By Katherine Bonn
My mom admitted to me that she hates the color of my old bedroom, a peach like those circus peanut candies, with the air of confessing that she never liked a meal I’d proudly made her for years. I had just had my second baby and she had flown into town to help out. We were walking to the park for some much-needed outside time for my four-year-old. I looked over at her and studied her face, trying to reconcile this information with what I knew to be true. She and my dad had made me paint over my bedroom walls where I’d drawn a mural I loved, and it never felt like home after that.
As my mom’s admission about that ugly shade sunk in, I felt bitter. What’s this? I’m supposed to understand my parents better now that I have kids myself, aren’t I? Sometimes I do, but I often wonder, “what the hell were they thinking?”
Back in the early nineties, I was in high school and desperately clinging to what remained of my creativity that hadn’t been sapped out by conventional expectations. I wrote poems on my math tests and dug through my parents closets despite their offers to buy me new clothes. My dad’s old shop coat was my favorite accessory. It paired well with combat boots and a homemade beaded necklace. I hadn’t decided whether or not I wanted to keep up with shaving my armpits.
That was when my parents decided it was time to update the old shag carpet and mint green walls in my bedroom that had been there since the seventies. It was just the creative outlet I had been looking for. I saw a way I could make the room, that hadn’t changed for years, my own. When the time came to paint those walls, I knew right away what I would do, even if I didn’t know at the time why I was doing it. I would fill them with parts of me.
I knew my parents wouldn’t approve so I started in before I lost my chance. I sat up in bed late at night, after the house was asleep, and created my first doodle by dim reading light. It was tiny, no more than two inches across, and partially obscured by the mess in my teenage bedroom, but it opened in me a perceived gateway to the possibility of a mural encompassing my space. It opened me to the possibility of me as a real artist. For the first time that I could remember, I was prepared to stick with the project from start to finish. This time I wouldn’t get bored. This time I wouldn’t give up.
I practiced my argument in my head and approached my mom in the kitchen. I knew it was unlikely my parents would concede, but I felt the idea needed to be heard and perhaps we could come to some equitable agreement. They could paint over it when I moved out. Or wait until I finished and then decide. I approached my mom expecting a discussion, at worst an argument.
“Mom, since we have to re-do my room anyway, I want to paint on the walls.” I leaned my shoulder against the doorway between the kitchen and living room.
She moved to the cupboard to take out plates and glasses. “Yeah, you can help. We can go pick out a color this weekend.”
“I mean, I want to paint on the wall like a canvas. Like, make a painting on it.”
My mom stopped was she was doing and turned to look at me. To give me a look, rather. That look that said, you’re saying something weird. Don’t embarrass me. That look that often came when I was being myself, always the weird one. The only girl in sixth grade who didn’t like The New Kids on the Block. The one whose teacher wrote, “marches to the beat of her own drummer” on her report card. I know my mom loved those things about me. She loved that I was creative and did things my own way, until it conflicted with the right way.
“But you’re going to paint it anyway. Just let me make something on it first. We can re-paint it later.”
Her tone told me I was requesting something that was not proper. “It’s not proper” being the phrase she pulled out whenever she couldn’t think of a good reason to tell her weird daughter why or why not. She didn’t look at me again. I knew that, to her, there wasn’t a discussion to be had.
Still, I clung to the hope that she would come around. I secretly believed I was a natural artist who would create something breath-taking. They would look at my work in progress and be so impressed that they’d put off painting the walls to see where I was going with the mural. When it was finished, I figured they wouldn’t want to stifle me; they wouldn’t want to destroy something on which I had worked so hard. They’d be proud, like when I tested into honors classes. Maybe they’d shake their heads and smile like parents do when their sensitive child makes a mess bringing worms in from the rain.
I gathered my art supplies, dumped them all on the floor in a chaotic pile and turned to the mint green wall. Late at night, while the rest of the house slept, adrenaline fueled by sleep-deprivation surged me into a creative daze. I tried to put my invisible hurt into images and words. Disappointment became a poem in colored pencil, fear was a drawing of Earth dripping blood. Random expressions like “believe” arched across full lengths of wall. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to believe in, but I knew there had to be something. I listened to angry metal and alternative bands like Stone Temple Pilots and attempted to fill the walls with everything inside of me that I couldn’t explain, least of all to my parents. This was the room where I cried myself to sleep obsessing over overwhelming terrors, some certainly exaggerated, many not and all very real.
They must have noticed the mural growing on my wall, but they never said a word about it. My mom’s response was to show me paint samples, all of which were different shades of white: snow, ivory, baby powder.
Every emotion was so intense back then. My teenage brain with its under-developed prefrontal cortex and those coursing waves of insatiable hormones assaulted me during the cold, empty hours when I was supposed to be asleep. I would sometimes look out the window at the neighborhood, nothing but shadows, my nose pressed against the frigid glass separating me from the dead of Minnesota winter. And that is how the neighborhood looked to me. Not like everyone was asleep, but that they were gone. And I was alone. So I would continue to slip deeper into the damp bog of depression until I was lying on the floor of my room, staring up at those bare mint green walls.
The various shades of white my mom showed me gave me a chill. I couldn’t imagine enveloping myself in another layer of blankness.
