Bean tendrils curl like memories, twisting from the tip
of my brush onto the canvas before me. Clipped crookedly
to the easel, small, bent and dark, an old sepia photo
calls memories of my grandmother into this distant studio.
To delight her only granddaughter, she let skin form
on my farina the way I liked it, brewed strong coffee for me
at an age when my parents called me “tender” and “too young,”
sweetened it with cream and sugar (and sometimes chocolate),
warmed me on winter afternoons with hugs and homemade soup,
baked cookies for me with sweet surprises hidden inside.
And her garden I remember, and her in it. As she bent
to pluck peas or pull weeds, bulges of flesh and rolls
of stocking tops showed below the hems of her slips and skirts.
I loved the neat perfection of that garden with its black, glittery soil.
Its bounty filled her pots and pans, her table, and our bellies.
The dark little photo invades my painting. Brushed in first,
tumbles of white cotton candy ride brown, flat-bottomed barges
across a brown sea of sky. I borrowed them from the photo,
too resonant in brown to paint in blue. Tall beans wind
around rows of poles and pile on one another over mounds
of clouds, their leaves sepia brown on the bottoms and greening
gradually toward the top. I paint the photo’s dark woman
secure between the rows, round as a snowman in this unlikely
season. Her grey braids I paint wrapped thin around her head,
like a shining tiara, her square face a tea-stained brown, leathery
and wrinkled as shed layers of sycamore bark.
As the old photo revives my memories, Grandma
becomes the brightest point in the painting. I paint her bib apron
pink with red flowers over a frayed blue gingham housedress.
She reaches heavy brown arms to pluck green beans from plants
I paint in greens and golds before her. The tips of their leaves overlap
her reproachful face. I remember the smile that stern face
always turned toward me and I smile in return toward the small scowl
I paint on her lips and forehead. “Don’t,” she warns my father,
“point that camera at me.” Through the shining, iridescent lens
in my father’s hands, through more than fifty years of silence,
my grandmother cannot see the granddaughter who with a brush
traces the sun-edged clouds, suggests the light in her eyes,
and defines her bean-burgeoning apron, nor see, beyond me,
the great granddaughters and great, great granddaughters
who across five generations touch her still-damp face with their smiles.
Mary Stebbins Taitt
for Nicolina deNigri Ciaranello
This poem was published in the Paterson Literary Review #39, 2011-2012