It’s always the same routine in the first week or so. I spend a lot of time looking. I open doors, drawers and rummage through bins and boxes of photographs in my closet. I press my nose up to the widow and see if I can still see the rooftop of an old friend’s house. I wake up early before anyone and feel my feet on the pine wood floors. The fan buzzes cool morning air in the kitchen window, sounds of old doorknobs turning, the closing of windows, water running through the pipes when somebody takes a shower, where is that home I was looking for? Did I miss it somewhere? Outside my feet tingle walking on the weedy prickly grass. Chipped paint and broken boards and splinters, a column has fallen down, the wrap around porch has seen better days. I find wasps nests buzzing near planter boxes. The bird nests under the eaves of the roof are gone. I peek out the back door at night. The smell, the same sweet cooling of wheat smell you can only get after 100 degrees on the Palouse, I do find that. And I find the moon, the stars and all those moths that use to buzz and flutter under the back porch light with all the possibilities, all my possibilities and I thank them for being there, and for remembering me.
I couldn’t quite make out the words “Penawawa Road” on the tiny green road sign, but I knew they were there. As sure as I knew the contours of the four fluffy Ash trees that marked the turn off. As sure as I knew the white pointed edge of the farmstead you see as you slow down heartbeat and all to make the blind turn across Highway 26.
“Penawawa Road” I mumbled with recognition. My husband didn’t know what the hell I was talking about. And I couldn’t blame him. I could almost guarantee those words had never been uttered in Italy before. Roughly twenty eight people had ever been on that road and they were all my relatives. Well make that 29 as some random stock photographer must have found himself there too at one point. I could almost hear his thoughts as he wiped the dust and sweat from his eyes. ”My God, this place looks just like Italy!” But there weren’t any vineyards or medieval hill towns. So he just threw it into the stock photo wind and Hertz grabbed it up for that exact reason no doubt. No details. But there were details and they were my details. And that’s when I just cracked up thinking to myself that out of all the holy places, out of all the churches and shrines and Buddhist temples I had visited over my lifetime I would come to believe in God standing in line for a rental car.
We had been in Venice celebrating our first year anniversary. Taking pictures of light flooded canals and plates of fish and markets and murky waters as I had at several periods in my life: at age 21 as a penniless student traveler tasting her first gelato, at 25 in a last ditch effort to save a dying romance, at 29 on a weekend adventure with friends. And now as a married woman with my Italian husband. What a crazy, good life I thought to myself stumbling across a somewhat familiar canal, chocolate gelato dripping down my arm.
But it was time to head down south to Rome .Our first driving adventure and my better half was busy signing the rental car papers. He handed me the Italian road map compliments of Hertz. And that’s when I saw it right on the cover. The trees my brother and I would wait eagerly to appear from the back seat of our Honda hatchback. The trees that meant the car was about to slow down and make that final turn to grandma’s farmhouse. The trees where later my mother would get out of the car and let me take the driver’s seat and taught me to drive a stick. There were strawberry patches and horses and cousins and my grandmother’s tanned arms down that road. Penawawa Road led to the farm where I spent the first five years of my life, where I dug holes and made fires and roasted random things on sticks. Where my cousins and I would sneak bottles of liquor out of the basement and drink out of ice filled tumblers, shingles of the roof scratching our bare legs with only a moon and an owl taking part in our pathetic teenage rebellion. This was indeed my road, God was sending me a message.
My husband was trying to speed things up while the heavily mascaraed woman behind the counter seemed amused by my little “Penawawa Road” chant. The words repeated over and over by an agitated American seemed odd I’m sure, but not unusual. Americans are always making strange noises in Italy. I continued and continued until the map with its cover image was flapping right up to her face. She glanced at it quickly and then at me. “Italia e bella” drizzled from her lips like honey. I tasted it but it wasn’t Italy I tasted. It was Eastern Washington.
There is only so much pointing and mumbling with glee one can do in a foreign country with people standing closely behind you in a rental car line. You can get away for it a bit longer in front of the Coliseum or San Marco’s Square or the Vatican but not in front of eager Italian families trying to drop off their keys. I asked for a small handful of maps, the mascara obliged. My husband grabbed our keys and we moved on ready to start our trip. But I didn’t forget. Not for one minute. I placed the map carefully on the dashboard with pride. And that road, and those words “Never Lost” stared back at me, my grandparents winking and waving from the porch.
