The Case of the Missing Painting

Did I detect a touch of accusation in my principal’s voice? A few weeks into the new school year, Mrs. Morgan came down to my room, “Virginia, do you know what happened to Andy’s painting in the teacher’s lounge? I've looked everywhere. You were my last hope.” My concern matched hers. We agreed to keep a lookout, but one day led to another and the school year wore on.

Andy Woods, our quiet introverted art teacher for the first few years that I taught second grade at South Polk Elementary School, challenged those who were artistically talented while encouraging the ones with no more talent than I have. I think of her when October comes.

Andy left us the first time to have surgery for breast cancer. She downplayed her concern, talking to only a few of us with whom she had become close. I bemoaned my inability to teach art to my students while she was out. She knew I could put all my artistic ability in a thimble and still have room for my finger. Smiling, she said, “You can. Just tell them to use all their space and realize that nothing is just one color.”

When Andy came back to inspire our creative and noncreative students, we rejoiced and settled comfortably – until the cancer returned aggressively a couple of years later to the other breast. The group of friends mourned with her, unwilling to accept the diagnosis that she would not return and treatment would be palliative.

After Andy died, Mrs. Morgan asked me to do a eulogy at faculty meeting. Using Andy’s words, I said she had filled all her space and had painted her world with a myriad of colors. Mrs. Morgan placed her favorites, Andy’s clown paintings, around her office. Andy’s husband gave us a mixed media painting for the teacher’s lounge that visualized sitting on the patio in the fall with the morning paper and a cup of coffee. We enjoyed it, and then it went missing – for a while.

Late one afternoon toward the end of the school year, when almost everyone had gone home, Mrs. Morgan returned to my room, beckoning me to come with her. In the teacher’s lounge, she pulled something from behind the soft drink machine – Andy’s painting! The painters had taken it down the summer before and stuck it behind the machine rather than replacing it on the wall. “Take it with you,” she said. “You are the last one working here that was close to Andy, and I have the clowns.”

Truthfully, it doesn’t have to be October for me to think of Andy. The painting hangs where I see it when I eat or drink coffee. But in Breast Cancer Month especially, it makes me hope for the day when we will be rid of this terrible disease for Andy and for people like her who fill all their space with color and beauty. 


Lightning Men

In his novel set in 1950s Atlanta, Thomas Mullen borrows his title Lightning Men from Nazi Germany. In the prologue, Jeremiah, newly released from prison is told one of three things happen when a Negro is released from jail: (1) his family or friends pick him up, (2) the prison takes him by bus to the train where his people meet him. or (3) they give him about seventy-five cents and let the prisoner walk. By the time the prologue is finished, crime has begun and the writing has seized the reader. 

The body of the novel has the police department chasing drugs and alcohol and solving murders while keeping a line drawn between the white and black officers with both groups wondering who among them are the corrupt. There’s a group of Columbians with the Nazi-style lightning bolt on their sleeves which now reappears on street signs. The policemen’s personal stories weave in and out and color their own hand at justice, giving hard choices between family and the law.

As tensions escalate over black families moving into “white” neighborhoods, Mullen draws a parallel: “‘Lightning men,’ the doughboys had called the SS troopers. But they were all lightning men. Not just the Columbians but the Klansmen, too, and the neighborhood association that had offered to buy Hannah’s house as if that were a legitimate, regular ol’ business arrangement shorn of threats.”

Such a tangle of multiple stories keep the reader on edge pondering if any satisfying ending can come of all this – and yet it does with an ending that left me shaking my head and saying, “I didn’t see that coming.”


They're Here!

Waiting patiently doesn’t happen to be one of my virtues. Early this year, I was alerted that I would get an invitation from the United States Postal Service to the first day of issue ceremony for forever stamps honoring The Snowy Day. This picture book by Ezra Jack Keats became a pioneer in diversity when Ezra chose a clipping from Life Magazine of a little black boy that he had saved for twenty years for his model of a child having fun in the snow.

