Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Iris and the Legend of Spirit Lake

The lake was not so close to the house you could throw a rock into it–something Iris had determined decades ago during each summer. It faintly glistened beyond a grove of birches and ubiquitous pines, and the half-fallen ones winter had damaged, one day to be seasoned and made into firewood. The ground was boggy beneath her feet, smelled strongly of rich mud. The sky blazed a hard blue above the whispering lake and the land about it.

“But the lake is there making its music,” she commented, surveying the property, arm outstretched.

“I suppose so, with complete indifference to us,” Elliot said, pushing fists deeper into his jacket pockets. It was cold despite it being on the cusp of spring, and his eyes burned from driving three and a half hours after a bad night’s sleep. “How about lunch and a strong cup of coffee? I’m beat.”

“You go ahead then,” Iris said and walked toward the woods, leaving him to take the luggage in as well as food for a three day week-end. Her suitcase, that is; he’d lightly packed a gym bag. She had wanted to make sure there were adequate clothes for the changeable spring.

It was too much to take in. The monstrous months of the virus, still going strong. A slowdown in their respective jobs. Then Grandpa Bolo’s death. He’d been expected to make good on his decree that he’d be a hundred and not a day less as he moved from this realm to the next. His health had been great for so long they believed him. His brain was snapping-quick, his outlook positive. Until he was fifty, he’d been a hardware store owner and sold it for a very good sum. Living in northwest woods for the latter part of his life, he was entirely content except for the loss of his wife too soon. But despite all those good things, a massive stroke snatched him at 94.

“Why was he called Grandpa Bolo?” Elliot had once asked after they married.

“Everyone called him ‘Bolo’. His mother’s maiden name was his a middle name–Bolonger–and he hated his first name, Horatio. He used a nickname form of his middle name since he was a kid. My sister and I decided to just call him Grandpa Bolo.”

“You grandmother’s name, wasn’t it a country type name? A folksy name…” He hoped he didn’t sound derisive.

“Nana Nell. A mentor all my youth, as you know…” She had been anything but ordinary. Iris smiled at the way her names rolled off the tongue. Her grandmother had died when Iris was twenty-four of cancer, seven years before she and Elliott married. And now, how quickly another ten years had passed.

Elliot sighed, almost rolled his eyes, then caught himself in time. How awfully folksy it all is, he thought, then saw her smile flush her skin with undeniable radiance. His initial response was submerged. His own single mother, Nancy, which he’d called her since he was young, was another sort of story.

Maybe that conversation–or what was left unsaid–ought to have told her more, though it would have been more than she could acknowledge then. And he might have known that whatever was kept subterranean was bound to resurface sooner or later, but he believed in control of his thoughts and feelings.

Iris and Elliot found the property untended, scrappy, but that was to be expected. Leave wild land to itself and you get more wildness. Of course, it wasn’t utter wilderness; there were more places dotting Spirit Lake’s waterfront and beyond. Grandpa Bolo’s property was built in 1920. It’d been renovated more than once by the two families who had owned it. The lake was also smaller than many in Washington, still with few year-round residents. The family place was big enough–two stories–to be called a proper house. But the cedar shakes were weathered, its wide porch long ago had sloped a bit, it welcome more a yawning nod…it appeared a worn out, oversized cottage. Which is what Nana Nell called it. But Iris could recall when it seemed like a woodland castle, a place beaming with color and delights and good will.

She felt her grandfather’s presence strongly and stood with eyes closed.

Iris had always thought of it as home, period. She was moved and excited that it had been passed down to her. Since their mother has died of the same cancerous disease, she and her sister Carrie were next in line. So she, too, was part owner. And settled long in Miami not far from their bridge-playing, golf-happy father. And neither was anxious to return except for a short visit. One day, after the pandemic had wound down, she’d come a few days. Father was more about visiting at his condo. So Iris was more than welcome to the house.

Elliot emerged from it with a sandwich in one hand, a mug in the other. He raised it toward her, full of steaming brew. “Are you having one, now?”

“Not yet! I’m off to look around.”

The path, though well overgrown, was not hidden from her. It had been created between brush and trees aeons ago; so many feet had pounded the dirt long and hard. She pushed away branches and bushes, sidestepped a clump of vines, wound her way through elegant birches, which she stopped to touch, face close to its white peeling parchment. Soon enough, lapping green-blue water greeted her.

Shielding her eyes, she scanned the barely moving water, found a few boats, people with fishing rods lowered. The lake’s surface sparked with sunlight. Across the expanse, she studied the cottages and cabins. Iris wondered if the Harris family was in, if the robust Peabody brothers were doing alright. She hadn’t seen the Harrises at the funeral (where the few that made it stayed distanced). She’d heard they were in Arizona, camping out with their wealthy son. Was Marietta Holmes still taking care of her granddaughter and unemployed daughter– or had those two moved on since November? There were many people she had missed a long while, and others that she might not yet know. The assembly of souls in the township of Garner totalled less than 125, she guessed.

Which was what Elliot hated–it’s insular smallness. Or, rather, strongly disliked–he’d not tell her he despised visiting there longer than three days, even if he felt that way. She already knew he got restless and stated strong opinions if she pled for any longer. There were plenty of things he said entirely free of constraint–but her family and this place…that was a different matter. Sacred ground, he’d termed it with a half-smirk once. And Iris did not correct him, for it was true for her. She did not understand why he didn’t feel the same about his own family history; he just wasn’t close to his few relatives.

“There is a reason it’s called Spirit Lake, and it’s a lovely one,” she’d once told him. But he hadn’t asked why so she hadn’t said.

But there it was, spreading out before her. She could see both distant ends of the lake and her eyes traced the squashed oval shoreline, pausing at bird sightings and noting a new paint job on a cottage, wondering who it was hauling out the canoe. The breath that she took filled her up with fresh air. Peace. Just beyond the treeline were far purplish peaks of mountains that shone whitely with snow in the thin light.

It was time to get back to Elliot. Though Iris could not think of many reasons why other than food and coffee.

******

“Are you awake?” he asked, touching her shoulder.

“Mmmm.”

“I keep hearing things out there.”

“Probably so.”

“Remember when we woke up to skunk stench that one morning years ago?”

“Uh-huh.”

He wondered what else. Raccoons. Coyotes or a even wolf? No, wolves didn’t live here, did they? Bears were known to roam the mountains surrounding them. He’d seen tracks before. Mountain lions, for sure, those wily cougars.

Iris shifted, pulled her pillow closer under her head, sighed softly. She had been sleeping. Now she’d be listening, too. But only a moment. Hadn’t Elliot been a country boy until age fourteen? But that was Kansas. She yawned.

He blocked out the image of a cougar padding onto the porch, peering into the undraped living room and kitchen windows, sniffing about the door. He lay on his back, staring into a thicket of dark. In Kansas, he’d look out and see nothing for miles. The vacuous or storming sky. Fields of undulating corn, yes, but not an impenetrable density of trees, not bears on the hunt. He preferred open expanses. After ten years of marriage and living in Washington, it was still a challenge to get comfortable with endless forests, the sinuous mountain or valley roads. That is, if they must be in the country, at all. Why, he once said to his friend, Tom, did they keep planting trees all over when there were already so many you couldn’t see where you were going?

He and Nancy, his hard working, divorced mother, had left Kansas for Las Vegas and never looked back. If he had never gone to university, then taken that first financial consultant job in Seattle…but, then, he loved city life, the hustle. He couldn’t wait for the pandemic to wane, to get out there once more.

And if he’d not come to Seattle, he’d not have met the talented artist, Iris Merriman, his future wife.

No, he’d have not met Iris. Things would have been different. Easier, maybe. Lonelier, maybe.

There it was again, a rustling, a shaking sound–a bush tangling with an elk as it walked through? He could deal with that okay, just get a rifle. He knew a bit about hunting. Still, give him skittering lizards, even a rattlesnake. Elliot turned, balanced on his side, listening hard, finding shapes in the dark he was certain weren’t likely there. Thinking: two more days to endure in the weirdness of country.

