Marsha Recknagel: The Red, Red Robe


Two threads run through my life. I can close my eyes and see the 3D strands of DNA twisting into a braid. It’s difficult to imagine where one begins and one ends, where one ends and the other begins.

I am seven. My heart races as I step into the center of the circle of family. We are gathered in the sunroom early on Christmas morning, a chilly one for Louisiana. I wear a red robe I’d picked out myself two years before, and I’m passing around drawings to family members, my gift to them—each one drawn particularly for the recipient, drawings that I now know had the faintest echo of Miro’s. With colored pencils and a ruler, I’d drawn straight lines, rectangles, triangles, pressing tiny dots across the pages filled with the child’s  primary colors, reds, yellows and blues. The drawings are abstract, and my mother turns hers upside down, looking puzzled.

The red robe is a flash of brilliance in the brown and beiges of the room. Two years earlier and one day before I’d been scheduled for surgery to correct my crossed eyes, my mother took me to a fancy dress shop, one we’d rarely gone in except for special occasion shopping. She told me I could pick out any pjs I wanted. There was a glass case where folded inside was a bright red of nylon gauzy flounce, a robe and nightgown. My mother wasn’t pleased with my choice. There was some laughter later about how I’d chosen the most expensive thing in the shop. Yet I remember knowing exactly what bothered her—it was the “loud” color. My mother didn’t like to stand out; she was elegant, understated. But she had promised. So the bordello-worthy nightwear was wrapped in tissue and tucked into a box.  

I woke from surgery the next afternoon with a thick bandage wrapped around my head, over my eyes. I panicked. I thought I was blind. To awake to the darkness behind the bandage sent me reeling back inside myself. This was when I discovered black could have a richness, could pulsate with deep, dark reds, with flecks of silver stars, swaths of purples.  I could bring forth this inner palette by pressing the meaty part of my palms into the bandage over my eyes. This, I learned, was under my control, this kaleidoscope was mine.

For the rest of my life, I’ve continued to press the lids of my closed eyes to see my own art show. Perhaps to pass the time in a doctor’s waiting room. Or simply resting, thinking.  In my twenties, I discovered Rothko’s work and was surprised to see inner darkness on a grand scale. The Rothko Chapel, where Mark Rothko’s last works hang, was two blocks from where I lived in Houston for twenty years. The one room, with its wooden benches, whitewashed concrete walls, light filtering in through strategic skylights is a sanctuary where I’d go to look at the ever changing landscape of the works. Some days the paintings glowed, sometimes there was a flatness to the veneer. Was it me, my state of mind? Or the way the light of day changed the conversation on the canvas?  I understood my own darkness through contemplating his.  

Last year I attended an art workshop where the instructor explained to the class the complexity of black. It is taboo, she said, to use black from the tube. Mix your blacks, she told us. I discovered that if you add red, some green, raw sienna, a bit of gold then you will have the shining eggplant black or the black like the fur of my cat, so black he is purple in the sun.

Let me explain. I am sixty-five. From the time I was in the fourth grade until five years ago, I wrote. I was a writer. I always was a writer. I became a writer, I published in journals, I wrote poems, later I wrote scholarly papers, then a dissertation, then a manuscript for my MFA, then a memoir. This was who I WAS. My strand, my breath, my being, my voice was the written word. For me the way to touch you was by parsing perfect sentences into paragraphs, choosing the precise metaphors, deciding on the electric verb. Page after page, written over the years to bring you closer to me. Here come closer and let me whisper my story in your ear.

Yet today I am startled to remember my Christmas gifts drawn on construction paper; the memory of the high stakes, my hands shaking and my heart racing as I handed them around: to my father, my mother, to Jan, to Gail, to Jimmy, and to my grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw. I want to hold this moment, rewind. So what happened that made me turn away from this medium and turn toward writing as my go-to mode of relating and of being?

For many years I only excavated the memories that supported my life choice, my writing career. I’d explain this story of my life to this therapist, that colleague, to my friends—the memories fortified by the stories from my family—I was always the writer. Jan was the dancer. Gail was the cook. Wait, wasn’t there another story? I hear my own advice to my nine-year-old self: Scooter is the artist. You will be the writer.

Wait! Why? Because Scooter drew the Cocker Spaniel from Lady and the Tramp and his drawing of the dog looks just exactly like Lady. His beds drawn on your get well cards—I was a sickly child who missed many weeks of school—the ones with bed posts and with me tucked beneath a quilt are perfect. They look like real beds. The cat curled at the end of the bed looks like a real cat. Scooter has something called “perspective.”  I cannot make this magic.  

Scooter was my best friend from the time I met him when I was only four; he was a boy’s boy, rough and tumble Scooter who later arm wrestled with me, raced me on our stripped down bikes over obstacle courses we’d cobbled together in the hardware parking lot; later who kissed me as we huddled under the wool coats (which we rarely if ever needed in the Louisiana winters). My sister’s old dance costumes, white ballerina tulle hung like a bride’s veil over my head.

I gave him the art. I gave up the art.

Now, I’m seven years in to retirement from a university position as Writer-in-Residence, retiring forced upon me by a diagnosis of MS.  At the same time I left the job I also left the writing. There is a story about how I took up painting that is as narratively linear as the one about why I was always a writer. That story is a long story and perhaps as suspect as the other. Yet to unclasp, to let go of one life, and reach out to another, to begin again, is what I’ve done,though initially forced on me by a frightening disease, there’s been a return to who I might have been, and now I am!

All I know for sure is that I paint with joy and abandon. (I did not know until I was twenty-three that the eye surgery, although a cosmetic success, had left me with little to no depth perception.) My art teacher tells me that my art is eccentric, quirky, individual, and filled with emotion. Yes, pent up emotion—a filament in the braid of my DNA, once abandoned to the point of withering, now brought back, breathed new light new breath into some part of me long neglected; here, my mind’s eye, my first canvas, the organic conjuring of the images within her, within me. I am that painter. I will show you.


marsha-recknagelMarsha Recknagel has a Ph.D. from Rice University and an MFA from Bennington Writing Seminars.  Her memoir, If Nights Could Talk, was published in 2001. It was selected as the common book for Houston Community College, one of the largest community colleges in the nation, and as a Los Angeles Times Most Notable book for 2001. She taught literature and creative writing at Rice University for over twenty years before retiring to Williamstown, MA.


Poet, Promptress, and Coach providing fierce encouragement for writing + life and gentle creative guidance for writers all over the world.

One thought on “Marsha Recknagel: The Red, Red Robe

  1. Oh I love this so much! It’s amazing how we script ourselves as the writers, the artists, the not-this because she’s this or he’s this… from our very childhoods. I’m rediscovering my art, myself, and am more fully venturing into my writing life – I applaud you for your artistic forays and joy – and for sharing all of that with us. I’ll have to look for your writing – what you had and have for a writing life is the stuff of dreams for me – because I have always told myself that I’m simply not good enough to … (fill in the blanks here). But, that was used (by myself, on myself) with greatest venom regarding the things I most wanted to be – a writer and artist. Thank you for sharing your gifts.

    Liked by 1 person

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