A fiction piece by Claire Hackett
When I think about the holidays, I think about love. People are happy; they hold hands and kiss their loved ones. People share their love with the people around them. The holidays are about love. It does not matter if you celebrate Kwanzaa, Hanukkah or Christmas; all of these holidays are similar in that to get love, you have to give love.
My favorite Christmas memory is when Milwaukee is lit up with Christmas decorations. Robes of garland strung around lamp posts, awnings that wished everyone a happy holiday and pine wreaths on every building.
When I was eight, my mother and I walked through downtown Milwaukee to see all the decorations. She wore a plaid coat that tied around the waist. She looked fantastic, and so chic, even though there were paint stains on her hands. She was an artist, and therefore, by definition, a mess. I was jealous of her skill. I wanted to be an artist just like her.
When we were walking, we held hands. I felt loved with my hand in her palm. In one window by Grand Avenue Mall was a display of Santa’s sleigh with presents spilling out, with reindeer tied to the sleigh in ornamental gold harnesses.
“Now this is Christmas,” she would say once we got to the huge christmas tree by the Milwaukee Art Museum. The tree was twenty feet high, complete with a glorious star shining on top. The ornaments were glistening. All around us, there was a feeling of contentment.
I sprinted around the tree.
“Catch me if you can!” I taunted my mom. She was laughing while she started chasing after me. The tree looked like it was spinning round and round. Tree branches tickled my hand as I stuck out my arm. I started running faster, and I could see my mom’s reflection in the ornaments.
“Gotcha!” My mom pounced on me. My head was spinning, but we kept laughing.
When my eyes adjusted, I saw there was black spray-painted letters on a wall out in the distance, near the tree. I walked closer to examine the wall, taking in the first graffiti I had ever seen up close.
On the wall was inscribed: “Give Love to Get Love.”
“That’s the meaning of Christmas, right?” I asked Mom.
She kissed me on the top of my head before answering,”Yeah, I guess it is. Remember that Ems. Always keep that in mind.”
Years went by and that graffiti was still there. It faded from the sunlight, but its message still spoke true. I always felt connected to that spot after first seeing that message. I did my first graffiti near that spot. I painted the Earth, and next to it I put the word “love.” I thought it was fitting; those two pieces complimented each other and belonged together. I tagged a lot of other buildings in the area. My graffiti was everywhere, but the piece I cared about the most was the one that I didn’t even do myself.
Just last year, when my mom died, I went there again and just sat. All I could think about was the fact that she was dead. She died in a car accident. I couldn’t believe it. I felt connected to her in that spot and remembered everything about her. I remembered how she would kiss me on the head when we would sit down for dinner. I remembered the first time she saw my short hair, and gasped. “I love it!” When I was small, I started demanding she give me art lessons. Those lessons taught me everything I know about art. The first time we walked by one of my graffitis she didn’t know it was mine, but called it a beautiful work of art anyway.
When Christmas came around again, I felt hollow. But life went on, thanks to my friends. Marc, my best friend, would go out with me and tag the city. Our graffiti was always next to each other. Yet, I couldn’t shake the fact that I felt empty. Christmas did not feel the same. And then it happened; one morning, the Christmas graffiti that I had seen with my mom was gone. All the decorations from years past were still there, but without that graffiti, it felt like Christmas was missing.
I sat down, staring at the wall. I had on my leather jacket and a chunky black scarf, but I still felt cold. It was too blank. I wanted to see the familiar black letters. I wanted to pretend that my mother was next to me, talking about her artwork.
There was nothing on the wall, though. The gaudy Christmas tree with its overabundance of ornaments and golden tinsel behind me didn’t resonate anymore.
Three days until Christmas and it didn’t feel like Christmas at all.
People shuffled around me. I didn’t recognize any of them, until I spotted Marc walking down the street. She had a leather backpack with buzzed hair and Ray-Ban glasses.
“Ems?” She walked over to me.
I sighed. “There used to be art here.”
“Yeah I remember there was something here – for years right?” she asked.
“There was graffiti here. This was what got me into graffiti. I loved it. It said ‘Give Love to Get Love.’”
Marc always had the ability to make me feel safe, and I leaned into her for a moment, letting myself feel connected to someone else.
“Did your mom love that piece?” Marc asked me.
I looked at her, a little shocked. I didn’t think she would bring my mom up. “What? why?”
Marc shrugged. “You have been a little stand-offish lately. Thought it was because of your mom dying around Christmas.”
“She loved graffiti because of me. After I saw that piece here, we would hunt around Milwaukee for the best graffiti. She started seeing it as art because of me,” I confessed.
She leaned in and whispered, “I think you should give the city back some of its Christmas cheer.” There was a mischievous glint in her eyes.
“That would be the perfect present for this city, wouldn’t it?”
“You know what to do.” I smiled and Marc patted me on the leg before standing up.
I grabbed her hands. I liked how they felt in mine.
“I hope to see it when it’s done. Text me. I gotta run.”
I woke up at 3:30 in the morning to go to the Milwaukee Art Museum. I wrapped my chunky black scarf around my face to mask the cold. The spray cans inside my backpack rattled.
Taking out a black spray paint can, I began spelling out “Give.” The paint flew from the can and splattered on the wall. Slowly, I made my message – the same message that had followed my life for so many years.
“Merry Christmas, Milwaukee,” I proclaimed to the city once I finished. My artwork was simple, black lettering at a slant, with no frills: “Give Love to Get Love.” Now Christmas could begin. I knew in the back of my mind that someone could paint over my artwork tomorrow, or the next day or the month after that. But that didn’t matter. Again, I felt connected.