******

At the dock things were happening. Birds rising up and falling across a cool curtain of air, their early morning songs skimming the lake, circling treetops. Squirrels rooting around and gossiping. Fish emitting bubbles that popped up at water’s surface. Little dark whirlpools that twirled, eddied, vanished to secret places below. Soft tangerine and candy pink-tinged branches of black-green pines. Color of many tones washed over the languishing body of the lake like slinky raiment.

It was a good breaking of dawn. The best way to greet life was to meet it as the sun did.

At the end of the dock–newer than recalled–Iris was wrapped in a nubby woolen blanket. She sat forward in a creaky folding chair. Opened her sketchbook, chose a colored pencil. She looked and looked, began to render what she saw, felt.

As she drew, she remembered. Sitting there with her grandmother at her side, each of them engrossed, the quietness a blessing.

Nana Nell had been an artist, making baskets, ceramics. Collages of nature’s treasures. Small watercolors of wildflowers and lake scenes, sometimes of tiny people melding into the landscape. She’d taught Iris how to hold a pencil and brush, to loosen her grip. How to daub different paint pots and make new colors. To make interesting things of yarn. To see with soul and heart, not only her eye. To render designs with thoughtfulness and care. By the time she was in high school, she knew she wanted to be an illustrator and got her degree, then became good enough that in time she was able to freelance. She drew pictures for children’s stories, for magazine articles, if needed financially, even for ad campaigns. Her favorites jobs were books, though it could be taxing to come to an agreement with everyone about how to execute what moved her while complementing the story. The other jobs were just jobs, but she enjoyed all labors.

Here, though, she could let her hand tell any story it wanted. Or represent with no embellishment just what was noticed. It was as if her eyes and brain carried sensory input and a feel of a place, animal, person or any other thing, and with speed and glory: suddenly it would flow from the tips pencils or charcoal or brushes. A direct line of energy. A charge of clarity. A liberation of everything that mattered to her. She loved most the natural world’s magic. All she had to do was sit and wait for it to arrive from her body’s perception, then race into her being and back to her fingertips.

If only Elliot understood this. He failed to accept that she did not want to be a strictly commercial artist. He had at first encouraged her art shows but the galleries were small, the openings soft, the rewards not nearly as much money as he had hoped. Still, she’d developed a website; sales increased over time. And she kept getting contracts for the other work. In time, he stopped thinking about it, let her be. He made the greater contribution to their coffers and future. He worked hours she’d never withstand, he believed, with her artist ways and temperament and that was alright, he conceded, as long as it kept the peace. But it often was not the key that he’d wished. She was so….adrift in her own small world. As he was, he guessed, in his. And seldom the twain did meet in recent years.

He had just awakened before she appeared. He didn’t dress, but slouched into the porch swing with a fleece on, hungry and tired. He had taken a look about and found no sign of intruding creatures around the house perimeter. He deducted he’d conjured up the sounds. But wasn’t convinced.

Iris’ sketchbook and pencils were clutched close to her chest as she approached the house. She was often magnetic, her straight long hair drifting about narrow shoulders, long legs taking the dirt path with ease. As if she was meant to always walk briskly without ever tiring. Not a big woman, she could disappear as well as gradually command a space. It was her focus, the zeroing in on people in any setting that so captivated. She might be studying momentary light on the planes of their faces, but they appreciated her gentle attentiveness. They wondered what she saw. As he had.

Now Elliot frequently waited for her, patient at first, then frustrated as time went on. For her mind to come forward to meet his, for her gaze to lock with his in a signal of passion, for her work to take up less room and make more for his work, his day’s events and needs. Sometimes he felt like she’d long ago started a migration to another land. Had left him by the side of the road, free to join the trip or turn and go another way. She cared but she was missing, somehow. He couldn’t put his finger right on it. They had argued about their separateness more and harder lately. Ever since the Spirit Lake house had become hers.

Hers. Not theirs. He’d never thought it could be any other way.

“Had breakfast already?”

“I haven’t. I was waiting for you.”

She gave him that smile, the one that said all is well in my world and let’s have a good day. So he followed her inside, hopes lifted. He knew he had to make the best of things over the weekend. He wanted to and yet part of him pulled back, waiting again for her to fully see him. Anxious that this house meant more to her than he did. That they had come to a fork in the road.

Iris felt his worry rise from his body like the cold he needed to better dispel. She let it pass her by. She knew what made sense for them, and she knew she loved him. One way or another, their destinies would work out right.

******

In the afternoon they walked. Iris showed him again her favorite places. All those years she had come for the summers; she was a full Spirit Lake citizen by age five. The tiny store, run by the Hedlund clan, two miles down the road, where you got bait and most everything else in a pinch. Like a convenience shop, just less interesting in inventory than a city’s, Elliot noted. The hilltop view where you could see the mountain range more fully, their mighty breadth and height leaving them both struck by nature’s grandeur, as usual. The place where she found butterflies amid brightly bobbing wildflowers spring into summer. The best picnic spot under massive oak trees by the lake where her family laid out ham sandwiches and devilled eggs, veggie sticks with dill dip and sun brewed iced tea. And the family recipe, a dark chocolate cake with cinnamon. Elliot shared a couple of picnics like that; excepting the bees, flies and ants, it had been nice and tasty.

“Let’s get out the rowboat,” she said and tugged on his hand.

Before he could protest, she pulled him into a galloping run to the boathouse by the dock. It felt good to be there with him. He was calmer, more accessible than in the the city where he and everyone else seemed so compressed. Concentrated on matters of importance, the race to make money stack up. She felt he’d made a vow as a kid to be a Success before anything else could claim him. She’d known this from the start, but back then he was able to be vulnerable, too, more malleable under the engine of driving energy, curious about so much more.

“I’ll row, it’s in my blood, this boat thing,” she said teasingly, “and you always put us into a circular pattern to nowhere.”

“That’s true. We didn’t have boats in my part of Kansas…I still might learn.”

“What? No lakes of rivers in that state?”

“Well, not so I noticed. A sea of corn or grain, yes.”

“I wouldn’t have been the same person without water and boats. I’d have gone stir crazy being landlocked. There is something about skimming the water’s surface, being shown a panorama like this, watching life over and under the surface..it never fails to make me fall in love all over again.”

He had to agree it was pleasant, the rocking of water, the line of neat cottages and rustic cabins, others out in their boats. Like postcards you’d send to a buddy, proclaiming how much fun is being missed, a huge fish on a line prominently displayed. But he didn’t fish and the truth was after a half hour, he wished he was reading a newspaper or texting at a sidewalk table of The Merchant’s Coffee Shop. As he preferred to do on non-working Saturdays. Even if it rained–there were canopies and umbrellas set up, even in the pandemic.

Iris put up her oars, one on each side.

“Doesn’t it feel safe out here? I mean, from the world, from illness. And so many other sad events.”

“I suppose so. But I’d rather be in touch with that world, too. Live within it. I mean, we can’t run away from things. Or we just shouldn’t. We have the responsibility to do what we can, carrying on and planning for a changed future.”

“Yes, I know. But people manage the best ways they can, not always the same as each other, right? We all have different ways to achieve those goals.”

Oh, here it comes, he thought, our great divide. He looked toward the sound of a truck rumbling over some gravel road, likely a few ATVs or an earthmover to shove dirt around to make way for a new house. Garner was beginning to attract attention from city dwellers. That appealed to him, the investment aspect. But so much of the land was privately owned already, it was hard to get in. Except, they had an “in”, didn’t they? Or she did, anyway.

“So we have noted before,” he said. “I like to be in the mix; you like to step back and work from the edges.”

She grabbed the oars and rowed a little more to pass a couple fishing nearby. “Not fully stand back, just to get more or better perspectives. Use my talents the ways I feel work best.”

