After the first day, the hotel clerk made me ask for my room key in French. When I first arrived, he had produced a cream-colored envelope. “A letter for you, Madame. The gentleman brought it this morning.”
The gentleman was artist Arthur Hall Smith. Arthur died last year, a month short of his 84th birthday. He moved to Paris a decade before I traveled there to interview him in 2007. His paintings and drawings are so well regarded that the Corcoran Gallery of Art held a 10-year retrospective of his work the year Jack Kennedy became president.
I’ve been thinking about Arthur more than usual lately, partly because of the exhibition Arthur Hall Smith: In Memoriam, which opened yesterday and runs through April 4 on the campus of GW. But also because I finally completed my doctorate, in which Arthur played an integral role.
When Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, one of my professors at Georgetown, learned that I planned to write about museum founder Duncan Phillips and painter Mark Rothko, she thought it imperative that I interview her dear friend Arthur, who knew both subjects. Hired by Phillips in 1959 to work at the Phillips Collection, Arthur remained at the museum for 14 years as a curatorial assistant, tour guide, lecturer and, on occasion, handyman. There, in January 1961, he witnessed Rothko’s first visit to the Rothko Room.
“I will impose my taste on you,” Arthur said to me during our interview. “In my opinion, Green and Maroon is the greatest Rothko [that Phillips purchased]. It is more subtle and also more complicated." I agreed with Arthur that day about the standout among the four paintings in the Rothko Room at the Phillips Collection—and most often, I still do. There are times, however, when Orange and Red on Red astounds me.
Even before he graduated from high school in Norfolk, Virginia, Arthur aspired to an artist’s life in Paris. In 1951, when he was 21 years old, Arthur was awarded a Fulbright scholarship that allowed him to study art at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) across the Seine from the Louvre. He pointed it out to me on one of our bus rides.
It had been arranged that we would break our interview into two sessions on different days. My husband, fiction writer Richard Birken, had regaled me with tales of gazing at the Eiffel Tower from a sleeping bag during his undergraduate years, but this was my first time in Paris. I planned to spend my other days sight-seeing. But I didn’t know in advance that Arthur would take it upon himself to play tour guide. He carved out time for me every other day during my week in his adopted city.
Arthur served in the Army during the Korean War. While we waited for le Metro long past the evening rush one night, he expounded on how one should never force an artist to drive a tank. Tears filled my eyes, not because of the sadness of war he relayed, but because he made me laugh so hard. The train platform became a stage for the story of his unsuccessful tank maneuvers.
After Korea, Arthur returned to the States to study under abstract painter Mark Tobey at the University of Washington in Seattle. From there, he came to DC, where he worked in federal jobs until his interview with Phillips.
Many people in the Washington area remember Arthur as a caring professor at George Washington University, where he taught art for 25 years. “The inspiration he gave to his many students is legendary,” art historian Barbara Stephanic told me, for example. During his GW years, Arthur would return to Paris each summer to paint at the studio where I interviewed him. After retiring from the university, he lived and worked year-round on the fourth floor of a Paris building with elements dating back to the 15th century. On the rue Visconti, where neighbors knew him as “le Professeur,” galleries of African and South American antiquities line the street.
It was a mild November the year Arthur led me to Notre Dame, Sainte Chappelle, and cafés known only to Parisians. The Beaujolais Nouveau debuted that week. He would write me later that he would think of me in following years when France uncorked its young wine.
My favorite letter from Arthur refers to his continuing excitement as an artist despite entering his 80th year: “Among my birthday presents was a whole set of new paints manufactured in Australia of all places, which are water soluble but handle like oil. Can’t wait to try them out. The lure of the unexpected faced with a new media that has to be mastered, like having to ‘break’ a horse.”
