Journalcalling #3: Painting with Jenna

Journalcalling   •   June 24, 2020

One of my daughters bought her first house, and it’s gorgeous — on the outside. The front is faced in vintage stone and a wide, curving stone staircase leads to the front door. It’s on a large corner lot with shade trees and stone walls built into a terraced back yard.

Inside, four of the spacious rooms were covered in large floral and striped wallpapers. Jenna immediately got to work stripping the walls in every room, working into the wee hours to save on the machine’s rental fees for the next day. Finished and exhausted, she looked around to see most of the house now had bumpy yellowed walls. Ugh. What now?

When her younger sister Julie bought her house a few years before, all of the cousins showed up and every room was painted in a weekend. Enter Covid-19 and no one could show up for Jenna. The same loving cousins –they call themselves “The Wolf Pack” — had a spirited driveby party with balloons and signs and everyone even unloaded into the backyard for a short, masked visit. But no one ventured inside to paint.

I walked out into the yard party in my worn, paint-spattered jeans and was greeted like a hero. I am not that.The truth is it’s about time I showed up.

Julie and Jenna are my stepdaughters. They and their brother Jon lost their mom to early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease in 2018. As this beautiful woman lost the ability to perform everyday tasks, keep herself safe and recognize her children, they took on the enormity of caring for her, putting their 20s on hold.

I had no idea how to help, and mostly I didn’t. They say their father and I were always there when they needed respite, a stolen night away and big breakfast at our house, but they did it all on their own. I was often afraid to get too close, nervous I would misstep.

But now, I can be there. I can paint. The primer does not fully cover the stains and it’s a blessing the electricity is off. It’s easier to ignore what seems like a lack of progress. Jenna is on a ladder,  her strong hands gripping an electric sander over her head as she finesses the cracked living room ceiling she had patched earlier. She then rolls paint across it as I keep cutting in on the walls. We sing to 70s and 80s songs and spur each other on. “Beautiful! Wow, look how much you’ve done! Now, get back to work.”

She gets me a fresh tray and pours my paint because I can’t lift the five-gallon pail. She’s taking care of me more than I am of her, but I’m learning. I keep going back, and we add two coats of paint to the primer, and soon the rooms are clean and bright in Bakery Box white. Eager to get to the next room, I can’t stop returning. It’s the kitchen — the heart of her home.