Thursday, February 25, 2021

Pink Balloons Redux Redux


About a year ago I reposted the story of how my grandmother died on my daughter’s 7th birthday and how I had to find some joy in the midst of grief. 

President Biden spoke about this at the memorial for the half million lost this year to Covid. He said, “To heal, we must remember… For those who have lost loved ones, this is what I know: They’re never truly gone.  They’ll always be part of your heart.” 

I know this is true. That’s why I wrote Pink Balloons and why I’m reposting it here. 

This is also to announce and invite you to an event on Saturday, March 13, at 5 PM EST, the first anniversary of the lockdown, and my grandmother’s birthday.  

I’m holding a Zoom soiree and artist talk, remembering and honoring the one who represents my roots, my inspiration, and also the confusion and doubt which I have struggled to address through my art.  I’ll put on a slideshow and a chat with my friend, the artist Fran Beallor, and we’ll have a Q and A.  

So mark your calendar!   Saturday, March 13 at 5pm EST 

I'll send you a link next week.

Pink Balloons

Today, March 13, would be my grandmother's birthday.  Last year I posted this story about the day she died and I'm reprising it now.  

My grandmother, Louise Mayhew Russell Swanson, we called her MomMom, died at home early in the morning on my daughter Jessie’s 7th birthday.  We were there, and after several hours of phone calls and business, after the doctor and the undertaker had left, I looked at Jessie and thought, this little girl needs a celebration. 

So I drove to town to buy a cake, then went to the party store and bought 7 pink balloons and one purple to grow on. I headed out the door. The spiky chandelier in the entryway caught a balloon and POP! 
I went back, they replaced it for free and I headed out again, this time holding my bouquet very low. On the street, I passed a woman with a lit cigarette and POP!  
I went back to the store and this time I paid for the replacement. I headed out again, holding the balloons in a tight cluster. As they rubbed against each other, they heated up, the air and helium inside expanded just like we learned in fourth-grade science class and POP! 
I went back.  They were not happy to see me. I asked the helium person not to fill them quite so full and she looked at me like I was speaking a strange language. I finally got the balloons to the car and put them in the back seat.

They rose up and completely filled the back window, blocking my view. I backed out of the angle parking space VERY cautiously and ever so gently tapped an on-coming car. 
A crabby old man got out to inspect his fender and then drove off ignoring my profuse apologies. I wanted to say to him, “Sir, if you only know the day I’m having...” I guess you can’t expect kindness from someone you’ve just dinged. 
I drove home carefully and we had a party in the midst of planning a funeral.

MomMom loved the Bible and Jesus, and she held an unshakable faith in the resurrection. In her circle Death was referred to as “Going Home.” 
Sojourner Truth said at the end of her life; “I’m not dying--I’m going home like a shooting star!” 

I like to think MomMom went home like a burst of pink balloons.

While planning this post I looked online for stock pictures of pink balloons.  Nothing really pleased me, so I said to my teacher and helper, Izzy, 
"Lets' go get our own balloons."
So we did, and decided that instead of getting a series of POPS!!  I would give them away. Here's what happened.

I said to the man holding the door at Starbuck's,
"I don't have any cash, but would you like a balloon?"

He took the balloon with a smile, saying, "You gotta be grateful for what you get, right?"
I'll go back and find him when I have money in my pocket.

Then, who should I meet on Sixth Avenue but Michael Shake, Organist and Director of Music at the First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York, sporting a lovely pink shirt?

He took a balloon and went on his way.

Arthur's response to this video was,
"Barbara, I think it's time for you to consider rehab."
Izzy's response to Arthur?
"That means we're on the right track."
As things--places and events and gatherings we took for granted are shutting down here in response to the Corona Virus, let's be grateful for the things that connect us.
Keep washing your hands, and keep in touch.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Progress Report on Red House

 On January 8, still reeling from the news out of Washington in the 6th, I reached out to you for help; I needed ideas for inhabitants of my Red House Interior.  

The Rhino, suggested by Ellen Grossman, was an immediate yes.  I can't go wrong with the Rhino and here he is.

He still needs work, but I think I'll keep him white and build up his background.

