I sat at the kitchen table for several hours after school working on my art project. All my markers were laid out on the table in color order, so I could see each one and think about what color I was going to use next. I picked up the burnt orange and glided the tip across the page, blending it when needed and making sure I colored evenly along the paper.
This was my first art class assignment with markers. I did fairly well with colored pencils, but making everything even with markers was much more difficult. I took my time with each color. I wanted to make the best project I could and not have a hurriedly completed piece of art that was “good enough” for a C.
Our art assignments were never overly difficult. If you followed the directions, you were sure to pass, but I wanted to do more. I wanted to understand why the assignment was given and what was supposed to be learned.
My black was called “midnight” and was slightly darker than my other black, which was called “negro.” The negro looked more like a super dark gray than black, which is why I always put my crayons, colored pencils, and markers in color order so I could pick the precise shade I wanted.
I smiled whenever I picked up midnight because Midnight was the name of my sister’s rabbit. His jet black fur always shimmered in the sun. I played with him, my rabbit, Spot, and my aunt’s rabbit, Thumper, every day. I often felt like I had three rabbits instead of one.
My Great Uncle Bob gave us the rabbits several weeks after they were born. I picked Spot because she had white fur and red eyes, and had a dark brown nose. As she grew older, Spot wasn’t a good name anymore because her tail and ears turned the same color as her nose. I didn’t care. Spot was her name and she was the coolest bunny in the land.
I wanted to stop working and go play with the rabbits, but I had to finish my homework. It was also dark and the rabbits were probably sleeping. I would have to wait until tomorrow to let them out of their cages to run around my grandmother’s back yard.
I gripped the midnight-colored marker in my left hand and filled in the edges along my “masterpiece.” It was the last bit I needed to do before I declared I was finished. I had spent several hours working on the project, stopping only to set the table for dinner, eat dinner, and help wash the dishes after dinner. In total, it took me two days of work after school to finish my assignment.
I was pretty happy with the result and was sure I would receive a good grade. My mother would often say my work was “a Picasso,” but I never knew if that was a compliment or an insult.
As usual, Gram checked my homework. She read the instructions and made sure I hadn’t misread or missed any steps. She checked all my homework, even when she didn’t understand it. In high school, she would point out “that’s not how your book says to conjugate that verb” when I was completing my French homework. She learned Algebra along with me and enjoyed the new “science-y” things I was learning about, like Plate Tectonics, which she learned of in newspapers and magazines long after she finished school.
“That’s really nice, Irene,” she said. “I’m sure you’re going to get an ‘A.’”
“We’ll see,” I said. “Some of the other kids are really good.”
Gram reassured me I wouldn’t be graded by how well other people did, but based on whether I completed the assignment and how much effort I had put in. I told her I was going to leave it on the table. The paper was thick and couldn’t be rolled really well. The ink also wasn’t completely dried. The table was the logical place to leave it because the table wouldn’t be used again until breakfast.
Since I was finished, I put my markers back in my red cereal box. My mother had saved UPC labels to get the limited edition box from Kellogg’s after I nagged her for ages about it. I went into the living room to watch TV with Gram. She was already sitting in her reclining chair with her Reader’s Digest. She always read something – a magazine, newspaper, book – when she watched television. Gram could, somehow, split her attention between the two and tell you what she was reading as well as what was happening on the television.
I stretched out on the big couch to her left and settled in. “Quincy, M.E.” was on the scene of some murder. I didn’t really care for the show, nor did I fully understand everything in it, but Gram liked Quincy, and I was happy to watch the show if it meant spending more time with her. She would reciprocate with other TV shows I liked, such as Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Remington Steele. One show we rarely missed was Designing Women. After I went to college, part of my weekly calls to Gram were spent talking about the show.
I don’t know how long we were watching Quincy for when my sister, Lori, who was two years older than me, and my aunt, Julie, who was six years older than me, came downstairs and went into the kitchen. They caused quite the ruckus out there. Gram yelled a couple of times from her chair to “Knock off whatever it is you’re doing.” They were quieter, but not silent, then raised their voices, then quieted down again when Gram threatened to go out there and quiet them down.
Then, it got really quiet. A few moments later, they ran back upstairs. I didn’t think much about it and kept watching Quincy. I could only understand the show if I paid 100% attention because the show was a bit above me at the time. I always got the gist of what was going on, but the medical jargon and adult jokes and humor were always way over my head. I would patiently wait until commercials to ask what any of it meant.
When a commercial came on, I got up to go pee. Going through the kitchen was the only way to get there. I never made it. Julie and Lori had left the kitchen light on, something you were not supposed to do. Even in the 1970s, we were taught about saving electricity and being responsible stewards to the planet.
As I stepped through the doorway, I saw what remained of my project. It was completely ruined. I don’t know who it was, and no one ever admitted to it even though there were only two suspects, but HI-C fruit drink had been spilled on my project. Every color ran as if I had colored it and then left it taped to a wall outside in the rain.
I started crying. My work was destroyed. It was due in the morning. Gram rushed into the kitchen. She told me it would be all right and we would fix it. I didn’t see how. I sat down on the floor, pulled my legs up to my chest and buried my head in my knees.
She went upstairs. Gram rarely got angry. I heard her yell a lot, something else she rarely did.
My sister didn’t think it was a big deal because “it’s a dumb art thing she can redo in 10 minutes.” I don’t remember all of the words said, but neither Julie nor Lori cared because it was something I could do “real quick before school tomorrow.”
While Gram was upstairs yelling, I pulled myself together and stood up. I grabbed a few napkins to dab the project, hoping something might be salvageable. It wasn’t. I was devastated and also freaking out because I had no assignment to turn in. I didn’t know what to do and my 11-year old brain couldn’t think properly. I plopped down in the chair and silently sobbed.
Eventually, Gram came back downstairs. Julie and Lori blamed me for weeks that they couldn’t do “this or that” because of me.
Gram and I cleaned the table. Their mess ruined some of her magazines, but she assured me she could still read them. She looked at my ruined artwork.
“Well, I guess we’ll have to make another one,” she said. “Do you have any other paper?”
I nodded and got one of my two spare pieces of paper. She sat down next to me and read the directions for the assignment, encouraging me to keep going when I felt everything was hopeless and occasionally making suggestions. She helped me color in some of the parts so we could get done before the sun came up. When we had finished, Quincy was long over. I apologized that I had made her miss her show. She shushed me and told me not to worry about it.
The new project was similar to the original, but not as good. I thought it looked horrible. Gram did not. She took my work and put it in the sewing room, delicately balancing it on top of her sewing machine where it would not be damaged again before I left for school.
It was well past my bedtime. Gram had also missed the eleven o’clock news. She let me stay up to watch Johnny, but insisted I get to bed after that. We never told my mom about our late night adventure. Until now, I’ve never told anyone this story.
My assignment received a B, technically a 2 on our grading scale. I know my original could have gotten me an A, or a 1. Gram put it on the fridge. My sister made fun of it so much, I wanted to throw it away. Gram put it in her bedroom. It stayed on her dresser for years.
When she passed away on June 11, 2011, it was one of things I hoped to take back home with me. I never did find it. It doesn’t matter. I know what it looked like. The art project had a multi-colored heart on it, which was supposed to be 3-D and look like it was beating. The rest of the picture is just for me to remember that night with Gram, as she sacrificed her time, her sleep, and maybe a little bit of her sanity, to provide me comfort and encouragement when I felt my life had been destroyed and I was alone.