Sempre Avanti

By Dana May

Someone I dated during the beginning of the pandemic said that she thought landscape paintings were boring. She said it as a fact: “Landscapes are boring,” referring specifically to a small, stark winter scene that her roommate had hung on their living room wall. This was one of the relatively few times we had met up in person, despite “seeing each other” for months and living in the same city.  The looming threat of COVID-19 and pod politics dictated our intimacy, on top of the usual tug and pull of modern dating.

“How could you say that?” I said.  These words may sound too dramatic for the context in print, but I assure you, I said this as nonchalantly as possible, striving for a romantic evening.  This was the time of Zooming through work and coming to terms with years of anxiety attachment and co-dependent dating habits—for me, anyway—and I was lonely for her company.  I don’t remember her exact reasoning for her position on the painting genre beyond the vague attitude of “so what?”  Why care about a landscape? 

I didn’t start painting landscapes until after we broke up.  The truth is, I too spent most of my life breezing by countless landscape paintings, not giving much thought at all as to why anyone would want to paint some trees and rocks, or a bowl of fruit, for that matter, until I started painting such subjects myself.  It seems as good of a punch line as any that I applied for a MFA creative writing program a month before the shutdown, only to abandon my aspiration of writing a novel for a painting practice.  I could blame the shift in creative direction on the increased screen demands of work, or that my attention span became so shot that I came to read art instructional books, full of pictures and brief paragraphs of explanation, almost exclusively.  Most of them write about the importance of observation and “painting from life.”  Those early days of the pandemic opened with expanse, stripping my time of the distractions that had filled up my life before then.  What perspective I lacked to write I made up for in rendering the world around me.  

Late that first COVID summer, I started to venture outside my apartment with my painting supplies, after reading about James L. McElhinney and his use of watercolor notebooks for what he calls “field studies.”  A restless desire overcame whatever nerves I had about revealing my amateurish skills by painting outdoors.  Besides, untrained, disproportional sketches are much less destructive to the vibe of others in a park than, say, a subpar baritone sax practice.  Painting feels better than writing, or playing music, which I did for most of my childhood.  I would rather be painting right now than writing the first draft of this essay.  I would rather be painting than playing with a fraction of the skills I had at guitar or cello when I was a teenager.  For now, there’s no pain attached to painting, only splendor. 

“He’s had the joy of creating it, and he hangs on a wall, and somebody buys it, somebody buys it again, or maybe nobody buys it, and it sits up in a loft somewhere until he dies.  But  . . . nobody ever said to Van Gogh, ‘Paint a Starry Night again, man!”

Joni Mitchell never lied.

My mom talks about painting being about countless decisions.  For me, these decisions are of no great consequence; I approach them with the skills, knowledge, and intuition I have at that moment and am pleased with what comes from it, and specifically, my improvement over time.  These decisions do not impact my life or the lives of others the same way as those made in my day job as a legal aid attorney, for example.  No one is going to lose their housing if the values of my shadows in my cityscape are off.  Maybe I would feel differently if I was a painter for a living, or went to school for it, like my mother did.  I could leave the painting and the writing to the experts, wonder if this essay would have been easier as a poem (ask the poet if it’s easy).  A reasonable person would just give up on the hard, impossible task of spelling out something that is just beyond the horizon of articulation, but that I am striving to actualize.  They would move on and go to the gym or volunteer, something more productive than this quixotic venture.

During the height of the summer heat in 2020, I took to painting gouache studies of postcards gathered from my travels in Italy.  During my last visit in Asiago, the town where my grandmother was born, I picked up a vintage postcard of the town center gas station.  It was only after I started painting it that I knew it would be for her.  My grandmother never seemed to know what to make of my life, as it turned out to be so different from her own.  She, an immigrant who left Italy to never move away from the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan; me, who has lived in eight different states so far.  She, who married young and became a housewife with four kids; me, no husband (we had a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy as to why), a law license, and a cat as my responsibilities.  “I would never dream,” was one of her catchphrases.  But she also seemed less shocked than I was with me taking up painting, and was very supportive of the development.  She always asked me about it on our calls, when we weren’t talking about the other thing she liked to talk about with me, cooking.  That woman had a passion for cooking, casinos, and the color orange. 

“Your mother was an artist, it must run in the family.  Not me, though.”  This was another refrain of sorts from her.

“At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough.  You don’t need to photograph, paint or even remember it.  It is enough.”

Toni Morrison never lied.

My grandmother took a turn for the worst in the earlier part of 2022.  She had survived a fall, followed by another hip surgery, then COVID. But a respiratory infection and being just shy of 95-years-old signaled her end.  The last time I hung out with my grandma, on a cold white February day, she sat in her nursing home room, restless about meeting with the nurses to discuss the state of her health.

