A short story by Pamela Eason
Mary Kate did not think in a way that was not directly related to her very own self. Self-interest was why she decided to spend the morning of this one day she had in D.C. at the National Gallery of Art. She needed a fast, I-want-it-yesterday answer to her problem, and art and architecture sometimes mysteriously delivered creative solutions to her mind like meditating or journaling, or dreaming did for some people.
Surely those old paintings will have something for me, she told herself as she walked in the chilly spring breeze from the metro station, across the national lawn towards the gallery, looking as much like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s as anyone could. The lawn, smelling like fresh green grass and wrapped with ribbons of alabaster paths was already humming with the voices of color-coded school groups. Mary Kate breezed around the crowds and hurried up the museum’s front steps trying to get ahead of the groups.
She reasoned that the impressionists would impress some answer upon her so that is how, five minutes later, Mary Kate came to be standing facing Monet’s Woman with a Parasol staring at Mrs. Camille Monet. Mrs. Monet, green parasol in hand, for her part stood, front and mostly center, looking straight back at Mary Kate. It seemed to Mary Kate that Camille, whose body was frozen in a slight twist, had been about to turn towards the boy lagging behind her, but, before she could, she saw Mary Kate approaching and held her forward gaze. Her gaze, Mary Kate thought, looked accusatory.
“What?” Mary Kate said to Camille, palms up. “Why are you looking at me like that?” she continued. She was beginning to feel slightly guilty about something she didn’t want to admit.
Behind Camille and to her right stood the upper half of the boy, Jean, Mrs. Monet’s son. His partially visible body, lending depth to the painting, gave the impression that he had just topped a hill. Jean too looked at Mary Kate with his round eyes set in a blurred face. Mary Kate noticed his crooked, closed-lipped smile painted orange-red like the band of his straw hat. She thought his half-smile communicated a feeling of sadness, or maybe even anger. She shivered a bit with recognition. It was the same impression she got sometimes when her own son, William Lewis, smiled at her.
“Well if accusation and a half grin are all I’m going to get from you two,” Mary Kate complained, “I’m leaving. Go ahead Camille. Turn around and see why your son is lagging behind.” But Camille didn’t turn. Instead, she watched Mary Kate wander on through hazy faces, flowers, lakes, streams, and clouds until Mary Kate became a mist and vanished.
Just outside the impressionist gallery, Mary Kate noticed a sign that pointed to an exhibit on loan from London’s National Maritime Museum. She headed in the direction of the arrow a little bit more hesitantly than she might have in the past.
I’m here. The exhibit is here. God has orchestrated this coincidence just for me, Mary Kate would have reasoned in the past, making the quotation sign with her fingers as she said the word coincidence.
Today she felt less sure. After all, she and William Lewis had been in the same place at the same time when William Lewis had loaded all his belongings into his jeep and driven down their driveway and out of her sight. That coincidence was definitely not meant for my enjoyment, she confirmed to herself.
Now she wondered if any of her coincidences had ever really been meant just for her. Maybe all this time she had just been a bystander caught up in a joy that had never been hers, a joy that had always belonged to someone else. Mary Kate looked around at the people in the museum.
“Who among you is worthy for such a gift?” she asked quietly and a bit sarcastically to the bevy of strangers slowly streaming by. Mary Kate walked into the exhibition section feeling, for the first time, strangely unworthy.
She stopped at The Sinking of the Central America, a painting, done mostly in browns, grays and blacks. It was nothing she would put in her house. The colors were too depressing and the scene was far too dreadful for her taste, but something about the chaos and fear that seemed to diffuse from it attracted her attention. She noticed some people in the painting were suspended midway between ship and water. She couldn’t make out the details of their faces, but she imagined them to be wild-eyed and open-mouthed. Others, she saw, were already in the chaotic water floating on what looked like boxes and barrels and planks. An officer was loading a few, perhaps women and children Mary Kate guessed, into a lifeboat behind the smokestack and steam wheel nearer the more submerged back of the boat.
Mary Kate imaged her own face among the men and women still huddled together on the almost vertical bow of the sinking ship, some with arms raised, others peering down into the angry water. This is it. This is the dreadful coincidence God has arranged for me she thought, visualizing herself working up the resolve to jump. I would never have imagined such a tragic end to my life, she muttered.
