A Portrait Of an Artist As Mother

Growing up in the 1950s and '60s, I took for granted that my mom, like most mothers, would be waiting at home each afternoon when I returned from school. Feminism was a new term then - a mere whisper on college campuses - and it wouldn't reach full voice until the early 1970s. Day-care providers were called baby sitters, and typically their employment was limited to occasional Saturday evenings.

The ''average housewife'' role, now almost a remnant of that past, was as indigenous to middle-class suburbia as ''The Donna Reed Show.''

My mom, however, was a maverick of sorts - a modern variation of the old domestic theme. Mom earned a respectable paycheck while working at home - and although she didn't know it at the time, pioneered a lifestyle that many parents covet today and paved the way for the freelance writing career I started when my son was born nine years ago.

Trained as an artist but technically dubbed a colorist, my mother applied transparent oils to photographic portraits of brides and high school graduates.

I remember coming home from school to find Mom working in her portable ''studio'' - a table pulled up next to a window overlooking our backyard. Perched next to her in a small chair, I watched as she methodically squeezed oil paints onto a glass palette, poured acrid-smelling turpentine into a small lid, then carefully applied delicate washes of color to each portrait.

As I recall, the subjects of her graduation portraits rarely varied in clothing or hair- styles. Mom hand-colored hundreds of sepia-toned photographs of young women wearing pageboy hairdos, crew-neck sweaters, and the obligatory strand of pearls. The young men always wore somber-looking suits and ties. But I think my mother saw the individuality in each of her portraits.

I chattered while she painted, occasionally cleaning her brushes in the turpentine. With an eye on her portraits and an ear tilted toward our conversation, Mom would patiently follow my rambling grade-school prattle - the daily litany of kids who had misbehaved on the playground or the impossible words I'd misspelled on a test.

During these intimate girl talks, problems were solved, opinions formed, and hurts consoled.

Until I grew up and started my own family, I never fully understood how difficult it was for Mom to juggle her days. Around the clock she painted her portraits and delivered them to local photography studios, made meals, decorated our home, volunteered at my school, and even found time to help lead a Girl Scout troop. Yet somehow she created the illusion that her time stretched infinitely.

My father was the tie-clad hero who would return from corporate civilization promptly at 6 o'clock. He took his place at the dinner table, then later walked me to a park. He gave me every ounce of spare time he had, however limited.

But Mom was there. And so, like a good portrait, my relationship with her was never rushed, but rendered lovingly over time, layer upon layer.

I still depend on that relationship now, whenever no one else's friendship will console or amuse. I call on my mother when I need effortless companionship, a presence with no hard edges, soft as a watercolor sketch.

Mom hasn't painted for a while. She has had to redesign her life, dealing with the circumstances at hand.

Three years ago, after my father's death, she sold our large family home and moved to a condominium - a painful but necessary change. She always had been independent, yet part of her struggled with her new situation.

But amazingly, even to me, she began transforming her new, blank walls into a welcoming sanctuary of warmth and beauty. Once again, I saw the artist filling rooms with flowers, art, and framed photographs of people she loved. Slowly, she was healing.

And though she never considered herself a team player, Mom now puts her talents to work for a local historical guild, which oversees the restoration of the oldest house in our community. Her creative touch enhances this historic landmark, too, just as it has graced every place she ever called home.

John Ruskin once wrote, ''When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.''

Such is the life my mother has crafted.

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