Grandma Kay: grief, drinks, and painting

In the spirit of a holiday weekend, the beginning of my favorite month, and some fall-time nostalgia, I wanted to share one of my favorite narrative essays.

I wrote this about Chad’s grandma Kay in a magazine writing class in college. Cheers!


Grandmas are known to be sweet, fragile, and full of tenderness, offering hugs and cookies between pleasant rocks on cushioned chairs. Kay George is not that kind of grandma. She takes her whiskey clear, her mountain hikes rugged, and her therapeutic painting seriously. Last summer she was helping move cattle in the mountains surrounding Gunnison, Colorado when she was bucked off her horse. What did she do? “Well, what else could I do? I took a deep breath, and straddled that horse again until the job was done.”

There’s a polite toughness about Kay—she has a warm smile with a sharp tongue. For her, family comes first. “Maybe, then, art,” she says. “Art has allowed me to grieve in healthy ways. I’m almost there. I’m getting there, for sure.” Painting has been an outlet for Kay since the death of her husband of fifty-plus years, Kenny.

On any given Friday, Kay’s house is filled with family. It’s a weekly tradition nicknamed “Friday Afternoon Club,” where a few of her kids and grandchildren pop in, shoot the bull, and drink a little alcohol. As guests walk in the door, pausing only briefly after a short knock, Kay greets everyone with a hug and a welcoming, “What can I get for ya?” She usually has food on deck—teeth-chipping marshmallow treats, pigs-in-a-blanket, or various types of chopped veggies—paired with her favorite beer, Wild Blue.

Her son Greg swings by on his way home from work—the printing shop he’s worked at for twenty-five years is a four-minute walk away—and picks up a six-pack of beer before walking in the living room. The liquor store is just a walk across a vacant field, too. “Wild Blue is just a classic,” Greg says, smiling. “It was always Kenny’s go-to, and he kinda just passed it on to the rest of us.”

Kay was born in 1941 in Sargents, Colorado. As a child, Kay would spend most of her time outdoors, sledding, hiking, and admiring the vastness of the surrounding mountains. Her family migrated thirty-two miles west to Gunnison, and Kay graduated as a GHS Cowboy from the town’s only high school.

It was at Gunnison High School where Kay met Kenny. The two would flirt as they walked down the hallways; one side had black lockers while the other was painted red. Kay married Kenny at sixteen, though she went back to finish high school (You can believe that,” she reassures), and traveled to California shortly after as Kenny served in the military. Before long, the young couple found themselves back in Gunnison, and began to raise three children.

Kay still lives on Pine Street, the house her boys—now 59, 55, 49—grew up in. Her son Greg and his wife Patty also live on the same city block, less than a minute walk away. For Friday Afternoon Club, Kay’s kitchen table is home base. The house is cozy and quaint, with walls marking the history of a local family. The fridge has Gunnison Country Times newspaper clippings, the walls hang Kay’s Gunnison-inspired art, and cabinets hold frames of generations of Georges—smiling school pictures, wedding photographs, and a recent ultrasound are carefully placed and staged.

On Thanksgiving morning in 2015, Kenny passed away unexpectedly in his sleep. “He stopped breathing,” Kay says, looking down at the table. “I wish he had taken care of his lungs better. He left us all too soon. Not just me—Laura, our granddaughter, got married the next day. That was really hard. Anna is having another baby. Chad is graduating from college. The list goes on, and everybody is always missing him and his smart-alec jokes. Especially me.”

Kay strokes her glass as condensation from the ice inside leaks onto the stem. Her long-haired cat Casey claws into the upholstery of a green couch nearby, looking both extremely worn and very vacant all at once. Kay stares at the do-it-yourself cocktail instructions on the side of the glass, listing out pouring instructions for Tom Collins, margarita, and cosmopolitan drinks. The corners of her mouth lift. “Kenny got this for me for Christmas,” she says. She closes her eyes and forces a laugh. “He has a way of sticking around, and reminding me of it.”

Kay’s face lights up when her granddaughter, Anna, arrives, towing her two year old son Phillip in her arms. “Hey Grandma, hey Dad,” she says. “What’s on tap today?” She laughs, clearly joking as she rubs her noticeably pregnant belly. Following her que, Phillip fills the kitchen with his squeaky chortle. The room returns his joy, laughing with him. Kay picks him up and places him on her lap. “That’s my boy, Phillip!”

“Hey Grandma, is that art on the table?” Anna picks up a handful of carrots from a plate Kay prepared earlier that afternoon. “Actually, it is! Thanks for noticing, Miss Anna. I was inspired after reading from the grief book,” Kay says. She continues, “I actually got so tired of reading it, I was inspired to put it down and pick up my paint brush.”

Kay’s instinct to turn to her creativity is not uncommon. Many people in the United States have been turning to art, often paired with trained counselors or therapists, to interact with their mental health.

Art therapy, as defined by the American Art Therapy Association (AATA), is “a mental health profession in which clients…use art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem.” This method of therapy, accredited through masters and doctorate degrees in specialized colleges around the nation, requires the facilitation of a trained art therapist. There is currently one art therapist in Gunnison County and Kay is unable to see her due to a conflict of interest—Kay’s grandson is currently dating the art therapist’s daughter—which is common in a small town of 5,500 people. So instead, Kay keeps her art to herself while reaping non-specific therapeutic benefits.

Though Kay does a lot of painting at home—both inside her kitchen and outside on the patio, nearby a fire pit and a clothes line—she also is a regular at several community art classes. The Gunnison Arts Center hosts her favorite, Advanced Watercolor, every Wednesday evening.

In the studio, Kay sits at an easel snuggled between her best friend, Peggy, and a classmate Michelle. Peggy and Kay have known each other since high school, and have a “crazy and fun” relationship, according to Peggy, dressed in a cowboy hat and matching boots for art class.

When Kay helps herd cattle, it’s nearly always at Peggy’s request. The two spend summer mornings rounding up cows, collecting wood for their fireplaces in anticipation of winter, and planning trips to gamble at Colorado’s Black Hawk casinos, though the drive is a little far. Michelle, in her forties, laughs. “I love watching these two interact. Not only do they make class entertaining and authentic—not to mention supportive and kind—but they’re also talented artists.”

“I’m just here for Kay,” Peggy says, swiping a dark blue on a stretched canvas. Her movements are rough and jagged, and punctuates her pauses with smiles before continuing. “I’m so bad at this. Look at this sky! Or is it water? Hell, Kay, don’t you think it looks like an avalanche?” The two started giggling. “Kay’s the real artist. Always has been.”

“Why thanks, Peg,” Kay replies as she mixes her acrylic colors with a trained eye. “I’m not gonna lie, I hurt. I hurt a lot. When you’ve lived all of your life next to someone and loving them, and suddenly they’re gone, it can feel like all the color is drained out of life. But the truth is, there’s always a way to keep going and to keep living. You wanna see the color? Here it is—it’s right here. It’s outside, in the grass and the trees and the mountains. And it’s right here, on my paint brush.”

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