He looked at her quizzically. “What are you getting at?”

“I’ve been thinking.”

“Yes, I know. We keep beating around the bush, don’t we.”

“Well, much has happened this year. We feel so much less certain of anything, It takes thought.”

Her strong slim arms pulled on the oars in a rhythmical manner, a slow but steady power so that they crossed over the lake toward the house with the slightest lurches, then more gliding, each stroke moving through the chilly water almost soundlessly. She was good at this, had a way with the lake no matter the manner in which she approached it. She had such a feel for lake life.

Iris could swim across it; he couldn’t swim well even in a pool though he could almost dive well. Iris could sail the green Sunfish very well; he never had and then when he tried, they’d capsized. Iris could tell the weather by the direction, speed and shape of waves against the shore, the sound of wind in trees. She had grown up near Seattle in a smaller, woodsy suburb, but she had learned about most important things in and on Spirit Lake, it seemed. Elliot had learned on the fly as his mother worked as a blackjack dealer in casinos. But he knew things, too. They just were not in her knowledge pool–as his were not in hers.

She let the oars drag a bit in the water and looked right at him. “I want to stay, Elliot.”

“Of course you do, you say this every time we come here. And you lost your beloved grandfather and you miss the old times…”

“No, I mean, yes, that is true. But I meant that rather than rent out the house by summer and for a long while as we discussed, I want to just live here. To keep it for us to use.”

“You can’t be serious. Alone, you mean? I have to go back to the city. What about your own work? Friends? What about us?”

“I have figured it out. You’ll drive over all the weekends you can. I’ll come to the city, too. I can freelance anywhere– you know that. My friends? They can visit eventually, when it is safe, and vice versa. I have a few old friends around here, too. We could make it work, Elliot! It seems so perfect–we each get what we want and still have each other.”

Her expression was so intense, she looked like a giddy teenager. It seemed suddenly absurd, the whole thing. Was this what she’d imagined when the will was read? How had he failed to miss it?

“The whole time–you had this planned, didn’t you Iris?”

She shook her head and started to row hard again. “I didn’t, truly, Elliot. But ever since we drove down the private road to the house I felt like it was where I most belong. Once and for all. I might discover otherwise, I guess. But I want to try it for six months, at least, see how it works out.”

“You can’t mean this.” It was sinking in with a feeling akin to horror. She wanted to leave him then, essentially–end up living here? They’d made a sound plan, they would keep but lease the house, then someday perhaps build a tidy cabin of their own on the lake. For holidays. For investment purposes. And the land was worth something.

Once more she let the oars dangle in placid water, dragging and leaving barest wakes on either side.

“Don’t you see that it’s what Grandpa Bolo wanted for me? He gifted the place to me–and Carrie, who doesn’t even want it. He knew how I loved Spirit Lake and the forest and mountains, its people, the way of life. He knew it’d be good for me to still love and watch over it. I don’t really trust others to do that right…” He had turned away, hands holding tightly to the boat’s sides. “Elliot– I can paint and make things so happily here. There’s much to inspire me. I can do really good work here again, I know it–I’ve been stuck, almost bored lately as you know. This might be the answer to it all.”

“Yes, your selfish answer to our situation, our being out of sync, your artsy world versus my commerce world..it is such a mess, isn’t it?” He stood, angily gesturing toward shore, at her, and rocking the rowboat. “I can’t accept this, it isn’t good enough for us both!”

The boat began to tilt and sway side to side.

“Elliot, be careful sit down now!” she called out.

But he was off balance, falling fast, and as he grazed the edge going over, he thought, this is how it ends? Iris dove in deeply and the cold shocked her hard but there he was sinking, arms waving, legs flailing, and she breast stroked her way to him, grabbed him around the waist and pushed upward with all her strength, her legs beating the water, her free shoving the stunning water away, reaching and straining toward light and air. He was heavy, heavier than he should be, and she realized he was pushing against her, fighting, afraid of drowning, afraid of taking her with him, perhaps. She clamped him with her arm around his chest, held his back to her front, plowed ahead, up and up before her lungs burst. They broke through, bobbed upward with the force of it.

“Elliot,” she sputtered, “stop fighting, we’re safe!”

He was gasping hard, coughing and choking, and grabbing the side of the rowboat when a motor boat came up fast.

“You need help? Oh, Iris! My gosh, let us help!”

The big bearded Peabody brothers, still hearty at sixty and sixty-two, hauled him complaining and gasping over the side of their boat, checked him over, threw their jackets over them. Then the older brother joined Iris in her boat and rowed her back. The younger one whisked Elliott over in the motorboat.

Chattering teeth made her clench her jaw. They’d nebeen in not more then two or three minutes, that was good, but still, so cold. “Never could keep you straight, look like twins.”

“I’m Adam, that’s Mike,” he said, and laughed as if it was a joke. “Good thing you can swim.” He cleared his throat. “Might be good to teach your husband.”

“Yes,” she agreed. “Grateful for your help.”

“Anything for Bolo’s folks, rest his soul–any time.”

Iris blinked back tears. Her hair streamed, her jacket and shirt clung to her chest. She’d lost both loosely tied tennis shoes. The ones she had left there a few years, just for the lake.

“Long, warm shower now, or a bath, both of you,” Mike said as he dropped off Elliot with a nod–and a tip of his hat to Iris.

******

“I don’t get it, but I see there’s no changing your mind. If I had my way, I might never see this place again. Or any other silty, weedy, stinking lake, for that matter!”

“I know.” Iris poured coffee into his thermos for the drive back to Seattle, placed the sandwich and apple in the lunch bag. If only he really was just going to leave for a day’s work and then coming back shortly. “But we will give a good try, and thank you for that. You won’t decide to throw me over in a divorce action?…”

“No.” Saying it made it a more clear and certain decision, through he’d had a niggling doubt overnight.

Iris walked him to the car. “So, you’ll be back with Tom and my car next Saturday, right? He loves the outdoors, especially fishing if I recall.”

“He does,” he said grudgingly. “Yes, and I’ll cart over more clothes and whatever else you decide. Make that list and text or email me by Thursday.”

“Yes.” When he got in and shut the door, Iris leaned at the window he rolled down. “You know it’ll all be alright if we look at it as mutually beneficial. Right? We’ve been at odds a long while, and I’ve been restless with much and you have felt neglected. You want to work longer and later hours even at home. I like early rising and early to bed. You like running every day and I like yoga…we both need some time to regroup. It isn’t just me wanting this place, it’s more, I believe.”

“I agree, Iris, it’s just not easy. And less so in these crazy times.”

“We can be in touch every day. We’ll see each other as often as possible. It will be a small adventure.” She leaned close, kissed him tenderly. It felt good, the kiss–and their farewell for the time being.

He began to back up, then stopped. “I never learned after all this time why the lake is called Spirit Lake.”

“Oh, that.” She smiled, gazed past him, to the shore beyond the trees. “I might tell you someday. We’ll see.”

He shook his head, waved at her, then left.

Nana Nell had told her one summery day when Iris was ten. They’d been drawing together the shore, the blanket covering the stones and lumpy earth, August green trees dancing in the wind.

“I make art better outside, Nana Nell.”

“Of course you do. It’s the lake.”

Iris squinted at her. “Why?”

“Because once there was a woman who ran away from home to find her heart’s desire. She didn’t want to live an ordinary life. She wanted to do something special and good for the world, but she didn’t know what until she arrived at this jewel of a lake.”

Nana Nell paused as she added color here and there to her sketch.

“Nana, what next?”

“She became a well-known artist. She also donated much of her money to help build an orphan’s home in Garner. But then, at too young an age she drowned in a terrific thunderstorm that came up while she was in her boat, drawing nature’s beauties.”

“That’s terrible.”