            “My neighbor over here”—she gestured to the empty bed next to hers—“all she does is read all day.  I can hardly see anymore.  I can’t even watch t.v!”

            “Maybe you can listen to audiobooks,” I suggested out of the steadfast habit of problem solving.

“I can’t cook, I can’t go to the casino.  I can hardly get myself to the toilet.  What am I supposed to do?”  It frustrated my grandmother to slow down.  She lived to make her coffee in the morning, then a meal, to go to mass and, later on, to greet “the nice church lady” in her apartment.  After all she had survived, my grandma would want nothing more than to keep going, to strive with whatever her ability was at the time.  But there is something to be said for not overworking it, to know when it’s done, in composition and in life. 

Ada Fortunata Dalle Ave Fachinello died in May, after it had snowed in April, like the Prince song.  My mom knew about her funeral plans for years and took on, as she had done with many of my school projects as a kid, an artistic director role of sorts by workshopping the music that would play at the service.  She played the CD for my dad and me before the funeral, as we planned out the logistics of the event, including me DJing the songs.

“Mom said she liked my choices, but that they weren’t Catholic enough.”

“Yeah, you put Sarah McLauchlan on here.  This all sounds like music you like,” I said.

“It’s universal!” my mom responded.

“Not even one Tony Bennet or Frank Sinatra song?” I asked, studying my mom’s handwritten notes on the cd case.  

“Well, she said it wasn’t Catholic enough, so we’re going to stick with a classy version of Ave Maria.”

“Beyonce’s version?” I cued up the song on my phone, swaying to the piano and guitar intro.

“No, she approved Chris Botti’s version.  With a trumpet.  It will be like a feminine taps.”

“Is there a reggae version of Ave Maria?”  My dad asked.  Turns out, there are several reggae versions of Ave Maria, and they all slap. 

In fact, there is an Ave Maria for every genre of music.  I became quite enthralled with one particular techno version.

“This is fabulous, Dana, and it would be perfect for a John Waters funeral.  But if you play this during your grandmother’s service, I will kill you.”

            We worried that it would rain during grandma’s service, but it turned out to be one of those “perfect UP days” as my aunt described it, one of those first warm afternoons after a long winter, everything green against a blue sky.  My grandma had picked out a white casket that stood out against the green of the cemetery grounds, with the lightest of pink lining, and flowers in her favorite color.  The gathering was small and intimate, as she wanted, as well as short and sweet.  Three eagles came out and flew above the cemetery, which, although unplanned, was a nice touch. 

Grandma looked serene, a lifetime of anxiety and gusto and piss and vinegar left behind.  My aunt forgot to give the coroner the shoes she had picked out for the occasion, but she wore a stylish blazer. 

“No one has to know she was buried barefoot,” my mom said, perhaps forgetting in the moment that her daughter is a writer. 

“You look really sharp, Grandma,” I told her as I said goodbye.

As part of the division of my grandmother’s possessions, I asked for any and all of her photographs that no one else wanted.  My favorites are of Ada when she was young.  I have always known her as a grandmother, of course, but I love to glimpse into her life before this chapter, as a toddler at Ellis Island or in her wedding gown.  My favorites are of Ada when she was young, with her sister and friends, posing on the rocks out for a swim, beer bottles in hand.  Their beach days.                

 It has taken me well into my 30’s to appreciate a good beach day.  It doesn’t help me that I never brown but, at best, gather a pointiest illusion of color through freckles and pink.  My mother has beautiful skin in part because she spent so much of the life I knew of her avoiding the beach.  Now, when I am at the beach — and can suspend my worry about the sun — I feel connected to a younger self, lighter, lost playing in a different world.

“this sense of well-being, the flourishing/ of the physical body – rides / near the hub of the miracle that everything / is a part of, is as good / as a poem or a prayer, can also make / luminous any dark place on earth.”

Mary Oliver never lied.

During the summer, a few months after my grandmother died, an ocean view reminded me of her, or rather, how a view of the coast juxtaposed with a cloudy summer’s day, made me think of her and the beauty my mother sees and struggles to express.  I mourned with the joy of that moment.  I still don’t really have the words for it.  I wish I could have painted it.

Maybe what I have fallen into is what the late painter Jesse Murry called “the restorative and creative powers of the imagination.  Landscape is used not so much as the subject but as the form through which the mind can freely interpret the dynamic and transient conditions of climate and weather, light and atmosphere, not as events in nature but as events of the imagination. . . .

[L]ight and space have spiritual import.”

Certainly, that day on Fire Island, landscapes were not boring.

That same summer, my mom informed me over the phone that she had planned a three-week retreat to stay with her brother while he fly-fishes in Montana.