The mural became something larger than an art project. It made my room into a place where I could be safe. I could create without the anxiety of making a mistake. The chaos of a mural freed me from the constant worry of being less-than-perfect. The first mark I made on the wall was like opening a prison gate. The wall would be a work-in-progress. If I grew to dislike part of it, I would simply paint over it and wouldn’t worry if it didn’t fit with the rest.
I fought passively to keep the mural I’d created. Night after night I built on to it, hoping my parents would see what it could become and how important it was to me.
They fought with their own ammunition. Silence. And the unspoken understanding that I would lose.
I had been told enough times that decisions were not mine to make as long as I lived under their roof. I was old enough to know that they had a hard time thinking differently. Why couldn’t my bedroom wall be a canvas? Because it’s just not something people do. I did not fight openly with words because I knew it was futile.
For weeks I worked the walls, but I knew nothing I created would lead to a Billy Elliot moment until one night I let myself forget what I was working against and pulled out the acrylic paints. I painted with a passion instead of a plan.
Each piece on that wall felt like my heart pried open and hung on display, but the one that left me the most vulnerable was a representation in acrylic of the song Jeremy by Pearl Jam. It was a human figure, “arms raised in a V”, atop a dark mountain, the mountain dwarfed by the immensity of the person it held aloft.
I felt powerless, like the world was attacking me from all corners and that painting represented the power I needed to keep going. I was teetering on the brink of being in a difficult place in my life and something so much darker. That painting delved into that darkness and showed me how terrified I was of going there. In the end of the song, Jeremy turned the gun on himself. I never did.
That painting represented the battle I was waging every day that no one knew about. I was fighting to be my own unique, dorky self in a homogenous community that didn’t accept outliers. The weakness I felt: crying myself to sleep, the self-loathing, the constant barrage of fear, were all absent from that painting. I stood on the mountaintop. I was powerful. In the song, the metaphor may have represented something violent, but to me it represented a shield that helped me push through the hardest years of my life.
It was the best I’d ever done and to this day has been the only time I’d ever considered I might have a talent for painting. When it was complete, I stood back and for a moment was hopeful they would accept it. That they would accept me.
In the end, they painted over all of it.
If there was one thing my parents stone-cold persistence taught me, it was how to know when I was beat.
They did let me choose the paint color and the carpeting. After all, it was my room. Once I accepted that my room wouldn’t be the space I wanted it to be, I didn’t care anymore. I chose circus peanut peach because it wasn’t pink or white or another boring color that would remind me of how stifled I felt. I chose it because it was warm and bright. Because it would remind me of sunsets, a campfire, or peach cobbler. But I didn’t like it. It was a consolation prize. And now speaking with my mother 20 years later, I find out no one was happy about it.
My current home is the small child’s equivalent of a man-cave. The pillar in our living room is a canvas for a ladder of markings recording the height of our two boys every six months. Pumping supplies have taken up permanent residence on our kitchen counter. A high chair and splat mat reside in the dining room and rare is the day when there isn’t food decorating the floor around them. It’s not unusual for my husband and I to discover that we’re sleeping with a firetruck. And two children. There are toys strewn everywhere.
My home is no longer my own. I’ve learned to relinquish control over how it’s arranged, its cleanliness and, ahem, the decor. That pillar where we mark the boys’ heights? My husband and I are not the only ones marking on it with a colored pencil. Our bathroom door contains the remnants of a red-painted fingerprint. You could say my older son was caught red-handed. Also, that washable paints don’t always wash out. His bedroom carpeting has been glued, colored, painted, and peed on. He even drew a firetruck on his wall.
The markings on the wall and carpeting don’t bother me much. One day our kids will be grown and we’ll clean, paint, repair and replace as we’d have to do with time anyway. And isn’t there a certain joy in feeling the presence of children in a home? I find myself upset only that my oldest is ignoring my requests to keep the supplies at his art table, but I’m also secretly delighted to see him experiment with materials, surfaces and his mother’s patience. Plus he knows not to do it at someone else’s home and he’s supposed to test his boundaries where he feels safe. So we talk about it. He cleans it up himself so he learns about the work that comes as a result of his choices. Maybe when he and his brother are older, we’ll experiment with a patch of wall.
I know my parents did their best. They didn’t like the colors I chose, but they didn’t protest. I wonder how many other times they relinquished control and stood silent, cringing as I went my own way. If you had asked me five years ago I would have said, “probably never”, but now that I’m a parent myself I’m aware of every moment when I bite my tongue and let my older son go crazy. It happens a lot. At least fifty times a day, I’m convinced.
That’s why I don’t freak out when my kid draws on the walls. Because nothing is permanent. Because mistakes he makes do not define him and rules he breaks do not define him and bending conventions can be redefined as creativity. Because accepting him as he is more important than how my house looks.
And I know despite doing my best, there will be times when I will miss clues as to what’s going on in my kids’ heads. I know there will be times, after my little boys grow into men, when they each will think, “what the hell were they thinking?”. But I hope they also remember the many times we said, “why the hell not” and let them be themselves.
Author’s Note: Knowing my parents would read this piece almost lead me to censor my feelings in order to spare theirs. With help from a good friend, I was able to keep it honest. But it has also had the lasting effect of encouraging me to see my childhood memories through a lens of compassion and forgiveness. My parents really did do their best.
Katherine Bonn is a San Francisco Bay Area based stay-at-home mom to two lovely boys. She blogs at A Little Bit of Wisdom (http://katiebonn.com) about parenting, writing, mental health, cooking, and anything else that allows her to procrastinate from writing her novel.