“But that’s not the full ending, child. They never found her. But she finds those who come here. Every morning at sunrise she skims the lake. Well, her spirit does, and she watches over the rest of us if we belong here. And if anyone falls overboard, she brings them back up to safety.”

Iris said nothing a long while. Then: “So those people live?”

Nana Nell nodded.

“When was this, Nana Nell? Did she have a name?”

“Oh my, it was Mary something…Mary Murray…Mary Millay…Well, it was before I was born, before Grandpa or even my parents came to be. It was before anyone can exactly recall, anyway. But the lake does not forget. And she still calls out to some, you know. She called to me, and Grandpa Bolo, and now to you.”

Iris smiled so hard her face felt it might freeze that way. “Because we’re artists!….and Grandpa Bolo loves the lake and earth, too!”

Nana Nell smiled back, patted her hand and bid her keep drawing.

“Maybe she was part of our family,” Iris said impulsively as she shaded a mountain peak.

But Nana Nell did not reply. She was busy creating.

When she had thought enough of Elliot and his leaving and her staying, Iris got her sketchbook and colored pencils and sat on the dock. A damp wind fragrant with a herald of spring on its tail came by, and warm sun soothed her sadness, and music of the lake awakened a dormant joy. Before too long, there would be sweeter rains and softer days rife with wildflowers. Creatures would venture out more, stop at her door. She would go swimming and boating. She would make beautiful things. She might just sit and attend to the water and sky. She had not felt so comforted and right in her own skin in a long while. But Elliot would call it home one day, too. He just hadn’t fully surfaced yet. Or, at least, she kept a small hope of it.

Monday’s Meander: The Emerald City

Seattle, WA.: The Space Needle, built in 1962 for the World’s Fair, and a Chihuly glass sculpture.

Because I am missing Seattle, here we go on a virtual visit. The name could be attached to the land of Oz….but it is not. “Emerald” refers to a preponderance of greenery–towering evergreens, among other plants and trees– displayed all year around. This was a last fun trip before the pandemic kept all more homebound. We have chosen the beautiful, invigorating Seattle for New Year’s a few times and it has always been worth it. We’ve also visited family in the area and at 19 I lived there so I feel quite at home, though it so much bigger than my hometown of Portland (we are very green, too). I was disappointed to not go up there this year.

If you’ve seen some of these shots before, perhaps you can enjoy them, again. If you have never been there in person I hope you’re enticed to explore the city, yourself, some day! With little commentary, let’s begin…

All glass art is by Dale Chihuly at the Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum.

Above shots: Experience Music Project; architect, Frank O. Gehry. (Not easy climbing up and standing on a ledge… but fun!)

I have had a great time revisiting memories–one good reason to travel is that, with photography, you get to almost go there once more. But I am so looking forward to another in-person visit. In the meantime, more local day trips are good. I am hoping you also will hop in a car, ride your bike or head out on foot to open spaces, to be safe. It never fails to cheer me in all the ways that matter. See you for another meander next week!

Mt. Rainier

Monday Meander: A Mishap and a Few South Carolinian Views

A scene from 701 Center for Contemporary Art buildings, Columbia, SC

It has taken me a bit to sort pictures from a trip to North and then South Carolina over a week ago. For one thing, there was all that prep for Thanksgiving to deal with–the shopping, cleaning, table decor prep, contacting family members. Any holiday feast asks more of us than usual and that is part of the cheery hullabaloo.

However, I additionally dealt with an unexpected event–a car accident on Thanksgiving afternoon. My well-loved Hyundai Elantra, nine years old, is to be salvage soon. But a 20 yo grandchild (who I was picking up for the dinner) and I escaped with little injury. Well, my neck and shoulders are feeling the strain since last Thursday. Still, we both are fortunate to just lose a vehicle, to get up and walk away. Talk about gratitude…We had the planned feast at our home. It seemed, once all 14 of us settled down, the best thing was to go on and enjoy as we could. I am so glad we were all together.

Meanwhile, I still am trying to figure out what went wrong. I may never know. I still need to deal with insurance maters and find another car. Unsurprisingly, I’m not in the mood to car shop….But I am in the mood to share happy pictures from the S.C. part of my trip.

First up: The Gourmet Shop in Columbia. Stop by if you can–it is a unique spot where we found great cheese and teas. Stylishly fun inside and out.

The next shots are from the 701 Center for Contemporary Art, again in Columbia (all photos are taken there this time), where the works in CCA SC Biennial 2019 is exhibited. Daughter Naomi has two art installations there, as below. The first is a photo of “Personal Space Capsule” created while in flight on a plane, exploring how we may experience and psychic space in tight spots. The second is a small end part of the sprawling piece, “Boundings”: think incarceration of immigrants/families plus how people in general erect/alter/remove boundaries. Her work tends to be abstract, philosophically engaging, full of social justice queries and statements; she often uses re-purposed or handmade materials. (More variety of her work can be found on Instagram @invisiblesculpture and her website NaomiJFalk.com.)

Old doorway and wall in the same historical building
Newer plus old

Perhaps surprising to some, we enjoyed our visit to the Richmond Library Main. The architecture is contemporary, quite beautiful. Their services are impressive with an auditorium, cafe, a variety of classes, work spaces and studios to create, as well as several imaginative spaces to read within. There was also a wonderful quilt exhibit going on in the entry area. (There were many people milling about, so I waited to capture images.)

Husband Marc gazing out huge, unusual windows
What child wouldn’t like to hang out here with books and beasties? Me, too!
A work space/studio

I had a blast hanging out with her–art and artists all the time! But Naomi actually flew out to visit us for Thanksgiving; she gave a guest lecture at Portland State University, as well. It was great that she could be in the Pacific NW for a week with siblings, nieces and nephews and, of course, us parents.

A parting shot from Naomi’s place: a pillow case she designed/created and a linen dress with draped scarves that hung there the whole time I visited…like a simple, yet configured art installation. See you later, Na!

Ella Marie will Ride Fast Horses

Photo by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

“This is Ella Marie, your subject,” Cecile Harnett announces as she enters. The child half-curtsies and mumbles what I take to be a greeting.

Ella Marie has been ushered into my studio with a push at her back, and I see a cloth bag of what her mother calls accouterments held snug against an expensive navy purse. A vase of brilliant flowers leans in the crook of one arm. The vase shimmies perilously in the pull of gravity so I offer to take the vase and look for a spot to set it. A teetering pile on my desk is shoved aside to free up a couple bare inches.

“For you. Or for the portrait, your call.”

Her young daughter peeks around her elbow, then steps apart from her and she takes in the studio, arms crooked behind her back.

She looks around, her freed hand smoothing feathery champagne bangs from her forehead, lips in a straight line as if trying to not leak a sigh of distaste. I admit my studio does not reflect a rising artist. More a cultural dilettante who likes making messes in an overcrowded attic space. I know at first glance my planned Blue Studio didn’t inspire confidence in others as much as it did myself. But I liked the sad little bungalow with large garage–a garage that became a two story art space. Of course, it’s been shined up since then. A lot of business has increased for me within four years in this touristy village. Thus, the trying customer with her lovely but bored and bland (might be overreacting to such even features, the blank stare) daughter.

“Gretchen says you’re as good as it gets here, Tessa, and we sure need a good portraitist since Harold Zimpter left. Though how anyone could aspire to take his place is stretching credulity. He was the creme de la creme and so enchanting one wanted to sit for him just to listen to him rattle on about his world travels and arcane interests.”

She lifts her right eyebrow at me, a delicate feather glued upon her vast forehead. We have already discussed what is desired, agreed on the price, the rapid timeline. I think she is waiting for a response, like noting how I studied in Paris (did not) or that I am an avid admirer of Zimpter’s work (though old school conventional, he has his strengths). I had expected a few pretenses but not this much. Her daughter looks at the floor, as if drawn to the cracks in the reclaimed pine floorboards I used, then nudges the toe of one of her black Mary Jane shoes into a wiser crack.