His mastery of several media—including oil, ink, acrylic wash, and crayon—is evident at the exhibit on GW’s campus. Organized by Jeffery and Barbara Stephanic and John Morrell, the show features 52 works spanning more than six decades. For The Canals of Chartres: Moon After Rain (1984) and Brick Kiln, Maine (1980), Arthur used a “brutalized lines” technique he taught his students. (One of his instruments was the hard brush from an ink eraser.) Descent of the Dove (1963) and Dove Ascending (2006) showcase his interest in spiritual subjects. A lithograph from his Lazarus series is also on display.
Perhaps most striking to me: Several of the paintings in the exhibit call to mind pieces of floating paper. They make me think of the cream-colored envelope that contained my first letter from Arthur, the one that began “Welcome to Paris.”
Arthur Hall Smith: In Memoriam runs March 13 through April 4 at the Luther W. Brady Art Gallery, 805 21 St., NW. It is open to the public Tuesday through Friday, 10 AM to 5 PM.
Pamela Carter-Birken is a freelance writer who covers the arts and humanities. She lives in Arlington.
Last summer, my husband and I went on a private sail on Chesapeake Bay—just the two of us. We had no idea that it would be our last.
Between us, Bruce and I have gathered over 90 years of boating experience in all kinds of water and weather conditions, including “blue water” or ocean sailing. We love the exhilaration of brisk winds on sunlit days and are fascinated by the many places to explore and anchor on the Bay. From Baltimore to Solomons Island to Norfolk, there are few places we’ve missed.
Our favorite anchorage is on Dividing Creek on the Upper Wye River near St. Michaels on the Eastern Shore, and it was there that we made an annual pilgrimage. One year, we stayed at anchor for four nights watching the blue herons stalk their prey and the bald eagles guard their nests. We relished the peace of early morning, when the water is like glass broken only by the slap of a jumping fish or the gentle putt-putt of a waterman’s boat.
Gradually, we became more cautious and listened carefully to the marine forecast before setting out. Sometimes we raised only the foresail, leaving the mainsail down. Even in our 70s we knew we could handle any kind of trouble that arose.
One day last summer, we found a window of quiet weather in an otherwise stormy week and set out from Rock Hall. We glided across the Bay and slipped into the narrow mouth of the Magothy River. Behind the protection of Gibson Island we dropped anchor and settled into a quiet evening of reading, conversation, and a leisurely dinner.
It was morning when the trouble began. I knew that I no longer had the strength to haul up the anchor with its 20 feet of heavy chain, so this pleasure fell to Bruce. After breakfast and with a deep sigh, he was ready for the challenge. “We who are about to die salute you!” he declared and up to the bow he went. With much effort and a few breaks to catch his breath, he got the anchor out of the bay muck and up to the water line. Now what? The anchor refused to right itself so that it could be hauled on board. Bruce was sweating, covered with mud, and bleeding from several abrasions on his forearms. I joined him on the bow to help. As we struggled, the weight of the anchor propelled him forward directly onto me, re-injuring the broken ribs I had sustained a couple of months before. In the meantime we were drifting towards shore and in danger of going aground. Clutching my painful side, I steered us to deeper water while Bruce tried again. No luck. As I watched the scene unfold, I couldn’t help thinking: Please, what are we doing here?
Finally, we gave up and left the anchor dangling off the bow—not a recommended practice, as it could swing into the bow and cause serious damage in rough weather. Fortunately, the trip back was benign. We hadn’t damaged the boat and we had sustained no serious injuries, but it could have been otherwise. We were shaken.
I had been wondering for some time how much longer we could continue to sail, given our ages. How would I ever be able to retrieve him if he fell overboard? Though we do possess these 90 years of combined experience, we lack the strength, agility, and stamina we once had. Apparently, Bruce had been having some of these thoughts, too. As we sat in the cockpit having a beer, he looked at me. There was a long pause. “I don’t think we can continue to sail alone,” he said quietly. I nodded my head in agreement, saddened, but relieved that we had faced reality.
