A clock ticks on. We all made New Year’s resolutions. How many have you honored? Aunt May Gallagner was just like us. She would get up with a new day beginning and looked at her mantle clock.
At age 81, she wondered how many more days she had to live. It was like she was waiting for time to live and to die as the familiar sounds of the clock ticked.
Aunt May needed the basics of life: food, shelter, clothing and transportation. She did not have many of the frills that most of us have.
She had a mere existence down a gravel road up a dirt path to her modest home that she shared with her brother, Frank Gallagner, age 82. They lived in the countryside of Oktibbeha County.
I found May on Oct. 10, 1976 as she prepared for the winter. Today we find her painted on a 20X21 1/2 inches of 100 percent stretched cotton canvas.
Just take a look outside your frosted window and see a dreary day. In Mississippi, it seems like every winter day is like the day before - cold. Are we inside a deep freezer? We flip on WCBI-TV, and we hear the same forecast. We bundle up with a sweater as that weatherman says, “Tomorrow, expect snow.”
Thirty-six years ago in the autumn, I was headed out to the rural county when all of a sudden on the side of the road I spotted an old home and two people on the porch — a brother and a sister who had probably spent their lives living on this spot of land.
I pulled over to the side of the road and made my way down a grassy worn dirt path to their modest home. This Sunday in Starkville Daily News I shall share with you Aunt May.
I remember how quiet and peaceful it was those two days I became a part of their world, and I enjoyed my creative world of sketching and painting for hours as I captured the world I was seeing on my canvas. I was in God’s peaceful world asking for His help to create these paintings, and the only sounds I heard were trucks passing by.
I left my comfortable existence to go outside Starkville to the country. I hoped to capture the moment in a split second of two other human beings on my canvas to last forever for you, my viewer, to see what I experienced on Oct. 9-10, 1976.
Let’s have fun as we together look at Aunt May Gallagner and her pet dog, Sam Boy.
We are going to read this painting starting at the left side top and read it like you would read sentences in a book until we end this page at the bottom with my signature as I signed it which could also say, “The End.” We cheat as we view it because our eyes move across the page of the painting peeping at the entire painting from moment to moment instead of sentence by sentence. We can’t help this because our eyes take in the whole painting. Slow down and see all the tiny intricate details instead.
The top facing of the brown screen door is beginning to show wear as it turns from white to gray. Look at the character of the old wooden porch as it has changed over the years. See the old white rippled siding that was used often in the 1940s and 1950s to cover up old wood underneath to make an old house look modern. The only glass window I painted caught the reflection of the sunrise. See the bright orange sky mixed with the blue/gray inside the top of the window panes. Go back to the left and see the old exposed light bulb hanging from the ceiling.
Find the exposed chain dangling from the bulb. I love this old light fixture. It is not fancy, but it gives the old home the light that it so desperately needs during cloudy days and dark nights.
Look at the touches of violet and gray. These two colors help cool the bright oranges I used in this painting. Look at the black mantle clock keeping perfect time.
We now see the profile of Aunt May’s face and body. Her hair is almost gray mixed with a few strands of brown/black still hanging on. See her big rimmed glasses. See her protruding chin and her large scarf tied with a knot underneath her chin to keep her warm with its snug fit. She does not want to get a cold.
Look at her lime green sweater that looks almost too small for her since her dress sleeve is hanging out from the sleeve. The slight breeze caught underneath the sweater or is her back almost making her seem to have a hump back as she holds on to a log sticking out of her second arm by the window. She is about to carry one more log into the house to add it to the fireplace as it crackles.
Looking at Aunt May in her faded purple dress with a side pocket or two, we see she is a short lady with a big stomach. Part of aging is that your body sags and gets larger from eating so much turnip greens and cornbread. Melting butter drips from the sides of the hot cornbread. She made this corn bread in the old black heavy pans that are in the shape of corn itself. She made grits, ham with red-eyed gravy, fried eggs and hot buttered toast for breakfast with gallons of coffee steaming from a big white mug.
Dinner is served at noon with lots of strawberry shortcake with homemade whipped cream and gallons of iced tea to wash it down. Supper is at nightfall, and a fresh tomato picked from the hillside garden becomes the best tomato sandwich in Oktibbeha County. Mississippi is known nationally for being the most obese state. Aunt May had reached being fat, but she did not care because she was happy. “So what?” she would say. ”I love life, and I love to eat my good old Mississippi soul food. Don’ t you?” Our three meals a day are the best in the whole world.
My favorite things to paint here were Aunt May’s light blue faded tennis shoes. They looked too big for her feet as her toes were nestled deep inside. She did not have on socks, and she had tiny legs. She has a determined expression on her face that she can take care of herself, and she will enjoy the rest of her life.
Let your eyes leap to the window sill to the bottom of the pane to watch the touches of the shadows off the front porch itself as they play across the glass.
See the stacked wood on the end of the porch by the front door. Aunt May carefully cut each piece of wood with an axe and used a handheld rusted saw, sawing each piece to fit into the fireplace. She is a hard worker all day long, cooking and cutting wood for the winter. This was the first cool day in October.
Look inside the house at the darkness. Now look at the glowing oranges and bright yellows of the toasty fire. Find the maroon/purples mixed with pinks, dark browns and caramels of the door facing itself. By the front screen door is her companion dog, Sam Boy.
His little ear is standing upwards, and the other little ear is going downward. He has sweet eyes and a pointed nose. He is the love of her life and her best friend in the world. Sam Boy is like her child.
Now look at the dark shadows underneath the door. The wide porch planks give the painting stability. These worn planks mixed with the sunlight of yellow colors against the blues and grays give such character to each piece of wood, and this old house and porch lead us to my signature.
We have become now like family to May. We realize that at her age of 81 she is preparing for her days ahead in cold January as the wind howls and this house shivers like Aunt May, too.
That one light bulb will probably flicker and threaten to go off during one of the brutally cold nights. The wood is neatly stacked right by the front door so that Aunt May can keep a few logs close by the fireplace to stay warm.
Aunt May is getting older, and she wonders how many more Januarys she might have to experience on Earth. She whispers, “Miss Carole, I wonder if I will go on before Sam Boy? I cannot bear to live without my dog.”
36 years have come and gone, and Aunt May is I’m sure resting on a nearby hillside grave in a country cemetery with a quaint metal fence surrounding the church grounds. This grave is near the old home where she spent her life. Sam Boy is buried beside May.
January is here again. The dismal Mississippi weather is upon us. Will we survive? Yes. Our homes are cozy. Aunt May’s was cold. She was not rich, but she was a beautiful, wonderful Oktibbeha County Mississippian who was both rich in her hearts and grateful for life and a roof over her head and a big porch to sit and relax on each day as she enjoyed life’s moments.
Aunt May. wherever you are, stay warm, keep plenty of firewood handy by the front door so that you can feed the fire and pet and love Sam Boy.
Cuddle him close because he will keep you warm. May you rest in peace, and thank you for allowing me inside your heart to capture the moment when you allowed me a peep inside your soul. 36 years later, I get to share this painting with my viewers.
Carole McReynolds Davis is a local artist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org .