what einstein taught me about parenting



My 25-year-old daughter has been living with us since December. Next week she leaves for a new job in a city far away. I know she needs to go; the pandemic kept her here far longer than she ever meant to stay. I'm happy for her, but my heart aches a little. I'm keenly aware that this may have been the last time she ever lives under my roof, and keenly aware it wasn’t perfect. As usual, I could have done a whole lot more rejoicing and connecting, and a whole lot less worrying and checking things off my list.

In a last ditch effort to connect as much as possible before she left, I invited Ivy to join my drawing class which is now on Zoom. She loves art, and took many drawing and painting classes in college, but I was still surprised when she agreed. On the night of the class, I set up an easel on my desk, and she set her large sketchpad on a table nearby. We placed the computer between us, where we could both see the instructor. Our task was to draw a portrait of Albert Einstein from an iconic black and white photograph that our teacher sent in advance.

We sharpened long pieces of vine charcoal with razor blades, casting the black shavings into the waste paper basket until the points were sharp. We each got ourselves a kneaded eraser, and stump for blending, and set to work, trying to solve the puzzle of how to capture the feel of the face. I heard the scratch of Ivy’s charcoal on the heavy paper, and began as well, first setting down the long, dark strokes of the background. For the first hour we worked in companionable silence, back to back, our faces tilted toward our work, our scratchings a conversation of their own. Our teacher checked in on our work from time to time, and we did with one another, delighted at how different our Einsteins were. Mine was more faithful to the overall proportion, but he looked as tired as I felt. I loved how Ivy’s was more gestural and bold, practically jumping off of the paper.

I’ve often struggled to find my footing with my only daughter. To find an easy place to be together. The "mom" energy I often brought, managing the household and her many brothers, never seemed to be the right match for her quieter, more interior personality. And in truth, she never needed much direction, just quiet companionship, which was a harder thing to give when I was so busy steering the ship.

Motherhood has been hard. All that responsibility. I’ve tried to be an accountable parent, but I may have tried too hard. I see that my children may have longed for someone more present— someone less concerned with order and productivity, and more at home with a joyful mess. The sad truth is that I might have been happier too— more nourished, less lonely.

Still, small signs of progress. During the class, when I ran into trouble drawing Einstein’s chin, or Ivy wondered aloud about her edge work, we stepped back together, and helped each other evaluate, before returning to our deep, mostly silent, focus. Two hours went by, then three. Our hands were covered in charcoal. Ivy was shocked when the class was suddenly over. Neither of us could believe how the time had flown, how happily lost we had been in our work.

We were pleased with our Einsteins. We shared them with our instructor, and classmates, and even Tom, upstairs, just for fun. Afterwards, we took our drawings outside and lay them on the driveway, so Ivy could spray them with fixative. I looked up, aware of the hum of the crickets, and the feel of cool pavement beneath my bare feet. We returned to the house, and pinned the drawings to a wall, to admire them side by side.

It’s never too late. Next week, Ivy and I will Zoom into class from different cities. We will draw, and spend time together, practicing how to get out of our heads, and into our hands.


© 2020 Sarah Balsley 

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