We’ll sail again with friends, but we’ll forever miss the tranquil mornings on “our” Dividing Creek.
Vicky Wood is a retired teacher and freelance writer who lives in Bethesda.
Nathan found me online, where I’d been waiting for a man with perfect spelling and great taste. He was Ivy League and used the phrase bee-loud glade to describe his backyard in Georgetown.
In his emails, he seemed serious but often wrote things like this: “I really like fun. I want to be part of a fun couple.” And, hey, I’m from Baltimore. No one likes fun more than us.
“Shall we meet at the zoo, then?” he asked on the phone. “Let’s say the Elephant House?”
“Maryland Zoo or Washington Zoo?” I asked.
He snickered. There is no other word.
“The National Zoo,” he corrected me. The more we talked, the more I began to think that Nathan believed my city was really a sound stage for The Wire. And there was a part of me that wavered on that. I’m from a place that conjures up formstone and Natty Boh, while the District is all “Hail to the Chief” and gleaming white marble. Of course we’d meet there, I started thinking.
It had snowed, and traffic was snarled, yet I managed to miss the Connecticut Avenue exit. When I walked in, the smell of the Elephant House made me gag a little. Nathan’s eyebrows formed a serious, knitted line.
“Aren’t the elephants fun?” he asked. A wan smile from me. “Is this your first time at our zoo?”
“How about our Capitol? Our Smiths?”
Move over, Pierre L’Enfant. Nathan talked about his adopted city with Chamber of Commerce enthusiasm and, for the first hour, I was willing to give it to him. After all, I knew the Belvedere Hotel couldn’t keep up with the Willard any more than Fort McHenry and the Lincoln Memorial should be allowed in the same sentence. When I attempted a little Baltimore aside about the Cone Sisters, he nodded quickly and moved on to the majesty of the National Gallery.
I was surprised—but kind of relieved—when my Baltimore inferiority complex began to disappear on our walk to lunch. It happened somewhere between Nathan’s connection to the Corcoran (emotional) and his affection for the gelato on Wisconsin (sinful). My inner voice kept saying, “Hey, Nathan, over here. I’m from somewhere, too.”
When we were seated at the restaurant, he began looking over the wine list. He called for the sommelier. More wine list. More brow. The waiter stood, pencil poised, for a long time. “Excellent choice!” he sang out when the word finally came down. It seemed like a lot of work just to get buzzed after a long day at the zoo, as we might say in Baltimore.
To keep myself from making inappropriate comments about drunken crab feasts I’d hosted, I mounted my last defense—pretending to listen. By the time I merged onto the Beltway on my way home, I’d already started thinking of him in the past tense. There would be no more literary emails, and I would miss the Nathan I’d come to know in Times New Roman.
When I got home, there was a message in my inbox from a man who lives in Logan Circle. He seems to know his way around the Reading Room at the Folger, but there was no mention of elephants or fun. Worth a shot. Maybe I’ll suggest an afternoon in Fells Point.
Linda DeMers Hummel is a freelance writer who lives in Baltimore.
At 13,000 feet, I lumber hunchbacked to the hatch, balance in its slender metal frame, and jump.
Growing up, my parents only ever asked that I try new things, give them a chance, and do my best. If I failed, I failed. No biggie. When, as a child, I was disqualified from the breaststroke competition during a swim meet, my parents asked if I knew what “DQ” stood for. Of course I did, I told them. No, they replied, "DQ" stood for “Dairy Queen,” and off we went to get ice cream. Failing need not be fatal, they taught.
So, it was neither a dare nor a death wish that led me to disembark a perfectly good plane mid-flight above southern Pennsylvania. It was just a decision I'd made that, every year, I should try to see the world around me with new eyes courtesy of a new experience. Skydiving seemed a good place to start.
At 12,000 feet, I began the routine I had been taught: Check the altimeter on my left wrist. Check my position over the landing zone. Check for correction signals from the instructor gripping the straps on the jumpsuit fabric around my forearm and thigh. Wait for the instructor's thumbs-up. Exhale. Repeat.
