OI E-Zine, to appear in the October Issue, written 09/19/2009
Kentucky, that old, old home, that frightful dark and lonely place, holds so many stories for me, so many very hard lessons learned. Some good memories, some very bad ones, always seem to begin with, “Back in Kentucky…” I grew up there in a very small town, what feels like four lifetimes removed, and what seems so far away from me as the gentle whispers of love are from the ears of the devil itself. Being a poor girl in a poor town in the heart of the neutral south, not much was expected of me; not from peers, parents and most especially not from me. Every day was a danger, every walk home from school, every unwatched night spent in the local bars because the cost of babysitting couldn’t be met a terror of opportunities for the filthy old drunk men to hurt me over and over, and over, in silence and secrecy.
But that one year, the sultry fall of 1985, near the start of another the school year, one of the teachers I was introduced to, showed more than a passing interest in me. Apparently, I had a slight talent for art that stood out just enough to take me off the “ignore the poor” list. The year progressed normally, with every nervous morning launched by anxiety vomiting before making the long, hot walk up the hills to the local High School, and carrying stacks of old text books that were together almost bigger than I was. Every day, navigating the halls to my locker, to home room, then to first period, always seemed more like an exercise in watching my feet while hoping to not be “too” noticed. Being ignored is sometimes better. But first period, art class, I liked. I could sit in the back of the room, do my mediocre little projects just like the rest of the students there, and quietly try to stop trembling so I could face the rest of the day’s challenges.
“For the next few weeks, we’re gonna’ be learnin’ ta do acrylics. So what I need ya’ll to do is either ask yer parents ‘er go mow some yards ‘er sumthin’ and buy some new art supplies fer this. Ya’ll need a fan brush…now evr’ybody write this down!” shouted Ms Dennis at her second year art students in the signature Kentucky southern drawl. “Rodney! Write!”
Rodney must have enjoyed reprimand. He got it almost every day.
“Ya’ll need a fan brush, a detail brush, an angle brush, and a wide flat brush; and ya’ll need six colors. Ya must buy black, white, blue, red, yellow and brown, and if ya’ have ‘nuff, get some green ‘n purple. There’s just one place sellin’ this, an’ I called ta make sure they had ‘nuff in stock. We’ll start next week so go buy ‘em right off! Ta’day ya’ need ta’ finish yer crayon relief, so get yer ink wash…”
Great, I thought. A simple request that required money never ended in simplicity when asking my impoverished family to front even more expense for such unnecessary things as art. That night would be a very hard night, building up the courage to ask, and then mustering even more courage, if lucky enough to get some money, to walk the seven blocks to the art supplies store. I had been to the store many times already, and had made friends with the store’s owner, Tonya. Strangely enough, she also seemed to like my art. So I decided I would bring along my latest drawing, courage permitting, if I should find a way to get the paints. It was just a stupid unicorn, but I thought it looked good, and maybe Tonya would like it. Risking showing it to her would make me nervous enough all to itself. My young life had never been too terribly saturated with support.
That afternoon I made my way home in the sweltering heat. I threw all of my books onto my bed and grabbed a regular Coke from the refrigerator. I sat down at the edge of my grandmother’s bed, and pleaded with her as she leaned ominously into her recliner and seemed to show more interest in the game show on television than to what I was asking for. Surprisingly, after I made my appeal and swallowed my stomach, she grumbled through cigarette smoke, “You better mow the lawn fer the whole summer without me askin’ ya’ ta pay me for this. I don’t got much and you know it!”
“Yes mammaw. I just need to get these once and they should last for a very long time.” My grandmother wrote out a check for me to take with me to the art supplies store and told me to get back within two hours to mow the lawn today, so I wouldn’t be too late for supper. I hugged her, thanked her about twenty times, ran to my room and grabbed my unicorn drawing, slide it carefully into a thin folder, and still thanking my grandmother profusely, I managed to run on swift young legs out the front door and onto the curb of our street. I half walked, half jogged the entire eight block journey to the city square and the tiny art supplies store. I was surprised to see I was the only customer there.
