Mom stared at the thin, stiff paint brush in her hand without comprehension. She turned to me and giggled as though we were sharing a secret. A terrifying one for me.
My 98 year-old mother and I were sitting at a plastic-drop cloth covered round table in the activity room @CarriageInn. We had joined two other residents for an hour of painting. Cheerful Molly, small and spry, is the dedicated and hard-working volunteer art instructor. She comes once a week to help those at the Residential Facility who may have wanted to paint but had never had the time to try it. No talent required.
I had thought Mom would enjoy getting out of her room for a while to take part in something she has done all her life. Both my mother and her sister trained as artists. Back then, nearly one hundred years ago (it certainly seems different to express it that way), young women were expected to join the Junior League, paint and play music, sew dainty handkerchiefs, and serve tea at luncheons.
Mom’s sister, Carolyn, had shown a special talent for painting. She trained at Syracuse University and had enjoyed several individual shows before receiving a summer scholarship to attend San Carlos, the famed art institute in Mexico City. Mom, mostly a water colorist with a degree to teach Art History, joined her sister for the trip.
In the summer of 1944, the two young, unchaperoned American ladies, Martha Lou and Carolyn, arrived in the ancient and historic city of Mexico in need of escorts. The doyenne, or housekeeper, at their rooming house happened to know of two very proper young men—José and Arturo Castillo. The men, both in their early thirties and recently arrived from California, spoke excellent English. Both had lived most of their lives in United States and José, better known by the nickname Pepe, had been educated at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles. They had returned from California to care for their elderly mother. Pepe had found a job working as a Commercial Artist for Sanborns, in the old House of Tiles in downtown Mexico City.
The foursome, artists all, spent the summer touring Mexico. They visited the pyramids at Teotihuacan where Carolyn, on a dare, ran down the pyramids two steps at a time. They painted the countryside with the towering Popo and Ixta, the two volacanos that dominate the valley of Mexico. As a special treat, one night, the dark lit only by the red glow of lava, they rode donkeys out to see the active volcano Paricutín. They enjoyed local Mexican eateries and elegant five-star restaurants, and, without doubt, a few taverns and dance halls.
By the end of the summer, the girls reluctantly returned to the United States. Pepe, nothing daunted, followed them to Miami. That December, Pepe and Martha Lou were married in an elegant but simple wedding. It was, after all, still wartime. The couple returned to Mexico City where they would spend the next eighteen years producing four children and living as members of both the American and Mexican communities.
Martha Lou joined the Junior League, the bridge club, and created a painting group with three other women: three Marthas and a Mary Ann—Martha Gottfried, Martha Sauer, Martha Lou Castillo and Mary Ann Hendrix. Together they painted all over the valley of Mexico. Martha Lou, my mother, did mostly water colors. Martha Gottfried went on to real fame as a landscape artist in oils and her paintings still hang all over Mexico today. Martha Sauer, also famous, continued to paint modern art in Key West, Florida. Mary Ann, I believe, is in Hawaii working in sculpture. Carolyn, too, continued to paint in Key West where her work still sells and her portraits have received national acclaim.
Mom had lived in a world of art. Is it any wonder that I thought she would enjoy the art class?
Now, sitting at that round table, she stared at the paint brush. Molly had given her a piece of watercolor paper. On it was the picture of a pot of honey with two bees and a flower. Slowly, Mom poked the brush into the yellow paint in the tiny plastic tray. Like a kindergarten child, she daubed at the bees, blotching them with yellow. Perhaps with some lingering memory, she dipped her brush in the water and created a softer yellow in one of the spots on the tray. Slowly, as the class ended, she began to brush the watery yellow onto the painting.
I had a hard time watching.