Sunday, December 30, 2018

Christmas Memories

I love these quiet days between Christmas and New Year’s.  It’s a resting place to review the old year and get ready for the new; a time for reflection and remembrance.

I think of my grandfather, Robert Sinclair Swanson, who died on his sixty-eighth birthday, Christmas Day, 1958. I was ten, so I remember it all clearly.  We called him PopPop. He had had a heart attack years before and was forced to leave his business and “rest.”  Nowadays he’d be given a treadmill and a Fitbit and told to get moving.  The forced inactivity was hard on him and even harder on our grandmother.

But that Christmas Day all was well. The whole family met at Uncle Jack's. There were piles of presents; PopPop always insisted that he be given both a Christmas gift and a birthday gift, but since he was delighted with a ball of string or a new pencil his wishes didn’t strain our budgets. There was birthday cake and singing. He carved the turkey and after dinner plucked the carcass clean, ready for the soup pot, and made packets of white meat and dark for each family to take home for sandwiches.  When the day was over and we got in our car to leave, my mother said, “Oh, wait—I didn’t say good night to PopPop,” and she ran back for a quick hug and a thank you for the wonderful day.  When we got home the phone was ringing.  Mom picked it up and said, before even hanging up,“Bob, get back to Jack’s—your dad’s had a stroke.”

And that was that.  He had been sitting with my cousin John on his lap. He made a funny noise that my grandmother at first thought was to amuse John, then he put his head back and was gone.  It was sad for us and shocking but a perfect end to a life well-lived.

This is a picture from the day after Christmas the year before that one.  Santa had brought my brother Alan a set of trains and PopPop declared himself conductor in chief.  You can see he’s in his element with two little boys, my brother Robby and cousin Danny, on his lap and several big boys ready to do his bidding.  That’s me in the gray sweater, the boys are Alan’s friends.  Where’s Alan?  He’s upstairs asking Mom, “When is PopPop going home?” 

I recently asked Alan what he remembers about that day.  He said, "PopPop was a very grandfatherly grandfather and he loved to do boy things.  It was great to watch how he did it all so carefully, putting the tracks together and connecting the engines to the cars. Then we'd start it up, and then we'd stop at the station..start and then stop. It was great.  But slow. Eventually you want... well...there are two engines and what if we make them crash?"

Mom was always thankful that she went back to say good-bye on that last night. I think she was also thankful that she never told PopPop about Alan's question.  She just told Alan to be patient. When I look at this picture I see a man having a wonderful time and I'm glad he had those moments.  I think Alan's glad, too.

It Came Upon the Midnight Clear

Here’s a page from my current project; I’m illustrating my favorite Christmas carols and hope to present them next year.  This is “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” with the angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold.

We’re coming to the end of a year that’s been so hard for so many of us, full of discord and fear for our neighbors, our leaders and the planet, our home

But there have been hard times before this.

I have a Christmas card sent by my grandparents, probably in 1943, in the midst of World War II, as Hitler raged across Europe.  The picture on the front is a church window with advent candles on one side and an American flag on the other.  Through the window we see the star of Bethlehem.  Inside the message has those familiar words from Luke; “For unto us is born this day in the city of David…” and “Thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory…”

It’s signed;
Robert, Louise, Dave, Jack, Dan, Janet

and Private Robert Swanson, U.S. Army.

That was my Dad, drafted that June, age18 years and six weeks.

I hold this card in my hand and feel the weight of all those hopes and fears, also pride, patriotism, faith and sacrifice.  Those were hard, dark times.

But the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never put it out.  They got through their hard times and we’ll get through ours. We’ll learn from our mistakes and try to do better. We’ll work together to seek solutions. I just got an email from Environment New York with a plan to save the bees!

Christmas music is full of words that lift me up and fill my heart with joy.  This one especially, because each verse ends with angels singing.

Remember, the first words of every angel appearing on Earth are, “Fear Not!”

My favorite line is the last;

“Now hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing.”

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Lawrence Tree

   I have long adored Georgia O”Keeffe.  My first year in art school the Whitney Museum held a retrospective of her work; I haunted that show and bought the catalogue and a ton of postcards.  She said, “Fill a space in a beautiful way,” and I thought I could do that.  I painted many imitation O’Keeffe’s and read everything I could find about her.  I kept her in my head, sometimes speaking to her, sometimes asking myself, “What would Georgia do?”

    The Lawrence Tree is one of my favorites.  It’s painted as if we’re lying at the foot of a great tree, gazing up through her branches at the starry night sky.  I've lain like that, but never thought to paint it.  That's why she's Georgia O'Keeffe.

    So, as Arthur and I drove through Taos and I saw a sign that said,

Lawrence Ranch

   I spoke up. I knew O’Keeffe had been part of a loose and fractious community that included the art patron Dorothy Brett. Brett gave the ranch to D.H.Lawrence and his wife and they lived there for a short time, while he recovered his health and wrote The Plumed Serpent.

    “Oh, the Lawrence Ranch,” I said.  “My favorite O’Keeffe is the Lawrence Tree.  I wonder if it’s there.”  Arthur slammed on the brakes and turned in.

    “It says no trespassing!”

    “You have to see this.”

    “But Arthur!…” I did long to see it, but I hate breaking rules.

    “We’re going,

    “What if somebody stops us?”

    “You’re an artist and you have to see that tree.”

    “that’s our defense?”

    “I’ll tell them it’s your favorite painting.”

     I pictured myself behind bars saying, “I’m not a criminal I’m an artist.”

    But what did Lawrence himself say? “A woman has to live her life, or live to repent not having lived it.” 

    Arthur drove on. It was a very long and rocky dirt road, and we raised a cloud of dust.  Around every turn was another NO TRESPASSING sign. I expected to hear sirens.

   We pulled in at a sign that said Lawrence Chapel. There was a ranch house, and there was the tree.  The Lawrence Tree in person.  As Lawrence himself wrote, The big pine tree in front of the house, standing still and unconcerned and alive... like a guardian angel.

    I walked to the tree, thinking to lie down beneath it and look up but there was a very large raccoon sitting in its branches like a sentinel.  A NO TRESPASSING sign is one thing, a vigilant raccoon quite another.  I had to be content with imagining I could lie down and see the stars through the branches just as O’Keeffe had done. And that was enough.

     I thank Georgia O’Keeffe for the painting I’ve loved for fifty years.  I thank D.H. Lawrence for the words that encouraged and dared me.  And I thank Arthur for making the turn and driving past the forbidding sign.

    The ranch now belongs to the University of New Mexico and they conduct tours on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I went there on my own instead of behind a well-meaning docent and a bunch of chatty tourists.  I saw the Lawrence Tree as I needed to see it. 

    I trespassed and I do not repent.

Christmas in July

I've been feeling a little uninspired and overwhelmed by papers and stuff, torn by needing to clear the decks and get rid of everything ...