Mary finishes her mother's portrait painting and discovers an epiphany.
The Portrait Painting
My mother saw on the moon not the face of a man, but the profile of the Madonna and Child.
I don’t remember how old I was when my mother illuminated me about the image on the moon. But I was young enough to sit on her lap and old enough to recall the gorgeous night and the star-studded velvet black sky. Most importantly, the moon looked awesomely large and brilliant as if it had come a lot closer to earth. So there we were in the veranda, her arms around me as we studied the moon. It was one of those poignant moments in my life that will forever be etched in my memory.
"I still can’t see it, Ma."
"Because you’re trying too hard, child," she said. "Look beyond the image that everyone sees. Now close your eyes and clear that image from your head then open them again"
I did as she said. Alas, I saw not the face of a man, but the hazy profile of the Madonna and Child. I screamed with excitement and almost fell off my mother’s lap. "I see it, Ma! I see it!"
"Good girl. Now, isn’t it better to see the picture of a mother holding her baby than a face of some man on the moon?"
"It is, Ma. It is. Is it okay to say a prayer to Mary and Jesus when I look at it?"
"Yes, but say it to yourself only. It’s more meaningful that way."
And every night when I prayed before I went to sleep, I would stare at the image of the Madonna and Child on the moon. Then I would turn to the statue of Mary and Jesus on the shelf above my bed and recite Hail Mary.
For a long time, I continued to say the Hail Mary whenever I saw the image of the Madonna and Child on the moon. Then one day, Sister Rosario of St. Mary’s Elementary School overheard my conversation with another girl about it. Sister Rosario dragged me to the Mother Superior’s office where I received another illumination: It was wrong and sacrilegious to pray to an image on the moon.
"Why is it sacrilegious, Mother Superior," I argued, "when my eyes see the image of Mary and Jesus?"
As I knelt at the corner of the Mother Superior’s office, reciting fifty Hail Marys, I realized the true reason why Ma had told me to pray to the image on the moon to myself only. Since then, I confined my praying to the Mary and Jesus in my room.
Even now, I still see that ambiguous outline of the Madonna and Child on the moon; and when I want to, one blink and I see the face of a man. It’s like when you’re watching a slide show, you hear a click and the screen goes dark, then another image comes up.
There are times when visual ambiguity makes for better likeness, especially when viewed from a distance. Just like in cooking -- those who are outside the kitchen are likely to smell the food better than the cook can because she’s too close to it. This is my excuse for not instantly seeing my mother’s face from the indistinguishable brush strokes I created on the canvas.
Yes, my siblings did see it immediately—the suggestion of a painterly impression of Ma’s face on the canvas -- and I didn’t. According to Malia’s analysis, it had something to do with my myopic view toward our mother’s true character. She could be right. Why didn’t I see the care and appreciation my mother felt about my talents? Why did it take all these years for me to fully become aware of her goodness and martyrdom? Hmm, then again, I also failed to see the other side of the wonderful father I knew and idealized blindly. I guess I wasn’t really blessed with the acuity of mental vision and insightfulness as I thought. I have a very creative imagination, sure; but probably not the most insightful when it concerns people’s character.
Just like the image on the moon, it took a couple of blinks before I finally saw my mother’s face on the canvas. But as soon as I did, I felt my muse embrace me and I couldn’t wait to start painting Ma’s portrait.
The human face and figure present a greater challenge to the artist than landscapes, still lifes and seascapes. It involves more than simply achieving a likeness of the overall face. It has to give that feeling of atmosphere and project that certain essence in the subject’s character. Have I achieved this in my mother’s portrait that is now delineated more fully with forms? Some might even say it’s finished already and I should stop messing with it lest I ruin it, which I’ve been known to do occasionally. One of my weaknesses as an artist is not knowing when a painting is really done.
With the palette still on the flat of my left forearm and a brush on my right hand, I take a break to assess the painting. I stand well back from the easel to evaluate whether the form and colors on the painting work in harmony when viewed from a distance. I nod with satisfaction as I see that the interaction of forms is complete and subtle. I reviewed the thickly painted white highlights in her eyes and on the lower lip to give an exaggerated effect of moisture in her face, giving it the effect of life. But the portrait seems to project a feeling of melancholy in her countenance. I didn’t notice it earlier, but there is the slightest squint that suggests otherworldliness in her expression, making her gaze seem focused on the infinite. Yet, it is this introspective and enigmatic quality that also makes her look hypnotic. I didn’t plan for it to come out this way, but I think like it.
I move around the room to view it from different sides. I turn down the lights to see if the eyes would glitter even in semi-darkness to give that piercing illusion of life in her eyes. And they do! Not only that; they seem to follow me wherever I go. Of course, it’s only an illusion, but a nice effect nevertheless. It was a big gamble to experiment with very fine bits of glass that I mixed with the paint. But it paid off. I have achieved the effect I wanted.
