I once painted a ceramic duck for my mom. The first big mistake was taking one of her ready-to-paint ducks, one of the big ducks, not the little ones I was told I could paint.
“Don’t cha touch the big ones.” My mom turned at the bottom of the basement stairs and made sure I was “looking at her “as she barked instructions. I was in my grandparent’s basement. They lived on a farm and I loved it there, it contained the bright spots of my early years.
I wanted to obey my mom. Really, I did. Yet, I recall staring at the ducks as I twirled on the spinning chair. My grandma had half-finished and in-the-process-of-finishing craft projects neatly stored in corners and on top of tables in the basement. I loved that basement. Often I hid down there during the holidays so I could avoid hearing my mom and grandma fight over some petty thing.
The more I looked at the ducks the more I wanted to paint a big one for mom. Grandma had went on one of her shopping sprees and it appears possible that she cleared Joanne Fabrics clean out of ceramic ducks. Little ducks covered the table, but about six or so big ones covered the rest of the table. I reasoned in my child mind that I would paint it so well that she’d love it.
Recently, grandma and grandpa had set up an area in the cool basement and gave me my own acrylic paint. The basement had a slightly wet smell. I loved the smell. At thirty-six years old I still feel at home and safe if I step into the basement and the earthy smell seeps into my nostrils.
I looked back at my mom and grumbled, “Fine. I won’t.”
“Watch THAT smart mouth before it gets cleaned out!” With this last outburst she stomped up the old creaky steps. I listened for her feet to touch the last step and hear the familiar stomp through the foyer. I knew the sound by heart. On impulse, I grabbed the big duck and started painting.
Mom and grandma had already painted two ducks orange. A brown bottle of acrylic paint was next to the orange bottle. I had an idea. Before I knew it I was lost in my creative world, gliding a paint brush across and stopping to add paint if I missed a spot on the off-limit big duck. It had to be perfect. I decided a simple orange was boring. I could add brown to its feathers to make it neater.
My heart beat in anticipation. I began to daydream or what I will learn many years later is dissociation. On some level, I knew she would hurt me with the sharp edge of her words. She didn’t hit me at grandmas. One guarantee. Although, as she liked to say “I’d get some of that” when I arrived home.
Once I added the finishing touches, I could hardly wait for it to dry. I sat in the quiet of the basement and ease-dropped on my grandmother and mother’s latest argument. No doubt, it was something along the lines of how grandma let me “get away with murder.” In other words, she gave me freedom as a child, instead of controlling my every action.
I grew impatient and lightly touched the somewhat dry duck. Ten minutes later, I reasoned that the duck was dry enough. I bounced up the stairs. In the pit of my stomach, I was scared and knew that mom could explode. Yet, I held hope that she would love it and want to put it in her house. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I wanted approval, love, validation and affection from her. As I reached the top of the steps, I drifted off, disassociated for a few minutes.
“Mom.” I held the duck behind the wall and stuck my head out.
“OK! I’m comin.” She said clearly aggravated by the on-going argument between her and grandma. I’d grown accustomed to their constant bickering.
I stood at the top of the steps, pleading with her to look at what I made for her.
“Alright. What is it?”
I reached out my hand.
“I painted you”
She grabbed it out of my hand.
Boom! The anticipated explosion.
“You RUINED it. Look at the brown.”
“I don’t want it.”
Tears dripped down my ten year old face. A deep sense of sadness overcame me. More than anything, anger burnt through my body. I recall wailing and crying, snot dripping down my face and onto trembling lips.
“WHAT is goin on round here?” Grandma demanded as she stormed into the foyer, spatula in hand.
Grandma came to my rescue and began yelling at my mother to “knock it off.” I walked back down the stairs dejected.
That night, I felt as if someone took a knife to my insides and cut out all feeling. I simply felt sad. Sad and numb.
I looked at the ground as I packed my stuff from a long weekend at grandma and grandpa’s house. To this day, I remember how exhausted and heavy my body felt as I told grandma bye. School was tomorrow so I had to go back home. I couldn’t spend the night until next weekend if I “behaved” for mom. Mom went out to the car and grandma told me goodbye. She told me that she liked the duck and set it on her shelf. It remained there for quite a long time. It was both a reminder of my mother’s rejection and my grandma’s acceptance.