Once Mary Kate pulled herself from self-pity, she remembered a story her mother sometimes told about a steamship filled with passengers and tons of California gold that had gone down during an Atlantic hurricane. Her mother, of course, rather than just letting an exciting story be an exciting story, had used the story to teach morals. When Mary Kate was getting her panties in a wad because of some heated difference of opinion with her friends, the moral was, “Remember the sinking ship. Storms uncover something ugly in us that calm seas do not.” When Mary Kate’s self-indulgence reared its ugly head as it often did, her mother would say, “Remember the ship that went down with the gold. Getting gold is the ruin of many a good woman.”
The association between the story of the sinking ship and those two morals had been repeated so often that, even now, the morals themselves brought the image of the sinking ship and the lost gold to Mary Kate’s mind. Despite her mother’s repetition though, Mary Kate did not become less contentious or less self-indulgent. She didn’t know how to renovate herself. She had instead taken on the habit of tilting her voice upward a bit so that her fiery opinions, sounded, at least to herself, more like questions than self-assured facts. She also truly believed she had gotten much better at concealing her dogged belief that the world should and would revolve around her. In the sweetest voice she could muster, she would say, “You choose the restaurant this time,” and yet somehow, she always ended up exactly were she wanted to be.
She was about to move on, but then decided to read the plaque besides the painting. “Commander William Lewis Herndon. U.S.N. …” The name triggered a short, quick breath of surprise.
“William Lewis is my son’s name,” she spontaneously whispered to a man and woman who had just joined her at the painting.
“Is it a family name?” the woman whispered back, seeing the name on the plaque Mary Kate was pointing to.
“Yes,” Mary Kate said. “It was my maternal grandfather’s name. I think it was handed down to him from one of his ancestors.”
“Are you related to the commander?” the lady asked.
“I don’t know,” Mary Kate said, a little embarrassed.
This was one of those times when she wished she had overcome the moralizing and been a little more attentive to her mother’s stories.
Mary Kate read the rest of the plaque: “After saving 153 passengers, mostly women and children, Commander William Lewis Herndon, along with four hundred twenty-five people and over nine tons of gold went down with his ship to a watery grave in a hurricane off the Carolina coast.” Mary Kate wondered if the wreck was near her coastal South Carolina home in Charleston.
Maybe her maternal grandfather was a descendent of the commander? Or maybe he was a descendant of someone he rescued who swore to name her first child after him.
My life is like a ship at sea, Mary Kate said to herself and smiled at the overdramatic cliché, but her thoughts returned her to the bow of the sinking ship despite the cliché. After all, her golden life back home had been sailing along quite nicely along the route she had planned. Nicely that is until three months ago when William Lewis said he was moving.
“Mom, this will be an exciting new opportunity for me,” he had tried to reason with her, hoping that she would understand.
A sea of images had immediately began to swirl in her head, making her dizzy: a mother sat by the Christmas tree, her adoring Victorian family gathering gaily around her; Norman Rockwell’s smiling grandmother, placing a huge perfectly roasted turkey before her happy and devoted extended family; Whistler’s mother, sitting sad and alone in her rocking chair.
“I’ll come home for holidays,” he had promised as if he could see the images twisting uncontrollably in her head.
“There are plenty of perfectly good opportunities right here!” she had countered, forgetting to tilt her voice at the end. Feeling even more frantic than before, she had pleaded, “What about being part of our family? What about Sunday dinners and raising a family right here in your own hometown?”
“Who knows where I will end up raising my family? I’m not married yet. I don’t even have a girlfriend,” he had said.
“Well that’s not because of lack of effort on my part,” she had replied, not caring that the end of her sentence was not lilted.
“Maybe it is because of too much effort on your part,” he had shyly suggested, and Mary Kate had noticed that quivering half smile on his face.
In the end, her words could not bottle the wind that blew him to D.C. and tore her neatly pre-packaged life apart in the process. But despite the sadness that crept into her watery eyes signaling that the storm was in full force in her heart, he moved to the nation’s capitol anyway. How could he have been so hard-hearted, she now wondered.
Her husband, Mason had said, “I think you should leave him alone for awhile. Let him find his own way.”
But, Mary Kate desperately needed to try her hand at persuasion one more time, and so she did not take Mason’s suggestion. Now, here she was, for one day, looking for answers in a museum – answers that would save her life.
Last night during the disastrous conversation that developed after William Lewis had picked her up from the airport, she had not been her best self. The storm had definitely uncovered something in her that calm seas had not.
“Well my plan and God’s plan have evidently hit a fork in the road,” she had finally said to William Lewis, consigning herself to his resolve to stay and deeply resenting what she considered to be God’s unsympathetic plans.
