Art, Divorce

June 11, 2005

Wedding Cake

My son wants to know what the plastic box contains. It is in his room on the dresser where I have stashed it in the hopes of a near-future move. We lift the lid and I show him the colored paper. The stack of card stock is a jumbled rainbow of hues. Inside the lid is pasted a stylized directive: Please place completed scrapbook pages here.
 
Bug reads it out loud slowly. “What does that mean?”
 
“The box was from our wedding,” I explain. “Our guests drew pictures for us so we could remember them.”
 
From the bottom, Bug fishes one of the blank pages left from that day. A goldenrod square is pasted onto a larger lavender piece. A tiny stamp in the center of the smaller frame reads, “Your photo will be here.”
 
“How?” Bug asks.
 
“Like this.” The scrapbooks are all in his room. Weddings, pregnancy, first tooth, first steps. Tee and I hug in faded sepia on the front of one. I pull it down and nestle with my son on his bed. “We made two books because we had so many creative wedding guests. One is for family and one is for friends. This is your family too, you know.”
 
We flip past all the announcements and shower invitations. In a save-the-date , a silhouette of Tee and me leaps against a Lake Michigan sunset. A handmade flower-petal paper sports its indigo raffia bow. The booklet from the wedding day slips around in a plastic sheath that protects the lyrics to James Taylor’s “How Sweet it Is” alongside the cowboy-hat story of our first meeting.
 
Someone had the bright idea to use one of the tabletop disposable cameras to capture a few shots of the scrapbooking table. A violet satin cloth is littered with stamps, stickers, pens. Everything is so very bright. Sunburnt guests brandish markers and grins. The daisies my friend planted months in advance pop from their hand-painted pots.
 
I point out cousins my son knows now as older. He has me read their wishes to us.
 
“Was I there?” He asks.
 
“You were the reason we were all there, but no. You weren’t born yet.”
 
He turns another page. “Nelson!” he cries. “He was there!”
 
“You know Nelson?”
 
“Of course,” Bug says. “He lives at Daddy’s house.”
 
Nelson. A stuffed plush banana slug from a trip to an Olympic Peninsula lodge was a key player in Tee’s and my courtship. Nelson was present at the third and final proposal. Sometime during the wedding reception, Tee snuck the slug out of his jacket pocket and propped him onto the cake table. Nelson’s big-eyed welcome is now a sunny flourish against our melting, blue sky confection.
 
Bug slips down from the bed and goes back over to the box of blanks. He pulls the lavender-and-gold card stock from the top and settles down at his desk.
 
“Are you going to make one?”
 
“Mmm-hmm,” he murmurs. He is already in the flow. He outlines the shape of a purple butterfly with his marker. A red flower. I let him draw for a few minutes as I turn back through the album. A few cards at the back sing out their happy wishes. The rooftop group shot with all of us jumping is a cascade of smiles. Grandparents, siblings, all so much younger. They glisten and wilt and whirl and bounce.
 
I try to feel sad but I just can’t tap sorrow. It was a gorgeous day. Tee and I were giddy. I couldn’t stop giggling as I walked down that makeshift aisle my mother rolled out on the grass from a bolt of rainbow upholstery fabric. The sunflowers arching behind fiancé and friend opened their delight to me. Happiness still pulses there, beating in a subdued major key.
 
“When you are done, baby, do you want me to find a picture of you to put on the page?”
 
He nods but does not turn, still bent to the task of making his garden come to life. “Yep. And then put it in the book.”
 
“Okay. We can make room for you in there.”
 

Change, Happy Days, Love

Happy 100 Days: 4

It takes me six days to work my way up to looking at the gift. On the DVD, he has hand-written “Merry Christmas,” and “Love.” I know it is photos. I can’t bring myself to take it to Texas, so it is waiting for me under the tree when I return.
 
“Have you watched it yet?” He asks.
 
We are not supposed to be talking. After dozens of half-hearted attempts, we said a final goodbye before Christmas. Still, it is never easy to walk away when there no one has inflicted harm. The reasons are real yet vague. On even days, we understand it cannot work. On odd days, we are each the solace and the best friend.
 
“So, have you?”
 
“No, I have not found time.” Which is not true. I have willfully forgotten the presence of the gift under the tree. Even when I sit right there in the living room, I cannot see it.
 
Against our better judgment, he comes to the house. He carries a sack of take-out kabobs and an uncertain smile. He sets the table and I fill the water glasses. We eat buttery rice and talk all the way around topics we have agreed to ban from this intercut. Instead, we make a show of getting re-acquainted. It feels like a first date (or the first after a long drought).
 