The price of my decision to jump solo—without an instructor connected to me for the entire jump—was that I had to attend a pre-dawn orientation before my first jump to learn the mechanics of balancing and moving myself through space.
“Blue skies,” the jump instructors greeted me as I arrived, their warm and relaxed demeanor a sharp contrast with my own road-worn, over-caffeinated, bleary-eyed, jittery self. My nerves were so taut that you could tune a guitar on them.
The meaning of the greeting was not clear to me, but the words and the tone they were spoken in calmed me and readied me to focus. The instructors would be jumping with me, but at the appointed time, they would let go.
Each new jump came with a new skill to be accomplished during free fall. I made mistakes: On my first jump, I accidentally threw my rip cord into the air after pulling it, despite being forewarned not to. It would chew up the tractors when the farmers working the fields below ran over it, I was told.
I had difficulty remembering that in skydiving parlance, “flare” is not akin to jazz hands but rather a landing command to tug the chute and tuck the legs to slow down to an easy galloping stop.
But I kept my balance in flight and completed each task, and I soon graduated from jumping with two instructors to jumping with one.
At 11,000 feet, I recheck my position. I am falling well, directly over the landing zone, a regional airport surrounded by green farmland—cornfields. It is time to execute this jump’s skills.
My jaw and stomach clench, I angle my arms diagonally, smoothly turning myself to the left and then to the right. I push back my shoulder blades, stretching my legs long, and come face to face with my instructor. We grin stupidly at each other, our cheeks flapping. I tuck my legs into my stomach and roll over.
I exhale, exhilarated and relieved. I return to my balancing point, feeling almost still. I relish the moment. I did what I set out to do and am now way past ready to land.
At 10,000 feet, I get a thumbs-up from the one instructor falling beside me, confirming I am well-positioned. I wave her off, opening up air space around me to pull the ripcord and deploy my parachute.
Again and again, I pull. With all my might, I pull, trying not to lose my balanced position. The worst thing would be to start to tumble. But the cord won’t budge.
I look to where my instructor had been. She has not pulled her parachute either. She is falling with me, but farther off. I can’t make out what she is signaling. A sinking feeling inside whispers: It doesn’t matter. Then her shoot deploys, and she disappears above me.
This is not happening. Except it really, really is. I don’t look at my altimeter again. I look into the blue sky around me. And I look down, transfixed by the fast-approaching geometry that I know to be the black roof of a barn, a green lawn, a yellow cornfield.
I think of the kids that sit on the far edges of the landing field watching as the parachutes of the others I jumped with blossom like flowers falling from the sky.
I think of Wile E. Coyote, suspended briefly in the air, having chased the Road Runner off a cliff. He pulls out a sign. “Oops.”
I think back to the moment in the plane when the hatch was thrown open on my first jump and the air rushed in like a Mack truck. I hadn’t been prepared for the enormity of that moment, but I had tucked away my alarm, put my thoughts on mute, hunched over to the hatch, stepped into it, gripped the plane’s shell tightly in my hands, one palm flat on the inside panel, the other palm flat against the outside panel, and then let go. That was the hardest moment—until now.
I stop tugging on the rip cord. I tuck away my thoughts, find my mental balancing point, and let go.
My breath is knocked out of me when my reserve parachute pops, catapulting me upright and back to my senses.
I had completely forgotten to pull my reserve chute. Luckily, it automatically deploys at a certain altitude. The force with which I was yanked upright left me with the sense that the reserve chute had given me a dummy slap: “You idiot. I’m your Plan B. I was here all along.”
I exhale, mortified, relieved, and really scared.
I see Wile E. Coyote scrambling in the air as if searching for a ladder we know isn't there, holding a sign: “Ouch!” This is going to hurt.
