By the Numbers

And Between the Lines

By Steve Carr

I talked to my mom this morning. I call her most mornings. Usually she answers. When she doesn’t answer, I prefer to think she’s busy sweeping the front walk. I refuse to believe she is using caller ID to screen me. I was about to hang up when she said, “Hello!” Out of breath, she explained that she had to run up the stairs with an armload of laundry when she heard the phone. I guess her ninety-seven-year-old legs aren’t as nimble as they were last year. “You talk while I catch my breath,” she said.

Truth is, I call to hear her voice. That’s all I really need. Neither of us actually enjoys jabbering on the phone. I do miss her hugs.

It’s been almost two months now. As I write this, we are trying to do right for ourselves and our neighbors. My mom and I are some miles apart, but more significantly, we’re the world of a Stay Safe at Home Order away. Our brief phone calls remind me of pragmatic love, admonishments unspoken now, but still loudly heard. “Learn something new every day,” and, “Doing right by others is doing right by you,” are a couple of her favorites. Mostly, it’s her deep chuckle when she hears my voice that sets my day straight. She reminded me it’s my birthday next week and then sobered us both by asking how old I would be.

“Well, then, happy birthday,” she said, and that was the extent of our visit. Homebound or not, there was little time for idle chatter. I hung up, thinking of an old birthday memory.

It was too wet to shoot hoops. Not raining really, just sloppy. The wind made riding my Schwinn a chore. Bike riding should never be a chore. Dr. Dad was stitching up knife fights in the Emergency Room. My brother was off to a friend’s house. Mom, well, I needed to avoid Mom lest I appear bored (a blasphemous word in our home) and was given a work assignment.

What should I do? Alone in my room and getting desperate, I knelt at my bed, reached deep beneath the box springs, and pulled out a recent birthday gift. It had been unwrapped and quickly set aside for another. The plastic that secured the parts inside was still unscathed: after all, it wasn’t a ball, it wasn’t a game, it wasn’t a Frisbee. It seemed pretty lame. “You can be an artist, too,” the boxtop proclaimed. A grinning clown adorned the cover.

It was dark outside when I completed the intricate paint-by-numbers portrait. I’m not sure I’ve ever sat still that long, before or since. The oil painting was blue and red and happy. I was immodestly proud of the result and paraded it around to my admiring family. My masterpiece has been forgotten for more than a few decades, until today. I wonder what happened to it? When I realized during my teens that the artwork wasn’t my creation, I hid it under my bed. Could it still be there? Unlikely. But saved by a wise, pragmatic mother in a cupboard somewhere? I rather hope so. I think I’d display it once again, and proudly. It would be a reminder that I’ve lived my life mostly painting by the numbers, connecting the dots, if you will.

It occurs to me that the liberty of vision needs direction and pragmatism before it can stand on its own. Maybe I’m needed to connect the dots,to follow the numbers and color inside the lines, to help create space for the virtuosos.

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