My grandmother, “Ma”, deftly lit the burner under the vegetable steamer sitting on the ancient stove in her ancient kitchen. She had done it million times before. The gas flame flickered and puffed itself into life. The steamer was filled with washed but unpeeled potatoes, and as she returned to the kitchen table where we were both topping and tailing green beans and dicing carrots, we continued our nightly discussion. Topics often included politics, the economy, life during the Second World War, the rubbish these days on TV, how the youth are not interested in working hard anymore, stories about my mother and her 7 sisters, and life in general back in her day.
Ma lived directly over the road from our family, and had kindly allowed me to use her empty front room as a study during my final year of secondary school back in 1980, so we often ate dinner together in the evenings, just the two of us, seated at her green laminate topped kitchen table, which, at some stage back in the 1950’s, must have been fabulously on trend because there were so many of those tables lingering in people’s houses for decades later. The steam off the cooking vegetables would fog up the kitchen window near the stove and the ambient temperature in that room could only be described as sub-tropical. On this particular night, as the beans and carrots were being prepared for their journey into another metal basket, destined also for the steamer, we talked about art.
Ma lowered her eyes to focus on the carrots, and admitted sadly, “Oh I don’t know, I’ve never been any good at drawing or painting. I think it must have skipped a generation. You lot seem to all be good at it. The creative talent must have come from Jim’s (her late husband’s) side of the family.”
She was waiting for it, so I gave her some cheek. “Oh well that’s just rubbish Ma!” I said, “You’ve just never had a crack at it!”
She looked up at me and smiled softly. She loved being teased. “Oh, I don’t know,” she pondered, “I was always so busy with the girls growing up and if I had a spare minute it was spent doing practical things like mending clothes or something. And then, before I knew it, you lot turned up!” She threw her hands up in the air as if it all happened in a matter of seconds, which it many ways it had. “And, of course,” she continued, “It’s too late now for me to start taking on new hobbies.”
Parts of what Ma had said were true. Bringing up so many girls, she spent the daylight hours just trying to schedule orderly access to their home’s single bathroom. As you can imagine, it was a “free-for-all” in there, with makeup and clothes everywhere, and lots of personalities squabbling. Once the bathroom was clear, attention then turned to the traffic at the front door, to screen the procession of eager, brylcreemed young gentlemen (with honorable intentions) armed with flowers and movie tickets. By the time the hordes of grandchildren arrived, any thoughts Ma had of taking up a hobby were overrun by grubby little fingers looting the pantry and pulling things out of cupboards. But the part about it being too late to take up a hobby wasn’t sitting too well in the room that evening, because we both knew all about the new art classes that were about to start at the YMCA a few doors down the street.
“Come on, why don’t you give this new art class a go?!”
Ma rolled her eyes a little and said, “Oh, stop it, will you!”
“It might be fun! A bit of painting, a few drawings…”
Ma turned her palms over, face up and spread them out in front of me and said, “look for yourself, my hands aren’t any good anymore. And my eyesight’s not what it used to be. I think I’d struggle to see the canvas!” Then she came out with the old chestnut, “And my paintings wouldn’t look any good anyway.”
“Go on, try it!” I teased, “What else are you doing on that day?”
Ma smiled again and paused for a moment. “Well, nothing really, but, I don’t know…”
“In the end” I said, “It doesn’t matter what other people think of your work, although I’m sure it will look great. It doesn’t even really matter what you think of it. The main thing is how you feel when you are doing it. It’s relaxing, and you can drift off and think about things you haven’t thought about in a long time. Think of it as therapy!”
Now I know that all sounds a bit cheesy, all that stuff about drifting off and thinking about things, but it is true, well, at least for me anyway. I find that painting and drawing is like being in a trance, you can slide timelessly off into another world for a whole afternoon, and when you come back, you mostly have no idea what you were thinking about, but you know that your thoughts flowed seamlessly though dozens of topics and that you bumped into and resolved a few nagging items that were lost somewhere in the deep recess of your mind. Then you wake up at the end of the session and there is paint everywhere and you count anything that has finished up on the canvas as a bonus.
By now the water under the potatoes had begun bubbling away on the stove, and the first hisses of steam were setting off the initial stages of climate change. I cheekily asked, “How are you going to salt those potatoes, if they aren’t actually in the water?”
She looked up at me from her vegetable chopping with her smiling eyes, and then protested, “I don’t know what it is with you young people, you want to put salt on everything. It’s not good for you, you know!”
“But it tastes so good!” I replied. “And why do you have to steam everything?”
Ma was ready for that one. “Because boiling vegetables cooks all the goodness out them, I’ve told you that before; whereas steaming them keeps in the nutrients.”
I added, “And your potatoes aren’t even peeled!”
She smiled at me again. “It saves a few minutes, but there are lots of good things in the skins too, you know.”
I could see I wasn’t going to win the steamed versus boiled debate, but I had the final say when we began to eat. I shook salt and pepper over everything for much longer than was necessary, smothered the vegetables with butter, and doused the lamb chops in tomato sauce. Ma knew what I was up to. There were arms waving and protests, but she enjoyed the performance. “You kids, I don’t know how your mother puts up with you!”
I waited a few moments, maybe for dramatic effect, and then asked again, “So, will you go and do the art classes?”
When Ma walked in after her first class, I was there studying in her empty front room, and she was different. There was a glow to her. I don’t know where she had been when she sat down to paint, but she went somewhere and it was a good, peaceful place. She immediately cautioned me that her trial drawings and paintings were only for testing techniques, and that they weren’t really any good.
Over the weeks that followed, Ma worked on a painting (pictured), and each time she walked in through the front door after her classes, she looked brighter and more liberated. It was like she was gradually lifting a great weight off her shoulders. I think she was secretly happy with her efforts, and clearly enjoyed the classes. She became more and more willing to show people what she had been doing, and everyone gave her a lot of encouragement.
She only ever did 1 painting that was framed, and like her, it was beautiful.
Ma has long since passed away, but I can still see her freshly teased smiling face at the green laminate kitchen table, and I can still taste those delicious unsalted, unpeeled potatoes. I was so very fortunate to have shared those special times with her, 35 years ago, in the steam room.
I don’t know where Ma went when she painted, but the next time I paint, I might go and look for that place.