How to navigate? Where to land? The drop zone is not in sight. Barn? Grass? Corn field? I think of “amber waves of grain” and aim for a corn field. But a word to the wise, corn doesn’t bend like waves. I bend. But at least I'm on the ground. Phew.
I get up and walk out of the cornfield with an index finger that will heal in six weeks angled in a new direction. I walk out of that corn field with a renewed appreciation for and love of corn. And I walk out of that cornfield with an internal compass that, like my finger, now points in a slightly different direction. I walk out with a mantra strung across my heart like prayer flags that flap in the wind. This one simply says, “Blue skies.”
Author’s note: The events written about happened several years ago; the altitudes may not be exact, and certain details are abridged for space. The parachute I jumped with and instructors were not in any way at fault; I was simply unable to pull my cord on the jump described.
Christine Pulfrey is a writer and editor who works for a Washington-area information service. She lives in Adams Morgan.
My husband Clyde and I spent Christmas in Washington, DC. We treated ourselves to a stay at the renowned Hay Adams Hotel, just up the street from the White House. Our suite's balcony overlooked a Washington landmark, St. John’s Church, the Church of Presidents.
While we were there, I would wake up in the night, go out on the balcony, and look at the church. Bright lights illuminated the exterior of the church, and Christmas wreaths with red bows hung on each side of the double doors. I saw a homeless man wrapped in blankets sleeping on the porch of the church every night.
The last few nights of our visit, the weather was below freezing. I found it unbelievable: Here was a man in such need, and the administrators of the church appeared to have ignored him. At the very least, couldn’t they have invited him in to sleep in the foyer? Parishioners who were attending the Christmas sing-along service passed him by as if he were invisible. It seemed so hypocritical.
On Christmas morning, I got up early, just as the sun was coming up. I opened the door of the room to collect the newspaper and, hanging on the doorknob, was a Christmas gift from the hotel: a velvet bag the color of wine. It was covered in jewels of various colors—fake jewels, of course, but it was pretty. A thin, silk, braided rope gathered and closed the bag at the top. Opening it, I saw that it was filled with gold coins, actually chocolate candies wrapped in gold foil. I liked this gift; it would be a great place to carry my jewelry when I traveled, I thought.
Back in the room, I walked onto the balcony and looked down at the church. The homeless man was still there on the porch.
I had heard on the news the night before that it would be 23 degrees in Washington on Christmas morning. So I went back inside, dressed, careful not to wake Clyde, picked up the red wool cap I’d gotten him for Christmas, grabbed all the cash I had in my wallet—$80—stuffed it in the cap, and took the elevator down to the lobby.
Stepping out of the elevator, I was enveloped by the smell of steaming hot chocolate coming from the silver service. I was tempted to stop and have a quick cup, but instead, I wished the doorman who saw me out a “Merry Christmas” and crossed the street to the church.
The homeless man saw me coming. He looked confused and a little nervous.
He was dressed in layered rags. It was hard to judge his age, late 40's maybe, and when he stood up, I could see he was tall and thin. I walked up close to him, like you would if you were going to shake somebody's hand. Smiling into his face, I handed him the bejeweled bag of chocolates and said, "Good morning! I just wanted to wish you Merry Christmas!"
His voice cracked—not from emotion, but from weariness and exposure—as he answered, "Okay."
Then I opened the top of the red cap just enough so that he could see the cash tucked inside and gave it to him. "I thought you could use this cap," I said. He was looking into the cap. He hesitated, looked up at me: " Okay," he said again, through crooked, mangled teeth.
He sounded confused, not aloof or rude, just confused, submissive, and still dulled by sleep. It wasn't the effusive "Thank you! God bless you! You are a wonderful person!" that I realize now I half expected. It was as if I’d wound up a toy, expecting it to dance for me, but it hadn't worked. It didn't move.
"Merry Christmas!" I said again.
