When I was five years old I painted, upon a large piece of butcher’s paper, what I believed to be an exceptional picture of a raccoon. I don’t know why. But I did. My kindergarten teacher, Mrs Taylor, said she was very impressed. I took it home proudly, excited because:
- Mrs Taylor complimented my work (and if you knew Mrs Taylor you would know that this was no mean feat)
- It was a Thursday. Thursdays were Nanna Days (as were Saturdays and most Sunday afternoons but there was something extra special about the Thursday). Nan would be at our place or Mum at hers and Grandad would come for dinner.
- I could now show off the aforementioned masterpiece to one of the most important, special people in my life – my Nan.
I excitedly unveiled my painting for Nan’s approval. That approval never came. Nope. Nan didn’t feel the need to tell five-year-old me that the painting was “amazing” nor that I was “very clever”. No. Instead she used the phrase that all artists under the age of seven, and the Surrealists, dread; “What is that meant to be?”
What is that meant to be?
Wasn’t it obvious?
As I felt my artistic cred slipping I remember thinking – Nan doesn’t know what a raccoon is. She doesn’t know what they look like. Of course! That had to be it.
So I told her.
“That doesn’t look like a raccoon,” she replied, not unkindly. I’m sure she was probably offering me a piece of cake or chocolate or a biscuit or something as she said it. “No, not a raccoon,” she continued. “It looks more like a burglar. Let’s say it’s a burglar.”
“But it’s a raccoon.”
“No, it doesn’t look like a raccoon,” and she pointed out all the reasons why …
You know what? She was right. It didn’t have raccoon ears or a raccoon nose or anything even remotely raccoon-like, except the black band across the eyes which made it look just like a cat-burglar.
The truth to anyone can be a difficult thing to hear. To a five-year-old from a grandmother they idolise it is actually, strangely, OK. Because I felt safe, I think, in the knowledge that Nan loved everything we did and would support us, no matter what, but I also knew from that moment she would always be honest.
Maybe that is why her opinion always meant so much to me.
Why that moment has stayed with me for all these years.
What I love about that story is Nan’s way of finding the alternative – of making something out of nothing: It’s not a raccoon it’s a burglar. She did it all the time: You’re all staying for dinner? We’ll make it stretch. And there’s a feast, with soup to start and after-dinner mints to finish. That’s not just a gum-nut – it is endless craft making possibilities. I cannot recall the amount of bits and pieces, odds and ends Nan would keep because there must be “something we can do with that”.
But what I love the most about that memory is my Nan’s honesty.
Nan taught me so much but her biggest lesson was truthfulness and honesty. It doesn’t have to be hurtful, mean-spirited or unkind. It can be as simple and gentle as giving an honest opinion about a pretty poor painting of a raccoon.
I can never thank her enough for that.