Bridging the Visual and Literary Arts

by Catherine Wayson

Inspired by ‘All That Ever Was, Always Is,’ a painting by Watie White.

Hillary looked up from her sewing and smiled as her ten-year-old granddaughter ran into the room. The smile vanished when she saw the birth certificate in DeeDee’s hand. “You’ll have to ask your mother,” Hillary said, as DeeDee pressed for an explanation.

“But Grandma,” DeeDee wheedled, a determined look on her face. “How can this have my birthday? And my name? But a different father’s name?”

Hillary sighed, “Take the certificate home.”

After DeeDee left, Hillary climbed the attic stairs with heavy, aching legs. The trunk she had forgotten was still open, with its contents strewn about. DeeDee had looked at everything. Hillary pulled up an old wooden chair and wiped off the seat with one corner of her apron. She sat and bent over to pick up the items one by one to rewrap them in the yellowed tissue paper and return them to the trunk.

She had made the bonnet, trimmed with antique lace, when she was pregnant with her last child, Henry. She held the bonnet to her cheek. She could almost smell the talcum power scent of her little boy, fresh from the bath.

“Oh, God!” she sucked in her breath. “There’s Andy’s photo!” Someone had snapped it in a tavern in 1938. She closed her eyes and whispered, “Andy.” The old feelings were there just under the surface.

Straighten up, she told herself sternly. You’re an old woman now. That part of your life is over. “You’re all dried up,” the doctor had said on her last visit.

Back in 1938, she hadn’t been ready for that part of her life to be over, just because her husband was dead. She had been seeing Andy for several months. She’d known he was married, but it hadn’t mattered one iota. Nothing had mattered during those crazy days. A wave of regret washed over her. She’d not done right by Henry, now twenty. She’d let him think that her dead husband was his father, even though the dates of her husband’s death and Henry’s birth were impossible to reconcile.

Her eyes settled on the small christening gown. Pin-tucked and drenched in lace, it had the initials of each child who’d worn it lovingly stitched on its satin lining. She had sewn three sets of initials for her own children. Her ancestors on her mother’s side had sewn the rest. It was meant to be passed on to the oldest daughter, but she hadn’t given it to her unmarried daughter, Karen, when she gave birth to her first child. That child was put up for adoption without Karen ever seeing her. Later, when DeeDee was born to a properly married Karen, Kimberly had still kept the gown hidden away. She suddenly realized that her selfishness had destroyed its meaning, and a family tradition was dead.

Karen’s first marriage hadn’t lasted, and she had remarried and not told DeeDee about her real father. Hillary groaned, thinking that more knowledge had been withheld but that the deception was over now and there would be hell to pay.

She retrieved two small paintings from the tissue paper and held one up to the light. Her great-grandfather on her father’s side had painted his fiancée’s portrait before he left Paris to seek his fortune in America. Six months after his arrival, word came from a cousin in Paris that his beloved had married another man.

He’d packed the portrait away, and, undaunted, he’d married an Indian woman of his new country. He’d painted his bride’s portrait, too, in much richer earth tones. Hillary held up the second painting and touched the face of her great-grandmother with her fingertips. She was darkly beautiful with brilliant black eyes. It was shocking. Looking into those eyes was like looking into a mirror. “Karen has those eyes, too.” Hillary said aloud to no one. She wondered if Karen’s first-born child had those eyes.

Hillary searched through the tissue for the tiny, beaded, turtle-shaped pouch she knew was there somewhere. She, the Indian woman, had made this of deerskin, encrusted with tiny, colored beads for her baby son. The stitching on the side was coming loose, but Hillary didn’t open it, not wanting to touch what was inside. It held the baby’s tiny, umbilical stump, dried hard like a small stone.

Great-grandfather had told her that each time the baby touched the small turtle, it imparted a blessing and passed on the turtle spirit’s medicine. He said his wife believed she had a supernatural connection with the turtle. There was more. He’d been so open with his stories, but who could remember it all? It was just so much hogwash anyway…wasn’t it? Hillary realized that her great-grandparents had remained in touch with the spiritual beliefs and lessons taught by their ancestors. She hadn’t done that. Hillary was suddenly overwhelmed with a sense of emptiness. She’d told her children nothing about their family or the traditions of either side.

Her Native American great-grandmother had died young, and Hillary was the only one of her brothers and sisters who had black eyes. It was amazing that Karen could have the eyes when the blood was so diluted. Physical traits were passed on automatically, but the rest was a choice. Family traditions might have grounded her children. Knowledge of past mistakes might have kept her children from making the same ones.

“Is it possible to tell them now? Would it matter if I did?” she muttered.

People gave in to their selfish desires and didn’t think of the consequences. It kept happening over and over. She was sure it was happening right now in every house in town. Hillary knew that she wouldn’t tell her children anything. She felt unbelievably tired. She closed the lid of the trunk, turned, went downstairs and picked up her sewing.

She lost herself in the repetition of the stitches, thinking, “All that ever was, always is.”