Paint It White

My father’s mother was an old lady when I was born. My first memory of her house is a pair of large pink candles—one shaped like a “7” and the other a “9”—adorning the dining room buffet. She had turned that age at a party sometime in the past, and she liked to turn the “7” upside down to make it look like a “2.”

She was a young woman in the 1920s, but the era she fetishized—as an Irish American who married an Irish American—was the first years of the twentieth century.

She banged out bad chords on an upright piano and was always singing sad songs about dying children—“I’m Tying the Leaves So They Won’t Come Down.” Everybody died back then, when she was a girl in Elmira, New York. One of her brothers died of pneumonia—in bed at home, just like in Dickens. Her best friend, Loretta Meade, died as a young teen because she walked in the rain “during her monthly.”

My grandmother reveled in nearly every backward belief that poor Irish immigrants were known for. She threw scalding water on cats that dared step on her front porch. She talked fondly of the black dog she’d had growing up—whose name was a version of the N-word. She once berated my sister for bringing her friend Alicia, who was Black, onto that hallowed porch.

She was headstrong to the degree that she would not learn anything new. Half the city offered to give her piano lessons to stop her from playing by ear in that awful way. She forged an identity from willful misconception and exaggeration and wore it like armor.

She was a character and a card within the parish, elated to encounter acquaintances to stop on the street with a funny story about the life of Elizabeth Sutton. The priests couldn’t walk past her house (conveniently en route to the Catholic funeral home) without being snagged for a cup of Red Rose. She didn’t want to listen, only to talk about the past. A guy who could sit quietly and nod—that was her definition of a good priest.

Her dead husband had been an unhappy alcoholic with negligible ambition. He left her with a valueless Victorian row house that was practically falling down. But that house—along with its place within the parish—was everything to her. With it, she fit a certain stereotype, but in one monumental way she shattered the Irish homemaker mold: Her house was a comic morass of deteriorating furniture and dollar-store junk.

She was a terrible cook who cooked all the time, a terrible slob always trying to make things look new and tidy. You could usually smell something rotting when you opened her door. We surmised that she couldn’t see dirt in her old age, but we learned as we grew that she’d been like that a long time. She bought patio furniture to cram inside her already sofa-dense house and didn’t even remove the plastic covering the plastic arms. Her area rugs told a story like the layers of the Earth, for she never threw the old ones away, just laid new ones on top. At the bottom were the threadbare Orientals she was married with, but that was always four inches of nylon ago.

The strangest of my grandmother’s oddities was the compulsion to paint objects white. Painting things white was not just a solution to wear and tear; it was for her a way of life.

The trend of painting over the stained woodwork of older houses didn’t take off until the late 1940s—a long-anticipated antidote to the dark Victorian parlors where children were still being laid out in coffins in the 1920s. Although my grandmother’s cultural esthetic didn’t advance beyond the Bing Crosby sheet music years, she was deeply affected by the age of penicillin and latex paint. I imagine there must’ve been a period when she purchased both interior and exterior white latex for her never-ending renewal projects. But by my time she’d streamlined her habit to exterior paint on everything.

Her answer to dirt and food debris was to paint over it—floors, walls, woodwork, furniture. In the summer she painted her porch boxes every week rather than hose them down; eventually she painted the plastic flowers she stuck inside. She painted windows shut. She obliterated the feet of her claw-foot bathtub by painting them to the floor. Then she painted the inside of the tub and the toilet seat.

She painted the white vinyl belts she wore with her dresses. We’d watch the chalky flakes fall like the cliffs of Dover. Only once did we ask her to take care of our dog—a white terrier with one large black spot à la Snoopy—while we were on vacation. We came back to find the black spot sixty percent white. Although she didn’t intentionally paint Pinky, the will was there.

By the time I was in college, my grandmother’s obsessive, unruly housekeeping and ironclad prejudices provided a window into New York City’s immigrant history. Specifically, the dynamic in the notorious Five Points between the despised new Irish immigrants and African Americans who’d had to live there for generations.

Among the destitute and despised Irish, the racial hatred germinated and infected an entire subculture. My grandmother never once visited the city but was a propaganda mill for the George M. Cohan brand of Irish Catholic nativism. On that ramshackle porch that was her face to the world, no person of any color other than white was allowed to step. I concluded that to my grandmother, being poor meant being Black—and that was why she spent her life trying to make her tawdry possessions the opposite of black, as if to will poverty out of existence.

