My grandmother lived a long life. She died at 95 and only when she was gone could I begin to plumb the full depth of that long life. When I was a little girl, I only knew that she was magical. We spent long days wandering on her wooded property, and along the little beach at the back, where we could look out over the bay. We made sand-castle cities for the hermit crabs, and we carefully collected buckets of the centuries-old Native American pottery shards that still washed up.
Our indoor activity was “making art,” with piles of scrap paper and old magazines and anything we could find. When we lay down for a nap on cool sheets after a long, hot morning, she would tell us elaborate stories of fairy kingdoms, complete with beautiful voices. Some of the beautiful paintings on the walls, my mother told me, my grandmother had painted herself.
Not till I was much older did I learn more. In 1937, when she was eighteen, my grandmother won a full scholarship to study art at the University of Chicago, Her family didn’t have the means to afford her living expenses in that big city, though, so she didn’t go. (Many years later, I was there when she received the diploma that she went to a local college to earn.)
Like many artists, hers was a complex and difficult way. I could always see a deep sadness in the magic. But from the first days that I knew her, until much later, when she was much older and would wander through the aisles of the local secondhand store, picking up some small, lovely thing and taking it home, she remained an artist. She never stopped seeing, and trying to salvage, what was beautiful.
Holly Taylor Coolman is Assistant Professor of Theology at Providence College. She’s the author of “Adoption and the Goods of Birth” in the Journal of Moral Theology.