Recently, I spent a few weeks visiting with my grandmother in the retirement home in France where she lives now. On the third day of visiting, I started to draw her on a whim while my mother painted her mother’s nails.
I only had a red pen and my small agenda notebook to work with.
That first day, the results of my efforts were not impressive.
I realized that my challenges were twofold: 1) I’d gone far too long without doing some life drawing, and 2) I needed to relearn my grandmother’s face since I hadn’t drawn or painted her in a while.
As the days wore one, I steadily improved, aided in part by a wider array of markers and bigger notebook.
A few days in, I was already able to capture more fleeting expressions, like in this image of my grandmother sucking on a hard candy.
Every day, I would start multiple drawings, following my Mamy as she interacted with us and with the world around her.
I would finish whichever ones her natural movements allowed me to focus on.
My grandmother found my drawings more interesting than photos—all of which are of people she does not recognize anymore, including those of me, my mother, and my Mamy’s own dead husband.
She didn’t necessarily see herself in my sketches or even like my representations of her, but she enjoyed my attentive gaze and appreciated the human touch of an image produced by marker and pen on paper.
To begin with, I concentrated on capturing her smiling, but, while she does often smile, she just as easily has more concentrated or distracted looks on her face.
It seemed a shame to edit her being and my memory of her just to comfort myself.
I don’t think I managed to depict her profile properly, though this is probably the closest I came.
Here, Mamy was watching me as I drew.
On this day, she was tired.
But we’d just cut and washed her hair, so, when I took the camera out, she found the energy to smile because she knew she was looking good.
Another attempt at her profile. I find that angle hard enough to capture when I’m working from a photograph…!
Not a successful drawing day for me altogether.
On the last day of our visit, Mamy was not feeling well. She was napping in her room when we arrived instead of waiting eagerly in the lobby for my mother and me—two people whom she doesn’t recognize but does rather like. It was sad visiting her daily and knowing all the while that we’d have to leave her for another year all too soon, but it was sadder still on our final day in Brittany when she was sick in bed.
Then again, it’s always been like this for me with my grandparents—intense moments of love and togetherness followed by a year without seeing each other while I went back to my life in the US. And it’s always been hard on me and on them, but, as my grandmother once pointed out, at least we have those weeks together now and then.