So I did something today I’ve been putting off for four years: I opened my daughter’s art toolbox. Katie was an artist—had wanted to be an artist since she first put crayon to paper. She drew throughout her childhood, took all the art classes she could in high school, and was a studio art major in college when she died at 19 of a ruptured brain aneurism.
Her toolbox arrived in the mail a week after she died. Someone had boxed it up for us, and shipped it. And I wanted to explore it, examining her “artist world” and the brushes and tools she’d used to bring her final paintings to life. I was hell-bent, in those early days of shock and grief, on not turning away from a task or a step just because my heart was being torn in two. It’s not that I am especially courageous or that I like pain. I simply had greater fear of my potential for creating shrines to my daughter that would later leave me stuck in my grief.
So I did the hard things: I visited the crash site (her cerebral aneurysm ruptured while she was driving and there was a nasty crash). I went to the wrecking yard. I did her make-up and hair for her viewing. I attended the coroner’s inquest. Determined to have no regrets, I felt compelled to lean into the pain rather than withdraw from it, not out of bravery or masochism, but out of a deep conviction that “through” was the quickest way to survival.
But I couldn’t do her toolbox.
When it first arrived, I had opened it and removed a few brushes. But as soon as I saw that familiar painter’s apron of hers—a green Starbucks apron from her barista job in high school, splattered with familiar paint—and new paint, too—it was too much. I bundled the apron, stuffed it inside, shut the lid, and stored the toolbox out of sight in the basement.
I have good reason to open it today: I am soon to become a grandmother, and my son and daughter-in-law in California have asked me to paint a mural in the nursery for their baby girl. I know just the tools for the job.
Katie had planned to paint a mural in their first apartment, but it is one of the many things in this life she didn’t get to complete. I have a fraction of my daughter’s artistic talent, but this mural is within my skill set. I will use her brushes to create new memories, not to erase the old—never to erase the old—but to find a meaningful way to turn yet another page as life moves on without my daughter.
So I find the toolbox in the basement and pull it off the shelf. I sit down on the cool, cement floor, open the lid, and let myself explore.
In typical Katie fashion, her brushes need a good cleaning. Rinsing a brush is never as much fun as painting, after all. When Katie painted, her intensity and single-minded focus sat in the driver's seat, and she didn’t notice the mess. I finally had to boycott gifting her any new brushes until she began to care properly for the ones she had—and she did make improvements. But, always, for her, the tools served the moment, rather than the artist serving the tools. So I’ll wash her brushes, and I promise it will not be a waste of warm water and bristle soap!
In the middle section of the toolbox, on top of her paints, pencils, ebony, palette knives, oil pastels, and such, I find a stack of individually designed invitations to the various senior exhibits of graduating art students. Katie must have been saving them as examples for the day, three years down the road, when she would design invitations for her own senior exhibit. I swallow hard.
Beneath the invitations and bearing thumb tack holes, I discover three notes from friends, encouraging words Katie must’ve tacked to the wall of her studio space. One, from her best friend, closes with, “The world is truly fortunate to get to know your heart. And I am so lucky to be your friend.” Katie would say she was the lucky one. Perhaps that was part of her secret.
And there it is, her green Starbucks apron, lying in a bundle, shoved in the bottom of her toolbox, just where I’d left it four years ago. I pull it out, give it a shake, and hold it up. I run my fingers over the dried paint. I draw it to my face and breathe deeply, taking in its oil-and-acrylic smells. The sturdy canvas fabric feels cool against my cheek. This time, I do not cry. Painting brought Katie too much joy, and right now her joy is trumping my sadness. She lived life full-on, with gusto and intensity and purpose, and she painted the way she lived. The apron—covered with smudges, splatters, smears where she had wiped her hands, and even individual fingerprints—this apron itself has become a canvas, a work of art that tells the story of a remarkable girl.
I pull the apron over my head and smooth out its wrinkles against my chest. I sit for a moment. If I put this apron back into the toolbox again, I risk making it a shrine. I will instead bring it to California and wear it while I paint my granddaughter’s mural. I’m not hoping to channel Katie’s artistic talents—nothing like that—but I won’t complain if I feel a bit of her joy as I paint, joy she would share with us—perhaps does share with us—in this pre-auntie, pre-grandma season which is short-lived and delicious. This is a good plan.
At the bottom of the toolbox, buried beneath giant tubes of oil paints, I find two Tazo tea bags—Wild Sweet Orange and Awake. Classic Katie! Of course she would store tea with her art supplies, engaging the savory senses as part of the “artist’s life”—or perhaps engaging a friend over tea as she painted. I finger the teabags and imagine conversations shared, the pungent aroma of the tea mingling with the smells of paint and turpentine. I imagine how she might have made herself a cup of tea late at night as she finished an art project, alone with her joy and her tools and God.
These teabags, too, I will bring to California. I will brew myself two cups of tea—yes, I realize the tea is four years old and has been sharing a home with turpentine and oil paints. But I will sip the tea and savor bittersweet memories of my daughter the artist, the lover of God and beauty and people, and I will toast the yet-to-come memories of my granddaughter, Cadence Ruth Vaudrey, whose fresh eyes will blink and look upon a mural painted with an artist’s joy—and with tools that carry great mojo.
And I will indulge myself with a quiet moment to celebrate both.