The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Art brings about reconciliation by Gracie Bonds Staples

Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass, someone wrote, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.

That is what I hear Lisa Frank saying when she talks about the journey completed recently with her mother, Shirlee.

For most of Lisa’s adult life, the two had been separated by 3,000 miles, a half-dozen states and strong personalities.

Like her mother, she was the oldest child, extremely independent and opinionated. If Lisa was in the kitchen chopping vegetables her way, for instance, Shirlee always had a better way.

It was enough to put a strain on their relationship, but two things remained constant: Their love for each other and for art, a gift Shirlee passed on to both her daughters.

After the last one graduated from high school in 1972, Shirlee threw herself into her craft full time.

After Lisa moved here and graduated from the Atlanta College of Art, she and her mother seem to travel divergent paths, their contact limited to one or two telephone calls a month and a few visits a year.

They were in the middle of one of those rare conversations in 2006 when Shirlee mentioned she was searching for a new apartment in Los Angeles.

I think you could get a lovely apartment here for what you’re paying, Lisa told her mom.

Shirlee did, indeed, find an apartment here with plenty of space for her art, lower rent and just around the corner from her daughter.

Without giving it much thought, they decided to make the move. In May that year, Shirlee arrived with everything she owned, including boxes and boxes of her art. A new mother-daughter dance was about to ensue.

Lisa was surprised by how lively her mother was, how open she was to discovering new things. Whatever she was doing, she brought her mother along for the fun.

At 79, Shirlee lived well. She felt as good as she looked. None of her daughter’s friends could believe her age. None could’ve guessed the storm that was brewing in their lives.

Shirlee hadn’t smoked in more than 30 years, but at an annual check-up her new doctor ordered a chest X-ray —- just to be safe.

Tests showed a small spot on her lungs.

Lisa, 56, knew then that the two of them were about to do something important —- no longer separate but together.

Because of the size of the spot, doctors decided they could apply radiation directly to the affected area and be done with it.

After three treatments, the spot was gone. Lisa and her mother got on with their lives.

Shirlee felt good and managed to keep pace with her daughter’s social life. She was still enjoying her art, painting, sketching and taking in art shows every chance she got.

Then at the one-year mark, just as Shirlee was about to celebrate her 80th birthday, she went in for a check-up. The cancer was back. Tiny spots covered much of her lungs.

There was little hope for survival this time. The pain was brutal on Shirlee’s tiny frame. She could barely care for herself, but Lisa was more than happy to be her mother’s arm and legs. She wished she could do more.

Last August, a friend suggested she hold an art show for her mother at a local gallery.

Shirlee had arranged showings for other artists but not once had she had the pleasure of showing her work in a real gallery. Lisa loved the idea and convinced a friend to loan her her gallery for a weekend showing on Sept. 28.

She worked long hours to pull it off. Shirlee selected the pieces, 100 watercolors, enough prints to fill a small room, 40 ceramics.

I’d hold up everything and she’d price them,” Lisa remembered, “$200, $250.”

More than 100 friends turned out when the big day arrived. It was hard to believe the same artist had done the work. Normally a painter is a painter. A ceramic artist shines with ceramics. Shirlee, though, could do it all and do it well.

They congratulated her and plopped down more than $4,000 for some 35 pieces that afternoon.

It was better than anything Lisa ever imagined.

For days after, Shirlee told her “it really was a lovely show, wasn’t it?”

Lisa’s heart got up and danced every time she heard those words.

Then on the morning of Oct. 15, Shirlee’s hospice nurse couldn’t find a pulse. There was little chance she’d make it through the night.

Lisa and her sister, Nancy, gathered around their mother’s bed that day, sang and blew some of the whistles their mother made.

It was late when Nancy left the two of them to watch the last presidential debate. Lisa soon dozed off and when she woke up a few minutes later, her mother was dead.

She didn’t cry. She felt too good for tears. In the months and years leading up to that horrible moment, she had become a huge fan of her mother and her art.

They’d had a lovely time together, she thought, dancing through the rain.

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