up with: I Love Lucy and All In The Family. “Lucy” is a non-stop talker whose train of thought is hard to track. I mentioned to her about the great pickup her car has, to which she veered onto a discussion of why she didn’t think it was right for girls to own pickups. It took me a minute to track that one.
“Archie’s” favorite saying is: “Never had it. Don’t like it” typically referring to his epicurean challenges. His favorite restaurant is Denny’s. “Love the food, love the service and the people are great,” this said to me seated at a booth in said establishment, my having been commandeered thinking it was another eating establishment we were headed for. “Favorite” is not the usual tribute I’d imagined applied to any establishment of the like. I’m rolling my eyes as forty minutes have elapsed and the two of them are just halfway through their meal. I’d finished long before. “Archie” counts each bite twenty-five to twenty-eight times. Silently. So there’s no conversation from him. I watch one of the servers vacuum the wall-to-wall carpet around our booth. Perfect atmosphere I chuckle to myself.
At their place, dinner is always a battleground. One night after returning from dinner out with a friend, I returned to find the two of them in the living room. ” ‘Lucy’ didn’t make me the big can of pork and beans,” Archie grumbled in front of her. “She only made the small one.” She’s told me in the past her list of beans she likes “but I don’t like pork and beans,” she concludes. I’d noticed from so many of their actions and statements that fear, on some level, runs their lives. “Archie” can’t seem to come to terms with how to deal with his estranged kids and “Lucy” lives in her past life with her late husband. Asking for what they want from each other in respectful terms rarely shows itself. Instead it’s a “he said, she said” daily routine in which they try to put me in the center. Pleasing one another seems to not be part of their master plan. Is it fear of being alone that keeps them together? “I only have a couple of more years anyway,” Archie likes to state on a regular basis. “Lucy” wants to publish four books written by her late husband. Life clearly was better for both of them before they decided to live together.
One evening I decided to make something special for the evening meal. Both of them wandered toward the stove for a look. As Lucy’s food preparation is more of the heat and serve kind and Archie can’t tell a can opener from a socket wrench, what I was performing was piquing their interest. On the counter sat a package of tortellini. “What’s that?” Archie asked.”Never had it. Don’t like it,” he finished. To his credit, when dinner was ready, he ate everything on his plate albeit in a good forty minutes. The crowning jewel of the meal was a side dish of pork and beans I’d heated for him. When he sat down at the table and spotted them, joy erupted. “For me?” he asked.
I made dinner the next night and again served a bowl of pork and beans. This went on for three consecutive nights. Lucy finally saw what little it took to make Archie happy. Looking at me across the table she uttered: “I guess I should serve him pork and beans more often.”
There was a lot of sadness watching them try to integrate their patterns. This apparently has been going on for six years. A puzzle Lucy recently bought for Archie became a battle ground when they worked on it together. He sorts by shapes. She sorts by color. The storm clouds in the puzzle artwork reflected the growing anger and frustration between the two of them.
A friend of mine often emails or calls, asking:”What’s going on today?” I always tell her that I don’t know. It’s a mystery. I never know who will walk in and start a conversation. That is the joy I feel. “Joy” not “fear”. That has to apply to relationships as well.
Maybe when I’m eighty and single, I’ll feel differently about sharing a home with someone. It will be about companionship with a companion, not merely a boarder. There’s not a fear of being alone either. The one true thing I’ve learned from visiting the set of I Love Lucy and All In The Family is that it also won’t hurt to keep a can of pork and beans in the larder.