It was a large oil painting that hung over the piano in our living room. The house was a typical Southern 60’s brick rambler, 5 bedrooms, 3 baths, in one of the wealthier neighborhoods of the time. It sat on a half acre lot which backed up on a fascinating white clay and mud swamp filled with snakes, frogs, rabbits, cicadas, you name it. There was a small forest of pines on one side of the yard, the infamous Keenan family on the other. Their house was much more opulent than ours, as they were the Keenans of Keenan Oil, and the Mrs. Keenan was known for spending days in bed in elegant peignoirs while her little girls ran wild through the neighborhood. Susan and Julia Keenan were the girls who took a stick and drew body parts in the dirt of their driveway, explaining to little 7 year old me what sex was, what parts went where when my mom and dad “did it”. I was horrified and cried myself to sleep that night after telling my mom what they had said. She sat on my bed and told me that it was true that men and women did that, but it was a beautiful thing, an act of love. I was still heartbroken to think of my parents putting their private parts together in such a way.
But I digress. The oil painting was given to us by a friend, Proctor Davis. Proctor was a hair stylist and married to a beautiful platinum blonde named Martha. Proctor was obviously very gay but in the 60’s this was not to be discussed. He and his wife were part of the horse show world my dad and older sister inhabited. She rode English style and they were always gone, touring the southeast winning beautiful blue, red, green, purple, and gold satin ribbons that covered her bedroom wall, trophies that lined her bookcase and desktop. My sister and dad existed in their own world, apart from the rest of us who did not ride. Sometimes I would go along, dreaming of the day when I would have my own horse and compete in the circuit myself. In fact, it was assumed that I would be groomed to be the next in line for the equestrian daughter’s role, but that day never came as time took its toll and bankruptcies, both moral and financial, ensued.
Back to the painting. It was of a beautiful black mare and her colt trapped in a burning forest, running to escape, but no escape appeared in the painting. The terrified colt trailed behind its mother, vibrant red flames and fallen burning and charred trees surrounded them. I was fascinated and saddened by it at the same time. In retrospect, it was poorly executed, obviously the work of an amateur – but I would gladly pay a million dollars for it today if I had a million dollars and if it still existed. God knows where it ended up after our family started the Great Unraveling. Most likely in a landfill somewhere with hundreds of other childhood treasures lost over the decades. Probably covered by suburban sprawl and air conditioned double garage houses designed for genteel Bubbas in pink Izod shirts and khakis.
The painting….. right. Looking back it seems odd that such a thing would hang in a living room fashioned in the standard Southern traditional design with its boring love-seats, Audubon bird prints, Civil War and World War II book collection and Colonial style furniture. It just didn’t fit in with the rest of the place. But there it was prominently hanging over the piano where my mother would play her overly animated boogie-woogie (god, that term rankles me to this day) tunes and hold court with my sisters’ friends on weekends. She was always so lively, so talkative, so charming and funny (sometimes embarrassing) with the teenage boys and girls that came to visit, sitting around the piano and playing and singing. I asked my sisters why mom seemed so different at night… she was a totally foreign person to me at those times. They told me she was just “happy”. Now I know that her happiness was the result of her escape from the world via vodka and rum. But that did not become apparent to me until much later.
The red painting. The mare and colt trapped in the flames. No escape. The drama of it all. The pain and the beauty. One of the more powerful memories of that time for me.