Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Portrait offers a gift of gratitude



Register columnist

Everyone in my family has Grandma Sara's paintings in their home.

Nobody questions whether they're good (they are), or whether we want them (we do). We just all have them.

Now, at least.

When Grandma Sara opened her impassable warehouse of a studio to her grandchildren, the bulk of us were in our 20s. My sister and cousin Shira, however, were still in grade school. We all got to choose our favorites and talk to Grandma Sara about what inspired them. Sis and Shira got nothing.

But on Sis' trip to Israel in January, one of our uncles changed that. The youngest Saars were each going to get paintings, whether or not the paintings were good (they were) or the girls wanted them (they did).

Grandma Sara lost her family to the Nazis in Holland. In Israel, her ex-husband, my grandfather, died of polio. Two more husbands went after that. You wouldn't know by talking to her that she'd seen dark days. She took great joy in life, mastering seven languages, swimming daily, enjoying the nature of the kibbutz. And, of course, painting.

It was in her art that Grandma Sara expressed her ambivalence toward mankind, her fears and heartache. Even when my father died, it wasn't until I saw the last painting she made of him that I really felt her suffering.

It was 1998, and something in a letter she wrote drew Hubby and me to Israel. I had written her a number of questions, and she replied that she didn't have the strength to write all the answers. She'd tell me in person the next time I visited, "if I am still here."

Though her art often deals with death - wisps of people vanishing into heavy sadness, this was the first time she'd ever expressly written to me about her own mortality. I didn't take it lightly.

We went and met a frail woman I hardly recognized. She looked old. She smelled old. It had been only three years since my father's funeral, but she had aged five times that. She took us to her room in what I realize now was a hospice. Like every Saar home, this room was decorated with a Grandma Sara painting. Just one.

It was a painting of my father, looking youthful and bemused, amid a womblike backdrop of color. The base of the painting was thickly textured, almost thorny, as if she were acknowledging Dad's struggles, while around and above him, glimmering waves seemed to beckon him to something better.

Grandma Sara explained that she took the inspiration from my eulogy. I didn't know what to say.

After her death the following year, I had hoped my dad's twin sister would send me the painting. She didn't.

Sis didn't want any more paintings. She hadn't yet landed her new job, didn't have a place of her own and wasn't sure what she was going to do with all the canvases she had been given. But my cousin Yuval insisted on wading into his parents' attic and pulling out more for her.

"He said, 'Wait, there's one last painting,'" Sis recounted to me later. "I didn't even want to see it, but then he pulled it out and it was this picture of Dad."

Before she could, I described it.

"Yeah," she said. "That's it. How did you know?"

It took me a while to get over it, the idea that the painting I wanted all these years was going to be handed over to my sister instead of to me. "Don't be jealous," I told myself. "He was her dad, too."

You know how this ends, don't you? How things come back to you when they're yours?

Before heading for Northern California to start her new job last month, Sis showed up at my place. It was raining. Hard. She came to pick up my old dining-room table. She surprised me with the painting.

"It belongs with you," she said.

I felt like I did the first time I saw it: stunned. Reunited. I didn't know what to say back then. But now I do. It's so simple; I should have said it to my grandmother before I ever thought it could be mine.

I should have said it to my father more, before his image was committed to canvas. I should say it more often to more people.

After all these years of not knowing what to say, I said it. To my grandmother. To my dad. To Sis.

"Thank you."

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