Requiem For An Almost-Mom

For the last four or five days I have been running through a wide range of emotions – primarily those clustered at the sad/lost/frustrated point in the continuum. I’ve found myself wasting time at my desk puttering at pointless tasks like making copies, stacking papers and sorting tubes of paint while getting easily distracted….

(Paint. Hmmmmm. This could either be the beginning of a great analogy or just another a flash of attention-deficit disorder…)

As a student I was surprised to find that painting entails a lot of chemistry. Mixing colors is not always a straightforward proposition wherein blue plus red always equals purple. For one thing colors are not “pure” hues but can lean towards one side of the mix more than another. Sap Green is a very warm green that looks closer to the yellow side than the blue while Viridian is a cool green favoring blue over yellow. Creating secondary colors by mixing primaries is not always predictable and some mixtures produce completely unexpected results – for example one of the best landscape greens can be made by mixing black with yellow.

The pigments themselves have different properties. Cadmium-based colors are all slow to dry. Traditional palette colors like burnt sienna or Naples yellow are fairly opaque and can cover other colors with little effort but they don’t stain very well – it takes a lot of burnt sienna to tint white to any degree. Phthalocyanine  (phthalo / “thay-lo”) blue has opposite properties: it is translucent and has to be mixed with white in order to cover other colors but it is a powerful staining agent requiring small amounts of paint to produce deep tints with whites. It’s also one of the more archival colors, being very permanent and it retains its stability and hue longer than most other colors.

….and it’s pretty. While not the most academic or professional descriptions of artist’s colors, I have to say that both phthalo blue and its sibling pthalo green are two of the prettiest colors in the spectrum. Add magenta, orange and chartreuse and you have the retro “Trap-jaw” palette that I routinely use to torment art directors in search of more serious palettes.

Leaving home was not a smooth operation for me. While my better-prepared friends were all soaring like eagles my launch into the adult world resembled an albatross stumbling into flight. Being more interested in intramural football than my studies I was destined for the rice paddies of Viet-nam or a career in fast-food until God gave me a break and I became very smitten with a young lady I met during a rare appearance at church. The young lady was a very positive influence in my life, her influence causing me to change for the better. The only problem was her mom: with her dead-pan facial expression and piercing black-diamond gaze the lady scared the h*ll out of me.

Luckily that terror soon began to subside, starting with a church dance at Eielson Air Force. Midway through the event she walked up, said “Let’s dance” and then spent two songs talking with me about everything but her daughter. I felt ever-so-smug afterwards about the way I had mastered the situation until I woke up the next morning realizing we had in fact been talking about nothing but her daughter, albeit in a roundabout way.

It wasn’t the last time Ramola Smith worked mental judo on me. Just as those two or three drops of phthalo blue create such dramatic tint when mixed with white, a few words and a small action from her would achieve a much greater result on me than expected. Outwardly it would seem like we had just spent a few minutes watching “Cannon”, playing Spoons or designing an apartment into the basement of the new house, but invariably I’d realize later that what we had really been talking about were the challenges of the 1970’s college dorm experience, what my plans for the future were – even our respective dental issues.

To continue with the paint-analogy: she was permanent – in it for the long haul. As I would hear them talk and watch the way she and Brother Smith would interact as both sweethearts and team-mates it would “make my heart big”. It was as if “JimAndRamolaSmith” were just one word.

She was “permanent” to me as well. I was always amazed – and very grateful – that she remained so kind to me despite some of the brain-dead decisions I made and the impact they had on her eldest child. Time would pass and circumstances would change but I’d always be greeted with a hug, a kiss and a few words that were much more than just a sum of their syllables. For example shortly after returning from New England in the summer of 1976 I found myself walking through the stake center in Anchorage on some church-related errand. As I passed the family history center I was startled by flash of color quickly followed by a crushing hug and a kiss on my cheek …and when the dust settled I found that I had been the victim of a Ramola hugging-mugging. She then introduced me to the other lady in the room in very complimentary and affectionate terms before sending me off to my drive back down to the Peninsula with another hug and kiss on the cheek.

Those hugging-muggings would recur every few years as I would encounter the Smiths at social gatherings or I would drop by their house in Fairbanks when duties took me to FT Wainwright. I was always met with kindness and affection, the only difference being that she smiled more openly as time went by.  However, as years passed physical distance and circumstances started spacing the visits further and further apart until they finally stopped and I lost touch.  Were it not for Facebook the separation may have continued even longer. Though my physical disabilities have made a literal “drop-in” unlikely the Internet has made it possible to be in better contact than before.

…a situation which seems contradictory as I now sit agitated in my studio, misfiling things and throwing tubes of pthalo blue paint around. While I know that she is in a better place now, I’m not feeling very happy about it. Regardless of our faith we all have that inner Cro-Magnon that wants to howl at the separation of death. I’m grateful that I have been able to talk to the Smiths and thank them for all they did for me as a young man but I’m also angry because so many years passed by without contact – that our ever-in-planning visit out West didn’t happen before her death. I’m agitated because most people around me can’t understand why Ramola Smith’s passing is having such an impact on me.

  • “Was she your mom?” No.
  • “Was she your step-mother?” No.
  • “Was she your mother-in-law?” Almost.
  • “Was she a teacher of yours?” More than I realized.

After running out of files and paint it came to me that logical word-crunching wasn’t going to work. I’ll have to finish this out with the analogy I have been using as a framework so far.  I can’t pretend to have any insights into the life and character of an almost-mom that I hadn’t seen in thirty years. All I can do is tell you about what it was like when she was a regular presence in my life.   Art and creativity in general are a major part of my existence which makes life my biggest project of all. While there may be some question as to what kind of art my life has been there is no question that if my life were a painting Ramola Smith would be one of the hues it was painted with.

What’s more – given her nature, her permanence and ability to make positive change in me, she would be one of the primary colors, and her presence in that emotional palette has made the painting of my life all that much richer.

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