My second respondent was my cousin Dan.  He suggested Jimi Hendrix's girlfriend--why?  Because of the song, Red House, and the lyric, "Yonder's the Red House...that's where my baby lives."  

I downloaded Jimi's rendition of Red House and it's great. That reminded me of The Star Spangled Banner and the way Jimi played it at Woodstock. At the time there was outrage at his rendition--people thought he was an anarchist deliberately trashing our national anthem.  Actually that's not at all true. Jimi Hendrix served honorably in the United States Air Force and played the Star Spangled Banner in his own respectful way. Who owns the Star Spangled Banner?  Who gets to sing it? Who does it best? Robert Merrill at Yankee Stadium?  Whitney Houston at the Super Bowl?  Kate Smith?  Jose Feliciano?  Lady Gaga?

So here's Jimi Hendrix as he appeared at Woodstock. He's a work in progress; the jacket he wore at Woodstock had beautiful fringe on the sleeves that I still have to draw.

The largest space on the first floor took some thinking.  I decided agains the cow, the stork and the mermaids in favor of Her.  

But she's looking at somebody, so I gave her two companions, cut out to match her. They're a little big for the space but I like playing with scale.

Who are they?  Maybe the three graces, the daughters of Zeus; Thalia, Euphrosyne and Aglaea, who embody Youth/Beauty, Mirth, and Style and preside over banquets and gathering to delight the guests of the gods. But I think these dames are up to more than just planning parties, not that I have anything against parties.

I can't resist adding here what William Golding had to say about Women.

So with my Graces I'm paying tribute to women who take what they're given and make more of it; Ida B. Wells, Francis Perkins, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Shirley Chisholm, Stacy Abrams, Kamala Harris, the list goes on and on.

When I think of the people who work to affect change for the common good I think of what my grandfather and then my father used to say when there was work to be done;

"Let the job talk to you."

It means, pay attention, see what needs to be done and just do it. That remind me of this poem by Marge Piercy.

To be of use


The people I love the best

jump into work head first

without dallying in the shallows

and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.

They seem to become natives of that element,

the black sleek heads of seals

bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,

who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,

who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,

who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge

in the task, who go into the fields to harvest

and work in a row and pass the bags along,

who are not parlor generals and field deserters

but move in a common rhythm

when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.

Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.

But the thing worth doing well done

has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.

Greek amphoras for wine or oil,

Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums

but you know they were made to be used.

The pitcher cries for water to carry

and a person for work that is real.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Love is in the Air

 When I was in Taguasco, Cuba on a church trip I asked our host if the town had a synagogue and where all the Jewish people were--or if there were any at all. He raised his eyebrows and asked why in the world I asked.

 I put my arm around Susan, my roomy for the trip and said, "We're both married to Jewish men."

Now he looked askance. Two church ladies marrying outside the faith? 

 I said, "Hey, when you fall in love, it has to be the Lord's doing, don't you think?"

He had to agree.

When I say the Lord's doing I mean that, whatever your credo, meeting your life's partner, or falling in love,  is a sacred moment.

How did you meet your Valentine?

I met Arthur when he came to my door after a long phone conversation.  My friend, Margaret, an actress who had worked with him had said, "Arthur, I know just the girl for you and if you don't call her I'll never speak to you again."  He didn't want to make an enemy so he called me and it's all worked out pretty well. We had our first date at Joe Allen's.

My mother told us she met Dad in her own living room.  She was dating Bob Wylie and one evening his buddy Bob Swanson tagged along.  For a while they all hung out together but eventually she knew that Bob Swanson was the one.  Bob Wylie was best man at the wedding.  After Mom and Dad had died I met him at the school he and Dad went to and he said, "I can see both your parents in your face."

My grandparents on the Swanson side met at Marble Collegiate Church here on Fifth Avenue where they were both active in church life.  She volunteered to wait table at a Men's Association dinner.  Looking out from the kitchen she saw where Bob Swanson sat and told the other girls, "I'll take that table."

I think my favorite story comes from my mother's father, Harry Brown; this is his account of how he met Mildred Conklin.  

