“She’s a bit shy,” Chris informs me. That’s OK, I am too.
Violet is eighty-five, and recently uprooted from a small English village to live with her son and his wife, both exhaustively busy local business owners here in the Hudson Valley.
I visit Violet two hours a day, three days a week. The list of companion-duties did not include anything I was not qualified for or squeamish about, so I stepped up to the plate. Besides, it’s a paying gig not five minutes' walk away.
Her routine is not complicated. She sweeps and dusts her room and the downstairs of the two-story century-old house, and does light laundry for the restaurant. Mostly napkins, or “serviettes,” as she calls them. She prepares her own simple meals and bathes without help. In the evening she watches “Jeopardy” and “Wheel of Fortune” with her best friend Lola, the chunky and spoiled tortoise shelter cat. I have endeared myself to Violet if only because I talk to Lola as if she were my own, and scratch her at the sensitive point where her tail and body junction so that guttural moans and ferocious lickings ensue. As if I have some magic touch.
Mondays and Fridays I wash Violet’s hair. She leans over the kitchen sink, her head suspended like a dormant wrecking ball from a crane of stooped shoulders and neck. I test the water temperature and use the vegetable sprayer to wet the snow-white, wispy tufts. Exposed and pink, her skull is as mysterious as a dinosaur egg.
“Rub harder,” she urges, and I comply, scratching gently with my short fingernails. After a final rinse I gather up the towel caped around her sloping shoulders to pat her hair dry, give it a quick comb and side part, and two minutes later it is fluffy as eiderdown.
On Fridays I also paint her nails. “Nail varnish,” she calls the Sally Hanson Champagne Ice from the Dollar Store. Violet has large, handsome hands, and a pinch of pride dovetails with a bit of vanity to lend her a girlish aura that defies the worn and gullied map of her face.
Next she fixes a small pot of tea, and we settle into the day’s hour of recreation. Sometimes we work on a jigsaw puzzle, but we’ve exhausted our patience with the insipid Thomas Kinkade themes, a 9-pack bought at a church tag sale. For Christmas she received a watercolor set and pad. We gather our supplies and sit at the yellow formica kitchen table in shared silence.
From a stack on her desk, she’s pulled a few This England country living magazines from the 1970s, and pages through them until something captures her fancy. Intently, she begins to slowly fill the sheet of paper with her line art. The paints sit on the side. “I’m working on shapes,” she explains.
I open my own pan of paint, dry for decades. I look at Violet, her concentration giving the illusion that she is a statue or still life. But she’s not really holding a pose; her head and hands shift with continued calm, and I try to remember how to simultaneously see and draw what is sitting right in front of me. It’s like riding a bicycle, I gamely tell myself as my pencil scuttles across the page in fits and starts. But I am wobbly. My hand/eye coordination has not been called upon to work in such tandem in a long while. Developing a visual style upon demand and earning a living at it can molest what was once a pure process. I need a fresh well to draw from, not the dirty, used paint water from my past commercial life. Struggling, I wiggle and squirm, look at my watch and start over. And over. It all feels insincere, as if I have laid a sheet of tracing paper over the artist I once was and am trying to reclaim.
When the sun slants through the blinds to signal the end of the afternoon, I look at Violet’s page. Her pencil line is carefully chosen, tentative yet tenacious. Fresh. Newly hatched. I study my own sketches and know I would trade places in a heartbeat.
“Doesn’t look like much, does it?” she nods toward her efforts.
If she only knew.
copyright 2012 Sharon Watts
Images property of author and Violet A.