            “The main point of this trip is to get some of these projects done,” she said. “I figure, if this doesn’t work out, then I am just going to give up on painting all together and move on with my life.” 

            “Don’t you think you are setting yourself up for failure there?” I asked.  I consider it a success if I get a sketch or two done on a trip—she had listed off at least four different painting ideas. 

“Well, maybe if you had a dry spell as long as I have, you would be thinking the same thing!”  My mom lost most of her student art portfolio in a house fire before graduating college.  Even with retirement and her own designated studio in her home, she struggles to find time to paint, to meet the blank canvas.

“It’s just a lot of pressure to put on yourself,” I replied. I was walking to the art supplies store to pick up a box to ship a commission out as soon as the paint dried. 

“I’d just like to get on with my life, is all,” she said.

Around the time I last visited with my grandmother, I applied to my first artist residency.  I had been daydreaming about this residency in the Porkies since I first read about it in the Bessemer area newspaper, Pick and Axe. Initially, I thought it would be a writing retreat, but now I have romantic visions of painting and fishing there for two weeks, unbothered by cell reception or work email.  I submitted my landscapes and a fiction piece about lesbian escorts in Vermont.  I wasn’t accepted. 

My mom asked if I heard anything about my application when the family gathered for lunch after grandma’s service. 

“I must have jinxed you by telling them!” my mom said.  I could have sworn I had told some of my family about my application already, as I have been open about sharing my dream with them. 

“It’s o.k., I will apply to that one and the Isle Royale residency next year.” I said. 

Sempre Avanti.  I noticed this unofficial family motto tattooed on my aunt’s forearm at the dinner later that day.  It’s said when one has been knocked down by life.  “Sempre Avante!” my mom exclaims from time to time, sounding much the same way in her Yooper accent as grandma did, almost always following up with the translation, “always forward!”

I finally got COVID for the first time that summer, a month after my grandma’s passing.  It could have been worse, but it did have me washed up with aches and pains in bed, sweating out a fever.  I found it impossible to relax or be still, which I imagine is how Ada felt most of her life.  I laid there thinking of all the things I could be doing –sewing, mopping, organizing my letters, some light carpentry.  I would feel the pulse of energy build up within me, catapulting me out of bed and around my apartment until I found myself damp and exhausted and back in bed where I needed to stay.  Humbled. 

My mom called me more when I told her I had COVID.  I could tell she was worried about me, but like most of our conversations, these check-ins drifted towards my mother’s biggest pastime: television.  She likes to talk about story arcs, reenact scenes and dialogue, and connect writers, actors, and directors from various projects.  Indeed, between my mother and Wikipedia, I have saved myself countless hours in keeping abreast with popular culture.  One evening, on the mend from a fever and working on a cross stitch project, she called to ask how I was doing before describing a recent Bill Fauci documentary she saw before inevitably recommending it to me.  This ever-growing list of recommendations I never wrote down overwhelms me, it would take another lifetime to check off.  I elected for a softer “maybe” over my usual response of some variation of “when I have time.”  

We started to talk about creating, a topic my mom and I are only starting to talk about more openly these days.

“I still have ideas that I want to do.  I got to do them before I can’t anymore,” she said, “but there is something broken inside of me.  Sometimes I think about just giving up and getting rid of all my art supplies.”

It is hard to hear my mom, with all her energy and insight and love for life, say that.  I want to save her, her artistic self, even if the creative journey is largely a commitment to oneself and the work.  I often get lost in my own frustration about why my mother doesn’t utilize her time and resources to create more.  This time, I found myself just curious.

“What is it that you fear?” I asked.

“I am afraid of being interrupted.”

I continue to pour over books and online tutorials, striving to be a better painter.  I find it easier to identify perspective of the world around me in order to place it on a two-dimensional plane, than say, connect my grandmother’s passing to landscape painting, which has been gnawing at me for months as this deadline approaches.  I accept that the only way to create this, to put this assignment behind me, is to plow through what must be the unavoidable drudgery of writing a first draft.  This has meant taking my laptop underground on the F train to and from Queens housing court, where my work takes me now.  I am lucky to get about 20-30 minutes in without the distractions of consistent cell service.  I don’t care if anyone sees me cry on the subway while I dredge through the murk of it all.  It is a common enough sight on a New Yorker’s commute, anyway.

“Sometimes, I just like to bring a sketchbook and draw the view in front of me,” I said to my mom, in between bursts of that nagging COVID cough. “Just bring a sketchbook and paint what you see outside your window.”  I think she heard me.  She is in her studio more these days.

We fear the mountains of our dreams.  Dare say, we may not ever travel to seek them, or worse, pass them by, dismissing them as boring.  I continue towards the horizon.

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