"I had seen her around town and she told me that on July 4th she would be at the town picnic.  I got there after dark and couldn't find her but then the fireworks started, the sky lit up...and there she was."

What's the story in your family? In these days of isolating for our safety our stories can connect us to each other and to the ones who are no longer with us.  Are you sharing your stories?  I'd love to hear them.

                                                     Happy Valentine's Day!

Friday, February 5, 2021


 Do you remember my post of June 20, 2019?  I wrote about the ocean and how it's rising due to global warming and at the same time drowning in plastic junk.

I asked why we're using indestructible materials for things we use once and throw away.  Is it because they're cheap?  They're not at all cheap when you factor in what they do to the earth.

 Midway Island, halfway across the Pacific Ocean, is drowning in plastic garbage. We've all seen pictures of birds who died with a belly full of plastic crap.

We drink water to keep ourselves healthy and we value its purity but we drink it out of a plastic bottle then we throw it away and the earth chokes on it.

 I'm not the only artist thinking and working about this.

     This is "Fat Free Ocean" by my friend and neighbor, Stephen Hall, husband of my pal, Samantha. You can see more of his work at

Now there's a Ray of Hope!

  It's called Extended Product Responsibility or E.P.R--that is, those who make the junk should help clean it up!  What a concept!

And it's becoming a law!   S1185, sponsored by New York State Senator Todd Kaminsky, chair of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee, and State Assemblyman Steve Englebreit.  It says

Establishes the extended producer responsibility act requiring covered materials and product producers to develop and implement strategies to promote recycling, reuse and recovery of packaging and paper products.

"We are facing a recycling crisis in our country, and it is essential for government to step up to the plate, mitigate waste and save taxpayer money -- and that is precisely what my extended producer responsibility legislation will do," said Kaminsky.

You can help with this effort by writing to your state senator and assembly member.

It's easy to find their emails and they all have a place where you can send messages.

I can tell you, from my efforts to fix up our neighborhood playground that elected officials respond to mail-so let's let them know that this counts.

Save the Oceans! Save the Birds!  Save the Earth!  Remember-there is no Planet B! 


Thursday, January 28, 2021

A few More Things I Love

So nice to see Bernie at the Inauguration.  

Since then he's been everywhere.

Here in my neighborhood,

stalking my cousin Tom in LA;  he's everywhere, and his team is selling his image on sweatshirts and everything printable, making a bundle for the Vermont Foodbank and Meals on Wheels and inspiring creativity and generosity all over the place.  The company that made his jacket gave away fifty jackets just like his to women and little kids!  

Here's Bernie celebrating his election as Mayor of Burlington in 1981.  In 2015 when Bernie ran for president and everyone was saying "Who's that?"  this picture, taken by my brother Rob, was all over the news. This week Rob added the mittens to bring the image up to date. 

That's not Rob's first dance with fame.  

You may have seen this photo in 2012 or so. It went viral. the internet doesn't seem to know who took it, but it was Rob.  Everyone thought those cows had something to say.

At one point this was the most posted and shared image in the WORLD!   

You can see more of Rob's work but be careful. If you just google Rob Swanson you'll get Ron Swanson of Parks and Recreation.  To see my brother you have to google Rob Swanson, Photographer. You'll be happy you did.

                                    I really want to draw this some time. 

I like cows, too.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

 I looked up the Biblical quote President Biden made in his inaugural address; it comes from Psalm 30,

"Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning."  If you continue reading you'll find, 

"You have turned my mourning into dancing; You have taken off my sack cloth and clothed me in joy."

Whatever your credo may be, I hope you find comfort and hope in these words.

Moving on, I want to say thank you to everyone who responded to my call for ideas for characters to inhabit my drawing, Red House. The first to respond was my friend, Ellen Grossman, who reminded my of this photo from a previous post about one of my favorite places on Earth--the Bronx Zoo. 

This is the interior of the Elephant House--Jessie took her own kids there and thought of me when she saw this handsome rhino.

Ellen's an amazing artist--you can see her work at and if you google Ellen Grossman and Jay Z you'll see an adorable video of a moment on the subway--if you ever need proof that New York is full of surprises.