It was the summer before my senior year, I was 17 my brother 15. We were weathering the break up of our family, my mother’s second divorce, and we were still a bit shaken. But we weren’t going to spend the summer sitting around the house. No, no. My mom had a plan and it was called “road trip”. We were going to pick ourselves up and shake it off, more specifically drive it off, drive and drive and drive, as far as we could toward towering cactus, red sandy bluffs, turquoise beads and mesquite smoke. We packed the Ford mini-van and headed for the southwest. And to the blaring soundtrack of every Metal band that existed up until 1990, my mom, brother and I drove our crazy asses across Washington, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, even bits of Colorado in a quest to laugh and to forget and to move on. No GPS, no cells, no air b and b. Just my mother, white knuckling it down the freeway as she turned up the music.
Yesterday something crazy happened. I found my new go to answer for the “what do you do?” question. It’s taken me 42 years to come to the point where I can say it and yesterday in the company of strangers I said it for the first time with intent and purpose in the open air. And I am going to say it again because fuck it… I’m an artist. As many of you know I have been a stay at home mom for the past five years and jobless since I lost my position as a manager of a print publishing company back when the crisis of 2008 took down many good people. I had to fire well over a dozen people that worked for me and that I personally hired and then myself. That. Was. Not. Fun. That loss put in motion a huge downward spiral for me that I have been slowly but steadily rising out from the ashes. Thanks to my husband, my kids and the fact I never stopped “making stuff” over these intense years of raising my children. But “I make stuff” or “I’m a stay at home mom” has never been exactly the way I have felt comfortable defining myself. In fact those answers for better or worse have kind of sucked balls in my mind. Totally not judging anyone that uses those answers but I didn’t realize until yesterday how much they really don’t all define who I am. “Country Manager” never quite cut it either. In fact they all kind of hurt in their own way to say…or even just to think to myself, which is more often the case as I never go out and hardly ever get asked what I do because thank God I live in a place where for the most part nobody really cares. Love you Italy.
But yesterday I made a decision. Walking my way through the rain and thundershowers of a Florence afternoon I asked myself that question that I knew would come up at my first attendance of the Firenze Drawing Club. “What do you do?” Fuck “house wife”, fuck “maker of things”. Those things are me certainly and with gratitude but not all of me. “I’m an artist” I thought and that is what I am going to say. After 42 years I can say it. I have studied fashion design and painting, have had hands dusty with pastels and charcoal and dirt, I have glazed and fired and made things explode and made things come to life and made big mistakes and made ugly things and pretty things, and pretty things and really, really ugly things that are almost pretty …but they aren’t. I have taught myself to metal smith, and make dresses and beaded the tiniest beads until my eyes bleed, I have written stories and poems and water colored over them around them and for them and then lost them all into puddles of mushy paper. And there is so much more, so much more that doesn’t even matter. But it does matter.
Do I have an art Degree? No. Do I have a portfolio? Not really. Have I shown in a gallery? No again. Does that matter to me now at 42? I will say no again for the fourth time. Do I have my doubts of being a “true” or “real” artist? Yes, every day for 42 years plus one day and counting. I know those doubts are going to be here for a while…maybe forever, but they better get used to me telling them to go fuck themselves.
So yesterday, finally, on my 42nd birthday I found this tiny rabbit hole of a door and went through it. Wisteria blossoms brown and purple grey battered to the ground under my feet. There was a secret garden just below the studio where we were to meet. And this walled over grown paradise was dripping, glowing and glorious from the rain…bird song and green, green, green, just everywhere green and wet and dripping at the golden hour. I climb the tiny zig zag concrete steps up to the studio, a voice calling me up. Inside I see how the space was once an old green house and when I say old I mean Michelangelo old. A long marble table flanks the window, orchids in simple pots rest in place as they always have. Rain tip taps the glass ceiling and soft floral scents. And yes artists sitting around a wooden table drinking wine and tea and bubbly with sweet kind faces. I put down my heavy bag and took my seat.