Last month I did a paint-out, en plain air in Ligonier Valley in Southwestern Pennsylvania, the area where I spend many hours hiking.
As was my experience in September, for my first paint-out state side, each artist is given a few pages of private and public properties. Eighty percent of the paintings are to be done onsite with the “fixes” to be done at home or later as needed. Typically in February, there’s snow on the ground. On the first day of the paint-out it was seventy-two degrees Fahrenheit (about twenty-two degrees Celsius).
That day was a Thursday and I was visiting my mom at her memory care center where she is a resident. The center has a locked courtyard with a big patio and several chairs and some terraced gardens around the walls. When I arrived the nurses said they had encouraged Mom to go outside but she declined. I arrived in Mom’s room, the only private one.
Mom moved to the side of the bed, her feet touching the floor, feeling for the blue slippers. “Oh, Manda. I haven’t seen you in awhile.” Her smile lights up her face.
My days to see Mom are Thursdays and Sundays. Now she doesn’t remember the visits, not even what happened in the last two hours.
“Give me a hug.”
Mom is stiff and I help to lift her up, bending over more than what seemed like the last time. I give her a long hug.
We move apart after exchanging greetings, sometimes the greetings happening a few times.
“Mom, it’s nice outside. We gotta go out.”
“Oh, is it?”
“Yeah, come on.”
I pick up the bag and the drawing board on one arm and put my other around Mom as she shuffles out of the room, down the hallway and turning to cross the small dining room just for memory care residents. I reach to push the door open.
“I can do it.”
“Oh.” I remember that it’s important to let her help even in small ways. “Thanks.”
It’s afternoon and the patio is mostly in shade now. I pick two chairs on the opposite side, one of them partially in the sun. Mom sits there though I’m worried she might get sunburned. I set up the page I brought for her, the one with colored circles and two happy faces I made on my iPad and then printed. Mom searches for the colored pencil that exactly matches the circle. I tell her it’s okay if they don’t exactly match. She doesn’t agree. All the while she searches for colors sometimes asking me if the color looks like blue or saying the color doesn’t look like the dark green she was looking for. Some colors get harder to identify and it’s more relaxing for her to hear what she is doing right.
Mom asks what I’ve been doing and I talk about the paint-out coming up in Ligonier.
“Take lots of pictures.”
“I want to hear all about it.”
“Okay. I’ll tell you about it on Sunday.”
“What day is today?"
“When will I see you again?”
“Sunday.” Mom counts the days.
The conversation repeats. Then I distract her, asking what she’s coloring and then she forgets where we were.
I spray my watercolor page with my little fuchsia nozzled bottle.
I grab the paintbrush and paint over the foreground from the watercolor I made before with acrylic paint.
I look at Mom’s picture. “I like how you did that.” It looks like she decorated Easter eggs.
“That’s a great idea, Mom.”
There are other circles on the page, blue ones and she does each color first until they’re all done, like coloring all the blue ones.
Mom is quiet, except when her long strands of thinning hair are blowing in the wind.
She smirks. “I’m eating my hair.”
“Don’t get a hairball.”
“That sun is so nice. How warm is it today?”
“What is today’s date?”
“Wow. That’s warm for winter.”
The conversation repeats.
I dash in the memory care center. All the tea I drink on the way here has a mind of its own.
When I return, Mom’s head is at an angle looking up at the sky.
“What are you looking at?”
“The clouds. They’re moving so fast.”
I look at them and she’s right.
Mom watches them and repeats about their speed.
The wind is blowing and she makes a face about her hair going in her mouth. I tell her to save room for dinner.
We have these moments of being present together. Mom colors. I paint. We laugh.
She says, “that’s a lot of nuns.”
“What?” I turn the page around.
“They’re all filing in a line where the sky meets.”
“That’s not what I was going for. Don’t they look like skinny green trees?”
Mom studies the picture, not convinced. “See?” I point to the green trees in the forefront. "Like the ones in the French countryside?"
When she finishes coloring all the circles, she looks tired even though I moved her into the shade.
“Wanna go in?”
“I think I do.”
We gather everything.
Mom is looking at the clouds again. “It’s really nice out.”
And this is a day, I’m glad she’s repeating certain phrases. I can see she’s happy even if she won’t remember it.
She’s teaching me about being present. We don’t talk about the past and I avoid talking about the future. Mom asks when she’s going home and I agree to what she finds frustrating and distract her into another conversation.
“Hey, Mom. It’s dinner time. I’ll walk you there.”
“Oh, where is it?”
“Just down the hall.”
We have these conversations a lot during my visit. It’s the same place every time. It’s like she has new discoveries. She sits with the same couple, and one time the woman came to Mom’s room not knowing why she was there. And the three of us shuffled out to the dining room and the nurses showed them the same place where they always sit.
When I left Mom’s new residence, it was too late for starting the paint-out. The next day was cold again, more February weather-like. I was glad I got Mom out. I watched and heard her joy of being outside with the sun on her skin. These are the memories that comfort me; these are the days that remind me about being present.
Amanda is the author of Finding Moksha: One Woman's Path in Uncertain Times and artist and owner at Modern Moksha Designs & Publishing.
© Amanda L. Mottorn, 2023. All Rights Reserved.