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Mom + Dad = Ten Dollars at the Salvation Army

October 5, 2012

Three years ago, I moved to New Orleans.  I landed there by accident, escaping a bad job and a general feeling of loneliness and cold weather.  Perhaps it was the joy of the escape, but from the moment I had parked my car on my new street, with its crepe myrtles and infestation of stray cats who were obviously making a good living, I was floating through my new city with starry eyes.  The place was warm, young, and friendly.   It was also only a three hour drive from my hometown, where my mom, brother, and dad still live.  The thought of spending the night at my mom’s house when I felt like it or having coffee with my dad when I needed a laugh was immensely appealing.

My new place in New Orleans was a duplex with hardwood floors, white walls, and lots of sunlight.  Since I was moving from faraway New Jersey, I had been forced to part with most of my furniture, and, with nowhere to sit in my new living room, it was plain to see that a trip to the Salvation Army was in order.

After selecting a sofa-bed, a coffee table, and a dresser, I began to browse the Salvation Army store’s shelves to make sure that there was nothing I was forgetting.  The items for sale were organized neatly with hand-labeled price tags.  I picked up a faux-wood serving plate decorated with a map of Florida.  I browsed through the lamps.

Finally, I wandered over to the artwork section.  My eyes scanned over some Motel 6 quality still-lifes of flower bouquets.  As I was about to turn back around, I stopped in front of two paintings.  Though each one was selling for only five dollars, they were of a different caliber than the other ones were.  One was a portrait of a young woman, painted on canvas, which was mounted on a wooden frame.  The other was a more abstract image of a man playing the cello.  I quickly picked them both up and added them to my tab.

Mom               

On the car ride home, I placed the paintings in the passenger seat next to me.  When I got home, I hung them both up in my bedroom.

At the time, I thought that the thrill of New Orleans had seeped itself into the paintings, making them somehow symbolic to me of my love for that town and the joy of my first days there.  It is only now, more than three years later, after I have moved from that little New Orleans duplex and have set up shop in a new house in Houston, that I realize why those two paintings are still placed in prominent spots on my new walls.

The paintings, though purchased in New Orleans, are not about New Orleans at all.  They are instead about two people who helped to make New Orleans feel like home for me, even from three hours away.  The paintings, I now realize, are of my parents.

It may sound strange that I was able to find two separate portraits of my parents at a Salvation Army store three hours away from where they live.  But in my mind, there is no question about it.  The painting of the woman is my mother, as she was when I was a child, or maybe as she was before I was even born.  The long, black hair, the strong chin, the nose, the eyes, the gracefully arched eyebrows, the lips…all her features.  The woman is bathing in what looks like a river, and she is wringing out her hair (which, if my mother ever did, she did before I was born).  I like having such a likeness of her as a young woman, from a time when she was younger than I am now, on my wall.  She looks carefree, unaware of the sadness that life will later bring her.  But I know how strong and wise she will become, and so I don’t feel sorry for her.

Mom

The portrait of my father is less obviously of him.  For starters, my father doesn’t play the cello, the violin, or anything else that involves a bow and strings.  He claims that after listening to his sister’s attempts to play the violin when he was little, he could never subject anyone else (including himself) to such aural torture.  But my dad did buy me an art book about Marc Chagall from our synagogue’s Judaica shop when I was little.  I looked through the pages of that book countless times, and every time I go to an art museum now and see a Chagall painting, I automatically think of my dad.  Since my favorite page in the book was the painting of the green-faced, purple-coated Jewish fiddler, it is hard not to associate this image with my father.

        <–  http://www.hatsandcaps.co.uk/Article-Aart_history_chagall/

The colors in the painting that I bought from the Salvation Army are drab–beige, dingy yellow, muted blue, and dark red (all sweater colors that my dad has been wearing since the 1970’s).  The fiddler doesn’t smile, and half his face is in shadow.  It’s a somber painting for sure, but the fiddler is intent on his playing.  Since my dad’s musical talent is dubious at best, it will be more helpful to explain this painting’s connection to him metaphorically rather than literally.  My dad has had much tragedy in his life.  But, like the fiddler turns his somberness into music, my dad turns all of his sadness into humor.  When I’m with my dad, regardless of the occasion, I know that I will laugh.  Which means that this somber-looking painting actually makes me very happy.

White spot from flash

I do have a number of family photos displayed around my house.  But more so than any of these photographs do, the five dollar paintings from the Salvation Army make me think of my parents.  I am grateful to whichever struggling artists, their art eventually chucked into the donation pile, once upon a time, unwittingly painted the best portraits of my parents I have ever seen.

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