“Water Lilies, by Monet” (Jennifer Semple Siegel)
|Water Lilies (Claude Monet, 1906)|
“Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.” —Dr. Seuss
I saw this wise quote on my Facebook timeline, and I just had to ponder it.
In 2013, I lost two important people in my life. The “how” is not important to anyone but my small circle, but the loss itself is important. Their death has left a large gap in my life.
This Christmas was a stark reminder of how important this holiday has been in my life. Forty four years ago, I showed up in Pennsylvania – no money, no friends, and a lot of emotional baggage – to meet my boyfriend, later husband, now ex-husband, and still my friend. I also met his parents, two gracious people who accepted me into the family and continued to accept me – and my second husband – long after my divorce from their son.
With a few exceptions, Jerry and I spent every Christmas Day with Sherm and Jeanette and the family. On Christmas Day 2009, when I was in Macedonia, I called them because they were the first people I thought of. They had big hearts and lots of love to give, and part of me wanted to beam back to Pennsylvania.
I wrote the following short story with them in mind, and while this is fiction, it is based on an incident that happened one Christmas, an incident that showed me I needed to expand my education, leading to my eventually graduating from college.
And, yes, Sherm and Jeanette were at my college graduation, rooting me on.
If I could, I would say, “I love you both, and you will always remain in my heart. And thanks for all the memories, Christmas and otherwise.”
God, I can=t believe my stupidity. Is it true that once you bear children, your brain drains of vital intellect, shrinks, and shrivels up? Am I, one who should have gone to the Art Institute of Chicago, officially condemned to abject ignorance for the rest of my life?
My mother-in-law, a Christmas request, a stainless steel tableware pattern = the final humiliation.
I=ve made up my mind.
Don=t get me wrong; I love Doug=s family=s joie de vivre, the fire in their bellies in all that they do, no matter how silly or trivial. Even as I bitch and moan about a grown man playing kids= games, I love watching as Doug and his younger brothers fight mythical wars with stuffed Poohs, Piglets, and Eeyores; his sister Nina dance around the yard, flapping her arms like a bird, giggling and gyrating her skinny body without embarrassment; the entire family playing a fractured game of badminton, swatting a ripped shuttlecock back and forth, and laughing uproariously when the thing gets caught in the cat gut. Nicole trying her best to hit that birdie and everyone encouraging her, and not faulting her just because she=s only two.
I see none of the tension that defined my childhood B no drunks; no absent fathers or mothers; no tired old people who=d rather spend their retirement in peace, instead of raising an ungrateful brat with a bottomless appetite B no predators. Just people who act like they=re happy to be who and where they are.
The Dunkels are just plain fun; they=re my family now. Only, I wish Doug and I...
I love Sarah, my mother-in-law, so much, and I want her love, too. She loves her kids fiercely; maybe there=s room in her heart for me too; maybe she=ll realize I=m more than the girl from Iowa who married her son.
Maybe if I were thin she=d respect me more. I just can=t seem to shake this weight. Even though I love being around the Dunkels, sometimes I=m uncomfortable. They=re not used to having chunky people around, their raising a brood of tall, lanky children, children who know when to stop eating. Do they gossip about my eating when I=m not around? God knows my own family does.
Then there=s the ending of that letter from Sarah, just before I moved to Pennsylvania, pregnant with her granddaughter:
...I really hope sometime we can meet. I have great faith in Doug=s judgment. I would probably like youBbut please, do not plan to come here now. Doug is having his own troubles...
Sincerely, Sarah Dunkel
Good move, Samantha, but Sarah doesn=t seem to hold my disobedience against me.
In fact, after our wedding, Sarah drew me into her arms. ANow you=re really one of us.@
I was so happy. But...I don=t know.
Which brings me back to Sarah=s Christmas list request and a stainless steel tableware pattern.
Understand: I want this to be a perfect Christmas. Nicole is just becoming aware of the world around her, and I want her so much to experience the Dunkel Family Christmas.
Unlike Christmas in Sioux City.
The Mallory Christmas was never much fun; at the first hint of Advent, Nana began her annual litany of complaints about the inconvenience of a holiday that had become too commercial and far removed from its real purpose: celebrating the birth of Christ. AThe pressures of everyday living are enough for me,@ Nana said. AI don=t need all that old Christmas foostering.@
Our Christmas tree always seemed limp, the decorations ho-hum, the presents, wilted, wrapped half-heartedly. Not that I was neglected B I always received what I requested, but it was never very much fun opening presents in front of Nana and Pappa when they would much rather be in the depths of Hell than be at home with me on Christmas Eve. We always spent Christmas Day at Uncle Joe=s and Aunt Gwen=s, where the holiday was a big deal. My cousins, beside their outlandishly decorated tree, ripped into their myriad packages like lions devouring raw flesh while I watched. I daintily hung onto to my lone present from Aunt Gwen and Uncle Joe until my cousins were almost done with theirs, so that I could say, AOh, look what I got!@ and have someone notice.
