susan d abello

Painting pictures with words, sharing vignettes of a colorful life.

Artists Statement

Back in college I had a professor who was in love with literature. She could read Shakespeare like an actress and every word she spoke moved me. I wanted to please her. More than that, I wanted to be just like her; excited by literature to the point of giddiness, able to recite quotes from my favorites like, Virginia Woolf or James Joyce or Shakespeare, on a whim. I admired her enthusiasm, her passion, and her mind. Only, we were very different and I couldn’t remember what I read five minutes after I read it. That was over thirty years ago and I still have the love of literature and I still struggle with remembering who said what when it comes to quotable phrases, but I’ve long ago given up trying to be someone I am not.

Nevertheless, words are exciting to me; books are still my prized possessions. I first knew I wanted to be a writer because beautiful phrases were always coming together in my head causing me to stop and say, I have to write that down! Only, when I did, the words didn’t sound as clever as they did when they were just thoughts. That’s why, after I graduated with my English degree, I went to art school. I decided to paint instead of write. Except, over the years I still had that voice in my head, the one that was trying to put the words together, the one that exclaimed, “yes!” when I read a book or an essay where the author knew just how to connect with her readers. When an author was honest and insightful and raw, I was moved, sometimes so moved that I cried, happy or sad, I cried. I wanted to be able to do that, to move people like that. Some part of me always wanted to express herself with that much power, but like art, I knew that writing wasn’t just a gift that would take little effort to spill out on a page, I knew there were techniques to learn, styles to study and explore and rules to follow, or to break. So, I took what I learned from my degrees in English and Illustration and I built on those lessons as I worked my way through graduate school, earning an MFA in creative non-fiction.

Today when I write, I consider the rules of painting, of shadow and light, of texture, value and line quality. I know that there is much more to the telling of a story than the chronological listing of events. I try to paint a scene for my readers, like I would with watercolors. I don’t use my paintbrushes of course, but I think of them as I write. I think about the Isabey Kolinsky, a paint brush that holds a lot of water, a lot of color, and yet keeps a fine point in the same way that the right phrase or metaphor can mean the difference in moving a reader, or not reaching them at all.

I’m not Shakespeare or James Joyce or Virginia Woolf, and I am not that professor that I admired so long ago, but I think of them as well. I refer to them often, and to other writer’s works that I have come to admire. I look to them for inspiration but I’m no longer interested in being anything but my own authentic self. Through the years, I’ve become a better listener to my own heart, I’ve come to a place where I recognize the directions my own creativity can take and how to best express all that I have to share, and with the skills that I have acquired along the way, my only hope is, that I do it well.

My Mother’s Eyes

img_5023My mother’s eyes are the palest of blue, just a hint of color now, where once the depths of the ocean could be found. I wonder where did the color go? Was it the sun that stole her hue? Could it have been just cruel fate, the abuses that life inflicted upon her body and soul, or could it have been the wind and the waves, or perhaps the salty air – the same elements that weathered her skin, must have taken the sight from her left eye and bleached her like driftwood, white and clean, smooth and brittle. Once she was an avid sailor, quick to hoist a sail or throw a line, now her body is reluctant to do what her mind commands — her fingers fail to hold tight the rope, her legs balk at the thought of a leap, for fear of pain that shoots from heel to hip.

Today she chooses less strenuous activities and leaves the sea for her stories — stories of rough waters on a cruise around Cape Horn, or smooth sails to the Galapagos, the Isle of Capri, and twice through the Panama Canal. She tells us about old friends that sailed with her and new friends she met in places all over the world. She shares her tales at the dinner table with children and grandchildren and friends. She’s given up the galley of a 60 foot sloop, for her kitchen back at home in Connecticut — given up world travel for her pots and pans, mixing bowls and wooden spoons.

