Happy Poetry Friday! January is hobbling to its frigid, icy end. It’s been a cold month in Maryland, as the blue hues of my temperature scarf will attest.
The annual February Poetry Project members are warming up for our month of daily writing. This year’s project theme is “Ekphrastic at Home.” Each day, a member of the group will share a piece of art that they own or keep on display at home.
Today’s warm-up prompt is one of three paintings I own by my grandmother, Joy Dickson. A New Yorker, child of a German Jewish engineer and his Romanian wife, Joy was destined to be a concert violinist. While studying at Julliard, she met my grandfather, a percussionist who had moved to the U.S. from France as a young child. His name was Charles Dickson. They married, struggled to start a business together, had three children (my father was the eldest). I don’t know whether she completed her degree at Julliard, but Joy never picked up a violin again.
Still, my grandmother had a creative spirit. At some point, she took classes at Parsons School of Design. I remember her always in the midst of a project. There was the large loom taking up space in her living room, a fabric made of wool and tree bark half-woven on its strings. There was a trio of monarch butterflies from her print-making class, a found-wood sculpture she signed with the pseudonym “Jandelay” so she could ask for — and get — the honest opinions of family members on her work. There was the Thanksgiving we found out she’d gone to clown college. (She was a hobo clown.)
Although she died nearly 15 years ago, I feel like my children have grown up around Joy because her art has always been a presence in our home. The piece I shared today, a portrait of her mother Rachel (known as Rose), was probably painted when Joy was in her teens or 20s.
It was an honor to Joy’s memory to read the poems everyone wrote in response to her painting today. Some people wrote about the deep connection between mother and daughter, as if they knew the story behind this portrait.
My own poem is a memory of the last words I heard my grandmother say. It was the summer of 2003, and she was doing hospice at my parents’ home in mountains.
Come Like Shadows
By Laura Shovan
We circled her like three witches,
stripped her clothes, the old
button-down shirt she favored
since my grandfather passed.
No one had heard her voice in days.
Her hair, once auburn, thick,
wrapped in a scarf to keep
the tumor out of sight. The shower
bubbled and when we three women
pushed her under its stream,
Joy said, “Wait a minute.”
She’d told me weeks before
she was ready for this, but
as the world rolled into shadow,
she clung to its fabric. My aunt
washed her hair and I held her,
and my mother held her. No eloquence
in her words – my grandmother’s last —
but what other demand
could she make as she leaned
out of the spray to plant
a kiss on my bare shoulder?
On Monday, I’m participating in a guest-post at Nerdy Book Club about distance reading groups. If you geek out about middle grade books, give it a read!
Currently reading: No One Waits for the Train, by Waqas Khwaja