I heard on good authority that in the planning discussion for the event, someone suggested it would be convenient and easy to send out RSVP invitations by email. You might rightly guess how that went over with the post office. USPS assured the group that the postal service would mail cards properly in envelopes. I concur with their decision for quite another reason. Email may be efficient, but a Snowy Day card makes a much cuter keepsake than an email printout!

I’ve really enjoyed the irony of stamps created to honor Ezra’s artwork in light of one of his childhood escapades. Already an artist, he drew some exotic stamps and carefully cut perforated edges around them with his sister’s manicure scissors. He traded his bogus creations to the most serious stamp collector in his neighborhood for some of his rarest stamps. All went well until his friend took Ezra’s handiwork into good daylight and realized he had been duped. Ezra holed up in his tenement apartment home while the friend rained down curses on him and his entire family. In the interest of his own longevity, Ezra gave the rare stamps back.  

When my invitation finally came last month, I stopped at the Hattiesburg post office to see if these stamps would be available on the October 4 issue date. The postal clerks were busy and not sure what special stamps were in the back. If you remember what I said about my lack of patience, you can probably guess what came next. I came home and preordered my stamps!


Miguel's Brave Knight

Even though I’m a big fan of both Margarita Engel and Raul Colon, I had my doubts that a biography of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra would attract young readers. Why would they care about the man credited with writing the first modern novel?

In their book Miguel’s Brave Knight, Margarita uses word snippets like “If Only,” “Disaster,” or “Hoping” to title each free verse poem that tells Miguel’s story. Her fictionalized biography of a daydreamer whose gambling father keeps the family courting financial disaster doesn’t require a knowledge of Don Quixote to be interesting.  Storytellers and teachers become the quiet heroes in Miguel’s life.

The cover illustration tips off the beauty that will be found inside. Raul Colon’s paintings help tell the story and create shadows of Margarita’s titles. My favorite painting illustrates the poem titled “Comfort.” A pensive dog sits beside the daydreaming boy while his imagination pictured above shows a brave knight on his steed against a starry night – a foreshadowing of the novel Cervantes will one day write.

In words and pictures, Margarita and Raul portray a time when people feared imagination enough to burn books and a boy who already knew that imagination could be saved by a brave knight. Both writer and illustrator add information at the end giving interesting personal experiences with the work of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. There is also a short note about the historical setting and another about the life of Cervantes.

No longer a doubter, I see this book as one that a young reader will return to many times to read the words and savor the art, just like this older reader who wrote the review.


Sixth Anniversary

Six years! As the calendar turns from September to October, I add an anniversary to this blog. When I started, I followed advice and had several entries written ahead – just in case. I’ve tried with some success to continue that practice so I don’t wake up on blogging morning without something to say. (Some would doubt that I ever wake up with nothing to say, but I’m not going there for this blog.)

I had no idea how well I could stick to my plan of blogging twice a week. Turns out, I’ve been pretty consistent. One skip came during a trip to England with my sister when I had no Internet access. Another blog was late in the day rather than early morning this year because we were making a tour of the national parks, and sometimes lacked Internet access.

This has been an interesting process. Readers that I see regularly may start conversations where the blog left off. Sometimes I’ve been surprised as I began an anecdote with an acquaintance who says, “Oh, I know that already. I read it on your blog.” One of my favorites came when someone began to introduce me to a friend of my sister’s and he said, “Oh, I know who you are. You’re ‘Readin’, Ritin’, But Not Much ‘Rithmetic.”

Over the six years, a fairly consistent pattern has developed with approximately half the entries being some kind of commentary on life and half book reviews. Some might classify as both. The life commentary tends to get the most immediate reaction with the book reviews getting more hits in perpetuity. As I promised in an early blog, I only review books I can recommend.

Since I’ve proved to myself I can keep a twice a week schedule and enjoy it at least most of the time, I’m all set to start year seven.

The sixth anniversary celebration calls for candy or iron in the traditional column or wood in the modern column. Al’s already built everything we can use in wood, and I can think of nothing I need in iron – certainly not if you are thinking of the iron that presses out wrinkles and makes sharp creases in pants. I guess I’ll have to settle for candy. So let’s light the candles and eat the dark chocolate!