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Mom is still full of surprises

I took my mother out to lunch this past Sunday. She likes to go to a place called “Ellers,” which is a popular non-chain restaurant near where she and my dad used to live. All of the family — me, my sisters, Lucy — like to go there, because the food and service are good, and the ride out to Ellers is pretty. You drive through woods and neighborhoods and past the school we used to attend. On the trip back to Mom’s assisted living, we took a short detour to go past my folks’ former house.

The weather was glorious – an absolutely perfect day. My friend Donna met us at Mom’s to join us for the trip to Ellers. We had a great meal and, afterward, we went back to Mom’s to see the residents’ art show.

The pieces were interesting. There were canvases of different subjects: a vase of flowers, a solitary bunny, sunflowers, and another flower whose name escapes me; square glass votive candleholders; painted wine glasses and vases; and a collaged “LOVE” piece in the style of Robert Indiana. There were painted rocks and zentangles. A large tablecloth — that the residents had created by throwing paint-filled balloons at a canvas — was the centerpiece of the exhibition. Mom really wanted me to sign it, along with Donna, so we did.

Mom wanted us to guess which works she had done. There was only one piece that I correctly chose, which was one of the bunny paintings. I knew it was hers because it looked cheerier than the other bunny paintings, all of which looked like aliens from an early ‘Star Trek” episode. But the rest of the art? In every category, I guessed wrong.

This surprised me. I thought I would recognize her work easily.

When I was growing up, my mother did not paint, but whenever I was doing a science report, I was impressed by her sketching ability. She’d look at whatever I was working on, say – the yucca plant – and she could copy its photograph exactly. Even better, she could coach me through drawing most things. She would never draw it for me. My mother was a Girl Scout leader and a member of the PTA: she had strict rules and we obeyed them.

Mom was good at showing me how to look at things: “Honey, see those leaves? They are very rigid. Like little spears. And the flower in the middle? It looks like cotton balls, or the wool on a lamb, doesn’t it? Draw it like that.”

She’s not copying anything now.

I was there the night that she painted the vase of yellow flowers, which was an actual vase of tulips. The painting was more of an impressionist’s interpretation of a vase of tulips: I could tell that the flowers were tulips, but the vase was dancing in mid-air and looked totally different from its reality.

Mom was annoyed that I did not guess her zentangle. “It’s full of things I like,” she said. “There are Z’s because I like to sleep; and musical notes, because I hear them in my head; that border is how I see my face.”

It looked sort of like a Cubist drawing of a human face.

“Well, Betty, that’s where you lost me. Your face looks nothing like that,” Donna said.

“That’s how I see it,” she answered.

The vase I should have guessed. All of them were the same type, except for one, which was shaped like a decanter, but instead of a carefully rendered chrysanthemum, that vase was covered in what looked like happy little pansies.

“I like that,” I said.

“You like my blobs?” Mom asked.

Just before we left, Donna mentioned to Amanda (the activities coordinator) that she would be back in time for Mom’s solo show.

“She could have one. She comes to everything.”

“Betty, I would be delighted to come to your solo show.” Donna said, which made Mom laugh.

On the way home, I thought about my mother’s way of seeing. The colors she uses are vibrant and strong. Her work is always uniquely her own, even if other people do not see what she saw.

When I was little, Mom was always trying to create an exact replica of whatever she saw. Now, it’s clear that Mom is painting what she sees, or what she wants to see. (Especially the bunny: the night after that class, she told me the bunny was creepy.) Maybe that’s what true vision is. I don’t know. But I am kind of amazed that my mother can still surprise me.