My mom, when she was very small, couldn't say the word “Grandma;” when she tried, what came out was “Gonky.” So she called her grandmother “Gonky”—and decades later, when she became a grandmother herself, she asked everybody in the family to call HER “Gonky.”
Gonky was less than five feet tall, weighed not a hundred pounds, and was apparently made of iron. In her 60s, she was riding a bicycle up and down San Francisco's steepest streets. She lived alone, carried her own groceries, and thought nothing of walking for miles and miles. She was a marvel of preservation and a model of graceful aging—right up until almost her eightieth birthday. In 2010 she had a stroke which left her completely unable to speak, and increasingly unable to get around or do anything for herself. Nevertheless, she continued to live alone for several years more, in a small row house in Swissvale, until the impossibility of it finally closed around her.
In August of 2014, I started drawing Gonky during my daily visits. It was a way for us to sit together without having to contend too much with her inability to speak, which was otherwise maddening and exhausting. A couple of years later, when she finally entered nursing care and I gave up the practice, I'd made more than a hundred portraits—drawings in pen and ink done in a single sitting, as well as pastels and acrylic paintings done over two or three days.
She raised me as a single parent. When I was a child, hers was the face I always saw. So she gave me not only my face, but my idea of a face. She's gone now. Here she is.