I’m noticing that memoir involves two kinds of investigation. One concerns “facts”: research in various sources for context as well as gathering memories. Two concerns meaning. It probes at memory with a present-day eye to patterns, to who I was then and how I was shaped.
For example, on the left, a photo from my father’s slide collection of the house (near Linden, Alberta) where I lived between four and eight, the only photo I have of it but a solid truth. It was the church parsonage, built into a hill, with a garage beneath, and I know from what I was told and from the evidence of church minutes that it was small and inadequate, especially for a large family (four, and then five, children there with two parents).
Since I’ve been trying to see better via sketching, I copied the house. As I looked closely in order to draw it I was delighted to spot the childhood wagon. And I was intrigued by the milk cans on the porch. The milk cans and signs of construction raised questions for which I have no answers. (I believe the house was eventually blue-grey.)
But, closing my eyes, remembering deep inside…. What was this place in my young life? What did it “feel like”? That house never seemed small, even if for lack of bedrooms I slept on the sofa. It felt cozy, happy, secure. It had music: huge reels pouring The Messiah into the air or the choir carolling outside at Christmas. It’s where Mom read us books and I got hooked on story. It set my default for beauty in the natural world: rolling prairie and sky. I see and represent that house (using watercolour paints) in simple lines, in joyful colour.
Two women of note died this past week, singer Aretha Franklin at 76 and artist Mary Pratt at 83, both a tremendous inspiration, but I’m thinking of Pratt in particular today and the paintings highlighted in stories about her. Those jellies, oh those jellies, how they glow from within! Perfect jellies, clear and luminous, reflected also on the table. Many commentators noted how Pratt’s work honoured matters of domestic life. She made us look at the glint of foil, the cream and golden tones of egg shells in a carton, fish on a plate. (Google “Mary Pratt Artwork” Images for many examples of her work.) In turn, I wish to honour her for paying such magnificent attention.
One reason is that many of us, like Pratt, tried to balance domestic and “other” work, and if we remember, that wasn’t an easy task, was it? Who, in fact, ever achieves balance? But Pratt brought — or kept — often competing worlds together, when the temptation for her generation and mine was to wrench them apart or feel our domestic concerns disparaged by others. In Pratt’s work there’s no apology for jelly or a casserole dish in the microwave or the remnants of a meal. She acknowledges both their beauty and the labour they represent.
The other reason I wish to honour her is that aging has a way of setting us back into smaller, and domestic, settings. This isn’t to say we no longer get out or view grand vistas or participate in the storied drama of life. But those my age or older will know what I mean. And I also mean I want to really notice what’s around me now and how light still plays with broken eggs, foil, and jelly.
Jelly Shelf, Mary Pratt, 1999