Malia’s sudden appearance jerks me out of my concentration. "Why are you working in semi darkness?" she asks and turns up the light, then her jaws drop when she sees the painting. "Oh, my God!" she exclaims, mouth wide open in astonishment. "I can’t believe it. You’ve finished it!" She rushes toward the painting. "Mary, it’s absolutely beautiful! Is it dry?" She examines the painting closely, looking as if she’s fighting the urge to lay a finger on any part of it."
"It’s almost dry. I mixed a fast-drying medium with the paint."
"It’s unbelievable that you finished it so quickly."
"I prayed for something mystical to happen. I guess my wish came true."
"Did it ever--"
"I think I need to do a few more finishing touches."
"I don’t know where. It looks perfect to me." She cocks her head to the left, to the right then nods approvingly. "By George, she’s got it! You did it, sister. You really did it. It looks just like Ma." She leans over to scrutinize something in the painting. I hold my breath as she supports her upper body by holding on to the ends of the easel’s shelf that holds the canvas. "How did you make her eyes glow like that?"
"It’s a trade secret."
"Aw, c’mon, tell me."
"I mixed tiny bits of glass into the pigments."
It’s funny that I would be talking about an art technique used by the masters when I never took a single art class in my life. To this day, I’m still not knowledgeable about many of the terminology and techniques used in art. When other artists start shooting words at me that an art-educated person would immediately understand, I either ask for clarification or pretend that I understood or wasn’t listening.
"Fascinating," Malia says. "I really love that special glow in the light." She takes a few steps back, not taking her eyes off the painting. I give a little sigh of relief that she’s now standing away from the painting. Accidents happen, and she’s the most accident-prone person I know. Falling off a tree when she was twelve that paralyzed her for two years is an everlasting testament to that.
"Even back here, the eyes seem to sparkle," she says. "As if they’re alive."
"I’m really pleased you’re happy with the painting."
"Happy? I’m ecstatic. You’ve found a way to immortalize Ma. By the way, where did you get the pieces of glass?"
"From one of your precious crystals," I say guiltily. She darts me a squinted look with furrowed brows. "Relax, it was the one with the crack. You even mentioned sometime ago that you might throw it away because no one’s going to buy it when you move to the States. Plus, aren’t you happy that you’ve got some contribution to this artwork?"
She ponders my words for a moment. "Well, when you put it that way—."
"You really think Ma is going to love this?"
"Not just Ma. Everybody’s going to love it. You finally did something to put Ma in a place of honor. I think this might be your redemption from all the years that you’ve dishonored her."
There she goes again with that knife in my heart. "I’ve dishonored Ma?"
"Well . . . that’s too harsh of a word. You know I’m not as good as you in choosing just the right word to describe something. I’m sorry I said that. Forget about it."
"It’s forgotten," I say, but it’s not true. Her occasional judgmental remarks get on my nerves sometimes. Because she’s older, I try not to fight with her. Our parents raised us to respect our elders irrespective of the difference in our ages. Anyway, she might be right about my unconscious attitude about our mother.
"She would have been about your age then."
"I think you’re right," I say, trying to remember the date on the original drawing.
"I don’t remember that picture. Where did you get it? Or did you just imagine it?"
"Just from memory," I say.
I have not shown the contents of the envelopes to my siblings. I wanted to wait till the emotions of the discovery have settled down. One thing that my family has been admirable of is the fact that we try to avoid anything that might result in any one feeling to be a favored child. Our parents were very careful of that. Jealousy or envy never had any place in our huge family.
The fact that our mother kept all those mementos from my youth shows that she felt a lot of affection and love for me, not to mention the admiration and respect for my talents. She never made me feel these things, and I imagine that it's because she didn't want my brothers and sisters to think that I was favored. Ha! Imagine that.
“You're simply amazing, sister. I do wonder sometimes where your artistic talents would have taken you if you had gotten any formal training."
"I can’t blame our parents," I say. "With nine children to feed, an art school like the one in Bacolor was simply out of reach."
"True." She gestures to go back upstairs. "I can't wait for Johnny and Lisa to see the painting."
I am glad Malia's gone. I need more time to complete the art project. Not Ma's portrait, but the secret painting on the back of it.
Except for my signature, none of the paintings I’ve done in my life contains anything other than the artwork on the canvas – until now. Directly on the back side of the canvas is another painting, about a tenth the size of Ma's portrait on the front. It is a picture of a mother and child on the moon -- a clear profile of my mother holding me on her lap -- reminiscent of that wonderful moment in time at the veranda.
I wonder what kind of controversy it may create if and when many years from now they discover the painting behind the painting. Will it increase or decrease the value of the artwork? I guess it depends on where my talent takes me.
I take my camera and take pictures of both paintings, wondering if I should tell my family about the secret painting. I decide not to, for now. I can always show the picture to them later on. So, I finalize the secret painting by applying layers of gesso over it, so that the only way anyone can ever see it when I'm dead and famous, is through x-ray or reflectography.
(End of Chapter Eighteen)
Please proceed to the next chapter.