I take a diversionary route.”Yes, he is well known though paints far less now he’s ninety. Gretchen has commissioned three paintings of various sorts. But today I’m looking forward to painting Ella Marie.”

I get down on a bended knee and murmur, “Hello, Ella Marie, new to this painting business, I guess?”

Not how I usually greet children. Even if disgruntled by the whole business, they are often eager to chat and poke about. Some even pose from the start, as if coached by parents or believe they’re dazzling and desire my certain appreciation, as well. Ella Marie just glances at me so quickly that I suspect she is just be blinking in the bright, paint-imbued atmosphere.

“I’m not too certain she returns that feeling. But it must be done. She’s seven and her grandparents have wanted a portrait at least a couple of years– for their gallery, as they call it, a long, broad hallway where they hang family portraiture.”

“So you said, and I’m glad to oblige.” I stand up and let Ella Marie’s shoe explore more cracks. Her eyes follow me ever so little. “You brought some items, I see?”

“Ah, yes, to help things go right and rosy.”

She isn’t kidding. She opens the bag and pulls out a circlet of realistic white roses; a necklace in a pretty turquoise box that when opened reveals a simple open silver star on a fine chain (“A Tiffany’s trinket, yes”); a headband made of ivory lace and one tiny pink rosebud; and a dress that looks more like a miniature plum colored evening gown than a child’s tog. There is also a pair of white gloves. I am borderline appalled but smile and wait to hear what she says. Ella Marie is perusing the pile son my desk but shoots her mother a look that indicates she may not be so thrilled, either.

“Just ideas. Mama loves roses and they’re more formal so those are a must whichever we use. The dress was handmade for this. But I don’t want her too overly adorned. Shall we get started, then?”

I’m thinking that the child looks fine as she is, in dark green paisley slacks and a white blouse. I direct them to a corner and a quadruple-fold screen that I made, more comfortable a change area than my cramped bathroom.

When Ella Marie emerges, she says nothing, still is taken with the floor and its cracks. There is no doubt she wears an elegant, expensive dress. She steps cautiously into a swath of early morning rays thrown across the floor. My eyes catch hers, which sparkle in the light, and I see her running across an open field, barefooted, golden curls flying, her face wreathed in smiles and honeyed sunshine, arms swinging for joy.

Her mother beams with inordinate pride but the girl I envision is not at all this fake princess before me.

******

I can hear Cecile sigh as she taps on her phone. I start a quick sketch on the canvass, looking at her daughter off and on. Ella Marie is sitting dutifully before me in a wicker chair, feet set upon a matching footstool, her face half-sunlit and turned toward me. If there was more time, I would have just sketched over a couple sittings, then begun the painting but no, the Harness family wants this before Christmas rush begins. I happen to have a loose hour here and there twice a week if I cram more into the rest of the time. It may have been a mistake. A painting can take months, of course, but at times a small portrait comes to me fast and furious and can turn out as well or better as the more painstaking ones. With acrylics, I work fast, anyway; they dry quickly.

“So what motivated you to move to Greenpointe, Tessa?”

I do not like to talk on and on so offer a usual line. “Got tired of the city like most who move here.”

“I’m told your father grew up here, that grey rambling house on the western shore? I suppose you visited here years later. Was he also an artist?”

“Advertising,”I mumble, then clamped lips shut. Enough; I have work to do. “I’m sorry, I need calm my mind, concentrate.”

Another long sigh, nearly a whistle of restless annoyance. “I think I’ll get a coffee and scone down the block. Okay, Ella Marie? Back in an hour, is that okay?”

We both nod, the child giving a prim wave, and Cecile leaves with designer bag in tow, her Sperry Topsiders thumping on each step as she navigates the steep stairs.

Ella Marie, taking after her mother, lets go a rush of air that is surprising considering her stature.

“I don’t want to do this, you know.” She doesn’t change her posture, just speaks quietly but with certainty.

“I can see that nor am I surprised, most kids do not.”

“You can tell? Mom says smile, make things work.”

“I can see you are bored and annoyed and uncomfortable in that fancy dress.”

Ella Marie grimly stretches her lips into a disgruntled curve that states agreement. Looks straight at me until I look back “Did you ever have to do this?”

“No. I always had to draw for adults.”

She thinks about that as I sketch quickly now, pencil seeking her personality, lightly trying it on canvas. She bristles with energy, but softly, perhaps told a million times to take it down a notch and trained in absolute manners. She is a child doomed to perfection-seeking unless she can find a way to wiggle past all that until she finds herself.

Wait, I think, she is only seven. And a half, as she pointed out recently.

“I said I’d only do it if she let me ride the horse next door, Ms. Gretchen’s horse.”

I draw the light fluff of curls that spiral around her chin as she speaks, catch the loose-limbed ease she displays as she relaxes, small shoulders squared with a quiet confidence.

“She agreed, I guess.”

Ella Marie bounces twice, arms up as she raises her fists into a victory punch. “Yes! I take a first lesson tomorrow with Hanna, her teenager.”

There it is, there’s the kid who will try her hardest to find the paths into woods and hills with their wild beauties, the stream full of frogs and salamanders and squishy mud where bloodsuckers may lie in wait but she’ll take that chance. At least I imagine.

The sketch feels more right than wrong and I announce to her that after a few tweaks we will start painting at the next session. I am finding her easy to recreate on paper.

“But what about this dress? Any chance your mom could pick something else?”

She shakes her head. “Oh no, this is what Grandmother and Grandfather would like the best.”

“Okay, then, we’ll do the best we can with what we have, right?”

She giggles, a silvery chime floating in my studio. “Right, Miss Tessa.”

******

The next weeks Cecile is either on the phone and pacing as she discusses apparent re-decorating plans with controlled irritation, or she is anxious to be released from quiet waiting and so exits to the coffee shop as I work. She has asked twice to see the painting, but I never show a painting in progress, despite it being commissioned. Not until I decide it is developing well, at the least. No sense distressing those who know nothing of portraiture.

Ella Marie seems assured that whatever I do is fine.

“I like how you dance a little with your paintbrushes. I like the smell of things up here. Can I see it this time?”

“No, not til it’s done. It won’t be a good surprise until it is finished.”

“What if Mom doesn’t like it?”

“Then I won’t get paid–or paid well.”

“That’s not good.” She frowns and a subtle fierceness leaks out, despite the plum dress and the lacy headband her mother chose. “You’re a nice lady. You’re a special painter, no one can decide any different.” She clasps her hands, shakes them once for emphasis.

My own tired hand pauses mid-air. The small brush I hold is loaded with delicate, tender pinkness of rose that blooms from the ornate headband set on the canvas. I want to sit across from the girl, tell her how wonderful she is and to not mind the terribly plum dress and all smiling falseness and even impatient, demanding parents.

But she is a client, not my daughter, not even a niece or good friend’s child. She has been here twice a week for nearly four weeks. I have heard her horse stories, her childish gossip, her night dreams of winged horses and pixies that kindly rule the forest, and have seen her wilt as her mother corrects her syntax at such a young age and tidily pulls up each sock before they leave.

I have to wonder if this kid ever gets to scrape her knees or wear battered tennis shoes or use bad grammar. But maybe that will come, it is none of my business, after all.

“Why don’t we take that little rose off your headband? I have a bobby pin to set the flower into your hair. Let me get the mirror.”

We affix the rose into a wave at her temple but it still looks too….theatrical, contrived. I don’t want her to look too “cute,” it doesn’t suit her.  She shrugs.

“Next time, I’ll have a wildflower crown for you.”

She shrugs. “I’d like that better but Grandmother…”

I’ve already started two portraits, the other on my own time. I can’t only paint one of Ella Marie in that chair, her Tiffany necklace positioned in the center of her chest, hands folded in her lap. She is a patient model now that we’ve established more of whom she is or may be, a truly free child at heart, an ordinary young wild thing, but  she knows she has to get at it in a careful manner. Like horseback riding, which is reportedly going well. The youngster has a knack for it.

