Ma always told me there was something special about my paintings. I thought it was just because that’s what mothers say. They tell their shrieking daughters that they can sing, their husbands that they have the most handsome green eyes they’ve ever seen, and their sons who dabble in paint that they are artists. Then one summer she entered her favorite acrylic on canvas in the county fair. It was a canopy of trees as seen from a hammock in our back yard. It took home the blue ribbon and I started to wonder if maybe my stuff had merit. After that she was always on me to enter the local artist’s guild, the high school art club, or anything else that would get my paintings out into the world.
“These paintings are collecting dust in here, Dylan,” she said every time she stepped into my studio. My studio, really it’s the room my parents used to share when the walls were sea foam green and matching curtains fluttered in the breeze. When Dad left, Mom pulled down the curtains, ripped up the carpet and tossed his loafers and creased pants on top of a heap of his stuff behind the shed out back. She had a couple of friends over one night. They drank beer, whooped it up and hauled the pillow-top king sized mattress through the hallway into the spare room where she moved all of her things. One day shortly after the relocation, I came home from school and found cool whip containers full of paint lined up on the floor of their old room: blue, green, red, yellow. We took turns dipping our hands into the cold puddles of paint. Then we pressed our palms against the sea foam walls and made them our own. That was the last project we worked on together, but she always bought me paints, brushes, canvases, whatever I needed to keep creating.
I always wondered if it was that easy for her, to put on a new coat of paint and forget what was past. She never mentioned him again. Neither did I, after the first time, when I saw how much pain it caused her. I pretended that the studio was the coolest thing in the world, as if it could make up for what I’d lost.
Ma never knew it, but those first few days after he left, I snuck out behind the shed and dug through Dad’s stuff; lifting his Super Dad t-shirt to my face to smell him, but afraid to save it for fear she might find it hidden among my things. One day before it rained and ruined everything, I found a shoebox full of papers. Birthday cards and stuff I’d given him. The first hand-scrawled I love you notes of a three year old with a backwards y and a crooked heart colored blue. I wished I had never found that box. I cried myself to sleep for months knowing that Dad was out in the world without my messages of love.
“The Artists’ Guild has a show coming up,” Mom reminded me over breakfast one day. “You should enter the latest painting you’ve been working on.”
“It’s not done.”
“You still have time.”
“That’s what you always say. Why don’t you want to let people see your work?”
“Promise me you’ll think about it.”
It didn’t quite feel ready when the day to enter came around. But it was really just a prickle at the back of my head more than any real feeling. When Mom peeked into the studio to remind me for the fifth time, I finally signed my name to the corner and called it done.
The day the exhibit opened, I would have rather stayed home and started work on a new piece. But Ma would never let that fly. She’d been bragging on me for weeks to her friends and had cut the newspaper clipping with my name listed among the other entrants from the local paper.
I got an eerie feeling when I entered the guild, like a twist on the dream where you go to school naked. I felt like I was hanging my soul there on the walls for everyone to see.
The paintings hung in a long corridor, the light of the early fall day pushing the crowd through at an easy pace. I hung out at the wine and cheese table counting the people who breezed by my painting against the ones who lingered, when I noticed one man looking at my painting for what seemed like forever. I was wondering what he saw there, if he could see the pieces of my heart that textured every brush stroke. I shivered and wished I’d kept it to myself, at home, propped against the studio wall with the others. Finally, I walked up beside him and studied the painting myself, trying to see what he saw. “What is it that you like about this one?” I asked.
He took a sudden, deep breath and his chest puffed up with pride. “The signature,” he said.
“The signature?” I turned to face him.
“It shows so much growth.”
This man had the handsomest green eyes I’d ever seen. In his hands he held a well-worn drawing in crayon of two stick people lying in a hammock. “I love you, Dad,” it said, and it was signed Dylan with a backwards y.
Ruth Schiffmann shares the trials and triumphs of freelance writing with her husband and their two daughters. More than eighty of her stories, articles, and poems have appeared in publications both in print and online. After homeschooling her daughters K-12 (and loving it) she is now enjoying living a writing life, following her heart, and discovering where it will lead her. To read more of her work, visit www.RuthSchiffmann.com.