But despite her harsh words, William Lewis had kissed her cheek this morning and headed off to work with an excitement in his eyes that she had not seen since she had finally relented and let him go on his first solo sailing excursion. His quick forgiveness had left her with the same guilt that Camille Monet had accused her of.
“What did I do to deserve God’s wrath?” Mary Kate whispered to the painted figure she thought was probably Captain Herndon.
A tired aching from from the hardness of the museum’s wood and stone floors was beginning to settle into Mary Kate’s legs and back. Giving into her weariness, she sighed in disappointment at her failure to find the solution she desperately wanted and headed to the museum’s café to grab a salad.
Outside, the air, now warmed by the mid-day sun, was filled with the smells of popcorn and roasting nuts wafting from the stands of nearby vendors. She gave herself a few minutes to linger in the sunlight until its warmth chased away the museum’s chilly indifference to her. Feeling her strength return, she rose to flag a taxi.
“St. John’s Episcopal Church,” she said.
The blur of the White House and Lafayette Square outside the car’s window mimicked the blur of desperate ideas moving through Mary Kate’s head like NASCAR racers in their final lap. She braced herself as the cab stopped abruptly in front of the white columns and dark door of St. John’s creamy yellow presence.
On the plane-ride in, she had imaged this moment. It was to be the moment where she sat and reveled in God’s expressions of love for her. It was to be the moment between two God-ordained victories. The first victory, convincing William Lewis to come home, however, had fizzled to defeat. This meant that the second victory, thwarting Betty Carol’s gossip, was also probably going to end with Mary Kate on the losing side.
Betty Carol was the secretary of the Episcopal Women’s Committee. Her four children and seven grandchildren all lived within five miles of Betty Carol’s house. She was always bragging about going to a tea party with this one or watching that one dance, or act, or score the winning point, or play the cello solo in the youth orchestra.
In contrast to Betty Carol’s life of bliss, Mary Kate knew that William Lewis’ move would be directly linked to Mason and Mary Kate’s soon-to-be reputation as that poor lonely couple that had to be invited over for Christmas dinner because they didn’t have any family in town. Betty Carol will be gloating, Mary Kate thought, as she squinted and felt something tight spread from her stomach to her chest. She anticipated the, seemingly concerned but definitely demeaning, line of inquiry that Betty Carol would pursue at the next meeting. She played out the probable scene in her head.
Betty Carol (fishing for information that she could use to bolster her own sense of superiority): “I heard that William Lewis has moved to D.C.”
Mary Kate (pretending excitement, diverting Betty Carol’s attention, and increasing the volume of her voice): “Yes. He did. It’s quite an interesting town. While I was there I visited St. John’s Episcopal Church? Did you know that it is known as the church of the presidents?”
Other Episcopal women would gather around to hear about the church. She would go on and on, happily explaining what she had seen there in intricate detail until she was sure Betty Carol’s frustration had risen to a crescendo.
Anyways, even if Betty Carol didn’t fish for information, which was highly unlikely, Mary Kate held on to a last hope that the architecture of the old church might inspire the resolution she had not yet perceived – the resolution that would yet bring victory.
When Mary Kate pulled opened the dark heavy wooden door of St. John’s, she immediately thought of Jesus’ outstretched arms. I could use some outstretched arms right now, she thought. She walked directly from Jesus’ feet, that she imagined being at the door of the church, towards the altar that served as Jesus’ head. Jesus’ very own body laid down just for her was the way she liked to think of the cruciform layout of the older Episcopal churches. Before reaching the altar, she made a right turn at Jesus’ heart into the church’s left transept and walked straight into the palm of Jesus’ left hand. The gold, red-orange, aqua, and green colors that composed the stained glass window at the end of Jesus’ fingertips caught her eye. It depicted the resurrection.
Mary Kate, bathed in the filtered light of the window, tried to image her own resurrection. She thought of Camille Monet’s green parasol and made a mental note to add to her last wishes, which she kept in her safe along with her will, that she be buried with a parasol. Then she remembered Audrey Hepburn’s fluffy white umbrella in My Fair Lady and imagined herself rising heavenward wearing a white mermaid dress with black and white bows, umbrella unfurled. Then she thought of how silly she would look on judgment day with a fluffy white parasol sticking up above the crowd, and then she thought of Mary Poppins of all people, and all her thoughts of resurrection began congealing in her mind into her own growing ball of frustration.
