While I’ve been going through this process of helping my Dad downsize, I’ve also been in an Artist’s Way group, working through the book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, with a group of 5 other women, over the course of 12 months. Normally these groups last 12 weeks, taking on a chapter a week. But we’ve chosen to work through the exercises a chapter a month to give us time to process the ideas. Every month, as part of the process, we are supposed to take ourselves on an “Artist’s Date,” where we alone do something we have never done, or something that sparks an inner joy and curiosity. We are now on our last chapter. As frequently happens when I read this book, I was slain by a line of truth. The line I read was “Life is meant to be an artist date. That’s why we were created.” And I wondered, in all their devotion to duty, did my parents have a chance to be creative? Did they get to live a full, rich life?
Wanting Creativity for My Parents
My parents were both devoted to duty. Work. Housework. Church. Childrearing. Fixing things around the house. Friendships looked like co-work on volunteer projects for my mother, and cocktail parties — which looked terribly dull – for both parents. Where was the spark? As a preteen, I remember dreading growing to adulthood and the creative death that it appeared to entail. My Dad’s life looked terribly duty-bound from the outside. Working in an administrative job in a medical office, wearing a grey suit and stiff, shiny shoes, I didn’t see him working as a hands-on doctor with patients, as he did less of that as he grew older. I only saw the smoking, the American cheese sandwich and coffee for lunch every day, the neat, particle-board-plain desk of a hospital administrator. As for my mother, I could not imagine much worse than the daily duties of housecleaning, meals and teen-taxi-service of motherhood — and the female ordeals of binding bras, girdles and stockings under dresses. I did not want to be a woman.
But here, as I weed through their belongings, on the near-far side of middle age work and motherhood myself, I see evidence that a creative life struggled alongside the burdens of adulthood. Maybe it was ok.
Going through what is in Dad’s house, I came across many examples of my parents’ creativity: endless supplies for my mother’s fiber art and craft — sewing, weaving, knitting, embroidery, beadwork, sequins and other bling, needlepoint, leather work, paper folding, basket weaving, felt for Christmas stockings. She left behind hundreds of sewing patterns, mostly from the 1970s and 80s – bell bottoms and big shoulders — and garbage cans full of yarn. I gave away piles of thread, a hefty bag of zippers, a giant box of fabric scraps, yardage of drapery fabric and liners. It took me awhile to realize that it was all evidence of her true joy and LOVE of working with her hands with fabric and fibers. While my grandmother Bounce may have socialized after her housework was done, Mom created. She was artist of useful objects and her medium was fiber.
I also came across evidence of my father’s creativity. Soapstone carvings, and files and saws for working the stone. Hunks of clay solidified into stone with wire clay tools. Old painting sets, and a half a dozen sketch books. Around the house, in many rooms, there were his paintings, done in the 1950s mostly. But most of his creative work is evident in the photo albums: hiking outings to Joshua Tree, target shooting in the desert, fishing in Wyoming, Dad petting our scruffy dog. I also see this creativity in the things we made together — the high jump poles we made so we could practice for track meets, the furniture we painted together in crazy 1960s colors.
Memories of parties come back, too, with friendships standing firm as a creative aspect of both my parents’ lives — a giant Christmas party that devolved into German drinking songs for German interns from the hospital. An easter egg hunt for family friends. My father has always loved to just “stop by” and visit family friends, surprise connections that brought him great job. In many ways, “stopping by” worked better in the 70s than it does today, with everyone working and no one home, or too busy to take time out to visit with a friend.
As adults, we often give up our right to a creative life. As a teen, I remember wanting so badly for my parents to live well, to know that adults did not have to give up being creative and joyful in the hard slog of middle age. Here, at last, is evidence that the creative spark flowed, glowed through them throughout their lives, even when the flame was weakest.