I only really remember snap shots of my life with her. I remember she had a helmet of frizzy hair and was unaware that it was always freshly dyed purple on Sunday mornings. She had a kind southern drawl that crackled and sparkled with age and wisdom. I used to listen to her sit in the front of the car and talk to my mom, and I would pay very close attention to how she said things and try to mimic it later when no one was listening. Every note and quaver. It was like reciting ancient incantations. Her voice carried a power. She was imported to Alaska from some mysterious southern state and used to make spinach and black eyed peas like I will never taste again in my life. And, in my mind there was a blueberry pie on her kitchen counter at all times. She had a dog named Peewee that rarely moved from the heat register in the corner. One day we heard that Peewee died. We showed up at her house and found an almost identical dog named Twinkie sitting on the heat register, slightly younger, more energetic, but none the less the same. We never questioned it. It just made sense that she could raise the dead. She was a goddess, and a myth. She herself was immortal.
As a young man growing up in Alaska, I never had much interaction with family beyond that of my parents and brother. And I didn’t realize it, but this close family friend, in a stage of life beyond that of my parents, was surreal and human in an impossible way. She was a grandmother in my grandmotherless universe.
She always remembered our birthdays. One year for my birthday she got me a bright yellow plastic case of art supplies. I remember they were Prang, not Crayola. And since she had bought them for me I was convinced that they were the best on the market. I imagined they were imported from Italy. I knew everything in the package was professional. Just holding the plastic container in my hands made me suddenly feel like an artist. I realize now that this woman was a widow. She lived in a trailer in her son’s front yard. Prang was completely off brand. She bought me the best she could afford and it was probably the cheapest thing on the shelf. But to me they were like magic. I thought they were amazing. I remember bragging about them years later to my 7th grade Art teacher and she had never heard of Prang, and I was positive that was because they were even above her level of experience.
Anyway, when I say “art supplies” I really mean some simple felt tip markers, a pumice eraser, a pencil sharpener, and some assorted boxes of crayons. But as I delicately sorted through the collection I discovered one of the boxes of crayons was labeled “Neon” colors. I was in shock when I saw it. This was the Holy Grail of crayons. I opened it and found that mixed in with the neon pink, neon yellow, neon green, there were normal colors like Brown, Black, and Grey. I was fully convinced that these were also neon. When I first saw them I literally was so excited I ran circles around the house yelling “NEON BROWN! NEON GREY! I CANT BELIEVE IT!” I sat at home that night and compared them to my other brown and grey crayons noticing all of the amazing differences that so obviously made them neon. Anytime my friends came over to visit I would show them two things: My collection of G.I.Joe men, and my box of neon crayons. I don’t think I ever used a single one of them, because I never found anything worthy of such quality.
I remember all of this so vividly because I much later realized that there is no such thing as neon brown and neon black, and that I was just being an foolish child. My crushing embarrassment has helped to keep the memory continually fresh in my mind. I see now that my mystical connection to the crayons and the belief that they had this magic “neon” power that defied all logic, was entirely based on the deep internal trust and love I had for this woman with the purple hair that was the grandmother I had never known.
Several years later the woman died in a field not far from our house while picking cabbage. At about this same time my art supplies went into a cardboard shrine of my childhood that now sits unmarked in a crowded garage awaiting a trip to the dump when my own parents pass away and I’m forced to sort it all out. And in the bizarre circle of life, my daughter Clara is, as I type this, asleep in the next room and will grow up named after a woman with purple hair that she has never known, that once gave me a crayon that I believed to be neon grey.
I frequently visit this crayon box in my mind. It is a box containing all of the embarrassing and illogical colors of youth, with youth itself being an absurd illogical misunderstanding of the highest order. It is a box given by an old woman that in the grand comedy of life is now my daughter. I remember once again that I am just another player in a deadly game of leap frog where the old recline to die and the young joyously hurdle over them, only to be crushed and jumped themselves by the next ones in line.
But some things live on. Perhaps the most beautiful and long lasting art is made with the ninety nine cent boxes of crayons that are too valuable to touch to paper.