Marie had never painted before—that was always John’s job.
But the house needed to be sold and according to the real estate agent, it needed to be painted. Marie wasn’t mad at John for leaving the task to her; she was angry at him for dying. John had bought life insurance, but hadn’t anticipated the medical bills. He fought until his last breath, but the fight left Marie without a husband, without resources, and without a home.
A painting novice, Marie attacked the big rooms and hallways first. They were the easiest with most of the furniture gone. Next, feeling emboldened by her success, she painted the bathrooms and kitchen. Those were a bit more difficult as she had to navigate her way around cabinets, mirrors, and fixtures. After that, there was just one spot left, the six-inch wide door frame near the stairs that contained a vertical history of their only child, Lisa.
When Marie and John bought the home, Lisa was still four months away from joining the family. John, always the idealist, was not like other new homebuyers. To him this house wasn’t supposed to be a starter home. It was his forever home, and if there were any doubt, he put that to rest the first time he and Marie entered as new owners.
“The next time I leave this home permanently, it’s going to be in a wooden box.”
At the time, the young couple laughed together at the thought. Death was for other people. John and Maria were going to live forever and they were going to live forever in their new home.
Staring at the faded lines, Marie smiled softly as a tear ran down her cheek. She couldn’t help but remember the happier times when she and John prepared a room for the bundle of joy to come. John surprised her by painting the baby’s room light blue. John was sure the new addition would be a boy, talking endlessly to his friends, neighbors, and any poor store clerk he ran into about John Jr. and how his son was going to be the third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles.
John's certainty even convinced Marie. It wasn’t until the mother-to-be was eight months pregnant that the expectant parents discussed a possible girl's name during a commercial break. Many years later when Lisa asked how they decided on her name, the couple sheepishly admitted it was the name of a character on the television show they were watching, a fact that elicited benign laughs every time it was shared.
Even before little Lisa was born, John and Marie had picked the perfect spot to document her milestones, a tradition brought to the family by both parents. The small spot where Marie now stood was that magical place she was being forced to paint over, erasing the lines that had been so important for so many years.
I can’t do it, Marie thought to herself. I can’t delete a lifetime of memories. Not today, not right now. Unable to finish, Marie poured herself a glass of wine, pulled up a chair, faced the unpainted wall, and remembered.
The first line, the one closest to the floor, was probably the least accurate. Baby Lisa had smiled for the first time that day, and John and Marie wanted to commemorate the occasion. Holding her little girl upright, Marie did her best to keep Lisa’s foot on the floor while John attempted to make the new mark. Lisa, thinking this was a game, kicked her legs over and over, all the while laughing and smiling. When John finally finished the task, both he and Marie roared hysterically at the crooked line that looked more like the peaks and valleys of a mountain range than an accurate measurement of the little girls height. It was almost impossible for them to look at that jagged line through the years and not chuckle at the memory.
The line from Lisa’s first day of school was also the first one Marie herself had drawn. Lisa stood ramrod straight, trying to make herself as tall as possible. Marie marked Lisa’s growth while John captured the memory using his new digital camera. The photo was the last one Marie had removed before she started to paint. There wasn’t much she had unpacked at her new apartment, but that keepsake was already mounted on the wall by the front door.
A few lines further up was one labeled “Paint Day.” It was the only line not tied to a significant day for Lisa. When quizzed about the anomaly, Marie would explain that when the family first moved into the home, the walls were bland, off-white, and builder grade. However, Marie loved green and John loved Marie, so when they decided to spice the place up, green it was.
John knew how important the marks on the wall were, so he meticulously created a template, complete with the unusual first line that he intended to use to recreate the measurements exactly. When he finished painting, he pulled out the guide and replaced each line precisely where it had been before. Every time Marie saw them, her heart fluttered, remembering how much John loved her and Lisa.
Two lines further up was the measurement from when Lisa graduated from middle school. It took a lot of convincing to get her to remove her cap before that line was drawn. Almost fourteen years since the first line, Lisa still tried to make herself as tall as possible. Every line had a unique story and a memory and Marie smiled as she reminisced. The thought of covering the markings was paralyzing so instead Marie just sat, staring in silence, until the doorbell rang.
Lisa didn’t wait for her mother to answer, walking in denying Marie the time to compose herself. She also didn’t have to ask what was wrong as Lisa saw the paint and the lines.
“Mom, it’s going to be ok,” Lisa said, pulling up a chair next to her mother. “You have to paint. Dad would understand.”
“I know,” Marie responded, trying to wipe the tears from her eyes. “But I never thought this would happen—this wasn’t supposed to happen. These lines are your life, the life you and I shared with dad. How can I erase them?”
“Mom these lines are just placeholders,” Lisa said, standing up and positioning herself next to the wall.
“You see this line?" Lisa asked, pointing to one just a few feet high. "It’s about as high as my knee, the knee I hurt playing soccer." You and dad were there. You guys were always there, remember?" Marie nodded her head.
"Not every kid had two parents, and the ones that did rarely had both parents at every game. But I did. You were there to comfort me that day while Dad was calling an ambulance."
“Ah yes,” Marie chuckled, “If I remember correctly, he yelled at the surgeon before they wheeled you back. He made up for it though. Your dad wrote the nicest card afterwards, apologizing for the outburst and thanking the doctor for fixing his baby.”
"And how about this line?" Lisa continued, pointing to a line about as high as her stomach. “This line is right at my belly button. Remember when I pierced it without your permission. You were so mad, but dad was calm, he brought the temperature down and we talked it out. I thought I was so clever when I asked you if you still loved me. Do you remember your answer?”
“I do,” Marie answered and smiled. “I said ‘I’ll always love you, but I just don’t like you very much right now.’” The response causing both women to laugh.
“And this line right up here,” Lisa said, calling Marie's attention to the highest line on the wall, “It’s exactly the height of my smile—the same smile that everyone says reminds them of Dad. I love when they say that. In a way it means he’s never really gone. You see Mom, you can feel free to paint over those lines because they won’t ever disappear. All of them are right here, in me. I am the memories and the stories. Those are just markings on a wall, the important things have always lived between the lines"
“How did you get so smart?” Maria asked, standing up and hugging her daughter.
“I learned from the best mom ever.”
“So what do you think of my paint job? Is it up to dad’s standards?”
“Dad would be proud,” Lisa replied, giving her mom two thumbs up.
“He was sure proud of you,” Marie said, smiling. “He loved this house and we loved this record of your life, but you're right. You are our legacy, you are the yardstick of our lives. Now do me a favor and stand against this wall.”
Lisa didn’t hesitate for a second, standing ramrod straight while her mother marked one last line and the date.
Then, with a smile as broad as her paint roller, Marie covered over the lines, realizing she hadn’t erased them—she had finished them.