You may have noticed from all of my recent paintings shared to social media that I’ve been on a coastal painting kick. I can’t seem to stop painting beaches, oceans, waves, and lakes. Painting water feels so intuitive and relaxing, which if you’re into Astrology won’t surprise you because I’m a Pisces. Painting water feels very natural and also reminds me of all the opportunities I’ve had to see the sea.
I told you about my first visit to the Pacific Ocean. My very first ocean experience, though, was in Florida many years earlier. Today’s story is not about the ocean itself, but about my Grandma Helen.
My maiden voyage to Florida was sometime in the late ‘80s with my grandma, my parents, and my sister. We were going to Disney World, but the three clearest memories I have of that experience have nothing to do with Mickey Mouse. The first of these is simply Figment. Do you remember him? The purple dragon with orange wings from the Journey Into Imagination? He was my favorite, and I probably still have my little Figment stuffed animal souvenir somewhere. I even painted a big Figment mural on my bedroom wall when I was a little older.
The next memory is of the monorail. Oh, the iconic Disney method of transportation to the parks! If you’ve never seen it, picture a sleek-looking train up high above on a one-track system. I was very excited to ride it, but what I really won’t forget is how Grandma laughed every time I unknowingly referred to it as the, “moneyrail.” “Oh, Airy-berry,” she would say in the midst of her chuckling. It took me years before I realized the true name and really got the humor myself. 😂 Back then, I also called the Sears Tower the “Serious Tower,” which my family also found quite funny.
And then there’s the third memory, also with Grandma and probably also on the moneyrail, er, monorail. She gave me some gum and was trying to teach me how to blow a bubble. It felt impossible, and I don’t think I got it figured out, but I remember her trying to explain it, as we sat side-by-side.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager when Grandma once told me she much preferred the northern climate where we lived to the humidity in Florida. This conversation came about when I must have been fantasizing about escaping a harsh Chicago winter and running away back to Orlando. Or perhaps it was The Keys? And Grandma, who was always very clear on her stances, knew that humidity was not for her.
Grandma was never shy about sharing her opinion like this. She could do it in a way that wasn’t rude or harsh but just real. She had a refreshing energy about her. You knew she cared and also that she would be honest with you. She was interested in things nobody else I knew talked much about, and she never seemed rushed. She was very funny, enjoying a good laugh, but also quite contemplative. The way she spoke to me gave me a safe path to ponder deeper things in life. I always admired that about her. Last month, I told you I had a story about the day my son kicked her, and I’ll go ahead and tell you now.
During the post-miscarriage pregnancy I wrote about last time, Grandma got sick. She was in her upper 80’s, very independently living alone in her long-time condo in an Illinois suburb, when she was diagnosed with cancer of the bladder. I was more than halfway along in the pregnancy when my husband and I flew in from California to visit her at a medical rehab facility she had moved to after being hospitalized. My parents were there with us that morning, and we all went out to brunch together. I don’t know what I ate, but I remember Grandma ordered the bran pancakes.
Afterward, we went back to the rehab facility to visit a while longer. Grandma sat in a wheelchair, while I sat on her bed beside her, when I felt the baby start kicking. Grandma placed her hand on my belly, trying to feel. While waiting, she asked what we would name him, and I told her “Wesley.” She chewed that over for a moment, not seeming too fond at first, but then nodded and said, “Okay. I can call you ‘Wes.’” Suddenly, he kicked really hard, and she felt it. Her eyes widened, and her mouth turned into an ‘O.’ She started laughing, and I have that moment locked into my head like a film playing because I’ve watched it over and over again.
My husband had been recording a video of this whole moment on a crummy pre-smart phone. That crappy-quality video is so special to me now because Grandma never got to meet my children face-to-face. Actually, that visit was the last time I saw her. When the cancer took over, I was too far in the pregnancy to fly back again to see her or to attend her funeral. It warmed me to know she was with other family members and had spent her last days in the comfort of my Uncle’s home, but knowing I would not see her again felt so sad.
Now, Wes is turning 11 in just a couple weeks, and he has seen that video. He’s laughed with me at the shock on his Great Grandma’s face when he kicked her hand. He can hear her trademark laugh. He can touch the needlepoint penguins that once were held in her hands and have since decorated the corner of his bedroom. I have her very special stuffed animal mouse sitting on the shelf in our family room, watching over us, reminding me of her fondness for small critters and her lack of caring for anyone’s criticism over the fact that she kept a photo of her old pet rat, Monster, in her wallet but no others.
Life feels short and precious, and yet each day is full of memories and small experiences that thread through our families, tugging us in snugly together. The heartbreak of loss and the feeling that we are sometimes facing things too big to handle remind us that it is up to us to simply be here in the now as best as we can and seek the beauty that is with us in this very moment.
The journey is not about money or power. It is about meaning. Each of us has a purpose that touches others, and we will never know all of the ways this happens. Sometimes it is truly the simplest things that combine to make life so spectacular. Thanks to a monorail engineer, whomever invented chewing gum, the big dreams of Walt Disney, and the artist that designed Figment, I got to share a moment with Grandma blowing bubbles while riding high in the sky, listening to her laughing in just the same pitch as she did when Wes kicked her.
“Energized” is one of several new ocean paintings and prints coming to the shop next week.