Monday, February 23, 2015

An invitation to Black History

When I draw a pencil portrait, there’s often a connection with my client.  I hear precious stories about the portrait subject – love, pain, regret, joy.  Those stories are what this blog and my job are all about.

Yesterday, the history of a portrait became more meaningful, on more levels than I ever could have expected.

When Steven Small called to ask if I would draw the pastor of his church in time to surprise him for Christmas, I groaned inwardly.  I was already overbooked.  They wanted a BIG portrait – the largest I’d drawn of a single subject – and they wanted it fast, neither of which was welcome at that particular stressful time for me.  But there was something about Steven’s warm, friendly voice and the way he described the Apostolic Church of God and their beloved pastor. 
“We’ll be presenting Dr. Brazier with the portrait in two services of about 3,000 people each,” Steven told me, encouragingly, hopefully.  Charmers like Steven are what get me in trouble.  I wavered – partly because of the business sense of that kind of exposure (when have 6,000 people seen one of my portraits at once?) – and partly because it just felt right.

I gave in, and I was rewarded in so many ways. 

Dr. Byron Brazier
I often receive poor quality source photos, but Dr. Byron Brazier’s photograph was perfection… crystal clear and full of wonderful expression.  I loved drawing him and finished it promptly. Steven came to my home to pick it up and I hugged him when he left.  He was that kind of guy.  His team was thrilled with the portrait and later he sent a photo of the beautiful framing they chose. 

Knowing what I know now, how I wish I could have been there to see the Christmas presentation. 

A couple of weeks later, Steven told me that Dr. Brazier liked my work so much, he wanted me to draw the previous three pastors, including his adored predecessor who had led the church for fifty years.  That one would be a particularly important portrait, Steven explained to me, because not only was the previous pastor beloved to the church, he is also Dr. Brazier’s father. 

District Elder Walter M. Clemons
I began working on the portraits of ACOG’s first two pastors, emailing my progress.  Choosing the photograph of Bishop Arthur M. Brazier took a little longer as he was so very important to his congregation.   He’d passed away in 2010 at the age of 89, leading his church even through illness.  The quality of the photograph was a little dicey, and we needed to tweak the portrait to get it just right.  Steven was apologetic in asking for adjustments, explaining its importance.  “He was like a grandfather to me,” Steven told me, “and I wasn’t the only one.  It has to be just right.”  We were very happy with all the drawings in the end.  
These were large portraits of men whose dignity and integrity showed on their faces.  I did my very best to capture each man’s strength and wisdom.  When Steven picked up the portraits, I wondered again if that would be the end.

Elder Ahart F. Medders

Instead, it’s been the beginning.  I was welcomed into their history.

My family was invited to attend the presentation of the portraits. Again, there would be around 3,000 people at each of two services.  “You’ll be my guests,” Steven said with his usual warmth.

Unfortunately my husband and sons had sports and travel commitments.  I asked my mom to come with me instead.  I had a feeling that I needed a witness to what was about to happen.

The first service was at 9 am on the south side of Chicago.  My mother and I are NOT morning people.  One of the joys of being my own boss is sleeping until I wake up.  But we managed to pull ourselves together and drive an hour or so to the beautiful brick church on Dorchester.  Steven had assured us there would be plenty of parking, but it was PACKED.  An ocean of cars in every direction, parked in several lots, on side streets… and we were a half hour early.  We wedged ourselves into a hidden, skinny space and walked through the doors.

This lot was full.  And the one across the street.
And the one across the other street.

I have deep respect for faith.  My parents taught Sunday school when I was young.  Our Lutheran pastor infused his sermons with personal stories and laughter.  He came to our house for dinner.  When he left our church, his replacement was more stern, less engaging.  My father was working so hard at growing his small business, that Sunday became another full work day.  I lost touch.  My questioning, critical, skeptical mind never found a spiritual place to call home.  More than anything, I believe in love.  That’s how I think of God.

“Praise the Lord!”

Each and every member of the church enthusiastically greeted us with the church’s official hello, “Praise the Lord!” reaching out to clasp our hands in welcome.  It almost felt like a wedding, a celebration.  Everyone was resplendent in three piece suits, sparkling jewelry, high heels, beautiful dresses, fedoras, furs.  Steven hadn’t arrived yet, so we waited for him and watched the joyful parade of fashion.  This was an EVENT.  We watched as people embraced and kissed and laughed together like an enormous family. 

We were the only white faces in a sea of color.

