Each Woman Painted in a Baroque Portrait – Isabella Israel

First, my cousin CJ. I’ve always been jealous of the freckles on CJ’s lips so of course I paint her without them. She’s surrounded by a mountain of highly valuable plushies, Beanie Babies, Barbies, and Disney memorabilia and she’s about to have her third triple bypass surgery. The whistling plains of her east Texas town are painted behind her along with its inhabitants; hawks, pheasants, and her Italian redneck husband Philip in a neon cap, puff chested and hoisting up an elk carcass by the antlers. Chunky children Ainsley and Braxton sit at CJ’s feet, scowling at their Nintendo switches clutched in barbecue crusted fingers. 

Then, my grandmother Dolly. She’s trying. Her hands are on her hips, her bangles are clanking. She’s wearing the floral bikini that won her Miss Texas in 1959 and it basically still fits though the ass sags like a soiled diaper and her hide is freckled leather. She’s a tricky subject because her hands and mouth never stop quivering, like she’s about to tell you something she’s certain will break your heart and if she breaks your heart the whole world will end. Her eyes are always leaking. They have been since she found my grandfather dead in their barn after 52 years of marriage. She wants to tell you what she’s thinking. Trouble is, then you’d know what she’s thinking. Her best friends are the employees of Ross Dress for Less. 

My mother’s sister Aunt Chrissy wears all 6 of her wedding rings in her portrait. One of them a dragon protecting a ruby, another a baby pink cross. She clutches a bottle of Southern Comfort to her chest. There’s a scar on her left cheek from the time she drove her ex husband’s Mercedes through a young couple’s living room. She looks like my mother if my mother looked like a possum. I don’t care for Aunt Chrissy much, and I’m not an artist professional enough to hide this in the way I paint her. 

A journey to the other side, my father’s mother, Estelle. I don’t know much about Estelle but I’ll paint her for you based on Sepia photos on my estranged uncle’s Instagram. Estelle is in a wheelchair and her hair is auburn cotton balls and every day she wears the makeup of a 1990’s centerfold. There is never not schemer in the corners of her mouth, a mouth which says “who cares” though her eyes beg “please remember.”  She has no idea what she’s doing here. You could tell Estelle you grilled and ate 10 people today and she’d reply “that’s nice.” It’s not that she’s stupid or not listening and it’s not that she’s senile, it’s just that she’s 104 and she’s heard it all. Twice. Her crow’s feet are maps to all the places you’ll die without seeing. 

I’ve only seen one photo of my little sister Sarah who is 18 and has no idea I exist. She has crystal blue eyes and dark thick hair like a husky. Or Margaret Qualley. I paint her with a fleet of sled dogs she reads the Torah to. The only thing that comes up when I google her name is a link to which she used in 2017 to raise money for her bat mitzvah. 

These are the women in my family. And this is my fantasy of the day I die: the women lead me to have one last sip of the lavender milk water that gives us that insufferable je ne sais quoi, and cousin CJ hands me her most prized 1968 Minnie Mouse plush and both grandmas take turns brushing my hair and bonding over each split and crisp wisp, bickering over who’s to credit for my eyebrows. I drink Cutty Sark with Aunt Chrissy and Sarah kisses my cheek. Then all the ladies who are my 4th and 5th and 9th cousins that message me on 23andMe surround us and I finally get it, I finally understand why the women in my family were never meant to stick together, but to leap from their mothers without panties or nets. But that’s for us to know and for me to die with. 

Until then I have my work cut out for me.  I must have a daughter whose sleepy eyes I must inhale. I must drink her in at her smelliest and her holiest and when she laughs I must remember why I give her my mother’s name, and while her father sleeps I must stay up with her until dawn, CJ in her lips, Sarah in her eyes, and together we’ll paint the women in my family, which she’ll do with her daughter, and her daughter will do with her’s, and on and on until the study of this lineage has raised an army of mothers and daughters who are best friends and mean it,  mothers and daughters who men on the street assume are lovers, who call, who stay, who forgive, who squeeze and suck and fuck life until they’re blue in the face then ride into the sunset naked together on palomino speckled mares, mothers and daughters that don’t need you or anyone else to tell them they’re wonderful painters, and then it’ll really be over for you bitches.