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Don't step on the turtles - Morning Meditation


My neighbor, Ann, started gardening in her front yard with beds of black eyed Susan, lavender, and cone flowers.  Gradually, over the years, she converted her entire backyard into a wonderland of beds featuring lilies, zinnias, and sunflowers. She built a children’s garden for her granddaughter and a pond larger than our pool. She had a shade garden, fruit trees, and a fair amount of vegetables.   Wildlife was abundant in this oasis. Birds, turtles, bunnies, squirrels, frogs and fish enjoyed the bounty of her labor. Ann fretted over too many fish. She cursed the birds for diving into the pond to eat them.  She netted her fruits and vegetables to protect them from rabbits and squirrels. But she was quite fond of her turtles.  Each morning they made the trip to Ann’s back door to await their breakfast. She always set out lettuce and fruit for them.  

 I regularly visited Ann’s backyard very early in the morning for quiet time to paint. With my paint box and sketchbook under my arm, I eased the latch up on the gate as quietly as possible and slipped in the yard. I carefully maneuvered my way through the turtles already making their way to Ann’s back door. I found a quiet spot to settle and paint while the shadows were long.  There’s a lot to be said for time alone in the early morning.   The birds were busy with their babies.  The fish would occasionally leap out of the water to catch a bug and then slide back into the pond.  Sometimes a gentle breeze might still be moving around the trees before the summer heat set in.  Gradually I eased myself into the garden and my painting, blocking out everything else. Eventually I would hear Ann in the kitchen. Sometimes she was surprised to see me, and sometimes already knew I was out there. By the time she came out, it would be time to pack my paints, head back home and get ready for work.  I’d chat a few minutes with Ann while she fed her turtles. Sometimes she would show me a new addition to her garden, or take a look at my still wet painting.  Taking care not to step on a turtle, I would head back home feeling peaceful and ready for the day. 

sketching Anne's Garden



A hat completes a Lady.

Parade, 7 x 13, acrylic framed

My husband and I grew up in the same neighborhood and went to the same parish school, St Stephen Protomartyr in south St Louis. We were two grades apart. Considering all of the daily masses and other seasonal services requiring mandatory attendance, we spent a considerable bit of our young lives in church. It required all of our talent and skill to devise ways to occupy ourselves through that many sermons. As a master craftsman at paper doll making from Sears, JC Penny and Montgomery Ward catalogs, I considered myself quite knowledgeable about seasonal style.   I must say, my fashion observations satisfactorily filled me with enough daydreams to pass right through any sermon.

 I was in fourth grade when I first spotted my mother-in-law, Jane, in church. First of all, she was a strikingly beautiful woman, pretty much looking like a catalog model to me.  Second, she was dressed impeccably. I really mean that because I knew what accessories were. There were pages of them in my catalogs. She wore bright linen shifts that were tapered and embroidered. Her hats and shoes, and sometimes even her handbags were often covered in bright paisley or other printed fabrics. Sometimes her outfits were embellished with chiffon scarves loosely arranged around the collar of her dress and secured with a broach.  She wore soft turbans and pill box hats with draped fabrics and net. Summer time included straw hats with bright silk flowers and ribbon bands. I was confidant she possessed a hat, a pair of shoes and a handbag for every outfit.

 Imagine my surprise when, at age 19, John introduced me to his mother? She was that church lady! Before I met my mother-in-law, I was completely enthralled with her sophisticated look. By the time I actually met Jane I was attending art school and it was 1975. I pretty much wore jeans and a turtle neck, my hair was cut very short requiring very little style, and I rarely put on a dress for any occasion other than Easter. Needless to say, the fashions of my impressionable years were not particularly interesting to me anymore. 

 As Jane and I became closer over the years I learned a lot about what creative women do to achieve style. All of those beautiful ensembles were completely designed and crafted by Jane. She was a remarkable technician with sewing and millinery skills. She shopped all over St Louis for beautiful fabrics and supplies. Her tailoring skills were professional. She bought shoes, purses and hats that she covered with fabrics. She owned head forms on which she styled her new hat creations, steaming shape and size into them for a perfect fit. It was a labor of love and she was exceptional at it. I think all that talent became the most impressive thing about her. Quite frankly, if Jane had been afforded the opportunity she could have succeeded as a fashion designer. Her technical skill and intuitive understanding of color and design were remarkable.

 As a legacy, we have photo albums of Jane modeling her designs. As you look through the candid poses caught on camera you see the pride she had in her work.  In each photo Jane is wearing a beautifully tailored suit or dress that she made.  Making a fashion statement was paramount to Jane. She really wanted people to notice her and took great effort to ensure anyone who did notice saw a lady. And in the photos of Jane modeling her hats, there is a tilt to her head that indicates Jane knows the hat completes the lady.


Jane, me (in the middle), and my sister-in-law posing on Easter Sunday. Ah - they were very good at striking a pose and  smiling for the camera.


Mrs. Potts was right

The Sun Will Shine, The Rain Will Fall, 9 x 9" acrylic

After this painting was completed I spent considerable time wondering what fantasy land I pulled this smiling woman out of. It’s an early morning, and already she has two loads of laundry on the line, drying in the breeze. Now she’s watering her garden. Where’s the hose? Did she haul that watering can across the yard? She must have had her coffee too. Why would a woman appear so dreamy and content in the midst of all this work?  House and yard work does not make me smile.  Clearly, I had painted such a woman.

