Art Lessons Granny Taught Me by Joan Hall Hovey
This essay, in large part was my first published story. It was published more than 30 years ago in Home Life Magazine. This updated version was published in Mystery Readers Journal. I hope you enjoy it.
The illustration is by Padgett.
She was 71 and lived alone in the cluttered attic of an old, two-story frame building with her easel, her paints, her brushes and sometimes, me. Her name was Lillian May (Watts) Hall.
When neighbors spoke of my grandmother, they said, “A nice woman.” Then frowning and in whispers, the added, “but kinda funny.” And in the early fifties, to the people who lived in our small, unsophisticated town, there was indeed something ‘kinda funny’ about an old lady who sat alone in her attic room and painted pictures. At first glance, she was not unlike a million other grandmothers of her time - the same iron-gray hair drawn back in a bun, wire-rimmed glasses, a dark, high-buttoned dress with long sleeves and detachable lace collar, and a cameo brooch clasped modestly at her throat - but there the similarity ended. Granny, a tall, angular-boned parcel of nervous energy, was not the average storybook grandmother.
Every day Granny would lose a prized possession. It might be a valued brush, a particular tube of paint or a piece of canvas. And while I stood on the sidelines, she would tear through her private disaster area, sending papers, books, talcum-coated hairpins, an unmated stocking, and her pink garters helter-skelter – all the while looking remarkably like an enraged bird.
Almost always she would find what she was looking for, but occasionally I would be the one to spy the object of her frenzied search. “Here it is, Granny,” I’d say, proud of my Sherlock Holmes tendencies. She would smile sheepishly, relief flooding her face.
“Now, wasn’t that foolish of me to get so upset,” she would apologize. “I’m just a silly old woman, dear. Don’t pay me any mind.” Then, calm and serene once more, she would begin the gentle strokes of her brush on the canvas.
I often stood at the small, rickety table beside her, a piece of Bristol board and a brush in front of me. I was even permitted to use the valued paints (which she could barely afford for her own work) so that I could play artist.
After hours of painstaking work, Granny would set her brush to rest, stand back with a critical eye, and appraise the completed painting. When it had dried sufficiently, and she was satisfied that it was of some worth, she would don her coat and hat and with the painting under one arm, off the two of us would go, door to door, in an effort to sell it.
She walked with a brisk, sure step, and many times I found myself breaking into a run to keep up with her. But we never had to walk far before making a sale. Although neighbors found her way of life strange, they liked and bought what she painted. It was hard times, and the return for her efforts was meager, yet sufficient to pay the rent on the attic, buy a few groceries at the corner store, and keep the coal bucket filled during the long winter months.
I had a friend whose grandmother spun for her many fascinating tales of her girlhood. But even there, Granny fell short. In fact our roles were quite reversed. It was I who spun the tales for her. One story still causes me to cringe when I remember it. It was during summer vacation and I had just returned from a day at the beach.
“Granny! Granny!” I shouted excitedly as I flung open the door. “A man fell off the diving board at the lake today and I jumped into save him. He almost pulled me under with him, but I punched him on the jaw and knocked him out, and then I swam back to shore with him under one arm. Everybody on the beach cheered,” I finished breathlessly.
“Oh, my dear child,” Granny said with concern. “You certainly did have a busy day, didn’t you?” Then abruptly the concerned expression changed to amusement and she broke into a gale of laughter. Rocking back and forth in her wicker chair, she laughed and laughed, absolutely delighted, but not for a moment fooled. Every few seconds she would remove her glasses and wipe the tears from her eyes. By this time I was writhing inwardly and trying in vain to twist my story into something more plausible, but it was no use. I was caught in the web of my lie. (Lesson 1. If you want your reader to suspend disbelief, you must make sense.) I suspected she knew even then that I had the makings of a storyteller. And I’m absolutely certain she knows now.
Granny has not been with me for a good many years, and indeed I am a grandma now myself. In fact, a great-grandma. The year I turned fifteen, I was working as a housemaid when the telephone call came telling me that Granny had been rushed to the hospital in an ambulance.
The hallway was in flames, making escape impossible. Granny had climbed out of the dormer window and crouched on the ledge below it. A passerby heard her cries for help and called up to her to stay there until he returned with a ladder. Then the man fled to put in a call to the fire department. Whether the heat from the flames became unbearable or whether Granny simply panicked, I’ll never know. But she didn’t wait for the man to return with the ladder. Instead, she jumped from the ledge and fell in a crumpled heap to the ground below. Her back was broken. In two months she was gone. I stumbled around, lost, for a long time. I felt betrayed by God. And then I grew up. After a fashion. But the child in us never goes far.
In my third suspense novel (I have written five, the last The Abduction of Mary Rose) Chill Waters, my heroine deals with loss and betrayal on several levels. Following the breakup of her marriage, after learning of her husband’s infidelity, Rachael Warren retreats to the old beach house in Jenny’s Cove, where as a young girl she lived with her grandmother. It is the one place where she had always felt safe and loved. But she is about to learn that ‘a safe place’ is mostly an illusion. And that evil can find us no matter where we go.
Jenny’s Cove is located in St. Clair, a fictional St. Andrews, a small town in New Brunswick, Canada. St. Andrews lies on the Passamoquoddy Bay, and is close to the American border. A place of charm and beauty, St. Andrews/St. Clair is a magnet for tourists and artists alike. The beach house in Jenny’s Cove, however, is isolated. Waves crashing against the rocks, and the sudden summer storms that visit Jenny’s Cove add to that sense of isolation. As a child, Rachael had found the violence of the storms and the sound of the sea comforting. As a woman stalked and terrorized, that will change.
I like the blending of light and dark in a novel. Using shadowing to enhance dramatic effect, as in a painting.
I also enjoy writing about women who struggle against great odds and triumph, as did my grandmother. But, as in life, it’s never easy. In books, it must be even harder, damn near impossible. And in the suspense novel, there are always unseen dangers.
My own life provides fodder for my imagination. But it is my grandmother who taught me the art of concentration. When she was painting, the house could have fallen down around her and she would have paid it little attention. You knew not to talk to her then. Only the brushes, canvas and the work at hand held any reality for her. All else faded into the background. Her focus was that of a child’s in the midst of intense ‘play.’ (If you have ever watched a child at play, and we all have, you know there is no one quite so serious.) and she never stopped learning. It was not about fame or fortune for her, as it is not for her granddaughter – but about the work, and the pursuit of excellence. In her seventies, she was still taking art lessons when she could afford the few coins, from a Mrs. Holt on Elliott Row, a respected art teacher in Saint John, New Brunswick. Sometimes she took me with her and I’d wait in the foyer. There were always books to read.
As Mrs. Holt’s lessons were important to my grandmother, my grandmother’s were crucial to me.
To quote author Willa Cather, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.”
I believe that’s true.