A granddaughter visits her grandmother three times a week in the nursing home. She's difficult; has a difficult relationship with her son, the granddaughter's father. One day, after the grandmother asks for the Craft Masters - paint-by-number kits she used to paint back in the 1950's - her granddaughter starts to see a little into the mysteries of her grandmother's life.
About the AuthorKarin Lin-Greenberg's story collection, Faulty Predictions, won the 2013 Flannery O'Connor Award in Short Fiction from the University of Georgia Press and was Foreword Reviews' 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year in the Short Story category. Her stories have appeared in literary journals including The Antioch Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Epoch, Five Chapters, Kenyon Review Online, and North American Review. She earned an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh, an MA from Temple University, an AB from Bryn Mawr College and has been awarded fellowships from the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, the Wesleyan Writers Conference, and the MacDowell Colony. She has taught creative writing at Missouri State University, the College of Wooster, and Appalachian State University. Currently, she lives in upstate New York and is an assistant professor in the English Department at Siena College.
When I visit my grandmother in the nursing home, she asks me to bring her a Craft Master kit. “What’s that?” I ask, and she says, “You know.” But I don’t know. She is being difficult, as usual.
My father, her son, comes to pick me up after my visit. He doesn’t go in to say hello to her; they have a strained relationship. He and I have a strained relationship, too. I can’t drive right now because of an incident involving alcohol and the law, but he’s softened his stance on me since I’ve agreed to visit my grandmother three times a week. He says that I’m like her, bull-headed, and the two of us deserve to spend time together.
“You know what a Craft Master is?” I ask, but he shakes his head.
“A power drill or something? I don’t know,” he says.
The next day, he comes over to my apartment and hands me a cardboard box. “Here,” he says. “I figured it out.” Inside the box is painting after painting. I recognize Da Vinci’s The Last Supper and something from Picasso’s cubist period. Then there’s a peacock with a spectacular tail and then a matador waving his red flag at a bull. There are dozens more. “Craft Masters are goddamned paint-by-number kits,” says my father. “When I was growing up she spent all her free time either in bed depressed or in the kitchen painting by numbers.”
“I didn’t know adults did these,” I say.
“Back then they did. World War II ended and housewives were bored because they no longer had to worry about their husbands overseas, so they needed something to do.”
I want to tell my father that he is a misogynist, but I don’t because I need him to drive me around. After my father leaves, I walk to the Rite-Aid down the street from my apartment and buy a paint-by-numbers kit. It features two kittens, and it’s clearly made for children, but it’s the only one they have.
The next day, I bring the box of paintings and the kitten kit to my grandmother. She looks at each of the paintings in the box for a few minutes and finally says, “A lot of people said it was just copying, but I made something real each time I finished one.” I nod. “You know,” she says, “Eisenhower displayed paint-by-numbers in the White House.” I nod again, even though I think she’s uttering nonsense. And then she is tired, and a nurse helps her settle into bed. I leave the kitten paint-by-numbers kit on her nightstand even though it’s hard to imagine my grandmother, who is so difficult, always fighting with her nurses and her sons, as someone who’d enjoy painting inside the lines.
At home, I look up Craft Master kits online. I find out that they were enormously popular in the 1950s, and each box had the slogan “Every Man a Rembrandt” printed on it. And my grandmother was right—in 1954, a collection of paint-by-number canvasses was displayed in the West Wing.
The next day, my father drops me off early at the nursing home because he has a dentist’s appointment. My grandmother isn’t expecting me yet, and I peek into her room to see if she is napping. She’s by the window, where it’s the brightest, and she is hunched over the kitten painting, squinting and dipping a brush into a small plastic tub of paint.
A nurse comes up behind me, puts a hand on my shoulder, and whispers, “She’s been at it all day. And she’s been singing. Singing! Can you believe it?”
I watch my grandmother in the triangle of sunlight, watch her shaky hand and listen to her wobbly voice sing something jazzy and unfamiliar. There are many mysteries about my family, things I do not know about father’s early days, about my grandfather, who shot himself three years after returning from the war, and about the difficulties my grandmother endured trying to raise three sons on her own. I watch my grandmother struggling to paint the kittens and can tell there’s some solace for her in having numbers and lines and precise directions about the right thing to do.