On Memory, Missing, And Loving

paintings and text by Jessica Stammen

Tim & Dad, Ice Fishing // oil on panel // 10 x 22 inches // 2013

I have two brothers. I miss them; but I love them more.

One brother lives in Austin, Texas with his wife. The other lives on Whidbey Island, in the Puget Sound; he flies a jet for a living and can chase down the earth’s horizon faster than the sun. He’s hard to catch — they both are.

I leave them voice messages to remind them they are both my little brothers, no matter how tall they are. (They are both taller than me.) I remind Greg that I beat him in a triathlon once. I tell Tim he needs to chew his food before swallowing. I hold the phone to the wind when I hike Mt. Battie so Maine can say hello and leave a message — a very long message. I ramble on and on about what I’m going to make for dinner or whether the sun is shining. I’m sure they listen, laugh, and shake their heads. Sometimes they call back, sometimes they don’t.

There is a poem some attribute to Rumi, some to Hafiz:

And still, after all this time, the Sun has never said to the Earth,
“You owe me.”
Look what happens with love like that.
It lights up the sky.

Sometimes we impose our missing on the people we miss. We expect them to call, to write, to come back to us. We impose our memory of them, on them, as if we could get the sunlight of yesterday to shine today. We don’t always do this. There is a pure missing, a missing that does not require acknowledgement and isn’t dependent upon the past. This would be love.

***

Last week my pilot-brother, Greg, turned twenty-eight and my aunt Peggy emailed a birthday ode, cc’ing all fifty-one members on my mom’s side of the family. She does this on the occasion of each of our birthdays. My brother responded to all with a quick update on life and publicly challenged my uncle Danny “Ice Man” Trotter, to a game of one-on-one. A particularly enjoyable thread ensued.

Danny: Tom, do you remember the time Jess, Lauren, and Maddie whipped the boys at hoops and they got so mad they hid the basketball for a month?

Me: I definitely remember.

My Dad, Tom: I thought the girls beat them three times in a row, then went on to win another one using their left hands only, and the boys had no option but to hide the ball for a month.

Danny: I believe Lauren was on crutches as well. Jess, can you confirm that?

I certainly could; and I certainly did. To the entire family I responded that in my dad and my uncle Danny we finally had proof that memory could get better with age. I consoled my brother and told him he only had to wait another 20 or 30 years to remember how badly he had been beaten by the girls. I also suggested I could paint him a picture of what it looked like when Lauren drained a three on him, crutches and all.

***

As a painter memory is a funny thing. I suppose I am considered a landscape painter but I rarely work en plein air, out in the open with my subject matter in front of me. Instead I prefer the studio and playing with the memory of what I have seen. If I spend enough time in water, on a trail, breathing air, looking out, again and again, intently and attentively, what does that water, trail, space, view look like when I am not there? I search for the feel of a place or an event in the past because, in a sense, I miss it; I want it back because I have not yet had enough of it. I could watch winter sunlight fading against a screen of pine trees forever. I could sit transfixed by the reflection of island shapes in the lake forever. I could gaze at my friends who gaze, out and over mountaintop views, it seems forever. I miss these visions when they are not immediately in front of me; but I love them more. And it is because of this love that I paint and, I hope, it is because I paint that something new is born of this love.

Memory may not be accurate, but if it is love, it is true.

Early in art school I saw an exhibition of Roni Horn’s work. I remember nothing of the show except reading the words “To see a landscape as it is, when I am not there.” Excited to be in New York, but missing the mountains and coastline of Maine, these words — their challenge and their call originally penned by Simon Weil — began to frame the work I made in the studio, in the printshop, in my writing. I contemplated them regularly and I painted Maine, right there on the corner of St. Mark’s and Third.

Later in art school, after September 11, gazing at the gap in the skyline from that very same corner, I began to flip the words around in my head, contemplating what it meant “to see a landscape (or in this case, a cityscape) as I am, when it is not there.” This version implies a heavier tone of missing.

I think of this, now, concerning my brothers and what it means to see them as I am, when they are not there.

***

My youngest brother, Tim, was, in fact, just here. It’s been a long while since he’s seen a proper Maine winter so he and his wife padded their snow accumulation stats by riding out the historic February blizzard with us. On that Saturday morning, as a surprising storm-before-the-storm billowed through, I met my dad and brother on the quiet of Megunticook Lake to go ice fishing.

Dad & Tim Ice Fishing // oil on panel // 4 x 4 inches // 2013

Four holes were drilled and a constellation of fluorescent flags was traced by muffled footprints in powder. The snow was so light; the groans of the ice were so heavy. My heart thrilled to see my brother on the lake, a lake he loved through the language of fishing during his childhood. The chatter between the three of us resonated with this thrill and the simple fact that we were together. But like the barely-there groaning of the ice I heard my heart, somewhere under the surface, missing my brother on the west coast. I heard muffled reverberations of all the times I had missed one, the other, or both brothers. I began to follow the sound…

Dad Checks A Line // oil on panel // 10 x 10 inches // 2013

…Then, in that sonorous moment, I looked up into the blizzard blowing all around. My gaze rested on the tree line across the frozen cove and its graduating shoulders of land. Point by point they faded in and out of view as the snow picked up, then died down again. I wondered: Do the trees remember summer? Do they remember what it feels like for backlit swimmers to laugh and splash in their warm, red-shaded shadows? Do they miss summer? Do they miss it? Or do they simply love, like the Sun in the Rumi poem loves?

Ah yes, they love; and this is why their sap will flow again and a new season will always come.

I look at my dad, out here now on the frozen lake standing watch over a hole with 30 year-old mittens on, mittens older than my brothers, and I can see them both in his face — Tim and Greg. I could paint a picture of this. I could paint and love my brothers and this blizzard and it wouldn’t even matter if the summer would come again as I expected it to.

Dad And His Mittens // oil on panel // 6 x 6 inches // 2013

I wonder if, when my brothers are away from me, they might look at someone or someplace and see me. But there I go, imposing my missing on them, expecting that they miss me the way I miss them. The Sun doesn’t do this. The Sun just loves. Still, I am curious because I am human.

Love is watching tree lines disappear in the snow and remembering what they look like on the other side of the veil. Love is hearing the groans of the ice without running to the shore in terror. Love is knowing that the swimmers, the fisherman, and the brothers will return, even if they are unexpected in appearance or timing. Thoughts like these light up my life with love.

I miss my brothers; but I love them more.