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The Water Dweller's Daughter MAG
My mother painted in watercolor, always, even when she didn’t. When she was making toast, she was painting. She was not buttering, she was creating. Orange marmalade, raspberry preserves, a mint leaf splashed color across her toast. It might have tasted odd, but it was art.
Growing up in her house I was familiar with the wet-dry texture of painted paper like it was an old friend and the buckets of brush water as if we bathed in the stuff. If I close my eyes I can still see rainbow images pinned to lines like clothes, crisscrossing the ceiling, but there is no turpentine in my memories. It was never oil paint that stuck to the tables’ scratched places like dried blood. Oil paint, sticky and permanent, was inconceivable in that house; ours was a watercolor house, transient and layered.
Everything in our house was like a painting. In the winter when the windows frosted on the outside and fogged on the inside, the world looked like an evolving watercolor and our house was the gallery. Every day, every minute, presented a different show, and my mother and I, its dreaming curators, were also its most dedicated audience. Light served as a many-colored palette, its goldgreenyellowwhiteblackbluered stained our walls, none of which were the same color, and made them ombre like the ocean. One did not walk through that house – they floated.
It was only a watercolor house because my mother lived there. When I was 13 she went to an art show in Toronto for a week, and all of a sudden it was a normal house. Instead it was the shell of a house, like a faded picture. I had a friend over, and even she rubbed her arms as though cold and laughed nervously hearing our voices echo off the shadowy walls.
It was like that because my mother brought the watercolor with her. It was part of her, just as much as the sound of her voice and the shade of her hair and the fine web of happy crinkles around her eyes.
My mother was a fan of the abstract, a trait I noticed most when she decided to paint my nails.
What is that? I asked as she dripped color on my cuticles and swirled it around with a toothpick.
It’s a dragon.
No, it’s not.
Yes, it is. See here, the ears? And the tail? And the eyes. Have you ever seen such eyes?
Even on the stormy day I was born she brought the watercolor with her. She asked for her painting kit when she was brought into the hospital early, and my dad, sweat making his glasses slip down his nose, tried to refuse. This resulted in a tantrum, contractions, and my birth.
I suspect she thought of painting even in the first moment she held me and kissed my small, pink nose because she named me Morgan. It means “sea dweller,” a frequent theme in her work. It was an ironic name; I never learned to swim, but maybe that wasn’t its purpose. Names, after all, tell less about the person and more about those who named them. I was named not to become a water-dwelling painter, but because I am her daughter.
It took us a long time to realize she was sick because at first, the eccentricities seemed like just another extension of her vibrant, colorful life. Dad and I saw her swapping days and wearing shirts backwards the same way we saw her minty toast: with affection and exhaustion. It wasn’t until one Tuesday in April, when the sky was as clear as rain, when she fell down the stairs and broke her wrist that we had any inkling. We drove her to the hospital and she got a cast plastered on, but for the next few days she would suddenly blink awake and startle and ask why she had a cast.
Alzheimer’s runs in the family, along with dimples and a penchant for strawberry-flavored everything. My great-grandma had it, and my grandfather. I remember how they forgot; they lost their hobbies, their personalities, my name, and eventually their names too.
My mom still paints in watercolor, even though she has forgotten where she went to art school, most days, and what year it is, and what painting she is working on. Her memories are fluid, blending together and forming abstract images. When she can’t remember, she makes something up. Some days my name is Eleanor and I am an old artist friend come to visit her. Other times she believes she grew up in Alaska and had a dog and got along with her father. The stories have a certain whimsical charm to them, the way they make pictures, all colorful and imaginative and vivid.
Even now my mother paints in watercolor – even when she doesn’t.