"Alrighty then!" I said, turning and walking down the steps and back across the street to my fancy, warm hotel, feeling all good about myself and thinking that that had been the proper way to start Christmas day. Indeed, as they say, there is no such thing as an unselfish act.
After availing myself of the hot chocolate, I returned to our room. Clyde was still asleep. I went to the balcony and looked down at the church. What did I expect to see? The man jumping for glee because an angel of mercy had come down from the sky to help him? He had to have seen me up there on my balcony at some point, hadn’t he? Did I expect to see him packing up his stuff and heading off to have a nice hot breakfast?
He was sitting very still on the floor of the porch, all bundled up, staring at his lap. “Maybe he doesn't know it's Christmas,” I thought.
But he was wearing the red cap.
Kay Smith is a retired mother of two adult children. She lives in Southern California and is a member of the Los Angeles Poets and Writers Collective. She spent Christmas in Washington visiting her daughter.
I hate those annual bouts of hacking and sneezing. Yet, recent experience compels me to grudgingly acknowledge that the common cold might have a few benefits.
You know how it goes with a cold. At first, you're Roadrunner. You make plans with the family to go skiing or hiking, to take the subway into the city to wander through the museums despite not feeling too well. You get things done: carting your children to the activity of the season, paying bills, shopping, cooking, cleaning, repairing, maintaining. You are a master juggler. Sometimes you wish things would slow down, but there isn’t anything you want to give up. Okay, you could do without housework, home repair, and 40-hour work weeks, but you like to eat, and you like some semblance of order. In the end, you keep everything on the calendar and on the list of Things to Do.
Then one day you wake up listless and lethargic. Over the course of the day you wind down like a toy soldier with a dying battery. You know you're coming down with a cold—the cold that your six-year-old brought home along with the list of things he needs by Monday for the science experiment; the cold that your husband is still fighting. You try to keep going. You slog through the days with your foggy brain, your running nose, your aching body, your sore throat, and your nearly empty gas tank accomplishing less and less. Laundry mounts, home repair projects stall, toys and newspapers litter the living room floor, dinner becomes take out, and some of the balls you have been juggling tumble to the ground.
Your body is a tyrant. Eventually, you can go no farther. Your nose is red and raw, and a tissue box has become a fifth appendage. You cannot utter two sentences without hacking, the same hacks that make sleep impossible. You have entered the stage of perfect misery. With the food supply nearing empty, no energy to grocery shop, and a budget that cannot stretch to one more night of take out, you're wondering what to serve for dinner when your eight-year-old and six-year-old appear with trays of graham crackers, peanut butter, and bananas. These are the same children that just hours earlier, knowing your miserable state, had relentlessly begged and pleaded to go to the zoo. Their earnest faces convey their empathy and their sincere apology for nagging. As you dine on trays in the living room, crumbs all over the couch and floor, you wonder why you do not have graham crackers, peanut butter, and bananas for dinner more often. You top off the evening by playing the computer games your children have begged you to try for months.
A few days later you are surprised by a spark of energy. You consider the to-do list. But since you have been genuinely sick, you send the guilt demons packing and sink into a chair to watch a movie or a football game. At some point, you can no longer tolerate the disorder. You summon the calendar and the to-do list—but you also mark a week in March to not go anywhere, not do anything, and just see what new moves you and your family might imagine. This is the thing about the common cold: In altering the routine choreography of daily life and relationships, it allows a space to imagine new steps and new moves. Other life events certainly have the same potential, but there is nothing that so reliably settles into almost every household every year.
Terry Northcutt is a psychologist. She often muses about the creativity and gentle humor people bring to bear on the ordinary and sometimes uncomfortable events in their lives from Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
I made my first magic wand out of a Popsicle stick and one of those sticky gold stars that teachers used to slap on the top of papers when you did a particularly excellent job. Don't know if they still do that, but I do know that I still believe in the power of wands.
