Her Last Picture
It was her wish to be buried in a pink negligee, not a dress, stated Richard, my first cousin by marriage, once removed. We stood side by side looking down at the shiny wooden casket. She lay there in a bed of white satin, wearing a gown of pink voile overlaying white satin with a tiny rose ribbon at the collar. I had been going to viewings ever since I had come to live with my grandparents in 1963 at the tender age of 13, and I had never seen anything like this. She clasped a single pink rose over her heart. Her hair, still brown, curled beautifully about her face. A bouquet of pink and white roses, pink day lilies, lilies of the valley, blue bells, fern, and baby's breath with a ribbon that read "Aunt" in large gold letters, cascaded across the top of the casket. A bouquet from the Parke County Artist's guild rested on the floor right in front of her. Much of her artwork decorated the funeral home in Kingman, Indiana, where she reposed, in company with elegant antique furniture, Hummel statues, and even a dining room plate from President Madison's days in the White House. It was Sunday of Labor day weekend 1993, two days after her 82nd birthday.
"She arranged this in 1983," Richard told me. Like most things she had done in her life, I thought it was totally cool.
The passing of my grandmother's sister Firma Duchene Phillips, the last matriarch of the Duchene family, had pulled the family in from the four corners of the earth that holiday weekend. Benny and I were in Kentucky visiting with his mother Ruth and sister and brother-in-law, Betty and Hal Ray, over lunch when the phone rang. I got up to answer it grumbling, "I don't know why I'm answering this, it's probably for one of you." To my surprise, Aunt Claudine was on the other end of line.
"I have bad news," she told me. "Aunt Firma passed away early this morning. The viewing is tomorrow at 4 in Kingman."
We left for Kingman the next morning, stopping in Terre Haute, Indiana, long enough to eat and, having brought only shorts to Kentucky, to buy something to wear. It was my great aunt Firma's viewing after all. I felt the need to look a little elegant when I greeted the elders of the Kingman community as they came to pay their last respects. Mom, who had just driven back to the east coast from Lafayette, Indiana, a few days before, caught a plane back to Indiana. Aunt Claudine and Uncle John, who were visiting their daughter Barb in Fort Wayne, drove across the state to pick up Mom in Indianapolis before going to Kingman. Connie, my first cousin once removed, looked a little banged up with his arm in a cast because he had fallen from his semi at work a few weeks before. All in all, most everyone was there except for one great nephew who was camping that weekend somewhere in Tennessee, exact location unknown.
Aunt Firma drew her first picture for me when I was about 6 years old in 1956. She used my crayon set and a piece of newsprint. I remember sitting beside her in my grandmother's kitchen and watching in fascination as she sketched a scenic view of rolling hills covered with green trees, sort of like you would see in Brown County. The colors were beautiful and the trees looked so real to me. I had that drawing for a long time. It traveled around the country with me, as well as in and out of it, while my parents climbed the corporate ladder in the 50's. I probably took it to show and tell at school. But eventually with the 50's and the rest of my childhood, it disappeared. Of course through out the years, I acquired more of her paintings, big ones and little ones, Indiana fall scenes in rich colors, wooded spring scenes with delicate red bud trees, winter murals with creeks and farmhouses, and always, covered bridges. I always felt so fortunate to be able to have original oil paintings to hang on my walls.
Aunt Firma's particular genius lay in texture and color, manipulating the brush and the oils to achieve the effect of leaves, trees, ground, and water. Mostly a self taught painter from humble beginnings, the daughter of a French immigrant coal miner in a community of old settlers, probably the first in her family to finish high school, she was a mentor not only to us, her great nieces and nephews, but also to many aspiring painters in that community. We all watched her painting style evolve, and be imitated, over the years. She painted on everything - old irons, black iron skillets, wood, canvas, even matchboxes. She was a master of murals on saws, jugs, and metal waste cans, blending one scene into another. She painted the walls in her kitchen, she painted furniture, chairs, and ironing boards. She particularly loved beautiful and unusual frames whether they were ornate molded gold plaster, or simple barn siding. Going to her farm down the road from my grandmother's house was always a treat whether it was going through the small studio at the back of the house to see her latest work, or seeing what she had done to decorate or remodel her home which she furnished with elegant drapes and lamps, fine old arm chairs of carved wood, and sofas and love seats that had been beautifully reupholstered. One of the pioneers of the Parke Country Covered Bridge Festival, she developed a faithful clientele from Indianapolis to Chicago who came to see her regularly and commissioned her to do their paintings. One of her paintings even hung in Senator Birch Bayh's office.
As she grew older and her emphysema worsened, we all wondered when she would finally hang up her easel. But she kept painting even after a stroke affected her hand and eye coordination. Eventually she did have to enter a nursing home. It was a cold day in January when the family held her estate sale in an unheated building on the 4-H fair grounds at Veedersburg to help pay the bills. We stayed most of the day, watching memories being put on the auction block, saying our farewells. At the end almost all of her paintings had been sold off except for one large painting. It was sitting alone on the floor unframed in a pile of junk. No one seemed to want it. At first glance, it did not seem to be one of her more spectacular works. It had an unfinished but familiar look to it. It was a scene of green trees on a brown hillside, sort of like you would see in Brown Country. The auctioneer saw me hesitating, smiled, and said, "I'll sell it to you for $2.00". On impulse, I gave him the $2.00. When we took it home and put it in a frame that Benny made out of barn siding, it made the wall come alive at the end of my hall way.
Aunt Firma arranged to be buried in Washington Cemetary in Casey, Illinois, about 130 miles away from the community where she lived and worked, next to her husband Glenn, a barber, who died 30 years ago, in the early 1960's. They never had any children. They say that after her first stroke, she started calling around Kingman looking for Glenn as if he were still alive. I am told that the tombstone over their grave has on it a pair of barber's scissors and an artist's easel.
To me, looking back to my youth, Aunt Firma embodied personal freedom, creativity, and the pushing back of taboos. I remember discovering the book Lady Chatterly's Lover once when I was staying with her. Oddly, I don't remember much about this notorious work, I just remember that it was there and that she didn't appear to be too disconcerted that I had found it. As I think of her legacy of work which has found its way all over the midwest and beyond, and even as I see her influence in works of other artists who knew her, I realize that I never may really see her "last picture."