“At first I thought I might break my neck, was bouncing way too much. But now I just feel what the horse does and follow along, sort of. It’s not too hard. It’s–“she snaps her fingers and the sharp sound almost rings in my studio–“like, presto changeo! when I get with itI’m really happy there.”

I laugh for the pleasure of her enthusiasm and she tosses shoulder length curls like a horse tosses its mane, and paws at the ground with one of her Mary Janes.

“Whoa, horsey!”

“School is boring, though. You like school?”

“Art school. Now hold still, chatterbox.”

“Yes, all those paints and things! Okay, we must get it done, huh?”

I wonder how Cecile got so lucky to have this kid and find I am almost bracing for her departure. I’m just the village artist-in-residence, the new portraitist.

When her mother returns, she sneaks a glimpse from the side before I carefully turn the easel aside. Out escapes a sibilant response that, from Cecile, denotes a kind of pleasure.

“Such sweetness and delight, fine work, my dear!”

“Can I see?” Ella Marie asks her blue-grey eyes pleading.

I shake my head. I don’t want her to see, not yet. She puts hands on skinny hips, stands with feet apart in the long velvety dress as if to do battle, but briefly. She returns to a more approved standing position, waiting, as her mother is watching out for bad manners,  her glinty eyes narrowed above shining teeth.

******

After four weeks, the commissioned piece is finished and when Ella Marie arrives we are both quiet. I have set aside two other projects to rush this order and Cecile Harnett will pay extra for that. One will be perky yet radiant, I hope, wedged between the other good looking, well-behaved, precious grandchildren, like trophies gleaming along a special byway of fame–granted, they are the trophies all families love the best. Ella Marie’s determination, her intelligence and burbling delight, her inclination to push a bit beyond boundaries may not be blazing fact to the everyday eye. But I study her and see it, and care enough to strongly hint at it.

The other painting needs more finesse, time to rest. No one will see that one; it stays with me, unknown to even Ella Marie.

“Is the painting going to make them so happy for Christmas?”

“It will, indeed, their lovely wonder girl.”

Ella Marie laughs as if I’m teasing yet maybe she likes the idea.

“Come and see.”

She gets up and very carefully tiptoes over to where I sit on my stool, then covers her eyes. She one by one spreads her fingers and peeks through to view the 15 by 15 inch portrait, now about dry after late night last touches.

“Ohhh.” Her hands drop to her sides. “That’s what it is….yeah, Miss Tessa, that’s sure what they like.”

Her mouth hangs open a little as she breathes and she reaches to touch the colors representing her face, the flowing velvet, the rose on the headband but stops just short of marring the paint.

“So many colors to make up skin…” she whispers. “Look at the little rose, it might open up right there.”

I step away, let her gaze upon her rendered likeness.

Should I show her the other portrait, the one in close-up where she is the girl riding the wind on a galloping horse, face half-turned to the viewer, her curls like streaming ribbons of light, a restless aura of energy on the verge of something even more: the brave future mirrored in her lively eyes and proud stance?

Someday. Not now.

Cecile comes up all out of breath, full of anticipation, and when she takes a long, intense look at her daughter’s portrait, she pulls out her money, counts upon my drawing table more than agreed upon.

“You captured her essence, our Ella Marie, they’ll adore it! I’ll spread the word, Tessa–fantastic work. Now to find just the right frame!”

As they perch on the top of the stairway, Ella Marie looks back, eyes soft but clear. I can see her mind is busy and all that energy is only pausing between one thing and the next. But she runs back and throws her arms around me, grinning up at me.

“Ella Marie, do a proper thank you and let’s move on now!”

I speak up, releasing her. “Ella Marie, you’ve been a wonderful painting subject and kid, thank you for sitting for me. ”

“Tessa, you’re a wonderful painter, thank you for being you, too!”

And she “high fives” me, then leaves with her mother, just like that.

******

The holidays are upon us in full force and I have a new show at Gina’s Galeria de Arte in the Gaslight District. The other Ella Marie painting is hung with ten others and it is the one attracting most attention. It’s the opening reception and people are drinking and networking and gossiping and I am exhausted as ever by the small talk I must engage in.

Many come up and ask: is that the young Harnett child we all know and how did I capture her that way, did I take photos of her on a horse? It’s so real and yet ethereal… how much do I want for it? Do her parents know yet?

“It is not for sale,” I tell them over and over. The other paintings are good, they are selling well enough but this is exempted. I’m keeping it for one person in case she ever forgets who she is some day.

Then comes little Miss Ella Marie, and she’s pulling at her mother’s purse so in they come. Cecile and husband Thom Harnett hurry forward as they realize now the exhibit is mine. They look for me. I shrink back against a far wall, consider an escape route. I knew they’d see it at some point, I just didn’t think it would be tonight, maybe they’d wander in while holiday shopping one Saturday while I was at Blue Studio, just working.

The three of them meander, the child borderline giddy as she points to the art, her parents perusing each one. And then they’re in front of it, the other one.

“It’s me!” Ella Marie claps her hands and people gather around. “Where’s Tessa? Where is she?”

I slink forward, grasp her proffered hand, then look around at the crowd. Can we not do this another time and place? Can I leave now? Such public attention isn’t good for my stress level but it’s too much to ask; money is necessary so I do these shows.

“This is new and you kept it secret!” she says.

“Secret…” Cecile parrots.

She looks at the painting, then at me and back at the painting. Thom appraises it, zooming in close, pulling back.

“Remarkable. A bit fantastical perhaps, but so remarkably my daughter,” he pronounces.

“What do you think?” I ask Ella Marie.

“I love it, me riding a great horse–how did you do that? It’s really me, Tessa! And you put the daisy crown on me!” She squeals then acts embarrassed and calms herself a bit.

But Cecile slides over with eyes brimming and presses her shoulder against mine a moment before standing apart. She dabs wetness away with a leather gloved finger, quick to avert mascara smears, but still, I feel moved by her open response.

“How much shall I give you for this?”

“Yes,” Thom concurs, stroking his trim salt and pepper beard. “It’s better than the other one, you must know that. It deserves a fine price.”

I let go of her hand, drop to a crouch so I can better speak to her among the holiday gallery trollers. “It was painted for just me at first. Now it is just for you, Ella Marie. No one gets to buy it. Only you can let it go if someday that is what you want to do.”

“Oh…” She places her palm alongside my cheek a  moment, then pats my shoulder. “I want it. I will always want it, no one else can have it.” She bends over to whisper, “I want you to see me ride! I’ll ask Mom to call you.”

“I’d like that. And the picture goes home with you after this show ends. I’ll be in touch.”

“Okay, Miss Tessa.” She neatly curtsies, then giggles.

I notice she has on bright red tennis shoes beneath jeans and a blue puffy jacket and am oddly heartened.

We three grownups chat more. They’re so pleased with the new painting, thrilled their daughter may own art by someone who might be famous one day (maybe, not at all likely). And they are congenial because it’s that time of year and they’re suddenly a topic at the event as people come by to congratulate them–and me.

But as they leave, Ella Marie walking with head high between them and each holding a hand, I see more than I did before. I see a family filled with the certainty of love and I’m gratified I can be this close to such a fine thing, even in passing.

 

Life Study: My Mother, S. and Me

066-
brassai-theredlist

I am fascinated with the tall windows behind his large head. They are curved at the top. Arched is the correct adjective, my mother would have said after a barely discernible sniff, as if the wrong word carried a slight odor to it. But these are three in a row and more elegant than most, multi-paned. Trees are sectioned as if in stages of design. I like to study them as he studies me. But it is the light that finds me at last and then I am dazzled, unlocked.

