I think something good happened last week. Something happened that made things make sense. Two women from my past–a baker and an artist finally connected on the same plane in me, and it needed to happen. They never met each other and their memories belong to separate eras of my life, but they now have this in common: my extreme guilt over them. And the strangest thing just happened that’s given me a chance to make it right. Let me back up…â€¨â€¨
Sophia was my childhood art teacher. Once a week, I’d go to her studio in downtown Melbourne, Florida and set up shop next to her painting my watercolors as she’d brush paint and pigment onto large canvases. Her teaching model was more watch-and-learn, and it worked well for me because I was silent each entire lesson. I never asked questions. We listened to Rogers and Hammerstein and similar tunes from that era on the radio. She belonged to the years in my life where my tongue was bound and my heart was buried. Stifled at home, I was afraid to live let alone speak. But I loved to paint and draw and she knew it. She passed on everything she knew through that paintbrush–everything she could imbue. Our relationship was built on silence and paint. Really. That’s all. If I’d had a problem or needed her for some reason I wouldn’t have been able to tell her. But she was silent and there and a constant thing on Saturday afternoons for years. I took my last lesson with her at about age fifteen when I became too busy with extracurricular activities for highschool.
â€¨â€¨Fast forward to five years later, which is a decade in teenage years because you grow up so fast. I was attending community college at night and working literally in the next arcade over from the studio where I’d taken lessons with her. To my dismay now, I never even stopped by though we were maybe one hundred steps away from each other. Sometimes I parked next to her grey truck in the back lot behind the buildings. When I heard that she was packing up the shop for good and headed to Honduras to pick back up her missionary work, I knew I’d have to stop in and say goodbye at some point. Yet even with adulthood knocking frantically at my back door, I was still too shy to go say hi to her or ask her if she needed any help packing up her shop or to go reminisce with her. I waited until a week before she was to leave the country to stop in. When I did, her face lit up. She got out photo albums and showed me pictures of myself painting. I bought a print of one of her paintings which was so familiar to me. And I said goodbye. â€¨â€¨
Funny thing, I’d say goodbye one more time. When she got to Honduras, she lost weight so fast that she knew something was wrong. By the time she got back to the States, the cancer had spread throughout her body. My mother drove me to see her in hospice care. Hanging around her bed were her paintings, and beside her bed a sketchbook with fresh drawings of the nurses. She didn’t quit. I showed her some of my paintings I’d done in college. She was so proud. My communication skills finally having started to develop, I told her I’d started to teach and that I felt like I was passing on so many of the things she’d taught me. “Pass it on. That’s the name of the game. Pass it on,” she said. Boy, did that stick with me. I wheeled her around in her wheelchair and I felt like a traitor. It felt wrong. I felt worse that I’d been such an absent person in her life. In a way I wasn’t equipped with the social skills at the time to be a friend, and yet I felt like my silence toward her was unforgivable. I felt like I had grown up with her, but never known her. She’s still a mystery. Today, If I had one hour to talk to her, I have a list of things I want to know about her. After all that time, she was just the lady I painted with on Saturdays. And unfortunately, I let her die that way.â€¨
Fast forward a bit. Now I’m working in a bakery in a grocery store. This is after I graduate from college with an art degree and am vigorously pursuing entry into graduate school at Yale. I’m living with my boyfriend and playing house. Playing grownup. I’m working three jobs, angry at the way the real world works, and I’m pretending I can support myself with 80-hour work weeks. And here in the bakery I meet Karen.*
Karen was no artist, but she is one of the most fantastic women I’ve ever met. We had hours of time on our hands to talk and talk over the frozen rolls and icing from my cakes; and at this time in my life, mercifully, I was verbose and could hold a hell of a conversation. She was the perfect person to do it with. She was one of the first mother figures I’d bonded with that didn’t feel as wholesome as the others, and I needed her to be that way. She wasn’t immoral or bad or rebellious. She was just a free spirit in a hard world. She told me she had massive credit card debt, and had no plan to fix it. She’d travelled the globe. She ate good food. She lived without health insurance and other luxuries because she just eeked by as happily as she could on what she had. But she was serious about living. She represented in real life what some people only embrace in theory. She didn’t wait for the right time to do things, like travel. She was funnily candid about sex. She had a great sense of humor. She called one of my cakes the “D” cake because she hated the word “decadence” and wouldn’t say it because it sounded filthy. There was a lot of laughing on a day I rolled out fifteen more chocolate decadence cakes.
Her other job was as a lunch lady. I took smug pride in knowing the real person behind the image that most kids see. She was legend to me. Legend with a beehive hairdo that she wouldn’t let go of. We got along so well. I really liked her, and I don’t think I hid it well. I remember being torn about hugging her or not when I finally left the bakery and moved on to another job. For a year or so kept in touch through very sporadic emails. She never knew how much she meant to me. She was a great mentor when I first realized that life had to be ridden more like a cowboy than a show horse jumper and I wouldn’t have done so well without her.â€¨â€¨
And then I got an email from her that shattered everything that seemed cozy about her. She said she’d been sick for a while and that she thought it was cancer and that she was in for a tough journey since she didn’t have medical insurance. To me, one of my heroes was now a dead woman walking. I couldn’t handle it. And I couldn’t reply. I cared so much, and I didn’t know what to say. I was so scared that she was going to go away that I never contacted her and actually let her disappear.
After some time, I assumed she was dead. Regret over my standoffishness seeped into me for a few years. She never knew how cool I thought she was, or how much she’d influenced me. I knew she was silent and resting forever somewhere and I’d never know how it had gone down.
Fast-forward four years to now. Here’s where it comes full circle.
This week I did something impulsive. I went through my hotmail and dug up Karen’s last email. What if she hadn’t died? I just knew she was dead. I felt like a fool emailing a corpse, but what if? A small part of me had always wondered. I emailed her two lines telling her I thought of her often and had wondered what had happened to her…â€¨
…And the dead came to life. She sent an email right back. I’d mourned her already, and yet here she is, still in this world. Still no doubt living the way I imagine she would. Unfortunately, shame over not being a good enough friend when she really could have used one took its hold on me and I trashed an influential friendship with her over it. I knew I’d done wrong. This week, I realized I’ve done to Karen what I’d done to Sophia. She deserved far more.
I need to call her. I’m not expecting redemption, but after a difficult childhood where I’d have been dead or in foster care or in an institution if it weren’t for a handful of core mentors and surrogate mothers, I take great pride in thanking people for the part they’ve played in my life. And here Karen, who never had children of her own, was just as capable of being a positive, caring, and available mother figure in my life as some of the others. She needs to know. She’s cool as shit.
â€¨â€¨The door to Sophia closed forever early in 2002, and I’m so sorry for it. But as of this week, I’ve got an unexpected door opened in a similar situation, and I’m going to walk through it with a simple phone call that is long overdue. I can’t wait to talk to her again.
*Her name has been changed to protect her privacy.