A Glimpse of Color
The mother had been gone for a long time. She was a painter and had decided that she needed to know intimately the colors of the Mediterranean Sea; a painter could not paint without a deep, personal bond with that body of water. Now, as she explored the daughter's cottage facing the North Atlantic Ocean, she knew she had been right. She already missed the view from that little house in Llanqa, a village tucked along the coast of southern Spain.
The daughter spent her days working in a bookstore in town, and while she was away the mother would snoop, peeping into boxes and drawers and cabinets throughout the cottage. She didn't think it was spying—she just wanted to understand the woman the daughter had become. After noticing the stacks of books about Buddhism on the daughter's nightstand, the mother asked her, “So, are you a Buddhist?”
“I like it; it makes sense to me, but I don't meditate. I guess I'm not.”
In the mother's family they were mostly artists. The mother recognized the oil painting done by her great-grandmother when she was eighty-six years old, the watercolor of a single oak tree painted by her uncle, several photographs of erotic flowers taken by her brother. The mother's father had been a woodworker, and there were several pieces of antique furniture he had restored: the daughter's dresser, a framed mirror, and a round mahogany table hidden under piles of bills and coffee mugs and books. The mother was surprised she had left behind all those family relics. The items made the daughter feel connected to a family.
The mother especially liked that the daughter hung a picture she had painted in the center of the living room. It was an impressionistic oil painting of the daughter when she was young. The mother had dressed her in a sunhat with feathers and flowers and a lacy dress and she was barefoot sitting on decaying wooden steps in a garden. “I'm glad you have the painting,” the mother said.
The daughter had always known that the painting was not meant for her, it was meant to make the mother a successful artist. The art dealer told the mother it was a nice painting, but the market was flooded with impressionistic posters—there was nothing to be done. It never became a poster hung in the living rooms of many people; it was only one painting that hung in a little seaside cottage.
Another day, the mother examined the large map with little pins stuck everywhere, which leaned against the wall. She was surprised that the daughter had traveled so much.
That evening, they had dinner on the deck—facing the gray, foamy water—and the mother said, “You have traveled all over the world.”
“Some people call it wanderlust. It was hard for me to settle down, but I've lived here a long time now and don't feel like going anywhere. A walk along the beach seems to be enough.”
“I traveled throughout Europe, and my favorite place was Greece. The colors in that country are marvelous. Photographers, painters, poets, they all flock there for inspiration.” The mother was trying to impress the daughter.
The daughter had been to Greece. She had enjoyed the friendliness and charm of the people, the fresh flavors of tomatoes and feta cheese, and the impact of violent volcanic forces on nature, but she didn't feel like mentioning it to the mother.
There were a lot of things she didn't feel like mentioning, such as that she enjoyed writing. She didn't consider herself to be a writer, she just liked to make-up stories about people and their lives. She had been engaged once, but it ended before marriage—and she yearned to have children but now believed it was too late.
Instead, she asked, “What are your plans?”
The mother stared out at the turbulent ocean—the white caps flipping like large seagulls—her eyes became dark and narrow. The mother realized it was strange for her to have just shown up there without warning or an explanation. She had been gone for so long. “I have no plans; I just wanted to see you.”
The daughter felt a little sorry. “Well, you can stay for as long as you like. I'm not going anywhere.” The daughter rose and collected their plates dappled with bits of leftover salad and baguette crumbs and took the dishes into the kitchen. The mother didn't offer to help.
The daughter began to wash the dishes in the old ceramic sink, stained with yellow rust and chipped at the edges. Over the sink was a window with a view of the dunes with long pale beach grass, beige sand and the gray waters. It was soothing, the calm faded palette of colors that faced the daughter every day. Even the sky was always a dull shade of blue, hardly blue at all. If I were a painter, I would use these palettes of color—only hints of color, barely discernable, she thought.
The daughter went back outside wearing a wool sweater and sat in an old wooden chair made comfortable by damp, moldy cushions. She could tell the mother was impatient, yearning for something more exciting and alive and colorful like other seas in far away places. The mother wanted to hear music and see dancing. “Remember when your father used to play flamenco on his classical guitar? When you were a child you used to dance and keep rhythm with castanets.”
“Yes, I remember. That was before you left.” And the daughter remembered that the father never played the guitar after that.
On Sunday the daughter decided to take a walk on the beach. It was a cloudy day, and she wore rubber boots and carried a spading shovel and bucket. “I'm going clam digging in the tidal mud flats. You can come.”
“Do you clam dig often? Is it a hobby?” The mother asked, curious to know more about the daughter.
“I like it; it's relaxing.”
“How do you do it? What does one need to know to dig for clams?”
They were on the deck, facing the water, and the daughter thought for a moment.
“There's not much you need to know. You look for holes in the muddy sand; it's where they draw in and expel water—for eating and breathing. Dig gently to avoid breaking their soft shell. Replace the small ones under a thin layer of sand so that they are protected, but too much sand will smother them.”
“How did you learn so much about clams?”
“From a book.”
“You know, I think you are a Buddhist,” the mother said thoughtfully.
The mother decided to stay at home. She preferred to watch the beach from a short distance away than actually make physical contact with it—all the sand that sticks on everything was a nuisance, and the wind made the mother feel too flighty. The mother didn't know it, but she was that way with a lot of things: admiring from a short distance.
She watched the daughter walk down the beach, until she became just a blurred speckle. The mother could barely see the daughter walk into the tidal flats and kneel. She could see the bright yellow of the boots she wore and the green of the bucket. The mother always saw colors.
A few hours later, the daughter was walking up the rotting, loose steps, which led from the sand dunes to her deck. She was wet and her long hair was a tangled mess and she smelled like the ocean. The mother thought she looked like a real seaman. The daughter set down the bucket and it was half full with clams.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” the mother asked.
The daughter didn't answer because she was watching an old man walking along the beach. It began to rain lightly.
“Who is that?” the mother asked.
“I don't know his name, but he walks by every day. It's strange that I don't know his name. He's always barefoot and in the same clothes.”
The mother noticed his yellowish-white hair and dark-tanned skin. He wore a black t-shirt and black shorts and carried a twisted, knotty walking stick. He didn't look up at them as he passed by, just kept his head facing the ocean.
“Just like the old man and the sea. He looks homeless.”
“Perhaps he is.” The daughter didn't want to ask the mother if she was homeless too. The daughter didn't feel like worrying about cooking another nice meal. She wanted to eat cheese and crackers, while curled up in her bed, and watch a movie--a movie with Cary Grant. “So what shall we do now?”
The mother knew she was a bother just showing up after all these years. She didn't even know why she came, but now she seemed to be stuck. She couldn't figure out what she was supposed to do. I am alone, she thought.
The daughter was alone, too. Somehow, they both had ended up alone.
The next morning, the daughter knew that the mother had left. There was a space within the cottage that had been occupied, but now the daughter could feel it empty. There was a note on the kitchen table which thanked her for everything, and which also told her: it isn't good to spend too much time alone. You should invite the old man for a clambake—isn't that what you're supposed to do with clams? What does the book say?
The daughter was surprised that the impressionistic painting was still there. She thought it would be a temptation for the mother, all those rich colors, and the blues of the sky and of the flowers looked just like a sea from a far away place. But there it hung in the very same place, just as it had for many years.
words: Claire Ibarra, Florida/Peru (homepage)
This story was previously published in the Spring 2008 issue of Natural Bridge.
image: 'palm beach' - Molly Sutton Kiefer, Minnesota (field work)
another family story from the ocean's side: Twelve Stories (#22)