by Amy Ruhlin
When my kids were young, I displayed their works of art all over the house. I taped them to their bedroom doors, framed and hung them on my kitchen walls and held them by a magnet to the refrigerator door. Youthful innocence, hope and truth greeted me around every corner of our home. They sometimes even called out to me by name: "For: Mom," in black or red crayon at the top of the paper. Somehow, seeing my children's art everyday made me feel forever young.
I had my favorites. Once, at an art festival, my daughter painted a face with a square head. It floated in the sky, surrounded by heart-shaped clouds.
"Why is it square?" I asked her. "It was supposed to be a house," she said. "But I messed up, so I just turned it into a happy face!"
When she started school, she drew a picture of a school bus. It was blue instead of yellow, and above it she wrote, "It does not take you to school, it takes you to the candy store, and the bus driver pays for all of the candy." I laughed each time I saw it, and I applauded her audacity, at least in her imagination, to change things up, to rebel with a crayon.
In the third grade, she brought home a drawing from art class: a beautiful creature with a large, yellow head; orange, droopy ears; and a green body. In each hand, it held a brown maraca. "What is this?" I asked her." "It's a kachina doll, mommy. It shows you that there is life in everything, and I think it's supposed to protect you." I hung it on her bedroom wall and whenever I was having a bad day, I'd lie on her bed and stare at it, and I swear it made me feel better.
My son painted apple and orange trees. Red and orange balls danced on the ground and lined the top of popsicle-shaped trees and I have never, ever seen happier fruit since.
When they started high school, I knew it was time to take the artwork down. Otherwise, I just looked pathetic: an old mom clinging to old memories. But all I could muster was to move them upstairs, to my office, where I could secretly look at them. After all, I was trying to be strong, to move on, to reinvent myself and to prove that I could let go and begin the process of aging gracefully. Once the kids started college, I finally moved their art to the attic, and even managed to throw some of it away.
A friend recently asked me, "What keeps you open?" "What do you mean, open?" I asked her.
"You know," she said, "like when your kids were young, they kept you open." I thought about that for a long time, and I wondered if I'd somehow begun to close up since they left. I wondered if I was
turning into a cranky, old woman.
I asked my husband. "Am I becoming a cranky, old woman?" He knew better than to answer, but the truth is, that, at times, I am. Especially when I catch myself saying things like, "Kids today! They don't know what real music is!" Or, "Been there, done that!" It's so easy, at least in my case, for cynicism and distrust to creep their way in, without the magic of little kids in the house.
So, I decided to make a conscious effort not to let that happen. For a while, I thought about dragging the kid's art back out of the attic. But, I don't think that will be necessary, though I admit, I sometimes wander around up there just to look at it.
Yesterday, I watched a cardinal fly from tree to tree in our backyard. I found myself gasping at how red and alive he was. Then, in the evening, when I looked up at the sky, the crescent moon was outlined so perfectly against the blue glow of early evening, that it nearly made me cry.
My children's art, or rather, what it pointed to, is actually still all around me. I just need to remember to stay open as I age, so that I can see it. I think that may be the real fountain of youth, the one true thing that keeps that cranky, old woman at bay.