All day, the face of each person who saw my mother and me brightened in welcome.  We were obviously different, but they were so happy to see us.  It was humbling.  I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to each “Praise the Lord!”  I said hello and good morning and squeezed the friendly hands extended to me.  I looked into each set of eyes and prayed my own prayer of hope that they’d know my heart was full of love, even if I didn’t know quite how to respond the same way.

Steven took us to meet Dr. Brazier and to see the framed portraits.  When I draw someone, I spend hours and hours examining every line and nuance of a face.  When I saw Dr. Brazier, I felt like I knew him and he treated me like an old friend.  My mom and I were seated on the feather soft couch in Dr. Brazier’s spacious office while the portraits were unwrapped… they’d been delivered from the framer just that morning.  The photo had not done them justice.  The beautiful silver carved frames with grey and red mats took the 19x24” portraits to an even grander size.  I’d never seen my work in such elegant framing.  I was speechless.  Just kidding, you know I never shut up, but it was dazzling.  Dr. Brazier sat down and chatted with my mom and me for a bit, then we were ushered to our seats like VIPs. 

Later, Steven wondered at how easily Dr. Brazier acted as if he had all the time in the world to visit with us, when he was actually incredibly busy.  The Apostolic Church of God has 20,000 members.  There’s a lot going on all the time and Sunday is big.

When we walked in the church, I gasped.  It was like a theater, with grace.  Soaring wood ceilings, impossibly high brick walls, enormous beautiful birds carved above words of praise.  This was worship on a level I’d never seen.  A huge main floor was overlooked by a balcony full of happily chatting people.  The congregants sparkled and hugged and the energy bounced around.  Mom and I kept looking at each other with our eyebrows raised.  I mean, wow. 

We had reserved seats right in front.  The praise began in song and on a professional level I’ve only bought tickets for in the past.  Singers, musicians, choirs, soloists… 3000 people swayed in worship and joy.  Dr. Brazier spoke with passion, reminding each and every soul present that they were never alone.  Worries and pain and loneliness may make them feel differently, but even if they were alone, returning to an empty room, Jesus was already there waiting to lift them up.  He spoke to all as if speaking to one.  I cried.  A young, lovely soloist sang as if she were borrowed from heaven, closing her eyes and letting her voice soar to a place of grace I’ve never witnessed in person.  I cried again.  We were welcomed into this beautiful world of history and culture and hope and redemption, when we’d normally just be at home watching TV.  An elderly woman wearing an ivory brocade suit, pearls and a pretty hat repeatedly got up to dance for most of both services.  Her joyful, rhythmic steps reminded me of dancing with my grandmother in her kitchen.  I had to restrain myself from jumping up to hug her.  During a piano and organ duet, one of the choir members leaned back in her seat, arching her back as she moved her arms high in the air, gracefully interpreting the music with gentle hands.  It was lovely, as if it was flowing through her. 

In Catholic and Lutheran services, we’ve said to our neighbors, “Peace be with you”.  At ACOG, the people turn to each other and say, “You’re important to me.” 

My portraits were brought out on large easels, each draped dramatically in red cloth.  The crowd hummed with interest.  Dr. Brazier asked me to stand to be recognized, and my heart pounded.  He told all of God’s people in the room, “This is black history month.  But black history does not have to be only about slavery or struggle.  It can be about our history right here; the history of our church.” 

Bishop Arthur M. Brazier

He went on to captivate everyone with the story of how the church began, when the first two pastors, Elder Clemons and Elder Medders, lived in the same six flat building in Washington Park.  Later, Dr. Brazier’s parents rented a room from Elder Medders, and Dr. Brazier and his sister were born there.  He unveiled each portrait as he spoke about the church’s history and the passion and integrity of each of its leaders.  When he removed the drape from the face of his dear father, 3000 people leapt to their feet and applauded.  Chills.  He modestly revealed his own portrait that had been presented at Christmas time. 
Gesturing to each of the men’s wonderful faces, he said, “So… all four leaders of our church once lived in the same building, at the same time.”  There was a palpable surge of delight – don’t you love a family story you haven’t heard before? 

As the unveiled portraits stood in a proud row in their regal frames, beaming toward all those eager faces, projected on the large video screen above our heads, in that beautiful place… I knew I’d never have another moment quite like it in my career. 


And that was the first service.

We have great taste.
Afterwards, many of the church members greeted my mother and me.  One told me my hands were anointed. Another told my mother she was a holy vessel.  Each wondered at the talent God had given me, thanked me for the portraits as if I’d offered them as a gift.  (I was paid well for them.)  We were embraced and our cheeks were kissed over and over.  One woman was wearing the exact same dress as me.  After giggling over it, we posed for photos together.  I told her she made me feel like I fit in.  She told me if she was wearing the same thing as me, she must be doing pretty good.  I mean… oh my. 