I look at him then. His glasses have the barest of frames so appear to be windows, too, balanced before often unblinking eyes. I think of him as Captain Sorensen, but have never told him that. Since the name hails from Norway or Denmark, he may well have ancestors who sailed big ships. Instead of near water, though, we are landlocked in a small university town. He teaches psychology twice a week and otherwise does this–sorting out people’s lives–for a living. Listens to people like me.

“I took a walk, and ended up at the floral shop this morning,” I tell him. “To get flowers, as you suggested. I came away with dried lavender; that seemed enough. I don’t want to get in the habit of planting flowers in a vase on my dining table. It seems extravagant. You know I dislike extravagance for its own sake. I prefer the spareness of my rooms. I like the light to land on floor and walls as if on an empty stage.”

He tilts his head and a silvery mop of hair rustles out of place. I wonder why he doesn’t get regular haircuts, if his wife prefers it that way or he just doesn’t care. Perhaps both. I touch my own hair at the nape of my neck; it just curves over my shirt collar. I need a trim.

“You know by now that I love authentic beauty. But beauty tends to fade if you take it out of its natural environment. And I feel an absence of clutter in a human life renders the truth of beauty more vivid. In nature, more can be more and it all works well; I do study it. But a bundle lavender in a ceramic vase is good.”

I know he is waiting to hear more of what I managed over the week-end. Did I meet with a friend? Did I leave the apartment at all before Sunday night? Or did I try to paint, sitting there for hours on end? Feeling mad.

“Renders truth more vividly… ?”

He does that a lot, what I call parroting or parroting plus something else . It would be annoying in anyone but Captain –okay, Dr.– Sorensen is doing what he was taught in order to encourage me to spill my concerns. I would tell him things, anyway. It’s less forbidding in the coolness of his large, high-ceilinged office, his leather chair across from mine as if we are equals having a pleasant chat. Such a reasonable tableau, I think, though rather obvious. And he looks his part. Do I, I wonder?

“Well, renders more of beauty, is what I said but yes. Truth. It requires clarity, doesn’t it? How can I discover any thing when distracted by too much pressing around me? Painting is a miracle of light and color that seeks the canvas. I need little else. Well, it used to be that way until Mother died. Now the place can feel…too open. A surfeit of blankness.”

“Ah.”

“I’ve thought of it all more, finally. Her. The gaps in my memory and then sudden recollections. The hallway where we hung our coats, a low shelf for damp or dirty shoes with slippers handy if needed, and that brass umbrella stand. Then the room just to the right. It was a sitting room. It was too formal to be any else, really, but that is where she met people just as if it was still the nineteenth century, standing on formality as ever. The house, yes, but why did she cling to the past so? And it had such objects in it, all the porcelain bowls and showy flowers in heavy cut crystal, small statues and overwrought furniture. If a fire was lit it was finally suffocating, I don’t know how anyone could bear being there for long. Maybe that was the point. She kept most people at a distance, in their places.”

The good Captain is looking at me but it feels less like attention, more like probing.

“And you?”

“Yes, me, too, sometimes. I didn’t know differently, it was how things were. Father was gone most of the time. I think of him as a benign visitor, really.” I take in a sudden breath as his face floats into mind’s view. Face gaunt and lined, a slightly bulbous nose, eyes sharp and intelligent but so bleary from all work he did in too many countries. “A nice man who was full of small admonishments: remain studious, make him proud, get adequate exercise and rest.” I look toward the windows again as light illuminates dust. Fairy dust, Greta had called it with eyebrows raised. “He was an adviser more than a father, unlike Mother who not only oversaw things but tended us well in her fashion. Or perhaps that is what fathers are meant to do.”

“And your mother…”

“You know–she was important, as well. She oversaw committees, on various boards. She was a docent of the art museum. The last being a good thing; I got to go any time for free. Mother made things happen in town. And my brother and I entertained ourselves. Greta and Mary were running things in the crucial sense.”

“The nanny and cook.”

“Yes. Long gone, as well, who knows where.” I glance back at him as I consider my next words. “Look, there is something I have to say for once that is important.”

“What you say is always important.”

I put up my hand. “We both know I spend a lot of time intellectualizing about things, nice tidy boxes. Her death is not yet easily approached. So I waste a lot of time while you are obligated–paid–to steer me in right directions, so here we are again on a Monday morning. My mother is the point at which we ever return. She died. I am left numb, perhaps stunned. But today I need to tell you about the picture.”

Dr. Sorensen’s eyes widen in curiosity despite his skill at remaining mostly unreadable.

“My brother, Ernst, sent me a photograph. A few, actually. Only one interests me right now. He’s cleaning out things he got from her house, and is moving to Ecuador soon–did I tell you that?” I study a few branches of deciduous trees beyond the windows, imagining sunshine warming bark despite chilled winds that still swept over all. I often paint tree-like forms– always natural forms, rarely humanoid.” But this particular photograph…”

“It means something.”

“Yes.” I anchor myself in the moment and know he’ll appreciate what I offer. “It is taken perhaps in the forties, at the end of the war. I’m guessing… but it’s my mother standing at the end of an alley, in a foreign city–it simply appears foreign, how can I know? And there’s a man, in suit and hat. His hand is at her back.”

“Your father? Or was that before they met?”

I lean back into the smooth mold of the caramel colored chair. “I’m not sure. They didn’t reminisce. But it isn’t our father, no. There is this bold light above–it seems nearly evening. strangely hard to be certain– and behind, outlining their bodies, profiles.”

“Ah. And what do you interpret from it all?”

“They’re…kind of smiling.” I plow my hand though short bangs. over the top and back of my head. I am starting to get a headache, need air. “They look pleased to be there; she looks, I would say, happy…lovely. The photographer, Brassai, became famous; he was mostly around and about Paris. So it was likely France–or elsewhere. She studied abroad, traveled a great deal as a young woman. And yet I do wonder when and where it was.”

Captain Sorensen of my psychological fate seems suitably taken aback. He has waited for weeks for me to speak of something that can unlock more, that will turn the tide of my mindless melancholy. I have felt swamped by life yet at a loss for what usefulness. I am an artist, that is the one thing I know, but have stared at a blank canvas every day for three months.

He leans forward, hands folded between his knees.

“So, your mother had a somewhat curious past.”

I nod, then lower my head, press fingertips to eyelids and stave off a sweep of dizziness. It passes quickly.

“But my mother and that man–seeming so…cozy? Not at all like her.”

I shake my head to clear it. The sun has come out strongly now, billows in the room, and dark expensive furniture seems to lighten in both hue and heft. “I’m going to go home now. I need to look at my paints and smell the lavender.”

“Time’s up, in any case. Are you feeling well enough to walk home?”

“Yes, I’m quite alright, just tired. Until next week.” I rise with a fluid and careful movement, pick up my backpack, nod at him, exit.

He is watching me depart, I know. He told me once I appear and leave rather abruptly. Not the first time that’s been said. But this time I feel as if too much is left in that room, as if the information has divided and now part of it is owned by Dr. Captain Sorensen. As if who I am along with my feelings left a residue. I am not much at ease with this. I want the photograph and what it means to open carefully, entirely in my particular reality. Alone.

******

The canvas, four by four, mocks me at first.  Paint tubes and palettes are on the drawing table to my right. Brushes in the large blue jar on a black lacquer tray atop the ancient brocade ottoman. I am perched on a paint-dripped wooden stool, toes caught behind the second rung. There is a steak of white that barely registers on the stretched and primed surface. I have mixed a greyish-purplish tint; my brush in hand hovers in the air. I have for some time preferred black and white and ivory with gradations of same. The paintings have sold well enough for me. I have a solo show in two months, little to put in it.

These velvety shadow shapes take over yet they also resist being painted. Or I resist. I know the painting will somehow yield to my mother’s gauzy, hidden life, the unexpected part trying to make itself known. The one I never expected and that Ernst insists he always suspected.

We talked earlier. Ernst had called me.

