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"Heritage" from 7 Dresses

Dress No. 3: Heritage

I had finally gotten the courage to put “Heritage” out in my living room…  Heritage continues to be a dress that almost every viewer reacts to in an “I want to wear that dress” way.

This dress captures who I feel I am when I get to spend time in  the Appalachian mountains.  That place of wonder where my family went almost every summer, where I first remember talking to God, where I discovered “thin places” of heaven being so close as to be almost touched.

The Appalachian mountains were the most special place on earth to me.  They are still the home of my heart.  The misty blues and smoky greens set against the ever present gathering of clouds was not just a beautiful setting. **** With each teasing breeze whispering through the trees, and the fluted notes of a brook dancing down the mountain over smooth river rock, I heard a call.  A call toward home.   Our small family of four shared sunlit memories of laughing while rolling down grassy hills with the taste of oreos and tiny sausages called “Little Smokies”  still on our lips. It was that place where we lowlanders got to taste what a real apple was meant to be as we crunched into the juicy sweetness standing just a few feet from where it was grown.

That’s what I hoped my Dad would see. We shared that feeling. I missed the closeness we always walked in when we were there together.   I hoped he would see this dress with his heart rather than his mind.  I hoped he would be transported to that place where he actually let his shirt be untucked.  That place where things weren’t counted or timed or measured.

It had been a few years.  A few years since we’d been to the mountains and a few years since I’d let Dad view one of my paintings for more than a couple of minutes.  I had quit showing Dad my paintings because I created from such a tender place that kept getting hurt.  When I showed Dad my work, what I was looking for was approval and encouragement.  What I got, sadly,  was always what was wrong with my creation.  He viewed it as caring.  Perfectionists mistakenly think that this type of correction is a form of love.  But it is very hard to receive, if it can be received at all.

Because my dad’s health was becoming worse, my parents now lived in an apartment connected to our house. They would take afternoon walks along the back patio that my painting corner overlooked.  Dad began to look in the window to see I was painting.  I began to close the curtains.   I felt sad that I had shut him out. But I couldn’t let him shove me back into the straightjacket of “right and wrong.”   I was learning to paint from my imagination.  I was so insecure about it, but It was so freeing because there was no way for the critic to say, “Your version is not correct right here.” How could he?  There was no reference photo!   I was being brave.  I was not trying to paint an accurate reproduction of something.  I was painting my heart out loud and in color.  

One day I felt so guilty about shutting him out.  “Enough,” I thought.“  Just let him see what you’re doing.  Don’t exclude him.  You and he were so close in your younger years.”  I wanted to be braver.  I wanted my dad back.  I wanted to be the bigger person and let him have another chance as he was now in his late 80’s. I knew I wouldn’t have this chance much longer.  So I displayed the dress in our dining room and waited.

One day, Dad came through and looked at the painting.  I held my breath.  I waited. I hoped for a reconnection to that father/daughter we had been in our Appalachian days. 

Sadly, it was too late.  He had begun the final fight with his body.  And while his mind was still sharp, I think he could feel the battle and fought to keep his upper ground by sheer control of everything he still had a choice about.

So to see a dress with no definition of a face was not controlled enough for him, I guess.  Too much left uncontrolled.  Too much left undefined, incomplete.

He asked, “When are you going to put a face on it?”  To my shame, I snapped inside.  He had missed it.  He had missed me.

Had he asked why I chose not to put a face on it, I might have been fine.  But all I heard was, “It’s wrong.”  That accuracy was more important than art.  But I knew it was right.  Still, in this tender moment,  I was not in a safe enough place emotionally to resist defending myself.

Then in a desperate wish for his acceptance of this new place I had found in art, I tried to let him in. “I’m not putting a face on her,” I replied.  “That’s the whole point of it. It’s a portrait of a dress – a story – not a person. Any girl who looks at the dress should be able to imagine herself wearing it. She doesn’t have to look like anyone else.”

I explained that this dress is about the amazing heritage I have - WE have, he and I - from the people who brought the love of Jesus to the Appalachian Mountains. John Wesley. The Moravians. Billy and Ruth Graham. And even the Huguenots who settled in the lower coastal areas. The fabric of our heritage is soft and rich like the velvet of this dress. The fabric of my soul is full of music, shape notes, poetry, mountains, sparkling streams, meadows, ever changing skylines. The necklace is an open circle because that heritage is not complete yet. It is still being formed. 

Close to her heart is the pearl.  Formed over time in deep places, hidden away until the shell is cracked open and worn next to her heart. The necklace is also pure gold. It has been refined by fire until that which is not gold is burned away.  She is a refined lady.

The belt around her waist is delicate and also refined gold.

