“This piece looks good enough. I’ll have Michael cut it to fit that frame I found at the church sale,” Bess said to herself as she scrambled down from the scrap wood pile out back of the house. “Yes. This will do just fine. A little scrubbin’ and sandin’ is all it needs.”
Bess, intent on her project, paid no never mind to the assortment of dogs and cats vying for her attention as she headed toward the barn. Michael was restacking hay back in the barn so the rain wouldn’t ruin it. He saw his mama, who was all of a 150lbs but could out-work him on a rainy day, coming up the road with animals trailing behind, bless her heart. He knew that look. At the ripe old age of fourteen, he could tell when his mama had work for him to do.
“Michael, get your saw out and cut this board for me. I need it to fit that old frame in the loft I found last winter,” she commanded as he brushed his hands off on his already dirty pants to obey. He got the saw hanging in the tool crib from its nail. It was well oiled and ready for duty. The handle fit his palm just like it had fit Henry’s and Dillon’s before him. He wasn’t sure his daddy had ever touched it. He climbed the ladder and quickly found the requested frame all under his mama’s watchful eye.
He measured the frame and board and then measured again before he took the hand saw and ripped it down the side. The muscles in his arms bunched and flexed with each stroke. He made smart work of the old piece of wood. He wordlessly handed it to her and waited for her approval or displeasure. She was just as likely to hand out either one.
Bess took the board and looking it over, gave a nod to Michael as she walked back toward the house with her treasures. Michael put the tools away and headed to the feed bin to do his evening chores of slopping hogs and taking grain to the steers in the field. He wiped his brow with his kerchief and looked up at the swath of blue above his head and the setting sun over the mountain. Won’t be long ’til supper.
“Mama! Mama! Look here! Henry sent a postcard!” yelled Juliette meeting her mama half way from the back porch. “Don’t he look fine in his sailor suit!” she commented as she handed the card to Bess. “Yes, he looks mighty fine, Juliette. Did you cut up that chicken like I told you to or have you been dallying on the piano all this time?” Bess asked as she took the card and glanced at the handsome figure of her middle son somewhere in the South Seas by the look of it. She stowed it in her pocket for later.
Juliette glumly went back to cutting up the chicken. It sure was a scrawny thing. It’ll be slim pickin’s from this bird. At least there was potatoes from the garden and tomatoes to eat. That’ll keep a belly full til mornin’. “Juliette! Did you make up that cornbread like I said?” called Bess from the back porch. “Yes, mama. It’s in the oven out back. I put more wood on like you told me,” answered Juliette in an almost but not quite defiant voice.
Bess got out the oldest wash tub and began to scrub the old board with cornmeal, salt and warm water that had been kept on the stove. She could see a picture forming in her mind’s eye. Yes, she knew just what would look nice on this old board. Her hands were raw from the scrubbing but she wanted it smooth as silk- better to blend the paint. She took it out of the water and looked it over. Clean enough she pronounced. Now to let it dry.
“Mama, I’m back from Spanky Roger’s store. They was out of the good cheese so he gave me half-again as much of the other kind. Here’s the sandpaper you asked for,” Lucy said as she dumped her bag of goods on the kitchen table in front of Bess. Bess nodded at her middle daughter and took the sandpaper out to the porch.
As if on cue, the family gathered to the table after the scrawny chicken, the boiled potatoes, fresh sliced tomatoes, cornbread and second rate cheese was put before the hungry group. Hands folded and tired bodies sitting-up straight in the ladder-back chairs, Bess commenced to pray.
“Lord, you’ve given us a good day. The sun is shinin’, the chores are done and your blessings fall down upon us like rain on a parched land. Thank you, Lord for keeping Henry and Dillon safe as they fight the enemy on land and sea. Bring them safely back home when their work is through. I appreciate you sendin’ that travelin’ tool man. You knew that my ax was getting’ mighty dull. Thank you, Lord for this food we are about to eat. We pray that it nourishes and strengthens us as we work for the glory of your kingdom. In Jesus name, Amen.” Bess passed the cornbread and they all set-in to eatin’.
The girls washed the dishes and cleaned the table and floor while Michael chopped more wood for the stove. Soon the sounds of the piano were heard as Juliette practiced a new song. Lucy was writing a letter to her beau, Dan Proctor. Bess finished sanding the board and brought it into the parlor where she had set up her still life. Her paints and brushes ready.
On the table she placed some small pumpkins from last fall that were still good, one of the old milk jugs and her best oil lantern. She had Michael bring in a bit of hay from the barn and arranged it all just so. She put the board on a make-shift easel and began to draw out the scene before her. Her world of children, chores, sons at war and a husband working long months from home gone from her focused mind. Mixing colors, dabbing paint and the smell of turpentine was all there was now.
She worked long into the night when even the children had gone to bed, painting by the light of the lantern in the picture. Finally, the brushes were cleaned, paints tucked away and the easel with a half-finished painting pushed into the corner, ready for when a few minutes of quiet could be found. Bess had this bit of heaven while most days her world swirled around her. A body needs an outlet when work and chores and family far-away gets too much. If you can find a bit of peace in a dab of paint, all the better you’ll be.
~This story is loosely based on my husband’s grandmother and her family near the end of WWII. Bess did the artwork and I imagined a story of her finding time to paint amidst the hustle and bustle of life on the farm, raising kids alone in the mountains of Western North Carolina.