We make a show of discussing everything non-us. We chat. It is very civilized. This is how we break the chokehold of unanswerable questions. This is how learn the true scope of the narrative.
 
This is how we write it.
 
After we finish dinner, he helps me make the hummus and marble cake for tomorrow’s party. He forgoes the electric beater and asks for a whisk. The butter and sugar whip to a froth and he adds the eggs one by one. Vanilla. Sour milk. In the top of a double boiler, chocolate melts. I let him taste from the spatula. We both lick the spoons.
 
I make two small cupcakes so we can have something sweet for ourselves.
 
Then, he takes me to the living room and turns the lights low. The Christmas tree is still bright. “Enough stalling. We’re watching this tonight,” he says.
 
“Okay.” I plop down on the couch. He gets the DVD player up and running. And then, there it is. “This is our past,” the screen tells me. The Grateful Dead kicks in and the familiar pitch of Jerry’s voice sings the opening strains of “Scarlet Begonias.”
 
As I was walking ’round Grosvenor square. . .
 
Then the photos roll. I recognize the first few and then I see some I do not remember him taking. Our first walks. That first morning he dropped me at work. The first time I met his family when we went to sing karaoke on his cousin’s birthday at a bar west of town. Him there, goofing and laughing. Me there, flirting and singing.
 
I knew right away she was not like other girls.
 
Me, making an acorn mosaic on a rock in Shenandoah. Us, raising our glasses with our friends at a winery. Bug as Harry Potter at Halloween when he was still so little, his hair dyed brown and those big glasses sliding down his nose. Drinks at the bar of that awful, crowded Thai restaurant where the meal took two hours to arrive and we were so hungry, we ate the soggy maraschino cherries out of our mai tais for sustenance. Bug playing legos on the blanket Giovanni hammered into the ground for him at our campground. Family parties, guitars, line dancing. My birthday balloons. His birthday hike. Me balanced on the side of a fountain. Him balanced on the top of a mountain. Us standing in the blustery night, bright-cheeked before the National Christmas Tree.
 
I had one of those flashes I’d been there before, been there before.
 
The music changes. The photos spool on.
 
We are a couple. I understand this now. He is more than some in-between fling. This is not “dating after divorce.” He is real, as he has been telling me for over a year. We are something substantial. Whether we leave it or keep at it, we are far more than just an idea. We are two people with a shared history. The pictures capture so much of it. Some are melancholy. Some of the images precede or coincide with white-hot arguments we both recall. Much of our past, though, is just plain old happy.
 
As for the rest? I don’t know. The DVD ends with a video he captured one night when we were in his house eating cookies he had just made. We are talking sweet, melty cookie talk to the camera. I am chattering on without realizing he is taking video. Near the end when I realize it is being recorded, I burst out laughing.
 
The image fades to this: “Our future is unwritten. . .”
 
We have nearly a year and a half behind us now. We have said goodbye, yet here he is, holding my hand on the living room couch in the glow of the tree.
 
He says, “I have never fought this hard for a woman before.”
 
I say, “I hope I’m worth it.”
 
He chuckles. “Yeah. Me, too.”
 
He leaves for the night but we do not say goodbye. We are not disposable. Something different than what I intended has happened here.
 
I have no idea who this Us is. We are just meeting now for the first time.
 
Once in a while you get shown the light
In the strangest of places if you look at it right.

 

Uncategorized

Reframe

Giovanni and I keep our cameras handy. We want to capture the cool Allegany waters and the dripping tamarack boughs. He turns the lens on me. I cringe. In those frozen moments, I can see how tired my eyes looked. How stained my shirt, how disheveled the campsite, how absent my son. Giovanni laughs and just shakes his head. “You’re beautiful, baby.” He glances at the photo in the camera then grins up me. “That is a good looking woman.”
 
In the archive of forever ago live photographs of the first weeks Bug was home, nursing at my breast. Wedding photos. Christmas pictures with Tee and Bug and me in the Colorado forest, cutting our own scraggly pine. Tired eyes there, too, and bright and distant and everything in between.
 
I ask Giovanni to keep taking photos. I know better than to let vanity scrub history of its texture. Still, it is hard to look at the images of this north country camping trip without feeling a bit of remorse. Where is the open face of a girl with no bitter seed tucked inside her cheek?
 

Every time you raise a camera to your eye you’re composing a picture – the very act of deciding where to point it is based on a conscious or sub-conscious decision about what you want to include in the picture. – Lee Frost

 
Begin again. Turn the head. Unhitch, release the remains of the gift freely given but poorly maintained. Gone, the days playing in the mountain creek with the tiny minnows flitting past my little boy’s ankles. Gone, too, the tulips curled deep in their bulbs beneath December frost along the hand-made fence. Gone is everything before.
 