Before she ever sailed in anything bigger than the Sunfish we kept at the summer cottage of my childhood, before cancer came for the first of many visits to our family, before she ever thought of life without my dad, and before we kids ever grew up and moved away, she and my father took gourmet cooking classes together. It must have been during those years that the smile lines first appeared around her mouth and eyes. We laughed a lot back then, laughed at my parents, at each other, at ourselves. My father dubbed Sunday, family day, when my brothers and sister and I, often with our grandparents, sat down to experience the latest gourmet recipe — things like, roasted orange-herb game hens with buttered green beans and wild rice, roasted lamb with lemony potatoes and mint jelly, and my mother’s favorite but for me, the most dreaded, sautéed chicken livers with onions, bacon and sage. The aromas of their endeavors, enticing and mouth-watering, wafted through our kitchen with its orange Formica countertops and its green and gold rooster-patterned wallpaper — making its way up to our rooms, calling us down to check on the progress of dinner. We took turns setting the table and with all of us in the kitchen, sometimes we’d witness our father take our mother in his arms and dance with her — twirling across the smooth sheet of linoleum — the melodious voice of Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra or Lena Horne filling our ears, coming from a record player in the front hall. I felt the attraction between my parents like a warm embrace in the room. My mother glowed in her kitchen.

She was just mom to me then; a woman with bright blue eyes and wavy brown hair. I was yet to be impressed by her years of teaching math to junior high school kids in the town next to ours. I didn’t know because I wasn’t one yet, that junior high people could be challenging, all I knew was that they loved her, and how anyone could feel that way about a math teacher was at the time, a mystery to me. The fact that she had been a scientist before she was a teacher, that the white coat she wore to work every day would one day tell me so much about her as a woman — that she was driven by her thirst for knowledge, that she was confident and brave enough to prioritize her education — was still unappreciated by my young self. The effort it must have taken for her to be the first in her family to go to college and then to get her masters degree in teaching, while she wore that white coat, while she was a mother, and a wife, and always there, for all of us, would take years for me to value.

I knew she liked to cook and that Sundays were for family. Sundays were about food prep and clean up, grandparents, yard work, homework, football, the Wide World of Sports followed by the Wonderful World of Disney, and depending on how much homework remained, the Mystery movie: Colombo or McMillan and Wife. After the evening meal, my mother took to the family room where she sat with her feet up, covered in an afghan that she herself had crocheted — rows and rows of brown and turquoise blue, the same shade of blue found in the shag wall to wall carpeting, in the floor pillows, and in the specks of nubby fabric that covered my father’s recliner. In that place, for years of nights, she corrected piles of math homework and tests with a red felt tip pen, sipped her after-dinner decaf, and nibbled an Oreo or two. Sometimes I removed the pillows from the back of the couch so that I could snuggle in next to her as she worked. With my head on her chest, I could smell the coffee, strong and sweet as she tipped the cup to her lips. I listened to her swallow, to her heartbeat, to her breath, to the sounds of her stomach, to the world inside her that connected me to her like vines that grew between us and through us, knowing I was too big to be there, that she was probably uncomfortable, but also knowing that she allowed me to squeeze in those last sweet moments of being a little girl, before I would let go, before I finally sat far enough away from her, that I would from then on, see her as a woman, independent from her role as a mother and separate from myself.

This perspective was at its most critical point during my high school years, and especially so on one dark afternoon of winter, when we children were gathered together in that family room. Our mother stood in the threshold, unable or unwilling to enter the room where the four of us looked upon her with the cruel eyes of teenagers, her thin arms crossed, head down, brown hair, gray roots, words, barely audible, almost a sigh, dropped from her mouth as though they had been a heavy load to carry — your father and I didn’t know whether to tell you kids or not — the cancer has spread — he has only a few months to live. It was her demeanor more than her words that emptied the room of breathable air. Her eyes, that day, were wet and wounded, an expression that would become part of her. No future happiness would remove that moment from her face, from my memory.

My father’s struggle and release was hers as well, and after all, she was left with us, with all of the pieces, burdens and bounty of their life together. And when my siblings went off to college it was just the two of us, only she wasn’t really there at all — only her body — a shell whose inhabitant had gone off with the tide — and sometimes when I came in late at night I would hear her crying.

I never knocked on her door.

I didn’t know how to fix what had been broken in our family. I didn’t know how to put a smile on her face again and soon I left too — left my mother to figure it all out and eventually, she did. She went from married-mother-of-four, to widowed-mom, to dating-mom to married-again-mom, all in the time it took me to get through high school and college.

A tide change, one life washed away and another rolling out ahead of her.

