“Transformation” (detail) c. Susan Sorrell Hill
The Illustration Friday word of the week is whiskers.
“American Gothic” by Grant Wood
My mother’s parents were staunch churchgoers, strict parents, active members of a large and close-knit family, and always very hard workers. Remember that famous painting by Grant Wood? Like that. Hiram and Clara Sorrell, in my child’s view, were serious about everything, and I can’t remember either of them ever smiling.
My grandfather was a house painter, and his large garage on the alley behind the house was a place of business: carefully stored ladders, stacks of folded drop cloths, paint buckets and meticulously clean paintbrushes. There must have been a work truck, but it was his Town Car, the pale green (if memory serves), round fendered Ford, complete with leather upholstery, shiny chrome and careful wax job, that I most associate with him. Hiram’s persona swung between the khaki cap, suspenders and baggy khaki work clothes of his trade…and the dapper suit, perfectly polished leather shoes and felt hat of town and church. He taught me how to whip butter and dark sorghum molasses into a sweet spreadable paste for slices of white bread. He ate his every morning with a cup of hot water, cooled by ‘saucer-ing’ it. Before breakfast and then again after his workday, he shaved his considerable whiskers with a lethal straight razor, stropped on a long strap that hung behind the bathroom door. To be nuzzled by Hiram’s pre-shaven face was an unpleasant experience, and perhaps the twice-daily shave was my grandmother’s idea.
My grandmother was an imposing, unapproachable figure, who mostly lived between kitchen and the basement laundry room. My memories show her with a large apron and flowered house dress, standing over a stove or sink, or hanging up wet laundry from the wringer-washer. Clara was an exacting cook and baker, in the era when everything was made from scratch, as were all of her many female relatives. Perhaps it was di rigor then? In a room off the basement, stored away with canned peaches and dill pickles, a very large collection of salt and pepper shakers was the only clue I had to another side of her. She was much taller than my diminutive grandfather, but they were not a couple you could joke with about that. Not at all.
For a child, their Saint Louis, Missouri brownstone was a mysterious place…spotlessly clean and filled with the heavy wooden furniture, leather-bound books, ancient wind-up clocks, and gorgeous rugs of every antique dealer’s dreams. Everything creaked, especially the stairs, and there was that particular fragrance of shaving cream, black soap, flour, lavender perfume and old wood that I now associate only with them (and antique stores). There were puzzles, glider planes (not in the house!), comic books and boxes of Lincoln Logs in the closet, and although we were permitted to make tents with blankets over the dining room table, I can’t imagine that a visit from the grandchildren was anything less than stressful for the elderly Hiram and Clara.
On good weather days, we lounged in metal lawn chairs and sliding rockers on the wide porch which overlooked the neighbors and street below. It was a street of quaint brownstones in that time before freeways cut up cosy neighborhoods and turned them into low-rent districts. I can still hear the melody and electric light hum of the Mr. Softy ice cream truck as it came slowly closer in the fading evening hours. We ate our cones while parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles played cards and drank sodas at the dining room table. Once in a while we were permitted to rake maple leaves for quarters, quickly spent at the corner market, four adventurous blocks away. I see those kind of markets in old movies sometimes now: wood floors, candy and Wonder Bread racks, reach-in coolers for the sodas and the bottle-cap opener by the door.
I was the oldest child of three then, and the fourth child did not come along until many years later. I was in grade school, still playful enough to blow gum bubbles in the back seat of grandfather’s Ford or soap bubbles on the porch, run through the sprinklers in a silly bathing suit, and wade in the creek for rocks and frogs with my pants rolled up at the family’s farm in rural Missouri. I had no idea, back then, that it would all change so quickly.
I suspect that my mother didn’t know that either, when she married an Air Force mechanic who took her far away from the familiar, small world of her childhood home. I don’t think she ever really adapted, and now her dwindling memories are all of that time, long-gone.
“Transformation” (oil on board) Another from the archives.
Only a few more days to cast your much-appreciated vote in M. Graham & Co.‘s first Online Painting Show and Competition. View the entire exhibition and vote for your favorite three paintings before November 29th. Three winners will receive loads of M. Graham & Co.’s luscious paint. My own entry, Parlor Persona, can be voted for here. Read the main post for this competition here.
c. Susan Sorrell Hill