“How have you been, girl! I haven’t seen you in weeks!” shouted Tonya from the back of her store. She was so proud of this store. She had been through such a hard life, and an even harder time getting established to a point where she could live out her dream of opening a shop that could supply and encourage countless young artists. He motive never was to earn a whole lot of money at what she was doing; she had a desire to help create art through those whom she served from her store. I think Tonya was the first true friend I had ever had, in spite of her being old enough to be my mother.
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Tonya. I just haven’t been able to come lately.” I frowned at her and she smiled to comfort me.
“It’s alright, hon. Mrs. Dennis called me a few days ago to tell me what you would need, so I made up a package to make it easy for you kids.”
“Oh, wonderful! Can I see? How much will it all cost?”
“Well, don’t worry about the cost right away, I’m giving everyone a discount if you buy the little packages. You can see the pack though only after you let me see whatcha brought in the folder.”
I grinned largely when she asked about the new art she expected to find in my folder. I walked to the back of the store where Tonya was sitting at her desk in front of a small fan to keep cool. Air conditioning was a luxury back in the stone age. I tentatively handed her the purple folder in which I had carried my unicorn drawing.
“It’s not all that great, Mrs. Tonya. But I thought you might want to see it anyway so I…”
“Hush, Ale! Everything you ever draw is amazing and you know it.”
As Tonya opened the folder and carefully withdrew the simple sheet of Acadamie art paper stuffed inside, I stared at my feet, shuffling back and forth a bit. I heard footsteps and looked up to see Mrs Tonya’s husband. I never heard her say his name. He was a tall man, strong, but heavy set. His hair was cropped short at the top of his head, his face clean shaven and a genuinely gentle and decent look in his eyes. He reached out to me with a white box marked with my name.
“Here you go. This one’s yours,” he smiled at the corner of his mouth as he spoke. I timidly took the box and looked at Tonya for approval.
“Look at this, hon!” Mrs. Tonya held my drawing up to her husband.
“You drew this?!” he exclaimed.
“Yes, sir,” I said very quietly.
“Wow! This is really good!”
Mrs. Tonya pressed my unicorn back into the pocket of its purple folder and stood up to step around towards me. She closed the folder and gave me a tight hug. I stood there in her arms, not really knowing what to do or how to feel. Hugs weren’t commonly a part of my average year. “If I had half your talent, my girl, I would line every wall in my home with beautiful art like yours!”
I felt my cheeks blush. Mrs. Tonya released me from the hug and I looked into her bright blue eyes; eyes that were always so electrified with energy and joy. I had never seen anything like them, nor met anyone quite like Mrs. Tonya. I called her that out of respect.
“If you want it, you can have it,” I proposed to her sincerely.
“No way! I couldn’t take something like this. You need to keep it and make it a part of your portfolio to get famous!”
I smiled and giggled a bit, “I really doubt that Mrs. Tonya. But I want you to have her. You like her so much, please.”
“Awlright!” Mrs. Tonya grabbed the folder and bolted for the store room door near her desk. I smiled again. I always felt good sharing around my art and Mrs. Tonya was so special to me. She really deserved the unicorn more than anyone else.
“I should pay for my package and go home. I can’t stay long at all because I have to mow the yard today.”
I heard Mrs. Tonya shout from the store room, “No charge today, hon! Your money’s no good here!”
My eyes bugged out to where they almost popped out of my head! I was speechless as Mrs. Tonya ran back out to me. She handed me a piece of paper with an address written on it in lovely penmanship.
“Just one catch. Ya gotta go see this woman. Her name is Jessie Bell. Worst damned name anyone could give a girl. Her father was such a bastard! Sorry about sayin’ that. But I told her you’d be there Saturday so you better show up. She’s an artist like you, an’ I think you’ll have a great time meeting her. She’s quite a lady.”
“Are you sure? I don’t know if…”
“Alecia, please; don’t be nervous. She’s looking forward to seeing you. I told her all about your art last week and she wants to show you some of hers. She’s really well known in town. I bet you can learn lots from her”
“Yes, Mrs. Tonya. I’ll go. Thank you so much for everything!” With the address in one tiny hand, and my art supplies gift in the other, I did something I had never done before. I hugged someone; just reached out and hugged Mrs. Tonya until we both started crying.