But now that I=m part of the Dunkel family, all has changed. The Dunkels are not rich. Jasper, my father-in-law, and Sarah have to scrimp all year for Christmas B I have never seen anyone stretch a buck like Sarah can. But, wow, Christmas is pure magic here, and the buildup equally magical. Christmas lists are submitted early, Christmas trees up and fully decorated with much fanfare by Thanksgiving, shopping done two weeks before because part of the fun and suspense involves shaking packages and trying to guess which ones contain foolers and which one will contain the Lucky box trophy B just an ordinary shoe box decorated with cowboys and cowgirls B a family tradition passed around in the family every year, usually to an honored member. The gifts aren=t really anything special, except the homemade ones, but it doesn=t matter B it=s the ritual that counts, the excitement, the suspense, the laughter, the fun of watching someone open the present you have carefully chosen or created. On Christmas Day, no one=s allowed to rip into their presents like my cousins did; each person, beginning with the youngest, is an honored guest as the others watch them unwrap one present at a time, most certainly a mystery that had driven everyone but the gift giver bonkers for so long. I love it; now I always look forward to Christmastime.
Sarah=s Christmas list this year:
Gold turtleneck sweater (med.), Navy slacks (size 8), Faces in the Water, a novel by Janet Frame, Stainless steel tableware (2 forks, 2 teaspoons, 1 soup spoon, 2 knives, 2 serving spoons), Water Lilies, by Monet.
All relatively easy items to find.
For one of her presents, Doug and I decide to give Sarah a complete place setting of her stainless steel pattern: Water Lilies, by Monet.
For an entire week, I go from store to store, in search of a stainless steel tableware pattern called Water Lilies, by Monet. In every store, the answer is the same: AWe never heard of that pattern.@
A week before Christmas, I ask a clerk B a cute college guy B at The Bon Ton, an expensive department store that charges prices way out of my budget, but I=m so desperate, I=m willing to put my family deep into hock just so Sarah will get her Water Lilies, by Monet.
At first, the clerk looks taken aback, and then he B he=s about my age B chokes back a laugh. AI=m sorry, miss, but that=s a painting by Claude Monet, not a stainless steel pattern.@
A painting! How could I not know this, I, an artist who has been painting for years?
I have never heard of this Claude Monet; I have never seen any of his paintings.
What other knowledge has been lost to me?
AI=m going to college.@
On the sofa, I toss Sarah=s rolled Monet print and the shopping bag containing a set of the infamous stainless steel tableware, categorically not known as Water Lilies, by Monet. Aghhhh.
I plop my tired, sagging body and belligerent spirit next to the gifts. ASo there.@
The Christmas tree lights sparkle and shimmer. Three days before Christmas.
Doug gazes at me with those large amber eyes. His bushy hair, pulled back into a ponytail, shines blue-black in the warm holiday lights. AI see,@ he says in his gentle even voice, an echo of Nana when she doesn=t really take my words and feelings seriously.
AYou can=t stop me.@
AI wouldn=t try,@ he says.
AI=ll earn the tuition somehow.@
AI bet you will.@
AI=ll scrub toilets.@
Doug raises his palms to me. In a distant voice: ANever argue with a woman on a mission. But might I ask what has precipitated this sudden ardor for higher learning?@
I tell him about my misadventures with Water Lilies, by Monet.
He shrugs. AIt happens.@
AI should have known Water Lilies. It=s supposedly a famous painting.@
AAnd now you do know.@ He smiles and chucks me softly on the cheek. ASo you=ve got to look at the positives.@
Why do I feel some kind of wall coming between us? Why doesn=t Doug understand how I feel about my intellectual abilities, my artistic abilities? Will he ever understand that I need on-going mental stimulation? Doesn=t he realize that I need to be more than just a wife to him and a mother to his child?
AI=m still going to college.@
Doug says nothing and picks up the box containing the stainless steel tableware. He studies the pattern. AFor all your troubles, you did a good job with the Christmas shopping. Mom=ll be surprised.@
ASpeaking of Sarah...@
APlease don=t tell her...@
AYeah, sure,@ he says as he reaches for the red foil wrapping paper and begins fitting and cutting it for Sarah=s Water Lilies, by Monet, print.
The moment Sarah peels off that wrapping, the AWater Lilies, by Monet@ story will be logged into Dunkel family legend.
You=ll all see.
Spring semester, 1973. I have won.
After much going around and around with Doug, I have enrolled in two night courses at Knighton University: Intro to Psychology and Intro to Art Appreciation. During the day, I work at Knighton Hospital, scrubbing toilets and mopping floors, while Nicole=s great grandma Hannah cares for her.
Mental stimulation does exact its price...
By the way, I found the gold turtleneck for Sarah, but she had to return it.
It was much too big.