When my father first saw my mother on stage, he was amazed by how the words flew out of her mouth so naturally. I’ve never seen my mother perform, but in old photographs, she always appears angelic. She had luscious blonde curls and stormy grey eyes. She didn’t have my frizzy brown hair or my big feet. I only have her grey eyes. In these photographs, my father looked like a young prince, with cool brown hair and soft green eyes. It was truly a miracle that they met—they would always look so perfect together no matter what.
I am an artist myself, in the studio art program at Yale. Throughout my life, I’ve been told I can paint anything, as long as I use my senses. If I hear a bird’s song, for example, I can paint what it sounds like. I’ll add a bit of yellow for happiness or brightness here, a bit of white and black for sadness or loneliness there. If I taste berries, I can paint bursts of sweetness in red, purple, and pink; if I smell oranges, I can express it as clouds of sunshine and gold filling the canvas.
My professor’s name is Dr. Richards. Up until now, I’ve been allowed to paint the present world of sounds, sights, smells, and tastes, but Professor Richards wants me to do something different for my next project. He wants me to remember what my childhood was like and paint it. He gave an example of enjoying a good time with my parents, like a picnic. As if my childhood had been as predictable as that. But the problem is I have very few memories of my real parents. Of my mother especially.
My art studio is an abandoned classroom, a tranquil place that comforts me whenever I get stuck. There is a beautiful view through the window, looking over a small garden with pansies, chrysanthemums, and violets in the summer. You can also see the Yale flag up high, waving, and a perfect reflection pool by the main library. Sometimes I end up staring at it for hours, trying to imagine the different images cast into the pool or create pictures out of the sound of water trickling.
For weeks, I haven’t known where to start with my painting. Professor Richards is insistent that if I try hard enough, my memory will tell me what to do, but I can’t seem to get it across to him that it is impossible to find a single memory capable of capturing what I can’t know about that memory. I guess it’s just that I keep going back to how my parents met, wishing I could have been there.
When I try to think on my own childhood, inevitably my mind wanders back to my parents at Juilliard, and that moment my mother first walked by the music room, not expecting the sound of my father playing the piano. My father had already been struck by my mother’s voice on stage, so the fact she walked by, noticing him too, was the closest thing to fate there is, I think. And I guess I want to tell Professor Richards that this is the only memory I need to recreate, even though it isn’t mine, but in a way, I want to tell him it is—because the simultaneity of these two moments is what allowed me to be born. I shudder to think of this miracle, that I am somehow here, alive—even though my parents aren’t here to bear witness to that fact. Yet somehow, I think that if I can try to make my longing real on the canvas, my parents might be able to know that I live on through them and their first memory of one another.
I want to tell him that I’m stuck trying to envision the bright smile of my father and the warm eyes of my mother, the light on the stage, and my father’s piano—he once told me his piano was the only way for him to understand anything, especially his love for my mother.
My mother died at the age of 30, when I was just four, and my father left just a week after she died, unable to bear his grief. I was raised by two adoptive parents, and though they have both been very loving and supportive, encouraging me to pursue my dreams as an artist, I still think about my birth parents, wondering if they also like to smell soap before they use it, or if they had to set their alarm clock in the same corner of the room, perfectly aligned against the wall, or if they liked the light buttery taste of corn and the cob or toast as much as I do. I wonder if I would have needed these things as much, too, if my mother hadn’t gotten sick and my father was still here to confirm my odd habits.
The repetitions circle my brain like a plague as I try to picture the room in Juilliard where my mother first discovered him playing. I imagine my mother in a pale green dress, walking past the door as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz seeps through the door.
I imagine my mother pausing by it, ear pressed, devouring the sound of fingers gliding smoothly over the keys.
These repetitions should be enough I think, and I want to tell Professor Richards this, as I pick up a colored pencil and begin to sketch the outlines of my parents over the canvas. A pale green dress for my mother, like the stem of a violet. I hum “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as my lines grow thicker. My humming is rudimentary, yet I can hear a whole orchestra in my father’s single piano that leads to foggy streaks of blue and purple skies, the color of bluebells and soothing lavender.
I sketch a picnic scene and imagine a picnic basket we might have shared if they could visit me: creamed corn, corn on the cob, Greek egg salad, and, of course, sandwiches packed with lettuce, mayonnaise, and tomato, the kind my mother might have made if she’d never turned ill and could visit me here in New Haven, where the buildings are gray and shimmery in the rain and you can see all of the city at the top of East Rock. As I work, I think about how maybe memories don’t always have to be figments from the past, but dream moments, hypothetical scenarios I might have had with the people who brought me into this world.
I draw sponge-like holes in the picnic sandwich bread as if the crusts were more important than the taste of fresh cucumbers my senses want to remind me of. I wish I could smell the variety of mayonnaise my mother liked best or know if she still made my father’s with honey mustard even though she hated it. I envy my friends who take their memories for granted, the dozens of traditions and stories by which they can so easily recall their loved ones.
I am still trying to remember my fourth birthday, the last I would have had with my parents. I picture a bright and cozy living room with strings of lights bursting with color, illuminating everyone’s happy face. I am sitting in my mother’s warm lap, and she strokes my head. My father smiles and plops a perfectly wrapped box in front of me: flashing green paper, like the Emerald City, and a red ribbon for Dorothy’s slippers. Happy Birthday, my dear Lily, his card said. May you blossom with life. I picture my father’s meticulous handwriting.
But, as much as I want to paint with bright colors, I am overcome with this same feeling that the colors will never be vivid enough to match the sounds, tastes, and smells of the moment. I decide to swirl the sky with thick whites and grays like the tornado that sends Dorothy far from home—and, as I paint, I think of my mother’s stormy eyes, how she might even be the eye of this storm, my memories spinning around me in pieces: this mixture of my fourth birthday, my parents’ meeting, the picnic sandwiches on East Rock.
It is as if my imagination is a tornado, and as I paint in a stanza from “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the part that expresses “where skies are blue,” I imagine fuzzy green grass, illuminated by a twinge of sunshine seeping through the clouds, as if my mother was walking towards my father in the piano room, somewhere outside of the frame. Into the beyond, somewhere my father met her, by fate, or by chance, I think, wishing for the music that might guide my brush.
Move forward, I think suddenly, imagining my mother getting closer and closer to my father, the start of their story, my story, converging at that moment.
I step back and look at the different layers of color, adding more gray and shadow to the clouds, but not so heavy as to cover the sun, and not too windy that the light would be extinguished, because only in leaving that glow and sensing my brush as it continues to stir, can I preserve time as a moment, let our love move on.