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Everyone in Ruth’s family owned one thing to love.

Birthday presents were mythical and Christmas was only a movie night. “We’re minimalists,” Ruth’s mother would say. Ruth’s mother wanted to be rich but had married a teacher, and saying, “We’re minimalists,” sounded better than, “We’re living on the poverty line, kid.” Coca-Cola was a delicacy; one can was allocated to Ruth’s belly per month.

Ruth’s Thing To Love was a watercolor set. She’d splashed the black into almost every other paint, so they had all become muddy and dark, except for the yellow (her favorite color) which remained pristine. Her father’s Thing To Love was his watch. It was a fancy watch. It was also the first topic of conversation when the budget was tight and the pantry bare. “You’re being selfish, Michael,” her mother said. “You know how much that would run for?” Ruth, age six, thought this was unfair. They each had one Thing To Love. Getting rid of someone’s Thing To Love was non-negotiable.

Mother’s Thing To Love was the crowning glory of her home. This was an heirloom, something passed-down and not something bought. The painting hung from a jutting, ugly nail in the living room wall, beautiful against the peeling beige paint, framed in curling bronze.

“That’s your great-grandma,” her mother explained. “Her husband was a painter. Like you. He made this a long time ago.”

Mother looked like the woman in the picture; they had the same chin, the same brows, the same stark bones in their cheeks. “Mom, she looks just like you,” Ruth would say. Ruth knew how to make her mother happy. It elicited an instant smile. Ruth noticed the way her mother stared, like she was making eye contact with the painted woman. While she waited for water to boil, she’d stand in the living room with her hands on her hips, like she was waiting for the painting to get up and walk out. Her fingers drifted to the frame to straighten it. 

Ruth knew they all had Things To Love. 

Ruth knew Mother loved her Thing the most.

In third grade, the horrible happened. Ruth, older, recalls only the sound of wind and sirens, and the static-click of teachers’ walkie-talkies as she knelt in the hall, knees tucked under her chest, forehead against the cold tile, fingers locked over her neck. 

Somewhere in the building, a tree blew through a window. When they later ventured outside, the student garden was torn up and tomato plants were spattered on the roof. Part of the gymnasium was gone. “We’re just lucky it didn’t take the roof off,” Ruth overheard a teacher say.

Ruth was glad her father worked at the school. He drove her classmates home after the storm settled, dropping them off in brick-strewn yards, getting out to talk to the parents before carrying on. They stuffed dollar bills in his pocket.

“They were scared for their kids,” Father explained to Ruth. “I would’ve been scared if I wasn’t at school. I’m glad we were together.”

Ruth and Father arrived home to Mother sitting alone on the curb, her arms wrapped around her small body. She wore her pajama pants and slippers and the Christmas sweater she always wore to bed, even in May. She looked up as the car slowed and made eye contact with her only daughter. Ruth saw she had been crying. Father jumped out of the car and ran to his wife. 

Behind Mother, the house was gone.

A week later, Ruth and her mother went to the dollar store and Ruth picked out a new watercolor set. It was just as good as her first Thing to Love, this time unmuddied and clear. This time she used her brush carefully and the colors came out strong.

There was talk of selling Father’s watch as the three of them sat cross-legged in a motel room, counting up their worldly possessions, but the church raised money and it was enough to afford a small apartment. Ruth slept on an air mattress in the living room for nine months. She liked to run around the apartment complex, collecting candy from her doting, elderly neighbors.

Mother was the only one who really lost the Thing She Loved. Ruth and Father were both acutely aware of that. On the day of the storm, they spent hours searching for the portrait, but it was either torn to shreds or buried deep in the wreckage with their blue couch and Ruth’s paints. “It’s fine,” Mother said, shrugging. Ruth thought she looked like a balloon deflated. For months after, Ruth noticed how her mother’s eyes always drifted to their new living room wall, to a spot of white plaster where, in another home, the painting once hung.

Ruth was determined to try her best. While Mother grocery shopped on a Sunday afternoon, she sprawled out at the kitchen table with her pretty watercolor set and a sheet of notebook paper. She painted: dark hair wore in a knot, high cheeks, heavy brows that perpetually pointed downwards. She painted her mother; big teeth and freckles, wearing a blue sweater. When all was complete, Ruth meticulously measured the living room wall, searching for that mythic spot of plaster that had borne a Thing To Love in a different place. She found the tape and she stood on the couch, her little arms reaching, her little fingers pressing. The paint was barely dry, and a droplet of blue fell from Painted Mother’s eye and stained the wall.

Ashlynn Perez is a student and writer located in Columbia, MO. She loves local coffee shops, old books, and writing stories instead of doing homework. 

© 2022, Ashlynn Perez

5 comments on “Mother’s Picture, by Ashlynn Perez

  1. Sandy says:

    You are an amazing writer Ashlyn. Your words artistically paint a vivid picture. Well done!


  2. Charlotte says:

    Amazing Ashlyn!


  3. Emma says:

    So wonderful


  4. This touched my heart. Well done ❤


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