Heroine

"Heroine," 2000, oil on canvas, by Shaan Syed. Photo by me. Image used with permission.

"Heroine," 2000, oil on canvas, by Shaan Syed. Photo by me. Image used with permission.

Today is/would have been my mother’s 70th birthday.

And now I’m stuck on tense: past or present? The date, after all, remains the same, no matter what — it is her birthday, even if she’s not here to celebrate it. Let’s stick with is, then, go with the present in all its meanings, the gifts she gave me and the ways in which they still, always, enrich my life.

Like this painting, the first piece of art I ever bought and still one of my favourites (although that doesn’t say much: all the art is all my favourites, but especially this one).

The year 2000, living on Trinity Bellwoods Park, off Queen West in Toronto, surrounded by galleries when they could still afford the rent. And I’d been hankering, the urge building slowly but powerfully, to buy a painting. Dana Holst had a show at the Angell Gallery right on the corner of my street, and I remember walking in the day before it opened, on my way home from some errand, and being transfixed by Holst’s glowing, creepy babies and angry children, those girls floating on their black backgrounds, and wondering if (ha!) $500 was too much — even possible — for a single, huge, work, if I could be part of that world. That show sold out within days, without me.

I remember talking to my mother about it, saying, “I like this painting, but I really don’t know if I should spend the money.” I think I had expected her to nod in sympathy, to counsel me to be prudent, conservative, with my cash, to spend it on something more practical than art.

But she said, “Of course you can afford it. Always buy art, especially if it speaks to you.”

And so, I made an appointment to visit Shaan Syed at his tiny, cramped studio space somewhere near Queen and Parliament. Shaan was maybe in his mid-20s. He’d been a roommate of a good friend of mine in Montreal, and I’d been taken with his work whenever I visited. He’d just finished this painting, one in a series about swimmers. And there was something, again, about the way that girl glowed, hovering in midair in her striped bathing suit and water wings, that captivated me. The canvas wasn’t quite dry. He’d painted over a different painting, Shaan explained, one of him and two friends at day jobs they’d held while trying to make it as artists — in the bottom right-hand corner, you could still see the vague outline of the paint roller he’d held in the underpainting. I love knowing that detail.

Reader, I bought that painting, with the word “heroine” etched into the paint at its top. You can barely make it out, but I know it’s there.

And she hovers, now, my water-winged angel, over the desk in the back hall on the main floor of my house, looking out onto us, looking out for us, as we cook and eat and clean and play and come and go. She’s a gift to myself, from my mother, a constant reminder of what’s important, what to value, what you can never lose even in the spectre of its absence. That's where my mother is, etched into my soul  always is, has been, now and forever.