In 1972, a gangly college kid begrudgingly went to his art class. He was bummed because the dorm cafeteria had already closed for lunch, and he was really hungry. Trying to take a much needed break from his theatre scene shop where the other students were into their afternoon toke session, he just wanted some solitude and food. He didn’t really mind the drawing class except that the instructor generally wanted him to draw concepts that were of little interest to him. Today wasn’t any different.
The assignment was a portrait, to be done in pastels. He wasn’t a pastel kind of guy in the sense of color but he liked the feel of the chalky medium and chose dark, brooding colors. His subject matter came easily to him this autumn afternoon as he closed his eyes and visualized the little girl that often came to him in thoughts and dreams.
He knew he would draw her from the side. She never looked directly at him. If she did, it was fleeting, a glance, never making eye contact. He gave up long ago trying to figure out who this sad, mournful child was. Anytime he would fixate on her in his thoughts, attempting to reach out or look too deeply at her, she vanished. Their meetings were completely by her design, their frequency and length solely at her discretion. He simply accepted her as a wispy companion, a melancholy spirit who liked to hang in his periphery. His sketch got him an “A” for the project and he made it back to the cafeteria in plenty of time to fill his young man stomach to the point of bursting before he started ambling back toward the theatre.
The sketch went into the pile in his theatre locker to be taken home at the end of the year with other projects, loads of laundry and the satisfied exhaustion of having lived his freshman year in college to the absolute maximum. His mother dug the portrait out of the mounds and proclaimed it a work of art, framing it and placing it on the wall of her family’s hall of fame, above the piano. There it remained until he married, needing something to fill the empty wall spaces in his first apartment. His wife eventually redecorated , crating it in the basement with other artwork not in the proper decor. It didn’t come out again until years later, after the marriage had crumbled and the wife went away to find herself, a new boyfriend and God but not necessarily in that order.
Once again, the walls were bare and in need of art. The little girl was invited back into the man’s life, still haunting and sad but a constant friend nevertheless. Now as an older and more contemplative person, the man hung the picture by his chair that faced the TV, so she was close by, still comfortably in his periphery. There they sat together over the course of several years as the man healed from a broken marriage and made the necessary emotional preparations for his son to graduate high school and leave for college. She provided companionship as he embraced the changes in his life and unbeknownst to him, carried through the next step of the process of bringing the girl to life.
The little girl in the photo was as unaware of his human presence as he was of hers. Their spirits had collided one fateful day on the playground in middle school. He, an obstinate and skinny boy, with his jaw clenched, had been spoiling for a fight since first grade when his father, the newly appointed minister, had moved him to this god forsaken little Southern Illinois town. Leaving his friends and familiar territory behind, he ended up in an oppressive school with an equally evil and oppressive principal, who attempted, day by day, to squeeze the joy and art from this little renegade boy. Setting his jaw straight the minute he arrived in town, he didn’t relax it until middle school when he encountered the sad girl who sat on the swing at recess. Every day she sat on the swing, never really swinging but moving back and forth, side to side, dragging the toe of her sneaker through the powdery dust under the swing. He watched her but couldn’t figure her out, she had friends but often avoided them. Too clean for the country kids and too aloof for the popular girls, she stayed alone in her thoughts with her blonde hair hanging down obscuring his view of her face. He didn’t get a good look at her for weeks, but sometimes a sideways glance.
He preferred to be alone at recess too. Building structures and twirling them around in his head provided more satisfaction than roughhousing or sports. Sitting in the grass at the edge of the playground, he could live in his own little world, simultaneously building a skyscraper then blowing it to bits complete with his principal trapped inside of it. Over the course of the school year, he worked his way around the perimeter of the schoolyard toward the swing set where he ultimately occupied the swing beside her each day. They never spoke once but their energies embraced and began to swirl while she rocked herself on the swing, day after day, easing the pain of her abuse and loneliness. He understood that she came there daily and she felt, even through her sadness, the constant energy and presence of the boy holding space for her.
His father, the minister, became his father, the bishop and the next school year started in a new and bigger town where the boy thrived. Finding friends with smart, analytical minds like himself, he flourished in his building craft and his art until they were indistinguishable from each other. He fell head over heels in love with the performing arts, walked into the theatre and never left. The boy was happy as ever but didn’t forget the sad girl, wondering about her from time to time. She, on the other hand, missed him immediately. After a brutally long summer with her family, isolated from friends and human contact out on the farm, too accessible for the demons she despised, she couldn’t wait for school to start and to see the boy again, to see how he’d grown and whether he would still keep her company. But he never showed up. She stayed alone on the swing, the space never filled, growing prettier and more desperate over the years. The cruelty of her life didn’t show physically as it did spiritually and as a result, she always felt broken, barely strung together with invisible scars. The shame that the girl carried became such a burden over the years, weighing on her soul so hard that she ultimately started praying for her death to come soon.
The boy was a man now, “the old man” specifically is what his students called him. He was the gray haired theatre director that was always backstage, dressed in black, welding something together or flying something in from the rafters. Usually covered in paint or sawdust, he was constantly surrounded by a herd of outcast students who he’d attracted by providing them with a great place that they could go and be a weird high school kid. He’d been happy in his position at the high school, it filled some huge voids since his son had left for college. He didn’t mind being single any longer because he happily busied himself in the scene shop over the evenings and weekends that were in the past were saved for family time. He had recently, however, taken a small step out of his comfort zone. One of his new pastimes was making frequent trips to the teacher’s lounge and mailboxes to see what the new woman in the office was doing. He liked her. It took him awhile to realize it but he’d been watching her for months, noticing her casual dress, her kindness toward the students yet instant, fiery protectiveness when a student was treated unfairly by teachers or staff. She kept to herself, walked out to her car after work alone and spent her lunch hour far away from the activity of the school. One of the other teachers told him she’d recently moved to their town with her daughter; that she wasn’t from around here. This information made him pause as it seemed to spark something old and deep within him, feelings of being drawn to another person by a beautiful invisible cord, a faint and unconscious truth, almost as if there didn’t seem to be another way to view the situation.
The old man and the new woman soon recognized quickly that a force was at play that was beyond them.
The angels who had watched over them and loved them both for all these years smiled, knowing the connection remained strong and unceasing. Finally, the inevitable moment arrived to connect the two who had been preparing and waiting for each other their whole lifetime. They didn’t need to date long; after all, they had known each other since middle school. He, being fortunate to have a solid family and good health, provided a safe place for her to fall when her health crashed from years of physical, emotional and spiritual abuse. He lovingly gave her and her daughter a home while she slept away their first year of married life. Very slowly she became stronger and happier, feeling safe for the first time in her life as he watched the sadness lift from her eyes.
Sometimes in the evenings during those first years, the old man’s sister would drop by to see how her brother and new wife were doing. She worried about their challenges as a new and blended family facing health issues at the start of a new marriage. Often she and her brother would sit and talk while the new wife slept, with him still holding that sacred space for her while she took care of healing herself. This particular evening as they sat in the formal living room, the sister’s eyes stopped on the portrait of the sad, haunting girl who was now hanging over the piano. She became still and quiet as she stopped seeing the portrait as the one that hung in her childhood home but with fresh eyes, as if seeing it for the first time. Looking at her brother with disbelief combined with a new and sudden insight, she slowly questioned, “You’ve always been drawing her, haven’t you? How did you know to draw your new wife?”