A Mother’s Hidden Gallery
by Kristin Armstrong
Illustration by Kristen McGinty
I have a confession to make.
When I’m done with dinner dishes, washing reeking football practice gear and hanging it up to air dry, packing tomorrow’s lunches and doing my own homework for graduate school – I sometimes tune in and tune out to mindless TV. One of my favorite guilty pleasures is a TLC show on hoarding called “Buried Alive.” I watch it in the gawking way that we rubberneck while passing highway accidents. While I consider myself to be a relatively tidy and organized person, I realize those hoarders probably started off with a mere messy closet or an overfilled kitchen junk drawer. It’s never too early to start looking for seeds of hoarding.
Take my bathroom cabinets. I’m pretty sure I have more eye cream than I have hope for it actually doing anything. I like to hoard expensive hair conditioner, too. I recently purged my pantry (which doubles as our medicine cabinet), and I am disturbed to report that I found items that expired in 2014. I regularly purge my closet, because I allow myself only a set number of wooden hangers, and if I buy new things, other things have to go. I purged my office files, my overstuffed dresser drawers containing old workout clothes, my garage full of outgrown kids’ sports equipment, my refrigerator (because the only one who actually eats leftovers is me and because no one wants caprese made with blackened basil leaves) and the upstairs hallway closet filled to the brim with old books. That was a rough one. I pulled all the books out of the closet and sat in a heap of them on the floor, with a glass of wine, reading my favorites out loud and crying because my kids are no longer little.
One area I had been avoiding was the laundry room, because I knew those cabinets would require a major overhaul. I waited for a summer day when my kids were gone, and I felt like staying in my pajamas and being a recluse in the air conditioning. I purged clear containers of dried-up markers and broken crayons, old glue, crusted paint and rock-hard paintbrushes, sheets of old Valentine’s Day stickers and heart-covered ribbons, bent sheets of tag board from science fair entries, glitter and bags of colored gravel summoning the ghosts of goldfish and hermit crabs. As I pulled down the large plastic containers from on top of the high cabinets and a snowfall of dust blanketed my upturned face, I understood why I had been avoiding this area. I clearly did not want to admit my teenage kids were no longer making art projects. Just like they didn’t need me to read them goodnight stories anymore.
These plastic containers were like the Ark of the Covenant; I almost had to turn my face away so it wouldn’t melt, à la Indiana Jones. They contained my sacred stash of kid artwork; precious enough to dodge back into a burning building after my kids and dogs and Louis Vuitton luggage were safely out by the road. My heart melted over tiny painted handprints, advent calendars, snowflakes, renderings of “my family” that would keep psychologists pondering for hours, star student of the week posters, and Mother’s Day love letters that would wrench your heart out with a crowbar. I sat on the floor, cross-legged in a sea of yellowed, paint-hardened papers and cried, blowing my nose into a wadded sock from the laundry basket next to me.
Looking through their art was like walking through the gallery of their childhood, watching all of us grow up. Deep in my nostalgia, I grieved for the little glitter-covered hands and the dried paint and glue globs creating topographic elevations on my kitchen countertop. I had to pull it together before they got home and saw me, dust-covered and tear-splotched, still in my pajamas in the late afternoon.
I comforted myself with the idea that art is not relegated to childhood. We are still creating, all of us — it just looks different these days. We craft essays and paint pictures with our words. We make photo books of vacation memories and we cook and bake our inspirations into a shared meal. We draw on our creative thinking to navigate the ups and downs of adolescence and middle age. We sculpt our futures with carefully applied pressure and vision. We weave the threads of our histories together into a tapestry of tradition and legacy to carry into the future. A family is the personification of art, the culmination of creation.
And, as art, it is not a finished project, but more a way of life.
Read more from the Arts Issue | November 2016