The day the pitcher narrowly escaped being smashed to bits, I decided it was time to retire it to my display cabinet. The teal blue container full of pens, pencils, scissors, and whatnot, had lived on my kitchen counter for so long, I barely noticed it anymore—until my careless elbow sent it tumbling over the edge. That slow-motion moment stabbed my heart with a panicky sense of loss. But the clatter that followed turned out to be only the contents spilling on the floor. I picked up the pitcher and tenderly placed my thumb against the fresh, powdery white chip on its spout. I remembered what made it so special to me.
It started out as a white, craft-store ceramic, ready for a paint-it-yourself project. My mom probably had it on hand with her other arts and crafts supplies. It’s about six inches tall with a raised design of fruit on either of its slightly flattened sides. Colorful apples, peaches, grapes, and pears contrast nicely with the blue background. I especially like the words painted around the rim—white with purple dots and highlights—To Mom from Katie.
Katie is my daughter. She surprised me with this hand-painted pitcher when she was maybe seven or eight years old. She had spent the afternoon at Mom’s house; and just the fact that my mother had hung out with my child had been a gift to me. To see Katie coming out the door with evidence that she had shared a craft activity with her grandmother had touched me with unexpected joy.
I had been raising my child up in Washington until she was five. When I prepared to return to California with her, I’d regaled Katie with promises of how much she was going to love her grandma and grandpa, and that they would have lots of fun together. As it turned out, while my dad had welcomed Katie with open arms, my mom had kept her distance. She didn’t ignore Katie, but she didn’t reach out to her either. I felt that my daughter had been caught in the silent crossfire of unresolved differences between my mother and me.
I had harbored hopes of mending the lifetime of hurt and misunderstandings that had defined our relationship. But any attempts on my part to broach the subject came up against Mom’s stubborn resistance. She had a way of her lifting her chin and refusing to meet my eyes. I can feel that non-look to this day. and it still grips my soul.
But one day. Mom invited Katie to spend the afternoon with her, and when, at the end of that day, Katie presented me with the results of her painting project, I felt as if something had healed. At least I felt a beginning.
I don’t remember if my mother or daughter told me any details of their day together. But it doesn’t matter. I have developed my own version of what remains in my memory as a golden event.
I can see my plump, four-foot-nine mother bustling around, setting things up just right in the upstairs room where she did her painting and crafts. She had a long table that provided ample workspace and kept a couple of folding chairs handy.
As if I were standing right there with them, I can clearly hear my mother’s girlish voice with the husky overtones of age, still a hint of Philadelphia in it after more than 50 years away from her hometown.
“You want to go put some water in this glass, Katie? Only half-full—we don’t want to spill it.”
“Here, grandma.” Katie is small for her age and her voice sounds young and sweet.
She carries the glass of water carefully back into to the room.
“That’s fine, honey. Thanks.” Mom takes the glass and sets it on the table.
As she sits up on the chair next to her grandma, Katie lifts her chin with pride, her summer-tanned pixie face crinkled in a smile. Mom smiles right back. Her gray blue eyes are full of affection for her granddaughter as she reaches over and brushes Katie's too-long bangs from her forehead. “Why don’t you go look in the bathroom drawer for a bobby pin so we can get some of this out of your way?”
Once the hair adjustment is accomplished, they are ready to get to work. Of course, Mom has all the paints and brushes lined up just so; and this suits Katie because she is just as obsessed with order as her grandma is. As Mom pours a little of each color onto a dish, I can smell the cool, earthy clay aroma of the tempera.
“Here, Katie. Use this brush—not too much paint. What color do you want to paint the grapes?”
“I like that pinkish purple!” Katie points to a couple of colors Grandma has just mixed.
“Okay, I’ll do the grapes on my side the same color.” They work silently together now, the pitcher between them. Their heads are inclined toward each other, Mom’s short faded brown perm looking fluffy next to Katie’s smooth, sun-touched ponytail.
When they have finished painting the fruit, Mom suggests they stop for lunch while the paint dries. After they eat, they can do some finishing touches.
They go downstairs to the kitchen, and Mom has Katie put out napkins and glasses while she fixes sandwiches. I can smell the fresh, yeasty aroma of the bakery bread when she opens the wrapper, the sweet, tangy Miracle Whip that my dad prefers to mayonnaise. Katie asks for some pickles and eats a couple of crisp, sour slices while waiting for her sandwich. Mom puts the plate on the table, adds a handful of potato chips from a crackling bag, and she pours the milk.
“This is yummy, Grandma!” They have their leisurely lunch and chat cozily.
When they are done eating and cleaning up, they go back upstairs and finish painting. Mom demonstrates how to add dots of light to the grapes, how to do some other shading, and Katie tries it on her side.
That day remains, for me, a special gift and a turning point. The evidence is on display behind the glass doors of the tall mahogany secretary desk my mom left to me. And my daughter’s painted words seem to go with the words in Mom’s handwriting in black marker on the back of the desk—To Madlyn from Mom.
Not long ago, I asked my grown daughter if she remembered the day that she painted the pitcher.
“No,” she said. “Probably, Grandma set me up with the paints out on the patio table to get me out of the way.”
Maybe. But she doesn’t actually remember, does she? And I’ll never give up my version.