In 1998, I began the last drawing I would ever do for Tisolay. I knew it at the time, too. My sweet girl was finally, at the age of 93, starting to show her age. Ever since Granddaddy died 12 years before, I had made it a point to involve her in all sorts of projects; initially, to fight her desire to follow him, and to give her a reason to stay with me, and then later, just to keep her aging mind engaged. Everything we ever did together was fun, so all this was was more of the same, just on a more ambitious scale. This drawing was one of many wonderful projects we took on together. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it wasn’t all for her. It was also around this time, out of the blue and for no reason in particular that I can remember, that I first felt in my gut and my heart, “Oh my God, she’s gonna die and I have no idea how to do life without her.” I started actively appreciating ever minute with her and telling her so, and thanking her for everything she had meant to me for 40 years. And I started preparing myself, like a slow goodbye that didn’t have to be acted on for a while, and used our projects toward that end.
. Ever since I was tiny, she’d loved to watch me draw. We’d go out on the screen porch where she’d set me up at the glass table in my tiny white wicker rocking chair, a pad of paper, and a tin of watercolors. When I got older, after Granddaddy died, I took over his blue canvas chaise lounge, with the lamp in the corner, and would spread out my Prismacolors across the same glass table. By then, my medium had become colored pencil. So some time in 1997, I told her I felt like doing a big drawing project, a still life of her favorite things, and I told her to pick what would be in it. A few things I knew she would pick; the porcelain figurine of the girl dancing in the waves that she always said was me on the beach in Belize, the aquamarine ring Granddaddy brought back from Brazil for her “before they were even engaged!”, much to Tiwazzo’s disapproval (her mother), and Papa Sitges’ incredible Meerschaum pipe, carved into a little boy and his hunting dogs in tow. I also figured she’d pick a piece of her beloved cobalt Wedgwood, and Granddaddy’s gold pocket watch and chain, a central figure in our inside joke that Granddaddy was born bald, in a three-piece suit and watch chain, fully clad, like Minerva. I was surprised, though, and charmed when she brought out Mama Sitges’ watch as well, so dainty and more delicately etched. I hadn’t seen or thought about it for decades.
Also belonging to Mama Sitges were her little desk clock in its leather case and the mother-of-pearl opera glasses Mama Sitges had lent Tisolay when she was still at the Conservatory and Granddaddy was inviting her to every concert and musical event in New Orleans “in furtherance of her studies”, lest any of her other suitors gain a toe-hold.
Something else I hadn’t seen since I was little, out from a cedar box of her mother’s most fragile things, was Tiwazzo’s old French alphabet primmer, yellowed and crumbling, its disintegrating cover fortified by an old leftover square of blue-and-white toile from the library upholstery. We held our breaths while we gingerly opened it to the page with “J for jardinier”, using her father’s gold nib pen and his massive gold pocket watch, the heaviest of the three, to hold it open. Punctuating the gardening theme so central to Tisolay’s day-to-day life was a silver cup and saucer that we filled with flowers from the yard, the silver set being a krewe favor from one of the many Mardi Gras balls they used to go to. I don’t remember whose idea it was, but I added at the last minute a pair of Granddaddy’s black mother-of-pearl dress cufflinks from his tails jacket.
Adding height to one side was a crystal candlestick the wife of one of Granddaddy’s bank investors had given her, and above it, Mama Sitges’ black lacquer music stand. And beneath the whole, rounding out the collection, went a whisper-fine, yellow Belgian-lace handkerchief that had been a wedding present from one of her young piano students, little Mathilde Gray, who became a well-known Louisiana oil heiress and philanthropist.
A roll of film’s worth of photo studies, then several months of lazy afternoon visits in Granddaddy’s chaise lounge and innumerable pots of tea, and voila, “Tisolay’s Favorite Things” is what came of it. I had never done an exercise in light before, let alone a piece of cut lead crystal, or done such detail work as with the lace, but the way I figured it, Granddaddy was sitting on my shoulder for this one.
Like so many things, there is bitter with the sweet. When we were done, Tisolay insisted that I take everything home with me, in a whisper, as if she were afraid of someone overhearing. It was her veiled way of telling me that she worried about whether my mother would honor any bequests she made directly to me in her will. My mother was a strange and complex creature with her father’s sense of duty and, for a select few, a warrior’s loyalty, who had never had the makings of motherhood, yet was forced into it by the expectations of a sexist 1950s society that then turned on her, criticizing her every move as a mother. After her idyllic childhood marked by an only-child’s drive and a valedictorian’s success at everything she did, I became the symbol of her failure as a mother, and later, daughter, and Ti and I both understood that her gratitude to her and guilt over me was tinged with bitterness and denial. I never doubted that my mother knew how magical her mother was, but something in her early married years put up a wall that shut her off from engaging in it anymore. Years later, I would be blindsided by how right Tisolay had been in her fears, but I still believe what I told her then, that the real treasure was something no one could take away from me, the wealth of experiences and memories she had given me.
Thanks for letting me hand the memories of Tisolay over to you, to carry forward after I’m gone. ______ © postkatrinastella – all rights reserved.