By Alice C. Meek
“I’m picking up dad at noon today. We’ll drive into Laguna immediately, if I can talk him out of stopping for paint at the Crown. He is determined to have a project.”
“You are saying that after all the preparation for this Christmas week, you are going to let him create havoc? What in the world does he want to paint?”
“He knows the rental suite on the first floor is empty, and he has it in his mind to freshen up the rooms. I suggested he do a painting of Main Beach from Las Brisas, or a portrait of his great grandson, or simply paint sunsets.”
No arguing this holiday, I promised myself. However, I do remember the year he took on the basement project when we lived on Glennerye Street. I think I was about 5. Some 60 years later and I can still hear their voices.
“No, Jimmy, painting the basement three days before Christmas is not a good idea!”
“Virginia, you don’t understand. I can get this done in a couple of hours.”
“Oh, I understand. You are going to make a mess of this house, and I have worked for days on our family Christmas dinner.”
“How can painting a basement make a mess of the rest of the house?”
Mom was in a huff and about to start shouting. I wandered into the living room away from the standoff in the kitchen. Mom always got nuts when she had company over and always would. And dad always came up with a project to steer clear of her rampage.
There was one Christmas when Dad made a plaster of Paris mountain right in the middle of the living room. The tree was standing, mom had the house perfect for guests, and she was in the middle of her cookie baking. Dad was intent on showing off my six-car Lionel train and had reasoned that a passage through the mountain was just the ticket. The plaster dried out and broke off bit by bit, falling on the carpet, causing the toy train to derail and almost starting World War III.
Another year, he convinced mom he could easily make a sculpture of her head. He vaselined her face, covered her in plaster, and inserted straws to allow her to breathe. She nearly suffocated. The plaster dried so hard dad needed a hammer to unmold her. He had intended to have that sculpture as a Christmas present after showing it at a tiny gallery he shared with other artists. We had to call the fire department that night. I don’t think there was 911 in 1950.
So, on Dec. 22, at 5 p.m. after supper, dad went down to the basement. He made a pale green mix from leftover paint. The floor, walls and whatever else he deemed paintable would soon be a pale pea soup color. Mom stopped talking to dad, mumbling swear words instead, which gave him more time to prep the area and thin the paint.
Mom decided to bake. The aroma of mom’s Greek anise cookies wafted up the stairs and lured me to the kitchen. She had sheets and sheets full of cookies. She was mixing more batter for another recipe when we both heard an unfamiliar hum coming from the heat vent in the kitchen.
Mom yanked open the cellar door and her voice boomed down the stairwell. “Oh, my God, Jimmy. What are you doing down there? I can’t believe what you’ve done!”
A pea green haze was rising from the kitchen vent and gently settling all over the kitchen. I saw it creeping like a fog from the vents in the dining and living rooms. Tiny green snowflakes seemed to be floating through the air and everything was taking on a pale green tinge, even the platters of cookies.
“It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” was playing on the radio, or I thought I heard it resounding through the warm green air.
Dad was spray painting and he had not closed off the vents.
Lots of swearing happened that night and much cleaning through the wee hours of the next day. The plates of cookies were, of course, history. The dishes needed scouring and mom was in the biggest snit ever. Dad willingly, as always, assisted the cleanup project, listened to how crazy he was, and painted the rest of the cellar by hand the following day and night. Mom made more cookies and redid the table.
“Virginia, I had to use the spray gun.”
“Jimmy, did it need to be fortified with your old high powered bridge painting compressor?”
“You just don’t understand; I had to hurry to finish like you wanted.”
He did admit that not closing the vents was an error in judgment and offered to repaint all the walls. Mom declined vehemently.
So dad would soon be here and we would surely hear that story embellished. That’s how our family is. We will no doubt let him have his way because he is a character, still full of life, with a creative enthusiasm that pops into and out of his being like popcorn or fireworks. And mom, she was the practical partner, no “walk in the Bluebird Canyon” herself, but with him for her lifetime. I was the audience for their chaotic comedies, acts of forgiveness, and love.
By their 72nd year together, when Alzheimer’s rendered my Mom barely able to connect or move from her bed, she smiled sweetly at him as he held her hand and said, “I love my fun.”
Whether he makes fine art or an unintended calamity, he brings more than joy every Christmas holiday.
After a lifetime of writing for herself, Alice Meek is finally able to share her personal as well as inspired stories. An educator, a wife, a mom, a grand mom, and now, perhaps, a writer, says her muse, Christine Fugate.