A few weeks ago my little ladies and I were visiting the local library, as we often do. Vera B. William’s wonderful ‘A Chair for my Mother’ was one of the books the children’s librarian had displayed on top of the stack and I excitedly pulled it down and said to Lulu, “Lulu, Mommy used to work for the lady who made this book!” And Lulu said “Next, we go to the playground?” And that concluded my name dropping for the day.
When I was in my twenties I had the very good fortune to be an occasional studio assistant to the amazing Children’s book illustrator and author Vera B. Williams. Vera is pretty much as you imagine her: she has beautiful white hair, crinkly eyes, a perfectly raspy perfect Bronx accent, a strict policy of wearing skirts in the rain, and an ever present joie de vivre. Vera’s books are beautiful and very real. The kids in her books grapple with things that real kids do: poverty, imperfect adults, life’s ups, and downs, good days and bad days. However, there isn’t anything depressing about Vera’s work. Life is worth living, despite all it’s twists and turns, and Vera’s kids live life to the fullest, minus any smarmy sugar coating.
One conversation, among the many interesting ones I was lucky to have with her, stands out in my mind, and is something I’ve reflected on ever since becoming a Mom. We were eating lunch and Vera mentioned that she’d been given a gift certificate to a cooking class, and then she laughed, and said that when she was home with her kids cooking had been one way to be artistic, but that now that she was working as a full time artist she rarely cooked anymore. I’m paraphrasing liberally, it was a long time ago, but I remember her listing some of the other ways she used to be artistic while she was raising her children, and I remember her acknowledging that she didn’t do much of those types of things anymore now that she was able to paint and write on her own schedule.
I remember being surprised, at the time I was walking around with the “all of a piece” quote from Anna Karenina written in my address book, and my number one aspiration was to have everything in my life in one piece too: I wanted jobs, friends, a place to live, and a lifestyle that all moved cohesively in one socially conscious and artistic direction. The notion that the successful artist in front of me had ever not been completely put together and succinctly goal oriented was difficult to wrap my mind around. I was very young, and so thought I was very old, and had difficulty recognizing that life doubles around on itself, sometimes, and that, sometimes, the winding path, with plenty of rests, is the most productive.
Now, with two small halloween costumes draped over my art desk, along with an unfinished sketch, and finger paintings drying on the kitchen table, and jack o lanterns that still have to be carved, I take great comfort in that conversation with Vera. It was a gift, and there’s a reason I kept it tucked away in my mind. Someday soon, far sooner than I can imagine now, these little people will all be grown up and I’ll have more time to paint, but, for now, there are crinkly library books to read, sticks and leaves to collect, and small, pudgy, fists determined to have their moment at this keyboard too.