Literary nonfiction peice about my grandmother, Cecelia.
I’m staring at a painting my grandmother is working on when she asks me suddenly, “Do you think one good thing is good enough?” The canvas is filled with waves of thick cerulean and navy and white. My grandmother is a perfectionist, so it’s unusual for her to talk in such a positive way about her work. She rarely ever felt like a piece was finished, always painting over it, adding more color here, more texture there. The existentialism layered in her question was not uncommon though. She had a way of speaking comparable to a poet or a philosopher, though being an artist, she was neither. Like when we painted together, as I would fumble with my canvas, she would tell me that there are no mistakes in art, “You can always paint over paint.”
I am deep in the mountains of New Mexico at my grandparents’ home. It’s a little before 7 am, my subconscious waking me up at this time no matter when I fall asleep. The first thing I notice is the temperature of the tile floor against my bare feet. How cold it is in this house, even in the warm months­. Silently, I make my way to the kitchen, tiptoeing around my sleeping sister. I see my grandmother setting up paints and canvases for us—she expects me this early since we are both inclined to be up before anyone else ever is.

Today, it’s warm and so she lays everything on the deck outside for us. She picks up a brush, and I notice how quiet it is— the only sound being the hummingbirds flying beside the feeder. I watch carefully as her hand comes down to brush the canvas with warm shades of orange and red and yellow. So rich I wonder if she drained the color straight from the leaves surrounding us. But it’s the texture that draws me in; her paintings always seem to be reaching off the canvas in peaks like soft buttercream—begging to be traced by my fingertips. I want so badly to be able to move like she does, to create what she can. We sit together and she teaches me how as we wait for the rest of the house to wake too.
Houses are loud even in their silence—it’s why I’ve always been a morning person. There is a certain melody that’s created when people turn a house into a home. Early mornings feel like turning that volume down for a few hours. The sounds are softer, gentler, and full of hope that only the early hours of a day can offer. There is safety in mornings. I liked that I wasn’t alone, but that I was left alone. I could do anything I wanted or nothing at all. This was the closest thing I had to controlling time.

I inherited much of who I am from my grandmother. My love of mornings was hers before it was mine. Even my name was hers before it became mine. My dad would pull out old photos of her just to show me how much we looked alike. Every commonality we shared felt like a validation of myself growing up when I was first learning who I wanted to be. Mornings were the time of day we celebrated this together without ever saying it. She and I shared this special thing, one that no one else in my life did. I had someone to sit in the silence with, someone who understood why I wanted to, and it made pride swell in my chest.

It’s hard to hold onto the things we cherished as children, though.

Our personalities change as we grow up—so subtly in the short term that it’s almost imperceptible to us. Sometimes we don’t notice ourselves changing until years pass and we are suddenly struck by how pronounced these changes have become. We look back at pictures of ourselves and barely recognize that person. Before expectations and outside influences wore us in like new shoes. I think we hold onto parts of ourselves, like mornings with our grandmother, because it’s all we have left.

As I started high school and then early college though, one of the first things I lost was my mornings. Naturally, I had less and less time to enjoy them with increasing responsibilities. The ritual of my mornings had become shorter and shorter as I got older and the space between her house in New Mexico and mine in Pennsylvania widened. I forgot what it felt like to breathe the thin mountain air and walk away from our painting sessions smelling of sharp turpentine. Guilt fell on me, cold and heavy like sheets of snow.

My grandmother died during the pandemic my last year of college. The quarantine orders brought me home from university, but home was somewhere different now. I took a plane to see my dad who moved to Tennessee so I could go through some of her belongings. He led me and my sister into the basement where we opened up large cardboard boxes on the floor. The first one came open with the slice of a razor and we stared at the orange and red and yellow of the canvases inside. My hands felt numb as I pulled out all of her paintings we had left. My sister and I were given one last box labeled specifically as ours. I twisted the silver ring on my left hand, one I got with her years ago as we pulled out her painting aprons, palette knives, and half-filled tubes of oil paint. Staring at it all, I remember her question from years ago, and I think to myself—one good thing does feel good enough. One good thing feels like all I have.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and this is true even with death. Losing someone is carrying them with you at all times, but never really having them with you ever again. But, losing someone in a pandemic is a type of distance I never knew before. I couldn’t wear a mask and stand six feet from her. I couldn’t grab her hand, the one she painted with, and hold it in mine. 1,499 miles—that’s how much distance separated us. So instead, on the morning of her funeral, my sister and I watched the service through a live stream on our laptop.

After she ran out of mornings, I held onto mine with a possessive grip—even if they felt different without the woman with whom I started them. I tried to reclaim a piece of what I lost growing up. I started to wake up early again, this time naturally, instead of from an alarm on my phone. I wanted to be closer to her, and mornings felt like our bridge.
“Do you think one good thing is good enough?” she asked me all those summers ago. I didn’t know how to respond when she asked me then. We were talking about her art at the time, but the sentiment always felt like it went beyond painting. I became obsessed with analyzing and dissecting that moment. It wasn’t the question I couldn’t shake though— it was my need for an answer. I realized that it wasn’t a question that warranted an answer at all, it was rhetorical. I let myself curl up in this fact and felt only freedom. If I can do one really good thing, it’ll be more than enough.

The question is a part of me now. It sits with me every morning, and I let it.

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