She sailed then, with her new husband, and she danced, and sometimes she cooked for friends and family, and gracefully accepted each day as a gift. Her own trials were put aside for the trials of her children and grandchildren — her son’s blindness, my own divorce, joblessness for each of her children from time to time, illnesses, broken hearts and broken bones of various sorts — all were manageable, until cancer came again.

It took her oldest daughter.

And it took all of us too, especially my mother, to places we had been before with our father. The ammonia infused hospital halls, the dreaded chemo, the humming dialysis centers, the driving and the praying, the brutally honest and yet often denial laden conversations, the hopelessness and the heart wrenching goodbyes.

My mother took her new pain and tucked it away — to a place where no tide could wash it clean. It’s there inside her and I can see it.

It’s in her eyes.

With lids translucent and thin, like the petals of an orchid, strong and delicate all at once. She’s not aware that the world can read her like an open book. The thoughts that never dare leave her disciplined mouth, spill freely from the pools of her eyes — either rimmed with red, glistening with tears, sparkling with mischief, dark like the angry sea or worse yet, clouded with disappointment, I can navigate her emotions as though those eyes were buoys telling me which way to go.

We can’t make it to dinner tomorrow mom, are words that she might receive with a graceful expression on her face, mouth firm, head high, but with crushing sadness in her gaze. It’s enough to make you change your plans, and sometimes we must.

She’s not aware that even after all these years of change within our family structure, that she is still the mooring to which we are all tied.

She is why my brothers and I, along with our own families, gather on a Sunday afternoon even though our lives have scattered us to the wind. Today we meet at my house. We are reinventing a custom from our past, family day. She’s brought her spaghetti with the sweet cinnamon infused sauce and her hand-rolled, fat and delicious meatballs. I’ve tossed a salad and set a nice table. Her grandkids are adults now and they carry the day. Later we will watch videos of her on our phones and everyone will agree that she looks terrific, how cute she is, we will say. And I will think about how she looked at me from over her readers, useless except for that one lens, and that I was once again reminded of how light her eyes have become, as if they were the eyes of someone else altogether now — someone old.

At the end of the day, we will walk the wooded path between her house and mine, and she’ll tell me that she’s grateful for her sea legs — for the balance that is required in old age. She walks slower now than she used to, and she lifts each knee high to be sure not to catch her sneakered foot on anything, it’s a march really. Her white hair will billow — wisps of fluff in the light afternoon wind — as though an angel or two swirl around her. Her smile will lift the corner of her eye, and the soft skin of her cheek will fold easily into the creases that her life has carved. I will be on her left side, so she won’t know that I’m watching her — she won’t see my hand ready at her elbow.

 

Las Tres Ave Marias

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The echo of my shoes, click-clacking over the terrazzo tiles of the cavernous room, reminds me of my past. It reminds me of another time that I was here in this church, Las Tres Ave Marias, when there were so few people present, that I could hear the sound of my own steps as they resonated off the high ceiling and white stucco walls. Back then, full of hope and optimism, I carried my baby to the altar for baptism.

With only family in attendance, the church had been ours, and it was then — without the usual crowd that would gather for a Sunday mass, a crowd that often poured out through the heavy wooden doors, onto the steps, and even the sidewalk beyond — that I became aware of the enormity of the space. Even with its grand scale, there was still a sense of humility within those walls, a lovely contrast between the architecture and what it stood for, that I have thought about often throughout the years that followed.

Twenty years to be exact, since the day I brought my last born child to this church, and I’m still moved by the simplicity of the space and the way it honors God without glitz or glamor. The pews are made of a dark polished wood but boast no carving or cushion. The floors are the same sandy colored terrazzo used in many buildings around the city of Barranquilla, and the altar — an austere slab of stone draped in white cloth — is easily overlooked because of the stunning mural on the wall beyond.

Painted in soft tones of cerulean blue, cadmium yellow and burnt sienna, is the image of the Virgin Mother. From floor to lofty ceiling, her presence is unavoidable — she is enveloped in the brilliance of heaven’s light, floating in a sky of billowing clouds, she is surrounded by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, her arms are open wide and she welcomes us. The soft glow of her sweet face shines as though a light were placed within the wall. I feel the artist’s love for her emanate through the tender brush strokes that are her eyes, her cheeks, her mouth, slightly smiling.

