Painting from Memory
A few weeks ago, a friend and I were talking about poor vision. We are both very near sighted, neither of us can function easily without corrective lenses. I can't judge depth, I certainly can't drive, I can't recognize people at any distance, and somehow that experience feels, to me, not just limiting or frustrating or even helpless, but actually shameful, and I had never managed to think a coherent thought about that fact before. In talking about it, all of a sudden I had a vivid memory of my grandparents' house in Boston. My grandmother developed macular degeneration in the last years of her life, so that she had only peripheral vision, and to help her to navigate the house and her chores, the laundry she had to keep washing and the meals she continued to cook, my grandfather painted a bright red line at eye level along the walls and down the stairs into the unfinished basement where the washing machine lived. As soon as I thought of the line I could see the house, the green chair and the ashtray with the metal stand, the crazy fibre optic lamp that I loved. The cigarette smoke and my grandmother's bright red hair in curlers. She died when I was four, so these are deep down memories and I have no way of guessing how accurate they are, though I searched the house online and I recognize it. The glassed in front porch where I once found a little green caterpillar in a head of lettuce, and a spider with her egg sac in a corner, a whole world of little lives in plain view but still a secret from my grandmother is gone, opened up or closed in, it's hard to tell from google street view. I don't have any pictures of my grandparents. My sister is the family archivist, and we don't speak, so in a funny way I have felt for a long time that I have relinquished my right to have memories. Maybe it's that I can't back them up with evidence, but I think more probably it's that the evidence doesn't belong to me, so the memories don't belong to me either. Regardless, I don't have pictures aside from the ones in my head so the painting I made was both challenging and very easy in that I only had the inside of my eyelids and the fact that my daughter has a passing resemblance to my grandmother to rely on. I couldn't make a precise painting; I could only make a painting full of mistakes, just as my forty-odd year old memory is doubtless full of mistakes. To make a painting from memory it is necessary to inhabit the memory as though it is a house, to believe the part of you that is a child of four to whom the parts that mattered were the spider, the caterpillar in the lettuce, the cigarette smoke and the green chair and that crazy lamp, your grandmother with her red hair in curlers and the bright red line along the wall. And all you have to do is to put your faith in the line.