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Artist John Wood used old photographs and verbal descriptions to create this pen-and-ink drawing of Mark Kennedy's grandfather's general store.
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A middle-age friend and I were talking the other day and we decided that young men are 20 years old before they realize their parents have feelings and about 30 years old before they actually care.

I was thinking about this last week as I stared at a watercolor painting in our dining room. The painting, of an old-time country store with a Model A Ford parked outside, was a Christmas gift from me to my mother in 1990. I was 32 years old and single at the time, and she was in her mid-50s, a little younger than I am today.

The painting was by John Wood, a gifted artist and a friend then on staff at the Chattanooga Times. He produced the artwork over several months as a favor to me, just because he had a good heart and a love of nostalgia.

Ever since I was a kid, I had heard my mother — who generally wished for nothing — talk about her dream of one day having a pen-and-ink drawing of her father's general store. I think she envisioned something about the size of a postcard that would serve as a memory prompt that she could put in the family photo album.

My maternal grandfather, a Maury County merchant named C.B. Whiteside, was 60 years old when he fathered his only child, a little girl named Wilma. One of my mother's enduring memories was of her Dad sitting on the front porch of his store, smoking a cigarette while she swung on the hose connected to the store's lone gasoline pump.

All I gave John were a couple of faded black-and-white photos of the store and a physical description provided by my mother. Just after Thanksgiving 1990, he summoned me to his office and gave me the painting.

I was astonished at the quality of the piece. He had followed my description right down to the way my grandfather held his cigarette and the color of my mother's hair. The little country store, meanwhile, looked so authentic it startled me.

I remember feeling a wave of delight as I envisioned surprising my mother with a Christmas gift that I knew would immediately become her most prized possession. I had it framed and counted the days until she unwrapped the painting back in my hometown, Columbia, Tenn.

It was the first time I had given my mother anything meaningful. I had been a bit of a ne'er-do-well in my 20s and this was my attempt at trying to live up to my Mom's faith in me. I remember driving slowly over Monteagle Mountain on the way home so I wouldn't damage the painting riding in the back seat.

When Christmas morning arrived, I watched with anticipation as Mother tore the wrapping paper off the painting. Once she had it removed, it took a few seconds more for me to explain what it was and where it had come from. I remember her eyes scanning the painting — up and down, back and forth — and her right hand covering her heart.

She hung the painting in a place of honor in her bedroom, where it became the centerpiece of every home tour she gave to a new friend from that point forward.

I don't think that I've ever experienced such joy giving a Christmas gift before or since. Until that day, I generally felt unworthy of my mother's love, but for one moment I felt like I had pleased and delighted her in an unexpected way.

I imagined that she and her Dad, because of his advance age, had shared a special relationship. She often told the story of how people used to say, "Connor will never live to raise that girl," but he had lived to see a grandson born — me.

Now, as a 58-year-old father of young boys, I know that I may not live to see the day when they become fathers themselves. Then again, maybe I will.

No matter what, I know my boys will think of me long after I'm gone. My Dad died 23 years ago, yet I feel like I still grow closer to him year after year. We only fully know our parents as we travel the same paths and pass the same mileposts.

On this Christmas Day, if you are lucky enough to be with your parents, take a minute to make a mental picture of them. Remember their mannerisms, study their smiles.

One day these images will sustain you, encircling your soul like lights on a Christmas tree that get packed away for a season but never completely burn out.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-645-8937.

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