“She was rather too amenable regarding Father. It didn’t make much sense but perhaps it was their way, the culture. He must have been difficult to live with; he was rarely there and when he was, forever thinking of diplomatic work, of colleagues, of minute health concerns. He seemed to forget her more often than not. Us, for that matter. How could she not care more about that? It didn’t fit together, add up, her unruffled surface and such success despite cracks that must have appeared in such a facade, even if unknown to most.”

Being older, being a mathematician, he always weighed things better than I although we end up talking in similar ways–perhaps because we had just one another for playmates for so long. But it wasn’t a jolt to him to find the photograph, to turn it over and see our mother’s handwriting: With S. while visiting Eva and Ott.

“But did she even know Father then?”

“Must have.” He cleared his throat delicately.” I think I know who he is.”

“What? Who?”

“I knew Stefan, of course. Didn’t you? The man who met them when Dad was at the Sorbonne?”

“Sorbonne?” My head swam again. “Oh, he studied there a very short time, way before we were around. I had forgotten that. They later lived in the U.S, of course, and I forget all the places they were before that. But what about this Stefan?”

“Maybe you weren’t born…well, I would have been seven or eight. You would’ve been two. He stayed awhile when he came, I recall. They played cards, talked interminably…liked drinking wine til late.”

“How on earth would you recall all that–you were so young.”

Ernst was silent, as if reliving a moment. “Because I have a good memory and I snooped about. And he was the first to try to teach me chess. Uncle Stefan, I called him.”

“Oh, I thought Father taught you.”

“Father did teach me after he realized I was capable of learning. But Uncle Stefan encouraged me enthusiastically. And then it seems he wasn’t around much, by the time I was perhaps ten, when I was getting a good at the game.”

“I didn’t have the fortitude to compete with you.”

He laughed his quiet laugh. “True. You were also too busy crafting pretty books or set designs for your funny plays, anyway. We each had our own passions even then.”

I smiled though he couldn’t see me. He had long lived in San Francisco; I, an hour out from Chicago. “Oh–was I funny then or are you mocking childish creative impulses?”

“Sometimes you were, Isabel, you still show a glimmer when you emerge from that notorious self-absorption.”

I said nothing to that, then asked that he email me anything else he recalled from those days.

“I mean, what if it wasn’t Stefan but someone else? Do you recall what he looked like?”

“Not so much, maybe, but time had passed, ten years or more. Well, something was there, however it happened or who it was…”

Now I take the paints and place the confoundment of her life and death, this ache onto the white space, smear it this way and that with fast strokes upward, outward. I think of Mother with her dourness the last ten years, how hard it was for her to see less well, then to hear smatterings of sounds. She told me she had lived longer than she’d hoped. Died at eighty-five and not too slowly. Father had preceded her by six years, a mountain car accident. She’d say Why was I left with so little to do when I never have been able to abide boredom?

She–the woman Marlene, who was my mother–was the sort of person whose presence required getting used tot: her subtle haughtiness off-putting, careful diction and measured manner of speaking formal even when she didn’t mean it to be. It was her upbringing, all that damned breeding, she complained, which circumvented efforts to be fully welcoming and welcomed more as friend than society matron. I could see her light eyes, how icy they appeared until she laughed, a glorious rush of sudden delight. She had a light, careful manner, was big-boned and yet softened by surprising padding as she aged. I have heard I resemble her.

“But you weren’t hard to know  once, everyone loved you, Marlene,” Father half-muttered under his breath.

My hand wavers in the air. I put down the brush. When did he say that, or did he say it? Was it the last year he was alive, when we gathered for Christmas? And what had been her response? I couldn’t recall. She may have laughed it off or asked if anyone needed anything else as she left to get dessert.

I continue working, a line, ripple, daub here and there, following the dancing drift of my hand. Shadows and revelations, a primordial sludge with emerging forms. All the slippery, shape-shifting paint tackling a vertical surface, at my command. The bottomless emptiness I’d felt becomes more of that slow sense of fullness I am used to feeling when painting. It has been so missed that I dare not think of it except at the periphery.

Time passes. The day’s light changes from voluminous and sheer, then broadens to alter all with a precocious golden sheen. Finally there is comes a seeping of night into day, an eking of slate blue into the clear air. Gradually veils of glimmering fall away from my world. I turn on an overhead work light, keep painting the rise and fall of what comes to me: a small part of an abstract map I now recognize as littered with a tangible lostness and foundness. Big and small deaths, with faint eruptions of renewal. New territory.

It was a rare love that once captured me and love that left me clearer if also emptied, my dear. If not for you and Ernst, what would have been left?

A tingling at the nape of my neck and I swivel on the stool, sweep the room with eyes and mind but of course, nothing, no one. It is something she’d let slip or wanted to say, now making me recall.

I feel her voice again, the measures of a slow-building andante, then a rapid allegro of speech. Echoes of her living careen into my own, right there in the small spotlight as I stand shivering. And my painting blazes at me with her startling shows of good will amid the silence of unshed tears. I cry for myself some. About what I lost before I was able to more fully accept the company of my bright, difficult, mysterious mother. And for her, what she’d had and then did not have.No one knew what she had longed for, even at the end. Until now, as I realize S. was a saving moment of joy.

I can’t imagine what this did to my father, to their marriage. But that picture: it spoke part of the truth.

******

“I have started to get up at dawn to paint a little before teaching, then go back to it later as I can manage it,” I inform Sorensen, today just Dr.

He doesn’t look or seem so much like my good Captain, just a competent therapist. Oh, I can see him on a boat alright,  thick crown of hair streaming in the wind–and think a good painting may some time reveal such elements of water and wild wind in hair with some spot of utter stillness–but it was his life and entirely apart from mine.

“Painting again, how is that for you?”

“Good. I might be on to something. Either way, it’s wonderful after three months of nothing.”

The arched windows wink in a hint of early spring light. Perhaps someone has cleaned them. The trees look ready to show off a little.

“And I thought about the photograph. About who it might be.”

“You learned more?”

“It may have been Stefan, a friend of both my parents’. But somehow I think not. I suspect it was someone different. Ernst found the picture in an envelope, taped under an ancient Federalist secretary in her storage unit. He recalls Stefan–the man taught him chess at an early age; I barely recall his name and not his presence. Yet it could be Samuel, or Silas or Siegfried, couldn’t it? We don’t know. But he looks at her with sweetness and tenderness.”

I reach for my backpack, then ease out the photograph and offer it to Dr. Sorensen. He looks closely at it a few moments, turns it over, read the back, then hands it back to me with care.

“It does appear they mattered a lot to one another.”

Relief. Not misgiving or confusion or even a deep slice of grief that has threatened me day and night for some time. Just to know that even Dr. Sorensen sees it: my mother, beaming at a man who reached for her in a way my father rarely had. Her beauty in her feeling and response, different from what I knew her to be.

“Love happened at least once. Perhaps twice. That is quite enough to know.”

The light from the windows fades as gathering clouds scuttled by. I close my eyes and then I see my childhood bedroom. Two mammoth windows arched at top, the dove grey and white silk curtains pulled back so that the outdoors was just beyond my paint-stained fingertips, there beyond my balcony. I look around and it’s like being there, enveloped by those colors, shapes, that great familiarity, inside a calm whorl of time and space.

I can smell paint and fading roses and then the heady French perfume my mother always wore.

“Isabel, dear–are you finished with that marvelous little painting yet? I want to show your father before he flies to Madrid to visit his ill second cousin, Silvestre. You may meet him one day. I hope. Now, that picture?”

I turn around. She frowns at my messiness, then she changes with a wide smile, hands held out for my art.

I once more open my eyes to meet Dr. Sorensen’s, full of intense interest.

“It’s what matters in the end, I gather. That love can happen at all in this world.”

I stand up; he stands, too. We shake hands and I say I may call him again, then pivot and head for my studio which is my particular beloved, my own crafted life. Alone. Free, for now.