Aerial View Dining
'Love is ... a series of ups and downs.' Thus reads the front cover of a five by eight-inch note pad I have stored in a box of old letters and cards. The journal entries are sporadic with only a few concrete dates recorded between 1975, 1978, and 1981. I remember these little note pads getting fished out of my father's office drawer to be handed out at family meetings. I must have alternated between this one in front of me and another because my eldest brother told me recently that he had a childhood journal of mine. He thought it was hysterical because I started drawing all my women with a short line at the center of the neckline to create cleavage.
I do have one childhood drawing of mine from the Cleavage Period elaborated in full color.
The woman has bows in her hair, a choker-style necklace with a dangling cameo, and she teeters in irregular high heels next to a small table, upon which sits a mouse. I saved this one not only for the curiosity in buxom bosoms I had at the time but for what's going on on the ceiling. In the far upper left corner is a tiny spider web that splays out more like armpit hairs. In the top center of the page hangs a bare light bulb from which a cat hangs upside down, all four paws clinging to the bulb. The cat's face is turned forward, whiskers erect, looking startled. This scene displays quite an ambiguous narrative. Where is the spider? Why is the woman smiling so triumphantly? Was the cat so afraid of the mouse it jumped up to the bulb? Is the bulb lit up and hot to the touch? If so, the cat must be burning his toe pads off. This drawing is likely from 1976 or '77 as the level of proportion and contiguity is akin to other drawings from that time.
I give up trying to pry the pencil loose from the binding of this earlier journal and open it to find a birthday card I made for my mother in 1975 tucked in between the pages. On the front of the card is a queen, presumably a portrait of Mom when she wasn't doing endless housework. The queen levitates, her crown points touching the top of the paper, her arms hang gently open at her sides, and the tips of her shoes dangle from below the layers of scalloped lace of her floor-length gown. While her body is perfectly frontal, all of her facial features slide down to the lower right jaw, giving the appearance of a three-quarter portrait, the gaze of her royal eyes leading you to open the card. Inside, on the left we see a detailed yet hectic illustration of the whole family gathered for a meal, and on the right, Mom is alone preparing the dinner. Her back is to us and she is looking at a picture or - could this be a television? She often liked to have The French Chef or something on the TV while she was preparing a new dish. It looks more like a game show with the man's square face cropped up close to the screen, holding a long skinny microphone in front of the small figure of a woman behind him, just like Bob Barker, the host of The Price is Right would do.
What is remarkable about the family portrait is that it is depicted from an aerial view, like that cat hanging off the light bulb might have had.
I drew the family having supper around our long shellacked wooden dining table. The illustration is very precise but seems rushed at the same time. The hands are more like paws and the three-pronged forks more like snowman appendages. On the heads, straight-haired family members get a squished rectangular helmet of hair, and for those with curly hair, a wild tangle like a ruined Slinky toy. There are perceptive points of precision I hover over, like the glasses on the brother who wore them from a young age. You can also see that I was careful to make the youngest of the boys holding his fork with the left hand and the second youngest in his right hand. We youngest three sat together to draw often and I must have registered this detail acutely back then, studying their every move. This dexterity detail gets generic, however, because you see that everyone sitting on the lefty's side is a lefty and everyone sitting on the righty's side holds their fork with the right paw. Except for me, my hands are not visible, they are on my lap under the table and there are no utensils visible next to my plate of food at all. I reckon I was still having my food cut and fed to me.
To think of it, I can feel the warmth of my mother standing behind me, lending me her own hands to reach around and cut my dinner swiftly into little cubes.