My four children were born in the United States, but I brought them here, to this church where Mary greets me with a love that permeates the very atmosphere of the room. I brought them here to begin their life with Christ, because it was in this city that I first witnessed real faith, the kind that isn’t just a morning at mass, but a belief that fills you like a deep breath can fill your aching lungs. It’s the kind of belief that sustains you every day. I wanted to give my children that gift, and what better place to receive it then here in this church.

The church of Las Tres Ave Marias, is one of many houses of worship in this city located on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, where I came to work as a teacher after I graduated from a small college in New Hampshire. I met the father of my children in this city, and fell in love with the people, the culture, the music, the buildings and beaches, all so different from my life in the States.

Barranquilla is also where I first witnessed poverty, the kind where children live in places with no electricity or plumbing, where rain water rages through their shelter, splitting the earthen floor beneath their feet, creating gashes, deep and muddy, that must be jumped across to get from hammock to door. Or the kind of poverty where it wasn’t uncommon to see someone struggle to live with an untreated birth defect, like the “spider-man” I occasionally saw on my Saturday visits to the market — arms and legs twisted and turned as he scuttled across streets, body in the center of limbs, jerking his way along, a wounded insect; or the monk who sat outside of the 72nd Street market, draped in orange robes, whose eyes were black larvae, barely visible beneath the thick white cocoons that encased them, but who never failed to recognize me when I came near. Maybe it was my smell, or the slap of my flip flops on the pavement— but he would exclaim, Eres tu! Me trajiste algo? And if I gave him bread, he would bless me with the words, Que Dios te lo pague! Once I even saw a man with a leg so swollen with elephantiasis, that from a distance, I thought he must be wearing a large boot, but up close his peeling skin showed me a shocking reality — the bleeding ooze that was his calf, the broken flesh that barely covered his giant foot — could never have fit into a shoe of any kind. I stepped around him, careful to avoid contact, and I saw that a cup beside him was full of pesos. The people filling it were not the rich visitors to the city, this was not a place for tourists, it was the shop keepers, and maybe the street vendors, and the people who came to purchase their everyday needs, they filled that cup.

Although the poor of Barranquilla could not always count on the integrity of the floor beneath their feet, they still greeted each other and me, with unfailing joy, generosity, energy and grace, everyday. Barranquilla is where I first learned to be grateful for what I did have and to not be disappointed by what I may be lacking. How could I think about the things I wanted, when children played with a soccer ball that was made from tightly rolled rags? Their soccer fields were often only a patch of dust or an open stretch of street. If the kids weren’t playing soccer, they were with their families. Families were everything. Families were community, and at the heart of each community was a church.

My church was Las Tres Ave Marias, and even though I couldn’t understand what the priest was saying, and often I was part of the overflow that stood outside on the steps where I could hear nothing at all, it was really the passion of the people that I came to experience. Their brotherhood, their desire to be part of the extended family of the church, was something that I understood without having to speak their language.

I didn’t feel that same connection to my childhood church. It was a chore to attend mass and yet, something about Barranquilla showed me how deep my faith could be. There is something spiritual about the city — just under the rhythm and roll, the color and chaos of daily life, a belief that tethers men, women and children, the rich and the poor, to each other, to the dirt, to the field, to the city street, the sea, the forest, and the sky above. Maybe it’s that spirituality, that love for God and humanity, and the way that people from every walk of life embrace their faith with joy and gratitude that I feel when I’m inside this church.

Today, I’m glad to be back again, under Mary’s benevolent gaze, I’m a different woman, older and worse for the wear. I’ve come to pray for my all-grown-up children who no longer understand what brings me here. At the altar, a young family gathers for the baptism of an infant. Older children run the aisles in their Sunday-best shoes, the baby cries, startled, as the holy water runs over his crown, men and women laugh and embrace each other in joyous congratulations and I remember that moment, so honest and simple.

Dear God, here is your child, whom you have given us to raise. We promise to teach him to love you as we do.

We made that promise four times but I think only once did we keep it, or rather, that one child kept it for us. The other three attempts at teaching our children to love the Lord have fallen on deaf ears, at least for now.