Never in my life, have I had a day of love like this, a day of welcome, a day of acceptance and invitation.  The closest thing would be a big family gathering, but never with this kind of power.  The energy was unlike anything else.  It didn’t ebb, but grew.

Between services, we were guided into a private formal meeting room with delicious fruit, pastries, coffee and juice served on a gleaming, polished table.  A beautiful room meant for important visitors.  And today, it was for mom and me.

“You know,” Steven confided over our pastries with a smile, “You might be sitting in the same seat where President or Michelle Obama once sat.” 

Did I mention that Steve found me online when he saw a portrait I’d drawn of Barack Obama?  Politics can be as personal and passionate a subject as religion.  People have different views for private reasons.  Personally, I love our president and believe in his hopeful heart with all of mine.  Like him or not, you have to admit that there was just a flow to all of this.

The second service was more passionate, more energetic than the first.  How???

When it was over, after we accepted nonstop invitations to come back and worship with them again, Steven took us to lunch at a favorite nearby Italian restaurant. I tried to grab the check – I mean, he’s my CLIENT, for Pete’s sake – but Steven said that the pastor would be mad if he hadn’t taken good care of us. 

It’s Black History Month.  I was invited to be a small part of what it means to one beautiful church.  

And as I write this, I’m crying again.

Apostolic Church of God, 1931
With love,

Friday, February 13, 2015

A Valentine Love Story

It has been such a long time since I wrote a portrait story, or blogged about losing my keys while sulking about something silly.  But now the timing is just right - I’ve been saving this story since September, and most of it is written on a napkin from a Wildberry girlfriend lunch. 

Valentine’s Day is about love for more reasons than one.

Joe's hair.  Come on.

Flashback, late 1997.  I had big hair, a tall husband, a giant dog and a baby with a surprisingly round Charlie Brown head.  For five years, I’d worked for my father’s business and it was time to move on.  My husband Joe worked for Hewitt Associates and kept suggesting that I apply.  I’d earn more money, get more benefits for us, we could commute together.  But I was going to break my dad’s heart in the process.  My son Joey came to my father’s office with me each morning.  The gentle beginning to our days was going to become brutal.  It was such an agonizing decision that I used a long spreadsheet to weigh the piles of pros and cons.   In the end, we knew it was time.

I started at Hewitt, staggered and delighted by the shocking change of working for a big company.  I LOVED IT.  I made new friends, including a tiny spitfire of a girl named Tracey.  We clicked immediately, laugh-talking as fast as possible, chirping each other with our Nextel walkie talkie phones, mostly to gossip about coworker drama, sometimes to get work done. I only worked at Hewitt for a year, just long enough to make bonds that lasted through the next six years working downtown, getting fired, and the last ten years of drawing full time.

Tracey and I meet for lunch when we can, especially around our birthdays (the same day, two years apart) so we can catch up about kids (two boys for us both), our siblings (we each have only one brother who each have one son and one daughter) and our parents (who have been married a very long time).  It doesn’t matter how much time goes by between visits, Tracey and I love each other, get each other, root for one another.

I’m always excited to draw for friends, especially dear ones, so I was happy when Tracey asked me to draw a portrait for her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.  We thought about doing a “then and now” with images of her parents when they first married, and now.  Instead, we settled on a family tree, including both sets of Tracey’s grandparents.  As the portrait unfolded, the future of Tracey’s family hung in the balance.  She looked through photos of beloved, dearly missed grandparents while facing the possible loss of both her own parents.  The portrait was more than just a celebration of 50 years of family love and marriage.  We were hoping against hope that it would be a celebration of life.

Tracey’s parents met at a bowling alley on a blind date set up by friends, both barely into their 20’s.  Her dad became a toy designer for cereal boxes; her mother - a loving homemaker.  We talk together about our parents, how they sometimes drive us nuts and always make us feel loved, how lucky we are to have had them so long, that they’ve stayed together, that they have their health – or what’s left of it. 

“My dad is completely devoted to my mom,” Tracey tells me.  “He’s the most important thing to her, and her to him.  He’s taken such good care of her through two bouts of cancer.  He sat through every chemo.”  Tracey’s mom had a cancerous kidney removed.  For ten years, the remaining kidney has hung on, working overtime.  Its time was up.

“My mom didn’t want to live on dialysis,” Tracey explained.  They went to the Mayo Clinic and began the long, difficult process of trying for a transplant. “She needed a kidney badly. We all got tested, but we weren’t a match. There was a very limited pool of candidates due to her blood type.  We needed more people.” 