I showed him that in the background of this painting are sheep. To be honest, I was completely unaware that I was painting them. There are lambs all the way up to mature sheep. The Lord does that with me. When I painted this background, I was just dreaming with Him. Dreaming of all that He had done in those Appalachians Mountains before me, for me and with me.

Because of the wonderful man beside me, I grew up going to those mountains. I became like Maria in the Sound of Music in those mountains. Those ancient hills ushered me into the presence of God with every trickling stream. I even loved the sound of the camper trailer on the gravel of a campsite. For a flatlander from South Alabama, these mountains seemed to touch heaven.  I touched my first cloud up in those mountains.

The romantic peaks, twisting roads and purples fading to blues still call me and I have to go there off and on just to recalibrate. To hear my Father’s voice where I first learned to listen. Brave people settled those mountains where I go to follow their example.  To find courage.

All of that is painted into this canvas. All of that is what I hoped my aging dad would catch and enjoy with me. 

Looking back, I had hoped for something that was not to be available from my Dad.  I had hoped he would see the place I painted from.  I was hoping to refind my Daddy rather than my Critic Dad.  My Critic Dad had high hopes for me. Thought I was really talented. Wanted the best for me. The only problem, and it was a big one, was that Critic Dad’s idea of what would be best for me didn’t match where I was going.  The term Critic became synonymous with Controller to me.  I became very hypersensitive to input and could only hear the “not enough” and the “try harder.”

Critic Dad always wanted me to be a portrait artist. I had the eye for it. The skills. And Critic Dad had served as a welcomed and helpful critic for several portrait artists.   Critic Dad wanted that same relationship with me.  I, however, wanted just plain Dad because I was his real daughter, not his art daughter.  Whereas the other artists could separate his comments from their relationship with him, that was impossible for me.

So here we stood, at an impasse.  I could feel my chest begin to constrict.  

We were back to that place I hated.  No longer daddy/daughter but only critic/artist.

Critic stood there with polished shoes, clean shirt tucked in tightly to creased pants. Accuracy was now on the throne - a beautiful thing to Critic, a hangman’s noose to me.

Critic countered, “But what if someone buys it?”

I tried to breathe in.  

I knew where this was going. Critic’s favorite piece of my art to date was a watercolor of a pair of Oxford shoes, highly detailed on a clean white field. It was a skilled piece. Values good, colors spot on, emotion coming through….

So much can run through your mind between breaths.  I tried to breathe out respect and patience as I felt my familiar frustration beginning to bubble.

I tried to turn the ship, “Anyone who buys this dress will want it for the story.”

“But you could paint the owner’s face in it for her and then other people could see her in the dress,” said Critic.   

My tense  heartbeat traveled up to my temples. Thumpa. Thumpa. Thumpa.

I so wanted him to understand as I stood my ground.  “But the buyer would want her guests to see themselves in the dress. She would want them to experience the same thing she did.  That’s why she would buy it.”

“Well they could use their imaginations.”  The tone said that he felt disrespected because I didn’t take his advice.  It was now about control rather than relationship, much less art.

I thought I might explode. I couldn’t leave.  There was no place to go.  This was my own home, for Pete’s sake.  The door was unlocked.  I was trapped in my own skin.

And then that familiar blow. I felt it coming. Why could I not fend it off?

“You know, the best piece you ever did was those shoes.” 

Here it comes.

I was cornered and countered with the unvarnished truth about that painting.  I had painted it to please him.  Hoping even then to mend what had been broken.  “That’s because I painted that piece specifically for you.  I painted something I knew you would like, and I painted in a style I knew you would love.”  Maybe I should have left it there, but I was desperate to get out of that tight corner so I continued, “But this dress is the best piece of art I’ve ever done because it came from ME. It is completely original.”

No response.

The room was getting darker as it was late afternoon, and I was already mourning the thought that my darling green dress that I had also painted with my dad in mind would never look the same to me. Something that reeked of finality kicked me in the gut.  I felt suffocated and abandoned. To have gotten up the courage to be myself in my own house and to have him invade my holy place and try to exert control over my creativity when I ached for praise and support left me crushed and finding myself reeling into my own method of scrambling into control mode.

I was beginning to stand up for myself. But it came at a cost.  And I had not yet learned my own true value so that I could do that without becoming defensive.  To be honest, I was in this way my father’s child.  Control was my counterfeit comfort.

But still, imperfect as it was, it was a step.  

Want to know what was incredibly ironic? This dress is called “Heritage” and Critic is part of that heritage.

Ready for a little more irony?

During my first draft of writing this dress story, I was taking a writing class with an inspiring author, Bob Goff.  I signed up for the class in the specific hope that it would push me into finally writing this book. The assignment for the week was to write about failure. Seriously? Easy assignment!  This book has had SO many failed attempts. 