I can’t return to the young woman I was when I first brought my babies to this church no matter how much I may wish for it. Somewhere in the day-to-day of baths and homework, bills and battles, car lines and car pools, work and play, successes and failures, and even divorce, I’ve dropped the ball. It’s only my faith that allows me to believe that God will show my children what they need to see — maybe it’s their shared humanity with the sick, the hungry, the poor — or maybe it’s the lessons to be learned in the beauty of the mountains, architecture, or art. Whatever it is, I trust it will speak to their heart, the way that Barranquilla, and this church in particular, has spoken to mine.

Out on the street, I smell arepas — corn flour and cheese — that the vendor on the corner is grilling, and I’m led away from Las Tres Ave Marias. I focus on the world around me — the vendors, the traffic and the hot sidewalks of Barranquilla. Above me, between the buildings, there is a slice of sky — and there again are the warm tones of cerulean blue and cadmium yellow — an artist’s pallet, deep and vast and welcoming.

Spoiled

I don’t like my friend’s Yorkshire Terriers. They’re absurdly perfect. They’re trim around the middle, they look cute in sweaters and they can fit in her purse. They remind me that my Yorkie, or as my husband says, Porkie, is not perfect. His name is Joe and he has Cushing’s syndrome. Cushing’s means that Joe drinks a lot of water, so much so that he inflates like a football during the course of a day. In a Christmas sweater, Joe looks more like Santa Claus than an elf.

Cushing’s also means that Joe is always ravenous. My husband and I wake to the sound of soft whines at 5am each day. Incredulous, I check the time on my cell phone beside the bed. Not even daylight savings can fool my Yorkie — darkness or light, he wakes us at five. In the glow of the phone light, I can see him looking up at me. He bounces; his tiny paws lifting just a hair off the floor, just enough to punctuate his “words”. His pointed ear-tips flop on his head like banners waving, imploring me to pay attention to his needs. Joe’s tone grows more urgent, more demanding. His whimper becomes a yip and I realize that one of us is well trained.

I slip out of bed before my husband does, and follow Joe down the hall to the kitchen where, half asleep, I prepare the low fat, gluten free meal. Feeding Joe is like throwing slop to a pig. Before his bowl hits the floor Joe has his nose in it, snorting and grunting, kibbles fly about in the ensuing frenzy.

Cushing’s Syndrome is a disease where a dog’s body produces too much cortisol. Some of the symptoms are the potbelly and the extreme hunger and thirst. Another symptom is a weakness in his hind legs. Joe needs to go out to pee every two hours or so. His weak legs make it impossible to get down the two steps outside our door, so I carry him. On some days he has the energy to come up the stairs on his own, pulling his hind legs like a fish tail behind him. To me he is a champion of strength and fortitude. To my husband, he is just a pain in the ass. Joe doesn’t cuddle or play. We are not rewarded for our efforts.

Upon meeting my dog, a woman once exclaimed, “oh, look at that one, you could put a saddle on him!” and I felt as though she had called me a failure as a mother. I wanted to ask her to leave but I could see that she was admiring him even as she spoke those hateful words. I have heard people refer to Joe as “that little box,” and “that little shit,” among other things less appealing, but he has a way of winning them over with his sad yet tenacious personality. No, Joe doesn’t fit into a sweater or a purse; he’s not perfect, he’s just perfectly spoiled.

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Vinyasa

Vinyasa, I hate you.

I hate how when I dip down into your pose my shoulders feel a ripping pain and my lower back aches. I hate how the instructor says your name with such ease, with such energy and pleasure. “Do your Vinyasa!” she says in her soothing youthful voice, fueled by tofu and ginger root and surely loads of kale. I hate how everyone seems so full of peace and love and I am in pain. My body, like an old dog has stopped responding to my commands. Fibromyalgia is the word on my mind, not the Sanskrit words the young woman speaks like poetry. She speaks with love in her heart for all of her students, even me, the angry woman in the back row.

Of all the poses, the only one I can do with some skill and little pain is the Savasana, or the Corpse Pose. At that I excel. Laying still, flat on my back, arms and legs outstretched is the Corpse Pose. Here I collect my pain like shards of broken glass from the floor. I find it where it is, my neck, my back, my arms and wrists and knees. I sweep it up and put it back where it belongs. I own it like I own my whole self. I recognize it and let it settle after I have disturbed it for a while.

