Three short pieces inspired by images found in the book Independent Spirits: Women Painters of the American West, 1890 - 1945, edited by Patricia Trenton
1. The Johnson Girl, 1930, by Belle Baranceano
My father and five brothers run Johnson's Dry Goods, which supplies all of Starr County with everything it needs. I am known as The Johnson Girl, people can't be bothered to remember my name. Which is Clarissa. A fancy name, my mother's idea.
Mama was a dreamer. My father says that, when he talks about her, which is rarely. I don't remember much except one thing. Mama had big brown eyes, just like I do. I know that because she spent so many hours looking at me. Maybe sometimes she hummed a little song but that could just be my imagination. She died before my first birthday.
We had a photograph of Mama in a tin frame. It sat on top of the mantle in the dining room. But now it is gone. This is the biggest mystery in my life, the whereabouts of that photograph. I have promised myself that I will figure out what happened to Mama's photograph. And I will.
2. Self Portrait, 1942, by Dorr Bothwell
Today is my cat's birthday. Mrs. Lilian Farmer Canterbury. She's named after my favorite librarian. "Mrs." is the most important part of her name, as it is for her namesake, who, as it turn out, is not a married woman at all. But she is concerned with appearances, propriety, and dignity. As is my cat.
I met Mrs., the librarian, a week after my family moved to Willette and it is no exaggeration to say that she saved my life. I met Mrs., the cat, on a Wednesday afternoon in November. I remember because it was the day Mr. Houlihan's barn burned down and it's no exaggeration to say that I saved her life, because I did, poor wee whiskered ball of bones. If the fire wouldn't have killed her then starvation might have. There weren't enough mice in that old barn to feed all the strays that ended up there, and Houlihan isn't one to put out a saucer of milk, let alone a bucket.
As to the fire, now this is something between you and me, all this time later I still wouldn't want it to get around, but my own brother, Liam, was not entirely innocent. Though that crowd he ran with, they were no angels, and I wouldn't be surprised if Tommy Lindstrom was involved as well. But anyway, Houlihan wasn't hurt none, and Liam and Tommy are both in the Navy now, and when they come back home they'll be men and no worse for wear, as my Pap says.
I don't think Mrs., the librarian, will be with us much longer. She's dying from bad lungs. And she knows it. Which is why she confided in me, about being unmarried, and other things as well, like what she used to do to earn her living when she lived back east. I'll just say this: she wasn't a school teacher and she wasn't a sales lady in a big department store. She was something else and you can imagine. But then she came to Willette and she started a new life and I say "Good for you, Mrs."
She taught me to love a good book. Which I do, and I swear I always will. Mrs., the cat, appreciates good books too. She likes to sit on them, and lick them, and paw the pages. But most of all she likes to nestle on my lap and let me read to her, which is a comfort on long nights. It's never so solitary when I'm reading out loud to Mrs., the cat.
I will never be a Mrs. myself, unless I do like my favorite librarian and claim the title as my own. But for that I would have to live someplace else, far away where I am not known by every Tom, Dick, Harry, and Myrtle. And I can't see that coming to pass. I will always be Miss Dorr Bothwell,
D-o-r-r, if you please, not Door. What was wrong with my parents, naming me such a thing? I will ponder that question until my last hour on this earth.
But now I must go and bake a little cake for Mrs., the cat, in celebration of her birthday. And later on I'll bring a slice over to Mrs., the librarian, who likes sweet things even more than I do.
3. Self Portrait, 1928, by Margaret Lefranc
Well, he's gone. And I can't say I mind because I don't. No more bacon to fry up. No more socks to darn. No more stories to listen to while pretending to care. No more Joe.
He just took off after a buck he was stalking and he never returned. The sheriff's men were here with a lot of questions. Then they spent a whole day combing every inch of the woods out back and down as far as Benner's homestead. They never found a thing. Not a hair out of place.
Joe's sister, Merlene, wanted Sheriff Wynn to dredge the creek where it's at its deepest but he said Nah, ain't got the money for that. Because Sheriff Wynn and Joe never saw eye to eye about a thing so, money or no money, he figured he'd done his duty. Chalk it up to one more man gone walk-away. And it's not like that doesn't happen. It happens more often than you might think.
This morning I climbed up into the attic and found my paint box in a corner under some mothy quilts. I dusted it off and — Hosanna — the little tubes of paint are as good as they were back before Joe and I were married. I looked, but there weren't any more canvases up there. I did find a smooth, wide plank of pine wood, though, that once belonged to something, but not anymore, so I dragged it downstairs with the paints and it will suit me fine.
I'm going to make a tomato sandwich for lunch and after I eat it I'll start in on a painting of myself. Because what else around here is worth spending time on? A wobbly old chair I never liked? The blue glass fruit bowl with the chip in the rim? No, I will paint myself, wearing my white muslin shirt that has grown softer over the years. And I'll be sure to look serious, sad even, since my husband is gone. It wouldn't be seemly to look happy. Not on the outside. But inside I will be smiling. Oh yes. I will be smiling the biggest smile.