Here's my impression of the exterior of the Elephant House, along with Babe Ruth--so it's called Song of the Bronx.  Do you like my perspective?  My Dad once said of my work, "I like how you get things kind of wonky." I'd say this is wonky.

Here he is at the Zoo.

Here's the next generation...

and here's the Rhino of the Bronx, practicing Covid safety.

What about my drawing?  Well, thanks to Ellen, there's a rhino in the attic.

There's lots more to come--thanks everyone, for some really interesting ideas.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Another Artist I Love but First

 Last week I forgot to say Mazel Tov to Jon Ossof, Georgia's first Jewish senator, and now the youngest member of that august group.  I remember when I was appalled to realize there was a Supreme Court justice my age and now there are senators younger than my children.  Even so, I still feel younger than Springtime.

Here's a favorite artist/writer who showed up regularly on the cover of the New Yorker-one hundred and twenty times, over the course of seventy-three years. 

William Steig 


 Here's his cover for May 9, the very day my dear cousin Kate was born.  (Don't worry, Kate, I photo-shopped out the year.)

William Steig's art is wonderful but his writing is sublime. At the age of sixty, in a move to make money, he began to write for children.  His most famous book is probably Shrek, the horrible ogre who lives happily ever after, because it was made into a movie.  But there's Dr. DeSoto, a mouse dentist who can't refuse to treat a fox with a toothache, but must find a way not to get eaten. There's Tiffky Doofky, my son Sam's favorite, about a gentlemanly dog who's a garbage collector.

My favorite, with writing so beautiful I took it to my writing workshop when I was asked to bring in something that inspired me, is Amos and Boris.

Amos is a mouse who lives by the sea.  He builds a boat, names it the Rodent, and sets sail.

Listen to this:  "One night, in a phosphorescent sea, he marveled at the sight of some whales spouting luminous water; and later, lying on the deck of his boat gazing at the immense, starry sky, the tiny mouse Amos, a little speck of a living thing in the vast living universe, felt thoroughly akin to it all.  Overwhelmed by the beauty and mystery of everything, he rolled over and over and right off the deck of his boat and into the sea."

At this point, Molly, age four, listening to me read, said, "Uh oh."

Just as Amos is wondering what it will be like to die and if there will be other mice in Heaven, a whale breaks the surface and looms over him.  It's just like that scene in Castaway when a whale comes right up to Tom Hanks' raft to get a look at him.
When Amos tells the whale that he's not a fish but a mammal, the highest form of life, the whale replies,
"Holy clam and cuttlefish!  (How I would love a reason to say, "Holy clam and cuttlefish")
I'm a mammal too!  Call me Boris." And Boris agrees to take Amos home.
As they travel along they become "the closest possible friends and developed a deep admiration for one another."
Here's the part I love; 

"Boris admired the delicacy, the quivering daintiness, the light touch, the small voice, the gemlike radiance of the mouse. Amos admired the bulk, the grandeur, the power, the purpose, the rich voice, and the abounding friendliness of the whale." 
When they reach Amos's home they pledge to be friends forever, even though they can't be together.  Amos thanks Boris and says, "If you ever need my help I'd be more than glad to give it."  Boris laughs to himself, "How could that little mouse ever help me?  Little as he is, he's all heart. I love him and I'll miss him terribly."
Well, the time comes, after Hurricane Yetta, when Boris desperately needs help. I won't spoil the ending for you. Give yourself a treat and go to your nearest independent bookstore and spend a happy hour in the children's department-maybe spend a few bucks there, I'm sure they'd appreciate it.

Just so you can sleep tonight, I'll tell you that Amos is extremely clever. 

Steig's daughter, Maggie Steig, said about her Dad, "His essential self was a great appreciator.  When he looked at nature, when he looked at animals, when he looked at people he loved, his look always said, 'You delight me.'" 
He's another one I wish I'd known.  I"m so glad his work lives after him.


Pink Balloons Redux Redux

  About a year ago I reposted the story of how my grandmother died on my daughter’s 7th birthday and how I had to find some joy in the midst...