My maternal grandmother Alma Wilson had been battling cancer for many years when a prognosis of “terminal” was made in August 1977.
At the time, I was 24, a college graduate, single, and had not begun my teaching career. When the inevitable was faced, my mother and her siblings asked me to move in with my grandmother and take care of her in her home, so she would not have to go to a care facility.
I readily agreed, eager for the opportunity to repay her for the love she had lavished on me my whole life. I moved to Los Angeles in August. She passed away in October.
When she was gone, all the possessions associated with her became more dear—the chair where she had sat to crochet, the kitchen table where we had eaten her peerless potato salad and peach cobbler, the thriving bottlebrush tree in her lush backyard.
None of these items could travel back to Florida.
So I chose the Avon lotion dispenser—a perky rooster—which sat on the window sill above her kitchen sink, two pictures of fruit baskets, and the slightly cock-eyed embroidered birds I had made for her, which she had graciously hung on her kitchen wall.
Years later, after I became a wife and mother with a home of my own, my aunt gifted me with another treasure—the wagon train painting.
This portrait of The West had been displayed in both houses my grandparents lived in—the two-story rental house my grandmother jokingly referred to as “Rats’ Paradise,” and the nicer one she and my grandfather bought later.
In this drawing, two-feet square, an artist had painted in earth colors, steel gray blues and grays, an approaching wagon train lumbering across the dusty weed-dotted prairie. The sheltering mountains have been left behind as the pioneers venture forth to unknown trials and blessings of a new land. The lowering clouds hint at a distant storm. Women in bonnets sit staunchly by their husbands, steering the wagons. Cowboys on horseback ride alongside the first two of four visible wagons with the rest of the train trailing off into the darkening prairie.
The painting hung over the floor furnace of my grandmother’s house. We walked past the wagon train on the way to the kitchen. It appears in the background of our black-and-white pictures. I often gazed at it absent-mindedly when I lived with her during those final days.
My aunt told me the painting had originally been the top of a calendar for the year 1939. My grandmother framed it and took it with them every time they moved.
Like the pioneers in the painting, my grandfather was a dreamer. Life was hard on the dry West Texas plains and the first of his five children was born at the dawn of the Great Depression. Like so many of that era, he longed for a better life for his family, so every time he “got two nickels to rub together” (my grandmother described it), he would sell his home and move.
My grandmother, like the women on the wagon train, would follow along, till finally they reached California, and she refused to move again.
Why she treasured the painting, I can only guess.
I treasured it because it belonged to her.