A long-delayed gift goes unnoticed.
|My Aunt Sylvia once told me, a long time ago, now, how much she admired a painting that hung in the sales section of our local art gallery. It was the front of a steam locomotive pushing out of a swirling snowstorm in the night, its headlamp casting the only light that reflected off the driving snowflakes out someplace on the prairie. It spoke to her, she said.
I found no substance in the work that grasped me—it was a steam engine, hardly a romantic subject for a young girl such as I was at the time we saw it together. It was finely wrought, I admit, its colors accurately portraying the steel of the boiler, the yellowish gold of the headlamp, a weak light in its time. The wind and the stir of the engine's insult to the snow seemed to give an idea of interrupted motion, of static reality. Even the texture of the flakes conveyed how cold it must have been and the seriousness of the weather, the prospect of imminent entrapment combined with the power of mass and speed—all was evident in the artist's rendering. The fact that I could only see the very front of the engine and not the rest of what was behind it and what kind of cars it must have been pulling across some lonely flatland of Kansas or Nebraska gave me concern: was it people, were there cattle, could it have been hundreds of boxes of lettuce or apples or machinery. Was there some peril or danger?
Even though I thought of the painting often, I still could not join in my aunt's love for the work. I preferred much more lovely things. Rose gardens and children playing, lovers at a park; barns and horses and dogs and flowers were the objects that I would hang on my walls. But my aunt obsessed. She returned many times and would drag me along with her. When she moved two hours away and she came back for holiday weekends or birthdays, she hinted loudly about visiting the art center—would I take her?
The picture hung for years, either in the sales area or in the general display room, hanging unsold for all that time. The price at first was a little over a hundred dollars, but crept up during a brief period when art critics hailed it and newspapers published news about the artist and his other works. At its highest, the gallery demanded in excess of a thousand dollars, and so it remained unbought and unclaimed. The artist was a Native American with a drinking problem but who supported his widowed mother on a small plot of land on some indiscriminate road in an indiscriminate area of river bottom. He had a roomful of unsold masterpieces.
A long time later, when another Christmas approached, I thought about my Aunt Sylvia, alone in a senior home, unvisited for many months, stretching into years, a hundred miles or so away. Guilt overcame me. There was no one to visit her, anymore, to take her to birthday dinners, to invite her to Thanksgiving occasions, to open presents with her under a living room tree full of colored lights and tinsel. I had stopped sending her gifts to avoid the embarrassment that she might feel in not being able to return the sentiment. A quickly signed card was all I ever sent in these most recent years.
I had the opportunity to finally do something. Over Thanksgiving dinner with my husband and grown children and their children I developed a plan: I would attempt to buy that painting and give it to her that Christmas. And, as luck would have it, or maybe an unresponsive market, I found the neglected piece in a corner of an unvisited room, leaning against the wall, not even hung. It was priced $250. I offered $100 and left with it fifteen minutes later.
Thanksgiving was on Thursday, I bought the painting on Friday, and Christmas, of course, was little more than three weeks away. Finding an elaborate card and the time to write the sincerest note I could muster, I packaged the painting, no more than 42 inches long, with frame, in some hopefully secure boxing and wrappings. I addressed it to my auntie and shipped it off with only ten days to spare. I paid extra for two-day delivery. All in all, it cost me more to package and ship it than to buy it.
As much as I wanted to, I could not bring it to Aunt Sylvia, personally. It would have to be a surprise: "Oh, what's this? Look at this, everybody! My darling niece sent me my most coveted present!" I imagined her saying. Other seniors would flock around her and make wild suggestions on where she could hang it—of course, in her room, but somewhere where everyone could admire it and cast honor on the adoring niece.
I waited. And I waited.
Soon after Christmas, I became concerned that I heard nothing from my aunt, that the delivery had failed or had been compromised or that my aunt had reconsidered her life's priorities. I felt I couldn't contact her just to ask if she had received my present. Phone calls were by common phone since she refused all offers of a mobile phone, and a hundred mile trip would essentially take an entire day. I thought about calling the office at her senior center, but I was apprehensive about violating some rule about hanging large pictures or storage costs.
Instead, I waited.
And I waited some more.
Finally, I placed a call to my dreaded cousin Ellen. She would either know or could find out. And, when I did so, she gently informed me.
"Aunt Sylvia died last March. Didn't you know?"