In my grandmother’s condo, just off the living room, was a screened-in patio. A lanai, we Floridians call it. And on the lanai, a glass-topped, circular dining table with rattan chairs. That’s where we sat, Nanny and I, for painting lessons.
I learned that the best way to create the illusion of sparkling water is to sprinkle salt on top of wet blue paint, then brush it away when the paint dries. I learned that flower stems should never be straight and groups of objects are more pleasing to the eye in odd numbers.
Nanny was a watercolor artist. She painted lighthouses along the ocean shore, white churches with tall steeples, snow-covered evergreen trees, and girls in fields of sunflowers. She painted Florida and New York, and she painted everywhere she dreamed of going. She painted from memory, from photographs, and from coffee table books. And in the bottom righthand corner of each painting, she signed her name in faint pencil: Ruth.
On a Monday morning this past October, my husband Evan and I sat in the waiting room at the OB-Gyn. We were waiting for an ultrasound, wondering if the little one growing inside me would be our third boy or—what seemed almost impossible—a girl. Weeks before, we had decided that if indeed we were having a girl, we would name her Ruthie, hoping to carry on Nanny’s legacy of creativity and love. The night before the ultrasound, my mom texted to say Nanny had gone into the hospital after some abnormal blood work. I laid on the exam table and Evan held my hand as the ultrasound tech proclaimed what I almost couldn’t believe: we were going to have a daughter. Ruthie.
What I couldn’t have predicted as I looked up at the flickering, shadowy image of our little girl was that Nanny would pass away just four days later.
In college, I served as the president of our campus’ women’s leadership organization, and one of my responsibilities was to help plan the Women’s History Month calendar each March. We hosted speakers and musicians, organized panels on vocation and current events, and coordinated with other student organizations to organize a calendar that represented the women on our campus: diverse, ambitious, smart, and on the hunt for meaning. Each March, we hoped to commemorate all that women have overcome, celebrate all we have achieved, and a encourage the rich and loving community women can create together.
I loved that work, but it now feels like an entire lifetime away. Instead of running meetings, I lead my toddlers on walks around the neighborhood. Instead of coordinating panels on female entrepreneurs, I schedule well-visits and playdates. Instead of brainstorming marketing materials, I wrack my brain for a different game to play with matchbox cars. I once walked across a tree-lined campus, among 50,000 students. Now I spend most of my days within the walls of this house, three little munchkins by my side. It’s not wrong; just different.
I want to tell Ruthie so many stories of the women who have come before us: suffragettes and abolitionists, seamstresses and writers, ceiling-breakers and brave marchers. But this year—the first without Nanny—I am thinking about women’s history a little differently, and her story is the one I’m most eager to tell. Of course, I’m so inspired by the brave and smart women who walked before me, but Nanny didn’t just inspire me. She changed me.
All her tips about sparkling water and flower stems and odd numbers, while useful, are secondary to how she made me feel while we sat out on her patio, paintbrushes in hand: loved, worthy, talented, encouraged. Nanny changed my understanding of what it means to be an artist. It’s not about mastering technique. It’s about crafting a beautiful life and beautiful legacy that will endure for future generations. So many women have done that through their activism and their courage, through their campaigns and their voices. Nanny did it with her love, her forgiveness, and her friendship.
We’re about to move into our first house, and while I’m thrilled for the finished basement and fenced-in backyard, I’m equally excited for more wall space; I have a bunch of watercolor paintings to hang. When they’re up, I will hoist my little girl up onto my hip so she can see the paintings, and I’ll point at the bottom-righthand corners. “See it there, Ruthie?” I’ll say. And there, in faint pencil, she’ll see a tiny piece of our shared history.
Lindsey is a writer, reader, and mom who is slowly learning to trade perfectionism for freedom. A Florida-to-Michigan transplant, her faith and sense of purpose are shifting as she experiences seasons in the world and in her own life. Lindsey is also the co-founder of The Drafting Desk, a newsletter for anyone trying to pursue grace instead of perfection. You can find her on Instagram @lindseycornett.