My grandmother was a frustrated artist. Born into a well-off family in Russia, she was the rebel in the family who dreamed of being a dancer or an artist or a writer. Her father knew she was more ambitious than her siblings, and more restless, so he hired a private tutor for her.
She and the tutor read Dostoyevsky. The young Russian man taught her how to swim in a tributary of the Dneiper River. And to smoke. She fed him cherries which she picked by reaching out her bedroom window.
My grandmother dreamed of escaping a life where she was expected to marry and have children, not become an artist. You know of course that she fell in love with the tutor.
To keep my teenage grandmother away from him, the family fled to America. Would the distance from this love save her from ruining her life? You know that it didn't.
After her family lost most of their money getting to America, they moved above a fish market in Philadelphia and my grandmother, the once-tutored princess, found a job sewing in a sweatshop.
When she was older she took dance classes at Arthur Murray. I used to watch her exercise to TV's Jack LaLanne. Before she died, she made a few paintings. One of her big pastels hangs in my office. But she never became the artist she longed to be.
Some days when I’m feeling discouraged or at a dead end or ready to fall down the rabbit hole of “why bother?” I hear her say: “I couldn’t do this but you can.” And her words keep me writing.
This week, ask one of your ancestors for encouragement. There’s somebody back there who didn’t get to do all they wanted to. Or maybe they did and they know it isn't easy and they want to help.
Here are three ways to conjure this help:
- Find a photograph of this great aunt or grandfather of yours and put it on your desk or attach it to your easel. When you get stuck, ask for help.
- Write a letter to yourself from this long-gone relative. What advice does she have?
- Do you have a ring she wore? Or the Swiss army knife he owned? Put it on your finger or carry it in your pocket. Use it as an amulet to ward off your own discouraging thoughts. Let it be the object you touch that demands, in a supportive way, that you push through one more chapter, or get up that hour earlier to make it to the studio.
You just might hear your own version of: “I couldn’t. But you can."
Photo: With my grandmother at the beach, circa 1960, Los Angeles.