Nearly everyone is seated in their designated spot, but some aberrations create a bit of mystery. Going clockwise, with Dad at the top, next appears the second oldest boy, then the third oldest boy - both with their mouths open. That was a power corner, where Dad would start conversation with some hot topic and those boys would take their cue and harp in. Next to them, the mouth also yapping, is the little lefty, strategically sat on the end so that his eating arm doesn't get in anyone's way. At twelve o'clock should sit the eldest son, opposite Dad like heads of state, but he and his chair are missing from the scene. Then, on the absent brother's left, sits the fifth child and penultimate boy, next to me, then my sister, all three wearing flat-line mouths. He is sketched with a grimace because being seated next to us makes all the boys who sit across tease him for being on the girls’ side. Mom is not in her usual spot next to my sister, at the end for easy access to the kitchen. At this supper, my mother stands between my sister and myself. In profile, her full lips are smiling as she passes a mug of milk across my torso to my sulking brother who seems to reach for it without taking his eyes off the chorus of boys he faces.
Studying this snapshot in the hard-pressed graphite of my four-year-old hand, I realize I am looking at one of the first suppers held at this banquet-style table.
It was early 1975 and we had just finished the big dining area extension onto the tiny cottage kitchen. I cannot imagine the distribution of seven children getting fed in that minuscule space. Yet, I am sure Mom had a place for each of us, according to our varied proportions in height and girth. I contact Mom to check out the accuracy of my reading of this pictogram. As to my eldest brother's absence, she clarifies that at fourteen he was already working bagging groceries at the little supermarket in the next town over and sometimes arrived late to dinner. This makes me re-evaluate the side of the card where Mom stands looking into the framed image.
She is standing next to what could be my brother's missing chair with his serving on it and seeing him in the mudroom window arriving from his shift at work. This doesn't explain the woman with the microphone, but I decide it is him because I want to feel the family intact.
Talking to Mom online, I clear up other details about the new dining area that are mere flashes of infantile memory intermingled with the content of blanched Kodachrome images in family albums. The kitchen extension just fits a massive chunky table and matching hutch that Dad and Mom had a guy in New Hampshire make for the family. With this new set-up came breathing room for Mom and elbow room for the rest. A level seating arrangement for the nine of us allowed for the civic gatherings our parents held to offer mental and emotional nourishment as well. Once the expansion was complete, each Sunday evening we had a family meeting. This was when the journals were introduced and everyone’s opinion mattered. We were given a theme to contemplate and write about and, if we could not write, we were encouraged to draw our response.
The journals were also used as a depressurizing valve, as we were not allowed to interject while someone was speaking. If we objected to some blatant accusation, we had to control ourselves and write retorts down in the journal. In my script at eight years old, I wrote my rebukes in angry black pen that derailed off the lines and dragged downhill. My protests read like, “I only called Joey once!!” and "I DO NOT ride my bike on the WRONG side of the road!!” There are more poignant requests in smaller contained script, like, “I would like to vote that we go on a family bike ride or family picnic." I couldn't have known that those days were over, with the older kids entering adolescence and acquiring jobs, dates, and sports scrimmages to attend. A few years later the meetings went from weekly to monthly and topics focused on rules and regulations. We had a demi-democratic negotiation of chores and curfew times. Or we'd be called together to hear that Dad’s business was having a tight year so we shouldn’t expect too many extras, or that Dad signed a big company and we could expect a fancy dinner at Boston's Pier 4 restaurant of buttery popovers and shellfish.
For years I thought these house meetings were born from the Catholic Marriage Encounter weekend retreats my parents had taken. Mom clarifies, "That came a bit later. It was just something we did, we were always trying new things with the family." This blows my mind anew today. As a veteran art educator I remember the hours of study I undertook to grasp Bloom's taxonomy of Emotional Intelligences and Lowenfeld's tables of childhood developmental growth as embodied in their drawings. Despite - or perhaps because of - the complexity of rearing a large family of individuals, Mom and Dad just put their heads together and in the process, fed us a plethora of life skills at that table.
I am thankful to have my mother's input on studying the ephemera I have squirreled away in my studio. Memory alone does not suffice for a truth that has more than one point of view. One last case in point: I mistakenly have had it lodged in my mind that I began journaling from age sixteen, but this primordial evidence proves me wrong.
Thank you Mom & Dad.
Happy Easter and Happy Spring to Everyone.