Giovanni and I walk on.
 
The residue of a recent conversation with Tee still dusts my skin. We were chatting about their father-son adventures: fishing trips, air show excursions, visiting the tall ships in the Baltimore harbor. Tee is a fun daddy. “I can’t give him the childhood I had,” Tee explained. “So I have to make the best of what is here.” Resignation. A touch of martyrdom. I could almost hear the quiet, cresting cheers at Tee’s strength. The truth is, I listen for them myself when I speak of settling for less in order to provide stability for my son. This is the attitude of survivors.
 
Is that what we are doing? Surviving? If we start with the premise that we are handicapped, then our fortitude is certainly a strength. I hear the father of my son hint at disadvantage, and I think (quietly, because I am learning to hold my tongue), This pulsing place? The nation’s capital? The diversity of experience and background in every neighborhood? The colleges and museums and historic battlefields? The curry and pho? The political stage? The assembled masses? All of this is a shortage?
 
Bug’s childhood is not deficient. He is missing nothing at all. Nevertheless, it won’t be long before Bug believes he lacks the golden ticket if we believe he does. The kid is sharp, but it does not take a sixth sense to sniff out the secret Tee and I both carry: we have fallen short. We have not provided our boy with what he should rightfully have. The odor of failure clings to us both. We do not believe we have done enough, that we give him enough. Something is “supposed” to be better, or more, or different.
 
In another context, Giovanni once suggested that a shift away from wanting and towards appreciating might help us see each other a little better. When we pause to notice the composition of the object before zeroing in on its flaws, something good has room to grow.
 
Where I aim my gaze determines more than a single point of view. Bug will learn to orient his attention by watching the grownups in his life. Do I want to apprentice my son to a taxonomist of shortcomings? It seems a wiser course to teach him to identify the call of a whip-poor-will from its perch on a cedar’s low shoulder.
 

. . . by using different lenses, choosing your viewpoint carefully and thinking about which part of the scene you want to capture on film, it’s possible to create successful compositions every time. – Lee Frost

 
In the snapshot of Bug’s life today, here is what I choose to see:

  • Two homes.
  • A mom and a dad.
  • A lop-eared dog.
  • Woods near his house with pricker bushes and a creek and all kinds of ways to get lost.
  • Public parks, public libraries, and some of the best public schools in the country.
  • Books splitting the frames of shelves in his rooms.
  • Parents who read to him every night.
  • Road trips and campfires.
  • Healthy food in abundance.
  • Quiet time.
  • Neighbor kids who ride bikes up and down the cul-de-sac.
  • Three sets of grandparents who make room for him.
  • A cozy bed.
  • Songs in his repertoire.
  • Questions galore.
  • A floor onto which he can pour his tired body when he wants the world to stop.
  • Dreams about pirate ships.
  • Climber’s legs.
  • Dancer’s feet.
  • Paper and markers, glitter and glue.
  • Wonder.
  • Grit.
  • Anger and sadness and sweet, tender kisses.
  • One bad joke about a duck.

 
Tee says he cannot give Bug the childhood he had. He is more right than he knows. A childhood is not ours to give. In fact, Bug does not have a “childhood” at all. He has a life. His own. This very one.
 
As long as I am living with wishes that things could be more X and less Y, and as long as I carry the burden of loss, then I model for my child the fine art of holding off on joy until real happiness comes along.
 
Begin again. Turn the head.
 
All we need is right here.
 
Circumstances will change, of course. We will seek new doors down corridors we have not yet explored due to blindness, fear, or simple chance. But a belief in adaptation and expansion does not require us to disparage the now. We can love possibility while also wrapping our arms around this very whole moment, draw it close to our hearts, and shiver in awe at the perfect fit. So complete, this day, this configuration of things, this this.
 

The fact is you’ll rarely get the best picture from the first viewpoint you find, but unless you make the effort to explore your subject from different angles you’ll never know the alternatives. Sometimes all it takes is a slight change of viewpoint to completely transform the composition. – Lee Frost

 
As Giovanni and I walk the trail through the northern woods, I make a promise out loud. When I see a photo, I will find something in it to like. It is a simple act. The practice, I have learned, has a way of revealing the path. In every snapshot, seek something that opens the eyes. Appreciate the image as evidence of riches. Find the pulse. Land the gaze there and call forth the living yes.
 

 
Lee Frost Photography. http://www.leefrost.co.uk/default.asp