Title and idea blatantly stolen from my loving spouse. All credit for them are hers.
The bustle of moving day is exciting and sort of cool when you’re a kid. The new house, the new arrangement of furniture, the people and boxes and disarray, and constantly being told to move aside, go play, do something to keep yourself busy, all meant I could sit back and watch the grown-ups work, grunt, sweat and swear without ever getting my hands dirty myself.
As a child, I didn’t fully appreciate that. My four year-old brother and I wanted to help, to be important, to be part of the conversations, the effort, the commotion. Like always we sought to be relevant somehow, but we contented ourselves with putting away our boxes of toys. My father’s family all dwelt in the deep south — Georgia and Tennessee with one stray in Oklahoma — so he didn’t have anyone from his side helping us. My mother’s family consisted then of two brothers and several sisters and brothers-in-law, so the bulk of our help came from them.
For my family, it’s a move in-town, from an established neighborhood to a brand new one. My parents moved into a cul-de-sac in a brand new home with four bedrooms, two full baths and a two-car garage. For us as kids, it was cool because we had expanses of dirt all around. No yards, just graded earth all over the neighborhood. Some of the houses were becoming landscaped, but not many. We had long views of open lots to play in.
As things wound down and the exhaustion grew, the final things to come out of the U-Haul were pictures, knick-knacks and brick-a-brack. These carefully newspaper-wrapped treasures would be initially spread over couches, flat surfaces and beds. Then, the artwork made its way inside.
My mother’s family is rife with tragedy. In 1971, some five years before we moved, my grandfather, Miguel, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. In 1974, my mother’s oldest brother, “Miguelito” (“Little Miguel”), died when his plane crashed into a cold lake while he was learning to fly. Other sadness would come in the future, but at the time, the family was still reeling from these shocking blows.
After those events, one of the things my mom got was a painting her brother Mike purchased for my grandparents. It was a gift for my grandmother, but she gave it to my mom for some reason. It was a seascape, an oil painting in a plain wooden frame depicting a rocky coast foaming with crashing, white-topped waves and spray. In the background, little “M”-seagulls drifted on slate-gray skies.
That painting sat in our brand-new house in the formal living room on our “nice” couch (a scratchy old mid-century looking affair of an awful ruddy color and fabric. It leaned against the back cushions facing the room, under its soon-to-be-permanent home on the wall centered over that couch. It was a large enough painting, my mother reasoned, to help break up the vast expanse of white wall craning to the vaulted ceiling in the sunken room.
So, the hard labor done, it was time to sit, breathe and eat. And, of course, the hard drinking could commence.
As the adults sat around our dining table in the dining nook (the formal dining room wouldn’t have furniture in it for some time yet), laughing, stinking and starting in on the beer, a loud and startling FLAP! echoed from the living room.
They all sat silent for a moment, then got up to see what happened, calling our names.
My brother and I came from our bedroom to answer the call. When my mother saw us, she froze. “You weren’t in this room?” she said, gesturing to the sunken living room.
We shrugged, shook our heads. “No,” I said, “we’re putting our stuff away in our room.”
My mother and father stepped down into the living room followed by the other adults and scanned around.
“Oh,” mom said, “the painting fell.”
The painting of the seascape, still on the couch, lay face down on the seat cushions. My mother picked it up, inspected it, shrugged, and set it upright again, leaning at a greater angle of about forty-five degrees. She dropped onto the couch beside it, bounced once or twice, shrugged and got up.
“That was loud,” my father said, looking at the picture.
Mom shrugged again. “It fell over somehow.”
He went and stared at the picture for a moment, and shook the couch forcibly. The picture didn’t budge. Then all of them went back to the dining nook, which was just around a single corner at the end of a hall, laughing and babbling again. My brother and I went back to our duties in our room.
From my room I heard the chatter stop. I heard the footfalls of people walking fast to the living room and I heard someone gasp. I darted back to the living room, just a bit down the hall. The adults stood in a dumb-struck line at the entrances of the living room, agape.
The picture lay face down on the couch.
Silent seconds ticked by, my mother standing with a look of abject terror on her face, hands knotted near her chin.
My father perked a brow, stepped into the living room and hefted the painting upright again. He stared at it for a moment or two with all eyes on him, then put in face up on the couch seat.
“Well,” he said, “maybe the air conditioning blew it over.” He looked around at the room, trying to find a register for the duct work. “…or something.” He paused and turned back to my mother. “It’s fine now, we’ll just lay it flat so it won’t fall over any more.”
My mother’s face didn’t show any relief, but she nodded. The others in the room looked equally disturbed. I waited for them all to turn away, slowly, from the picture and step toward the nook again. The talk began quiet and grew, and in a moment or two the raucous din resumed.
This time, chairs scraped tile as people launched from their seats and the pounding footfalls said they ran to the living room this time. And before I got out of the room for the third time I heard no fewer than two yelps of terror.
The painting lay face down on the couch seat.
“Oh my God,” my mother cried and choked, “oh my God. It’s Mike, I know it’s Mike! The water…the way he died…!”
My father immediately tried to dismiss her, to soothe her, and herd her back toward the dining nook. And the murmur grew and rumbled while they all walked away, upset, afraid. I just stared at the painting’s brown paper backing, and wondered.
Sometimes, I still do.