They learned about something called “paired donation” that can speed up the process. 

Paired donation is kind of like giving an organ directly to your loved one.  Except you give it to someone else instead.  And someone else’s loved one gives one to someone else and so on until the chain is completed.  The ultimate pay it forward.

Tracey and her brother both jumped up waving their hands to donate a kidney for their mother.  But Tracey’s dad wouldn’t hear of it.  His children were still young, with children of their own to care for.  He was 71 and as always, he was ready to step up to the plate for his darling wife, whatever it took.

Meanwhile, Tracey had been researching online how to find a kidney, trying to speed up the process.  Like her parents, Tracey is a very private person.  But she went public, creating a Facebook page to search for a kidney, imploring friends to share the page with friends of friends.  This is where it comes in handy to be fabulous.  Most of Tracey’s friends responded right away, and those who didn’t got a personal plea from Tracey during her daily campaigning.  In the end, 99% shared, forwarded, cared. 

After waiting many months, a match was found by Mayo.  Everyone rejoiced!  The relief. But then the whole thing fell through.  The match wasn’t made in heaven after all.

Tracey closed her eyes, remembering for a moment. “Everyone was devastated.  Waiting for the kidney was torture; we were on pins and needles.”  Tracey’s mom was very sick.  Time was running out.

As a result of one of Tracey's repeated messages, a friend of a high school alum made a suggestion to contact the Living Kidney Donor Network,  Tracey spoke to the founder, Harvey Mysel, who offered to meet with her parents.  A kidney recipient himself, Harvey told them not to put all their eggs in the Mayo basket, urging them to widen the pool and explore other places, like Loyola. 

Within a month of getting established at Loyola, another kidney was found through the paired donor pool.  Tracey’s mom and dad were scheduled for surgery on the same day, within two weeks of their 50th anniversary.  There was a 20 person chain making up the final list of paired donors.  The logistics of scheduling all those surgeries in different parts of the country was an enormous challenge. The surgery for Tracey’s dad’s kidney recipient was pushed back a couple days. I asked Tracey if her dad could have changed his mind once his wife’s new kidney was snuggled in place.  “The donor can change his or her mind, even on the table up to the moment before anesthesia,” Tracey explained.  “But my dad said he would never back out.  He’d never put another family through the devastation we all felt when the first kidney fell through.”

Both surgeries were ultimately a success, though her mother spent some scary time in the ICU while her family held their breath.  Tracey’s parents ended up recovering on the same hospital floor.  They were each other’s incentive to get out of bed.  Dad painfully walked each day to see his bride and her healthy new kidney.  The nurses thought they were adorable.

Back when Tracey and I were piecing together her portrait, we didn’t yet know how the story would end during such a scary time for her family.  Choosing images of all those beloved faces was bittersweet and more emotional than for most of my portrait clients.  Tracey fretted over every picture being just right, especially those of her grandparents.  Only her father’s mother is still alive - in assisted living.  Tracey’s grandpa was her primary caretaker since she’d had a stroke in her 80’s. Like father like son.  Tracey’s dad took his father’s 2009 death very hard.  He passed with his loving family all around him. 

Tracey’s maternal grandfather, Papa, took Tracey’s brother Michael to his first Cubs game, and Michael took 12 year old Tracey to her first game in his memory – they are life-long, suffering fans.  Papa died when Tracey was four, taken by cancer in his 50’s. The loss devastated Tracey’s mom, who always called him a “gentle man”.  His wife, “Nana”, lived to be 86.  “Putting Papa and Nana together again for my mom will be the crown jewel of the portrait,” Tracey stressed to me.  After all Mom had been through, it would be a beautiful, emotional surprise. 

And then, a happy ending – mom’s kidney came from Pennsylvania, dad’s kidney went to Utah.  On their August 30, 2014 anniversary, Tracey and her brother presented the portrait to her parents: precious children, beautiful grandchildren, beloved parents.  One kidney found, one kidney given, one grateful family.  And now, six months later, everyone is doing beautifully.

Wadded up in my purse for months. 

In September, I scribbled the whole story down on a restaurant napkin at lunch, a month after the transplants.  I’d asked Tracey ahead of time if I could write about her story and then I forgot a damn notebook.  And a pen.  And then I forgot to write it. Some things never change.

“While my mom was recuperating in the ICU,” Tracey told me over our lunch salads, “I kept thinking, what if she doesn’t get to see her parents together in the portrait?  What if something happens?  I thought the portrait was going to be big.   But it was so much bigger than I thought.”

Today, Valentine’s Day, is also National Donor Day. 

It’s a good day for a love story.

With love,
Wendy Zumpano