And the biggest FAIL of all? This moment with my dad.  I had painted hoping for healing from some generational garbage. I had hoped, when I showed it to Critic, that something supernatural would happen. I had hoped that, because it was from my own imagination and there was no reference for comparison, it would simply wake up that rich Appalachian love we shared. That, like when we went to the mountains, it could be dirty and lovely and rich and majestic and full of music.

But my canvas completely failed to do that.  There was nothing wrong with the painting, but I felt like there was something wrong with me.  There are levels of lies to believe and I had just replaced one with another.  Lie number one:  If I get it right, my dad will get me.  Lie number two:  I gave it my all and it didn’t work.  I have failed my dad. I’m a failure.  Lie number three:  I’m just like him.

NONE of these conclusions are true statements.  My value does not come from my dad’s opinion of me.  My value comes from my heavenly Father who looks at me, a unique creation of His own loving heart, and says, “This is good. My daughter is priceless.  Her painting is priceless to me.  I love it!  I wouldn’t change a thing about how I created her, what I created her for, and what she creates with me.  I love how she sees the world when we paint together.  I love that she made an imperfect “try” to heal this relationship.  It is not wasted on me.”

Critic was still living when I took that class, seven years after I painted Heritage. That seems significant somehow.  In the presence of others,  I wrote:

Irony often comes from failure. Almost everyone who sees my paintings gets touched somewhere deep. Oddly, the guys might even get more deeply touched than the girls. It wakes up something tender in them toward life and toward pure and wholesome femininity. They express respect for it.

Everyone except Critic. Critic has known me all my life. You’d think he’d be thrilled to see me finally become unveiled to become my true self on canvas. But whenever I show him something that represents me in the raw, he becomes more critical than ever.

I placed some expectations on this piece for myself. It failed. It not only missed the mark, but it totally backfired - and I ended up with buckshot in my heart.

I still love this painting. But it has a memory attached to it now that will need to get healed.

I have been praying over this. I can’t expect Critic to change. I can only love him where he is and learn something important – as much as I want to share my art with him, it is not really a healthy thing for me to do at this point.

I’m not really “over it” yet. But I am being healed day by day. I’m watching God take that “F” for “Failure” and turn it into “F” for “Forgiving”. Forgiving Critic. Forgiving myself. Letting that just be. It’s a moment by moment decision thing every time he and I talk. And even in the telling, I just saw that word forgive as “For” – going ahead of someone - And “Giving.” Jesus does that. He goes ahead of us and paves the way for our hearts to give grace to those who hurt us, especially those we love the most. If Jesus didn’t do that on the cross, I wouldn’t be writing this book. I wouldn’t know the first thing about forgiving.

I imagine taking this painting with me to the Smokey Mountains and having it photographed in front of a spectacular view somehow. Hoping that brings healing by degrees.

We can’t change the generations before us. But maybe I can, over time, learn to reframe my rearview mirror.

I was with my Dad when he passed away.  He had yelled at me the day before.  I never could get it right in the end.  Dementia had taken hold.  And dementia is a liar.   But on his last day, I sang him songs from the mountains that we used to sing together before the fight began.  I gave him back songs I had shut away.  I let it hurt.  I did it for him.  I let him have the reality he wanted - needed - for his exit.  He told me he loved me.  I told him I loved him.  This was truth.  Real truth.  All the rest was just stuff now.  He smiled.  We all sat back down.  I began to journal.  Mom napped.   He slipped away with my mother sitting right beside him.  He was in his recliner, fully dressed with his shirt tucked in and his shoes on.

The process of saying goodbye to Critic and opening the windows to sweeter memories has taken some time.  That journey is a story for another book, perhaps.  We’ll see how this book goes first, I guess?

But I’m looking at her now, this girl I call Heritage.  And she is beautiful again in my eyes.  I have propped her up in the same spot where that uncomfortable conversation happened.  I chose to sit in the chair I leaned on when we had that painful conversation.  As I walk through the “after” of it all,  I’m thankful that I didn’t edit her to please the Critic.  I’m also thankful that I didn’t leave her as she is with defiance in my heart.  She simply gets to be.  She remains true to her original design.  She is thankful for those who have gone before her who walked those mountains  loving the Savior the best they knew how.  She walks those mountains in her heart, loving the good memories of the best of her dad. 

And I can see now that dementia is a quiet thief that enters almost undetected at first.  We simply think, “Why are you acting like this?”  Dementia steals those we love.  But dementia can not steal my better memories.  And I will treasure the dad who rolled down grassy hills with his children and taught them how to reach out and touch the clouds.

And the rift that was so painful has become a fertile valley tucked into the mountains for weary travelers to rest and know that they are not alone.

Painting and transcript copyrighted.

©2024 Lydia D Crouch

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