The click, click of the dossier’s heels brought her back to her present reality. Assuming Mary Kate was interested in learning about the window, the dossier pointed to the inscription and softly explained, “President Chester A. Arthur had this window placed here in memory of his wife. He chose this particular spot because he wanted to be able to see it from the widow in the room where he sometimes sat in the White House. On the other side of this window is Lafayette Square, and the White House is beyond.”
Mary Kate read the inscription: “TO THE GLORY OF GOD AND IN MEMORY OF ELLEN LEWIS HERNDON ARTHUR ENTERED INTO LIFE JANUARY 19, 1880.
“Herndon,” Mary Kate said aloud noticing Ellen’s maiden name. She recognized the name from The Sinking of the Central America.
“Yes.” the dossier answered and continued, “Ellen was the daughter of Commander William Herndon. He gave up his life at the age of forty-three to save many others. He went down on a ship that got caught in a hurricane.”
“The Central America,” Mary Kate filled in.
“Yes,” the dossier confirmed, surprised Mary Kate knew that.
“I just saw the painting,” Mary Kate explained. “Of the shipwreck I mean, and I recognize the Lewis Herndon part of her name.”
The dossier smiled and nodded before excusing herself and heading toward a group of people just entering the sanctuary.
Jesus’ words, “Keep your life and lose it. Lay down your life for my sake and find it,” poked their way into Mary Kate’s head as she stood alone before the resurrection.
A menagerie of wild questions roared in her head. What does that even mean? Lay down your life? For my sake? Find life? Does he mean find a better life here and now, or find a better life after death? How can I lay down my life? I don’t know the first thing about being a Christian martyr or even how to begin being one if that’s what he means, and anyways why do the best things seem to require death?
“St. John’s Episcopal Church will be closing in thirty minutes,” a soft voice coming though a nearby speaker announced.
Mary Kate looked at her watch. William Lewis would be home from work in an hour. She mentally went through the coming events with calm resoluteness. She would buy him dinner somewhere nice with a quiet atmosphere, and she would apologize, making sure to use the right voice inflections. They would go back to his apartment. She would pack and go to bed early. He would take her to the airport on his way to work and they would say their good-byes. She would return home to Mason and to Betty Carol and the Episcopal Church Women’s Committee and that would be that. Mary Kate stood in the palm of Jesus’ hand a few more moments feeling disoriented and lost. The resolve she had so calmly worked up was already fleeing from a rising panic.
Mary Kate turned and walked towards Jesus’ heart. She stopped there for a moment wondering, what she was expecting to happen and took a deep breath to calm her racing heart. After a moment, she braced herself to continue forward, but something unexpected and unexplainable was actually really happening. Later on, when Mason asked her what happened to produce such a change, she was finally able to explain:
“It was like a wave of love so forceful and penetrating that my knees began to tremble. I felt so weak that I could barely stand, and at the same time there was a deep and fierce sorrow pulling heavy on my heart.”
Right now those feelings, so contrary and yet so compatible, merged to such intensity that Mary Kate felt like her heart was literally softening in her chest. Tears were welling in the corners of her eyes and running down her checks. Even through the distortion of the tears though, she felt like she could see clearly for the first time.
“Mam, are you all right?” she heard the alarmed dossier, who suddenly appeared at her side, ask.
“Yes. I think so,” Mary Kate said, giving a soft smile and brushing her tears away. “I think I’ve just begun the process of losing my life,” she explained to the dossier who now looked even more alarmed.
The trembling in Mary Kate’s legs began to subside, and she reassured the dossier that she was okay. Mary Kate knew she had made a spectacle of herself, but, for the first time in her life, she didn’t care what people thought. She turned from the dossier and began walking slowly towards Jesus’ feet.
As she walked, she thought of Camille Monet, the woman with a parasol. “Take the parasol,” Camille said handing it to Mary Kate. Mary Kate saw herself, front and almost center, in a green field. William Lewis was behind her. She turned, looking at his drooping cheeks.
“Come up here,” she said to him and gently pushed him ahead of her.
She lagged behind him until she knew that half of her had disappeared. She felt his half smile grow wider across his face. Her heart felt lighter, glad, and she knew this was how truelove felt.
Mary Kate pushed open the door of St. John’s Episcopal Church. The smell of the cherry blossoms blooming right outside the church door, the greens and purples of Lafayette Square, and the fading sunlight trickling through white clouds met her tranquil face.