I recently thought a lot about my white paint legacy as an apartment renter in Manhattan. That’s because I live in a high-ceiling prewar building where the lives of previous tenants never get scraped away, only painted over. Someone leaves, my landlords send in the guys with watered-down Benjamin Moore Navajo White to paint everything that’s not a floor. They paint over whatever’s stuck to the walls, like staples and the tape from children’s party decorations.

For a while after moving in, I vowed to just ignore the lunar-terrain-looking ivory everywhere; I was paying too much on rent to think about the cost of embellishment. In other cities, I went nuts painting rooms and mixing my own bright colors; in New York you could never think beyond the next lease renewal.

Eventually I decided things would look somewhat better if you differentiated the original woodwork and molding that Manhattan home-buyers salivate over. Years ago, an Irish housepainter in Boston told me that the best thing to do with crummy, much-painted woodwork was to paint it with oil-based high-gloss white. The gloss gives much-abused wood a firm sheen and integrity, as if all were intentional. And the white sends the focus back onto the color of the walls, presumably in better shape.

At the paint store I was happy to learn that Benjamin Moore makes a high-gloss latex enamel that they swear is as good as oil-based. But it was expensive: $37 for a quart. I decided to get a quart and just do the window frames.

Alas, a single quart was not to be. The paint has a luxe, gleaming finish; it rescued the 1920 architectural features from the demoralized state of eggshell. The white glistened in the sun, seemingly drawing it in. I immediately got another quart and painted the wall molding and then the crown molding and door frames, another quart for the doors and baseboards, a fourth for inside the closets and the parts of the baseboards you’d never see—behind the sofa and the bookcases.

By that fourth can, I realized I had become a real-estate-scaled version of my grandmother. She embodied everything I wanted to get away from growing up—the seemingly congenital poverty naturally (my father didn’t let down the side), but more so the ignorant bigotry and toxic cultural pride. And yet here I was, replicating her idiosyncrasies two generations later.

I’ve always thought it a matter of esthetics, my compulsion to have a nice place. But the white paint made me wonder if my grandmother’s Sisyphean labors had struck some developmental chord when I was a girl. All her life she worked sun-up to sundown managing a home with three children and a husband who didn’t care, and she continued apace as a widow living alone until her death at 95. She had so much energy and determination but nothing constructive to do with it. There was a desperate void of agency. She never held a wage-paying job, never got her driver’s license. In addition to her disastrous extreme homemaking, she wasn’t attractive, couldn’t hold a note, didn’t read beyond The Catholic Courier and The Corning Leader, spoke in clichés, wasn’t analytical.

Still, she was always composing prayers and songs. Her big tune—“I Wonder What We’ll Find upon the Moon”—might’ve been a hit in the 1890s. We knew that 1969 had been a bad year for her—not just because of the continued mourning for Bobby Kennedy but because the lunar landing blew her song hook.

During my own foray into white paint, it occurred to me that maybe my grandmother fetishized her girlhood—when she lived in relative (and thus acceptable) poverty with cold parents—because back then she had hoped to make a mark in some way. Maybe when she told maudlin stories about those who died young she was mourning what died with her own childhood. Maybe as a widow she was using white paint to conceal the many ways her life did not align with the religious and ethnic propaganda she constantly spewed, to cover up the parts that must’ve been painful.

I look at what I’ve done with white paint—show contrast so that not everything is the same color, release the nuances of history—and try to recognize my common denominator with Elizabeth Murphy Sutton beyond the mythic Irish Housepainter gene.

As a writer just getting by in a city and a time that doesn’t need writers, as someone who will rent and never own, I realize any sense of agency is fleeting, feels like a luxury. Like my grandmother, I had forged an identity as someone who had something to say. And maybe like her, I see my signature via white paint as a way to cope in a world that’s nothing like my younger self thought it would be.

I ultimately decided that the common painting motivator for my grandmother and me is an addictive desire for the creative process, the momentary high of conjuring something into existence, to feel that your execution of an idea has made the world somewhat better. This is a much more charitable theory of her white paint mania than a ritual born of tribal scapegoating of black as the color of deserved poverty. As a gallon in four acts has shown me, it’s up to you to make the nuances of history visible. §