* * *
I was scared to death. I was sweating, shaking, sick to my stomach, ready to just run away and hide in the bushes until it might be safe to make my way back home when a very slender, very slight and very old woman answered the sky-blue door I had just knocked on a few seconds ago. “Alecia,” she posed.
I didn’t say anything, I just nodded.
“Come inside, child. It’s nice to meet you.” Jessie Bell opened the door wide for me to enter, and then followed me into her vestibule. Right away I was surrounded by paintings, the smell of sweet, powdery perfume, and a pervasive silence that seemed to speak for the lady of this quaint, small home, “Do not touch anything!”
The paintings I noticed right away were stacked several deep on bare hardwood floor, leaning against one another almost careless of their possible worth. Many of the paintings there were larger than me, only a few smaller than 18” x 20”. Ms. Bell took the lead from me as she stepped into the wide open room full of paintings. Her vestibule was not closed off, but she asked me to leave my sandals on a small carpet near the front door before entering. I obeyed and walked after Ms. Bell quickly.
Throughout her home was just more of the same. Stack upon stack, row upon row of enormous canvases, each painted with a scene from the imagination or from the past of this dear woman. She told me a very carefully rehearsed story, as if I were a newspaper journalist looking to write a story about her. I considered her local fame and realized it was probable that she did interviews often and it had just become easier to recite something prepared for all. She was very old, in her mid-eighties as she testified to me in the course of her prepared speech, and had difficulty breathing. Her sentences were short and poignant, her gait elegant and defiant of time.
After giving me a quick tour through the greater part of her one-floor home, she paged through a few stacks of her paintings to show me of what she was most proud. He fingers and hands were so bony and so marked by thick blue veins, I worried that as they trembled from weakness that she might topple a stack of canvases, but she was very cautious. I complimented her on everything she showed me, telling her the all of her pieces of art were just lovely. She would smile each time as if I had done the expected, then we would move on.
In all honesty, I had lied to her the entire time. I found her art to be very simple and rudimentary, like the stuff that raw beginners are able to just pour out if they take no time to refine the details of their subjects. The collection of paintings looked more to me like a child’s coloring book, only larger, each one smeared together to get out the basics, but nothing art-worthy.
Finally, as she brought me into her kitchen to have a glass of ice cold sweet tea with a little lemon in it, she began to tell me a story that truly caught my interest. We didn’t sit, but stood unsupported in the center of her meager kitchen and sipped out tea as she told me a most unexpected tale.
“One night, after I had been praying to God for my children,” she reminisced, “I found myself unable to get a restful sleep. I had never had difficulty sleeping in my life. At the time, I was about twenty-four years old, and my husband was overseas, fighting in that awful war.” She paused for a moment and sipped more of her tea. “I showed you a painting of him near the piano.”
I remembered the painting. She had gone on about her husband for quite a while when we came to that particular canvas, and I had nearly needed to fight back an embarrassing yawn. “Yes, Ms. Bell, I remember him.”
“Good,” she smiled. “That night I just gave up and got back out of bed and sat in my chair, praying and asking God if it were He that was keeping me awake. And the most miraculous thing happened. Somehow, a recipe formed in my mind. I grabbed a pen and paper and quickly wrote it down, but it wasn’t a recipe for food. When I had it all written out, God said to me that it was a recipe to make a very special paint that would never fade or lose its color.”
I traced a finger along the rim of my glass of tea. I didn’t at all believe in God. In fact, just hearing the word, “god”, caused me to discredit everything being said after that point. I took a deep breath and just continued to listen out of respect.
“I was able to sleep after that, and the next day I gathered up all the ingredients for the paint. I had no idea what I was doing. Maybe I was going crazy, I thought!” She chuckled just a tiny bit, and inside I just agreed with her. “I followed the instructions just as God had told me and combined all of the ingredients just as I was told to. I was no chemist or anything at all, so really, this was totally of God.”