This is my reward. I come here for this moment of collection as I lie on my thin rubber mat that smells like tires in the summer and is, I believe, almost a humorous attempt at cushioning one’s self from the hard wooden floor. I come for the lilting music and for the incense that burns and curls into the air, into the healthy lungs of my friends who lay strewn about this room. We are worn out after doing our Vinyasas and other torturous poses. Yes Vinyasa, I hate you, but I will be back for more.

Namaste.

The Isabey Kolinsky

The Isabey Kolinsky is his favorite brush. The number 14 watercolor brush is at once delicate and substantial. Fatter than a pencil and longer too, it sits with a delicious weight in your hand. I know the artist likes this brush best because it is worn, not the bristles, but the handle. Its black paint, once shiny and smooth, is now peeling and any identifying information is long worn away.

He doesn’t need to read the brush’s label to pick it out from the others he keeps lovingly in the bamboo sheath. He reaches for it automatically. His fingers touching all the brushes, dancing over them, caressing the wooden handles softly until they find the Kolinsky 14. He likes that it holds so much water, so much paint. He likes that it holds its point even after so much use, so much abuse.

I have seen him abuse his brushes. He presses too hard and sometimes scrubs the colors onto the thick paper. When he cleans them, he brutally smashes the bristles into the palm of his big artist hands. There with just a dab of Murphy’s oil soap and some vigorous scrubbing, all trace of his latest endeavor is washed away. It may seem like he doesn’t care, but that is the way he shows that he loves the brush. I know that I will never find it cast aside with the colors of the day left to dry in its fine red sable, its soft red sable.

Soft like a cat’s fur, I remember the day we bought it. I felt drawn to it, as I know he was. I ran it across my cheek to feel the smooth and pleasing touch of it. We admired the length of it, almost eleven inches of brush to hold. We admired its symmetry and design. A circle of sable extends fat and pleasing from the shiny silver ferrule. Not too long, perhaps a little more than an inch, the sable tapers to a lovely point when wet, a point for details like eyes and lashes, or the fabric of a shirt or the pattern of a doily. The artist tells me that the Kolinsky 14 gives him the freedom he needs to express himself.

With a flair that seems careless he dabs the brush into the colors on the pallet, always mixing and mashing his colors, he places them on the paper with confidence and daring. The Kolinsky takes them, those colors, from the fattest boldest strokes of a background to the tiny glimmer in his model’s eye. Today the artist is away, and the Kolinsky sits, one among many brushes, some not so loved. When I move them, the wooden handles click together musically like the wind chimes that hang outside our kitchen window. They click and clatter and speak to me about masterpieces yet to be born. They speak to me about color and light and mood and most of all they tell me about the artist that loves them.

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The Artist’s Studio

 

You have to take the back stairway, the one in our mudroom to get up to the artist’s studio. There is no other way. He doesn’t want people passing through. He wants to work in peace. Sometimes I go there, while he is painting. I tiptoe on stocking feet up the staircase made of cherry wood.

I bring him coffee and the smell of it makes him turn to me with a smile. It is warm in my hands. He lays down his pallet and the long handled brush to take the cup from me. I stay with him for a minute or two, just long enough to absorb a little bit of his world but I don’t want to distract him from his work.

He smells of turpentine and oil paints and sometimes, wet watercolor paper. They are the smells of work for him. They are the oily stench of toil and struggle and frustration on some long afternoons and on others they are the fresh aromas of a masterpiece completed. For me, they are the pleasant smells of him, of home.

His clothes are splattered with burnt sienna and ultra marine blue, the colors he is most fond of. I sit on his knee to more closely observe his work and he wraps one paint-smudged arm around my waist and pulls me near. I lean against his chest, smelling his warm coffee breath and laugh because I know he has made me dirty on purpose. There is no keeping clean with an artist upstairs. He lets me have a sip of his coffee and I cringe at its bitterness, just the way he likes it.

I tell him the shadow is perfect in his painting and he grumbles his dissatisfaction. In the end he will love the work as I do. Months down the road he will look at it with fresh eyes, when it is out of his studio, in someone else’s home or on the gallery wall and he will say that it works. And I will smile and remember that afternoon when I sat on his knee up in his studio, offering a bit of inspiration. And coffee.