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Audney Study

wax pencil on photo copy, 11" x 8.5" 1998-2005 Ruth Parson

I chose this photograph of my grandmother, Audney, to work with because it best reflects the secret life she harbored before becoming my grandmother. I picked this photo to color when I began missing my family, after grandma died, about a year before mom did. Selecting the colors, burnishing them into the shapes and spaces, attending to every nuance allowed me to circle, then hone in on Grandma's handsome and still, proud, maybe even sad face. My hope was to know more about her and to remember her better.

The first memory I have of Grandma Audney is standing at the stove next to her in the Emerson Street house in downtown Palo Alto. I watched on tip toe as she lifted the lid on a steaming and faintingly aromatic pot of a quintessential blackberry cobbler, the only food I remember eating at her house. We went to grandma's every week for dinner when I was little. We hurried to the train on week days, like little ducklings trying to keep up with Mom, on our way to Grandma's about a mile away. This is where we learned to walk very very fast. When we arrived, Grandma gathered a lunch and settled in to talk with Mom, we girls went outside to play around the fig tree. As time passed, Grandma seemed more often to be still, waiting. She listened to the radio and smoked. I don't remember her doing things except the blackberry cobbler. Of course I know she shopped and cleaned and cooked, though there was only evidence of these doings. I heard stories that when grandpa, a career navy man, went off to Pearl Harbor, grandma got herself all dressed up in her coveralls and headed to work on the vehicles of war as a spot welder. In the evenings and on weekends she'd head to the local bar to talk and laugh with her girlfriends, her daughter taking one doll or another to play under the stools and around the tables and chairs while the girls visited. That little thing, my pretty grandma, with her bad foot from polio, said that's when she stopped wearing dresses. She loved that working life, the time that was her own. Grandma seemed to have disappeared when she married and had a daughter. Reappearing when grandpa went to war, receding again when her unfaithful man returned home after the war, someone having decided to give up the woman he met and lived with during the war, for the sake of their daughter.

Grandma always wore pants when I knew her, usually jeans with a short sleeve button down cotton shirt and her always the same black shoes that carried her polio stricken foot the best. Her hair was always short and brown, very much later it developed grey. Grandma had it washed and set every week at Bergman's Department Store. Getting Grandma to the bank and grocery store, topped off by the Bergman's salon trip became our ritual visit. Grandma liked to talk about politics that was it. She was a Democrat and quite adamant in her thinking. I on the other hand had nothing to say about politics. I learned quite early that thinking about politics, modern or otherwise, so quickly sent me into a frothing sort of hopeless rage, I was better off locking that door and throwing the key far far away. So Grandma and I didn't talk a lot about anything I can remember. After Grandpa died she moved a few blocks further south to an apartment building near my junior and high schools. We continued our Saturday schedule, dropping her at a nearer hair salon, then meeting her at the store, pushing the grocery cart around for her, driving back to the apartment to put things away before heading to Mom's for dinner. Grandma always took a little break near the window with a half glass of some inexpensive light yellow beer. When I reached my early twenties, she began sharing the other half a beer with me. Grandma smoked a cigarette and we'd talk about what I was doing in school or work, what she thought about the political antics of the day, then we'd head to Mom's. Grandma and Mom exchanged a few good books. Mom was a thirsty reader, Grandma only wanted to read something that deepened her radio experience. On her turn, you'd find one or two very good books by her chair, always something historical or political. Grandma, unlike Mom had no magazines or piles of needle work. Grandma didn't shop needlessly or garden. She did not watch random television all day long. She watched the evening news and political discussion shows on the weekend that she and Mom talked over when she came for dinner. Though very unlike each other, Grandma and I liked each other. I understood our relationship and my interest in her better after finding a picture of her as a young adult in the nineteen-twenties. The photo caught her laughing with a group of friends, wrapped in a fur coat, hair bobbed, flapperish indeed. I learned grandma was a fun, even wild girl, who got tamed too early, too thoroughly.

I cannot imagine living in Grandma's time or even Mom's, expected to live my whole life in the house, taking care. I could only have hoped to make an interesting enough life there, that I wouldn't have had as many hours as Grandma to sit by the window, staring out, smoking, drinking, wandering through all the political intrigue I could hold hidden in my head. And what if I tried as hard as Mom did, making nearly viable forays in so many arts, in the end, never satisfied enough keeping it all to myself or holding audience with her too young, too ignorant girls, and finally just crawling into bed for the day defeated, or on a good day, becoming the odalisque, staring glassy eyed at the television, unable to speak. Did the pioneering women who scratched out meager and hard lives, who spent long days keeping the family alive and the place in one piece suffer that deep loneliness too? How did the women of the modern age, whose husbands could provide, women who too late realized industry and economic safety provided only too much time and a spirit breaking loneliness, spend all those hours in their houses, what happened to them in those houses? How inevitable was the women's movement, when all those brinking women swarmed from their homes into the world? How lucky am I to have a job that keeps me hoping to get just one more day to stay home?

I enjoy, extremely, the one or two days a year that I take to be quiet with myself all day. The hours are so swift. I never complete all the chores that I have outlined. On those few days it seems I could go on for months trying to catch up, maybe years if I wrote everything I've planned or painted everything on my list. If I went out to visit everything I have wanted to see, just here in New York City, it might take me a decade or more. The idea of all that time entices until I remember it also sets a trap. Who ever finds a balance? I fear leaving as little evidence as Grandma and struggle to leave more fruitful, more satisfying evidence than Mom. Grandma lived life in her head. This is what I cannot fathom, how could she have been satisfied with her whole world tucked in.

Looking over the study for Audney, I remember that I had the chair she is sitting in for nearly a decade. I rested there and wrote there and indeed spent some time staring out my Hearn Avenue window in that chair. When I received it, Mom told me it had belonged to Zeb. Zeb was a lovely woman and very kind, it was her garden at that house that first seduced me and seeded a long love of gardens. Zeb was the heart in that big quiet house in the steep hills; Great Grandpa was the terror, setting a critical and watchful tone in the house. Grandpa did not like his father, at all, and felt very separate from his step family, though familial obligation brought us together in the big house in Berkeley, the doctor's house, when I was little. Their edgy, complicated relationship spread over our entire outsider family, causing a trigger sharp response to every breath in my Grandfather and an unhappy cowering in the rest of us, all executed with that sort of rich family civility. This explains why grandma holds her face in that untelling way.

It was Grandma's brave glamour face I chose to memorialize her strength. I took the room away for the painting. Sometimes I'm sorry I didn't decide to leave the curtain, I love its shape, intricate pattern and transparency, the bare visibility of the darkness outside the window. I've made the painting only about Grandma, sitting queenly in the chair. She was very small. The canvas is quite large, over three by eight feet. I started the underpainting when my mobility was very limited and it has the same tight hand of Stones. In this painting I was both bucking my limitations and bringing into evidence Grandma's great strength. I started the painting in San Francisco on Geary, brought it to Little Italy to work on the underpainting some more, and now it's out of the stack behind the painting wall on Houston Street, waiting patiently for my own quiet, my own strength, to catch up.

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