 Eventually I realized it was about a contented woman with mind adrift. I recognized her. Anyone near my age of 56 might recall the 1955 movie, Picnic. You remember- Hal (William Holden) is a drifter that arrives in a small Kansas town and meets Madge (Kim Novak). After much angst by all the cast members and a hot steamy dance to Moon Glow they fall in love. My mother was fond of this film, so I have seen it many times.  My sister, Becky, and I had great fun imitating Hal and Madge as we danced across the floor. We were particularly fond of the scene where the younger sister, Millie, could no longer bare the world that circled around Madge. Drunk and humiliated, she cried “Madge is the pretty one. Madge is the pretty one.” Boo hoo. I thought Millie would be fine since she planned on college. And I might point out that no one ever said she wasn’t pretty. She had options. On the other hand, Madge, at age 19 was only beginning to question if she wanted to be something more than pretty. I knew Madge and Hal were destined for bad luck and hard times. Indeed, Madge just wanted someone to love her deeply, but darn if she didn’t take the hard road.

My favorite character in the film is Mrs. Potts, played by Verna Felton. She is neighbor to a house full of frustrated women who blame, hate and wait. Mrs. Potts gives Hal a few odd jobs in her yard in exchange for a little laundry and a meal.  She thought he was a breath of fresh air.  Mrs. Potts believed that we are meant to find happiness and contentment in whatever measure we can. Heading to the bus stop to follow Hal is not my idea of contentment. Still, Mrs. Potts makes me believe that we should listen to our heart and find what we seek. We should pay attention to the shake ups and jolts that bring us new awareness about ourselves and others. Whether you are a Millie, heading to New York to write novels that will shock people right out of their senses, or a Madge who will risk everything for a chance at meaningful love, we all need to step out of the box and make choices.  We should remember the wisdom of Mrs. Potts who said, I think we plan picnics to give ourselves an excuse – to let something thrilling happen. If I stand in the yard and water the flowers a little longer because my mind has drifted back to something crazy I did in my youth, I know that Mrs. Potts was right.  Lucky me.


 Picnic is an award winning 1953 play by William Inge. Paul Newman debuted as an actor in the Broadway production. In 1955, the screenplay was completed and filmed.  William Holden, Kim Novak, Susan Strasberg, Cliff Robertson, Arthur O‘Connell and Rosalind Russell were part of the star loaded cast.  Equally significant in the film is the 1934 song, Moonglow made famous by Benny Goodman, In the dance scene (which is the reason everyone watches the movie), the Theme From Picnic which was written to sync with Moonglow plays a starring role.  Check it out. You should probably watch it over Labor Day weekend. Neewollahhh………



We are Becky and Susan

Two Women, Au Fond, 6 x 13 inches, acrylic on paper, 2011.

I always thought it was a hardship to be so close in age to my sister. Although we were two years apart, my family referred to us as the girls.   It was one less name for tired parents to recall. By eliminating singular identity, every item a little girl might require could be purchased in multiples of two.  This convenience was at great cost to us. We were not twins, not the same size, and clearly we were not interested in the same things. If she looked good in the dress, I did not. If I wanted to play a game, she did not. Haircuts, household tasks, even allowances were ridiculously the same.  Sameness caused frustration and often real battle as we tried to claim independence. 

As we entered our teen years the inevitable separation naturally occurred. Eventually our singular talents and interests emerged and we found our separate paths.   There are more than 1,500 miles between us now, and we seldom see each other, yet she remains a significant part of my life. Most of my childhood memories are not singular. I don’t remember that I did anything.  We played dress up, we raked leaves, we drank Pepsi after we did the dishes, and we fought.  My memories are the shared experiences we had as the girls.  But you had better call us Becky and Susan.

Nonstop identity crisis for the girls!


Stealing Connie’s Lilacs  

Helping Myself to Your Flowers, 8 x 8 inches, acrylic on paper, 2011.Dear Connie,

So there you were, right across the street from me.  Allow me to set the stage. My bedroom window is right in front of the house. It’s a beautiful spring morning. It rained the night before. I’m lying in bed, the window is open, the birds are singing, a gentle breeze is drifting through the window. Floating on that breeze, don’t forget the birds are singing, is a subtle yet intoxicating fragrance. I perk up and then I sit upright in bed. Oh boy! Connie’s lilacs are opening! I am compelled, and I mean that literally because I can’t help myself.  I am compelled to run across the street and clip a stem to bring back in the house. Well, since I’m confessing, two or three stems. 

Every year since you planted them, I had the same response to your lilacs blooming.  And it is one of the most visceral memories I have of my neighborhood.  I love the way the stems gracefully droop over the sides of the container. I love the fragrance that fills the house. I love the texture and design of the leaf. And for goodness sakes, they’re purple. 

What did you think was going to happen when you planted an entire hedge of lilacs right along the street? Did you think we were all going to just walk past them every day and settle for brushing up against them for a little sniff? You did? I think I’m speaking for all of us living in immediate proximity to your lilac hedge. We became drunk with the heady fragrance of the blooms, and like possessed women, went straight for them.   I was really careful when I snipped the branches to make sure I didn’t damage the bush.  I hoped my pruning made it fuller the next year.

I’ll just conclude by saying I had many gratifying days when the lilacs where in my house. When I dream myself back into the old neighborhood, you are in my kitchen and the lilacs are blooming. Please accept these Small Art Paintings titled Connie’s Lilacs as an apology for over pruning your lilacs and taking more than I should have.  

Love, Susan