I have a thing for Norman Rockwell. When I was a kid, I collected Rockwell memorabilia in the form of calendars, picture books, and posters.
In those days Norman Rockwell stuff was about as common as Coke bottles. You could find Norman Rockwell in any antique store or far flung flea market in America. I outfitted my room with his artwork. I clipped illustrations from books and plastered Rockwell photos on my walls like pinups.
Which explains a lot about my social life.
I have a few favorite paintings.
There’s “Shuffleton’s Barber Shop” (1950). The painting shows a group of old men playing music in the back room of a barbershop. Everyone is smiling. Someone’s sawing a fiddle. A classic.
“The Runaway” (1958). A cop sits in a diner alongside a little boy who is carrying a hobo’s bindle. They sit on stools. You just know the cop is urging the kid to go back home to Mama.
“Saying Grace” (1951). My favorite painting, perhaps, of all time. A crowded restaurant, somewhere in a big industrial city, maybe Pittsburgh or Detroit. A mother and son. They sit at a table. The joint is crowded. Everyone is smoking. People in the restaurant are gawking at the mother and son because Mama’s hands are folded and the boy’s head is bowed. And they’re praying.
Every time I start thinking about this painting I get choked up. I don’t know why.
Maybe it’s because Norman saw the world differently than others. He found his masterworks in the commonplace.
Still, I’ve always wondered whether Norman Rockwell’s depictions of a kindhearted, benevolent world were true. Can human beings really be as kind as they are in his world? Are people really that goodhearted?
No. When I was a kid, I decided that people truly weren’t THAT nice. For crying out loud, read your paper once in a while. Watch the news. Everyone on this planet wants to either get rich or kill each other trying.
But Norman didn’t see it that way. And therein lies the reason why I love him.
I was a young man when the Rockwell exhibit passed through Birmingham, Alabama. I had never seen a Rockwell painting up close. When I heard the exhibit was coming, I almost choked on my Pop Tart.
At the time, I worked as a construction grunt, and I moonlighted as a dishwasher. I was a Florida white-trash kid with no high-school education and an overbite.
Birmingham? Could it be? I lived four hours south of Birmingham. I could do Birmingham.
I was ill-equipped for a road trip, of course. I was flat broke, I couldn’t afford to skip work. And I had transportation that was unreliable. My dilapidated truck predated the Punic Wars. My front bumper was held on with nothing but baling wire and the joy of the Lord.
I called in sick for work.
“What do you mean you’re sick?” screamed my boss. “You don’t sound sick.”
“It’s a gallstone.”
“How do you know?”
“Because my gall hurts.”
I packed a backpack. I fixed approximately 47 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I raided my shoebox-bank for gas money. And I tore out to see Norman.
I coasted into the Birmingham Museum of Art on fumes. There was a short line waiting to get in, mostly elderly people with white hair, wearing outfits made entirely of polyester.
I approached the admissions booth. I paid for my ticket with crumple cash and nickels. I counted my change to the penny.
The lady behind the counter looked at me and said, “Where you from, Hollywood?”
“Not here,” I said.
She scraped up the loose change. “No kidding.”
I walked into the exhibit and time stopped. I could not believe what I was seeing.
I laid eyes on my first painting and I felt my breath catch. I toured the exhibit slowly, taking small bites. I stood motionless before each painting for 10, 15, sometimes 20 minutes at a time.
It was Norman’s fine draftsmanship. It was his bravura brushwork. It was the faintest pink glaze applied to a little girl’s rosen cheeks. The detail of the veins in an old man’s hand.
Midway through the exhibit, I sat on a bench before a grand painting and I wept silently.
A lady sat next to me. She was old enough to be my grandmother. The woman wore a long woolen coat and red scarf. Somehow I remember that, I don’t know why.
The woman didn’t say anything when I sniffed my nose. She just sat with me. She never introduced herself. She never spoke. She just sat shoulder-to-shoulder with me as I cried. Both of us looking at the painting.
Finally, after an awkward few moments, the woman simply patted my thigh. It was a motherly pat. Then she smiled at me and walked away.
It was such a small gesture. It was such a tiny act. But it made me cry all the more. Because, don’t you see? This little movement; this tiny flick of the old woman’s wrist; this gentle matronly act of kindness meant something.
It meant that the paintings are all true.
stephenpe - April 16, 2023 11:14 am
Norman R and his art could take you back to that time we all remember. He allows us to remember the best parts. The kind and human ones. And Sean has proven they are still out there in the real world. Not on TV or in what’s left of the daily newspaper. I see it, too. I even see it each day in these short narratives Sean writes each day. Thanks again, Sean. You help us remember what we must never forget………
David in California - April 16, 2023 3:23 pm
Perfect comment to a perfect and (for me personally) perfectly timed blog post.
Tina E. Howell - April 16, 2023 12:34 pm
One of your finest!! You made me laugh out loud nd then cry!! Keep it up!!
Diana - April 16, 2023 12:51 pm
You write like Norman Rockwell painted. Thank you.
Bibb Nick - April 16, 2023 1:39 pm
Yeah, buddy, you’re my Norman.
Julie - April 16, 2023 12:59 pm
Yes. The kind people are here. Sometimes, we just have to look beyond the surface interactions. They are here offering transformational acts of kindness every minute of every day. Nothing and no-one can convince me otherwise.
Chad Carney - April 17, 2023 1:41 pm
I love Rockwell. The painting “Saying Grace” sold for 46 million a decade ago. Whew.
Tammy Kelley - April 26, 2023 8:55 pm
I love Norman Rockwell. Every time I get a chance to get a calendar I get one. Your story here has made me laugh and cry. Once again Sean you are amazing. Thank you for being you. ❤️ Tammy Kelley
Donna Buchanan - April 29, 2023 4:12 pm
Smiles and tears…thank you.
I pray for kindness to grow throughout my town and to grow on through the world.
There was a movie called Pollyanna and when I saw it I decided to be more positive and to look for good things everywhere. In the movie she took crystal prisms from the light fixtures and hung them in the windows to cheer up an older lady. I look for “prism” moments to share with people. I give smiles, compliments, thanks for kind acts, just a word to brighten someone’s day. If we all could be a bit like Pollyanna wouldn’t it help to brighten the world?