Mrs. Bell paused to catch her breath and I finished my tea. The cool air of Saturday morning had mostly seeped out of the old house by now, and it was starting to heat up and get humid again. “Anyway, after I finished making all of the colors of the paints, I gesso’d a canvas and got my brushes and started painting. The paint was amazing! It didn’t even feel like paint when I was applying it to the canvas, so I really didn’t feel like I had done it right. I just started painting with no sketch and in just a few hours I had finished a gorgeous pink and vermillion Lily. It looked so real from the texture of the paint, and it was the best painting I had ever done.
“It dried perfectly. It never lost any color, never dripped or anything. I hung the Lily after it was ready, and that was over 53 years ago, and that painting still hasn’t faded or flaked at all, and the colors haven’t changed one bit. I never protected it, coated or covered it or nothin’.”
My interest was piqued! “May I please see the painting? That is an amazing story.”
“Of course!” She led me into her bedroom. Hanging on the wall was a painting of a pink Lily. It was just a simple flower, but the detail was astounding. The colors were so rich and vibrant. I was stunned. Just looking at it, I felt like I wanted to ry inside and didn’t understand why. I got chills in my arms when I touched it and it felt as soft as a real flower.
Ms. Bell said from behind me as I looked, “That’s the only painting I ever did with those paints, and it’s the only one I ever would do with them.”
“What do you mean? This is amazing! You should do all of your paintings like this one! Those paints are incredible!” My voice had raised in youthful zeal about this miracle discovery.
“No, dear. I just did that one painting and that was it. I didn’t need to do any more with it because I had this painting from God.”
“But, Ms. Bell, you should share something like this! Everyone’s art would be so much better with your paints!”
“No, dear. Again, this was just for me. I won’t ever share that recipe! This was God’s gift for me.”
My jaw dropped and I had to catch myself quickly so as to not offend Ms. Bell. “But…do you still have the recipes?”
“Of course I do. I keep them locked up in my safe.”
“Why won’t you share them? People could do so much with them!”
Ms. Bell became noticeably aggravated with me as I pressed the issue. She pushed me out of her bedroom and told me that I should be getting along my way.
As I was shown the front door of her small abode, Ms. Bell bade me a fond parting. I turned and said, “If I promise to never share your recipes, but just use them to make my paintings too, would you please share them with me?”
She didn’t bother to answer, instead closed the door as she retired back into her home. I walked the lonely streets back to my own home entirely confused. Ms. Bell had been named after a woman from the Bible, my grandmother had told me the night before, called Jezebel. She didn’t know what was so evil about Jezebel so I had to look it up myself. I read in first and second Kings that she was a very evil and cruel woman that worshipped demons and killed the people of God. In the end her death was gruesome and frightening. Somehow, the selfish spirit of that ancient woman seemed to be a part of what kept Jessie Bell from sharing the gift given to her by God with others.
As I thought about my encounter with Ms. Bell, and told Mrs. Tony about what I had learned, it was decided that from the Bible, God tells His people that every gift He gives out should be shared, never kept to yourself. Ms. Bell had received a rare and unique gift from God, but put it on her wall to gather dust as a trophy just for her when the whole would of art may have profited from her very real, very astounding pigments. It seems that those who are given less tend to share what they have more than those who receive greater things. It must be such a heavy temptation to become greedy and irresponsible, I thought, to be rich.
Though God was far from real to me in those days, I had seen some bit of evidence of His handiwork. I still lament today at times what may have been lost at the hands of someone He had trusted who turned God’s grace into a meaningless icon of selfishness. When Ms. Bell passed away some years later, she did indeed take the recipes with her. Many knew about them, and about her decision to keep them to herself. I felt as I watched each hesitant clod of earth release from her family members into her grave as I looked on from a safe distance, that each of them had learned more about regret and disdain than joy and celebration from that old lady. She had stolen not just recipes for paint, but a piece of each heart she had touched with her terrible story. Did those people resent her, deep down inside?
Never more meaningful, in looking back on this story, are the lyrics of the Beatles song, “The End,” which proclaim, “…and in the end, the love you take (take with you, into whatever eternity) is equal to the love you make (love you create in the hearts and lives of others).” No matter how much time, money, resources or talents you have, every great gift is made worthless without, and every small gift made grand beyond compare, with love.