Growing up, I did a lot of wishful thinking, mostly focused on the twists and turns of an unpredictable life. Sometimes my wishes worked; sometimes they didn't. I came to learn that wishes required more than a hopeful thought.
In 1986, I moved to Maryland from Oklahoma. I was living under a protective order, escaping from my abusive ex-husband. All the magical thinking in the world wouldn't make him disappear from the face of the earth. But thanks to family and friends, I was able to start a new life. I must admit, just for old time’s sake, I bought myself one of those cylinder wands with glitter inside. I'd wave it around when I was feeling low, and like Dorothy's red shoes in The Wizard of Oz, it gave me a confidence I didn't know I had. After moving here, I have met and married a wonderful man, adopted our daughter, worked for pay for two great organizations, and volunteered because I wanted to for many others.
Living and working in and around DC, I have been privy to the wishes of lots of people. I'm sure you've heard them, too: I wish I could meet a man. I wish I could meet a woman. I wish I could get a new job. I wish I could have a baby. I wish I could find a good sitter. I wish I could get that grant. I wish that dress would fit me. I wish my car wouldn't run out of gas until I hit that station with the cheap prices.
I bet you have a few wishes too. And I'm pretty sure you aren't certain how to make them come true. That brings me back to wands.
About 10 years ago, I was in a freak accident that required a half knee replacement. My terrific doctor warned me that after a decade, it would be time to get the total knee replaced. Ten years sounded like a really long time back then, but here we are. I spent months and months preparing for surgery, getting things in order at work and going to yoga six times a week. But I knew something was missing. Of course, a wish! And not just my wish, but wishes for and from lots of people. So I started buying wands.
I put a picture of myself in warrior pose on Facebook, holding a wand. My cover photo was of Glinda, the Good Witch, telling Dorothy that she "had the power all along," while, of course, waving that shiny stick.
I gave wands to my yoga teachers, my colleagues, and my family and friends. I packed one in my hospital suitcase, alongside my books and dry shampoo. At the appointed hour at Sibley Hospital everyone was supposed to turn towards DC and wave. In the hospital, nurses and physical therapists waved my wand. When I came home, every one of my visitors received a wand, too. They waved them at me, and they waved them for their own wishes. One friend wished for a winning lottery ticket. Another turned a snarky checker at the supermarket into a snake. I am healing well from my surgery, getting ready to go back to work and doing a pretty mean downward dog. Could wands have played a small part?
Why am I telling you this? Because you can get you own wand at the dollar store. Because, sometimes, wishes do come true. Because I trust with every part of my being that we all need something to believe in.
And because, as my grandmother used to say, "It couldn't hurt."
Cheryl Kravitz works as communications director at the American Red Cross in the National Capital Region and lives in Silver Spring. More of her published works (including a couple from Washingtonian) can be found on her website.
Booking two interconnecting rooms at the Holiday Inn in Leiden, Holland, seemed so perfect at the time. Although the Innocents Abroad travel guide—which was my Bible for living and traveling with two young children in Europe—didn’t mention the hotel, all of my ex-pat friends had assured me it would be the best place to stay during our upcoming trip to the Netherlands. And they were right…sort of.
Almost three years earlier, my husband John and I had moved to Belgium with our newly two- and six-year-olds in tow. His law firm wanted him to represent clients in their Brussels practice. So after a bit of trepidation on my part, we found a house and a school, and the kids and I tagged along for the adventure.
We were determined to make the most of those three years in Europe by scouring the continent and beyond as much as we could, taking into consideration work and school schedules and the young ages of our children. First stop: EuroDisney in Paris, the carrot we dangled to get the kids to move. Then, it was the canals of Brugges and the sidewalk performers in Antwerp. In Rome little old ladies would stop us in the street to run their fingers through our children’s white-blonde hair, exclaiming, “Bellissimo!”
The kids learned to ski in Austria and rode an overnight train to Switzerland. They zipped to London on the EuroStar and saw the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens. There was Portugal, Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, Greece, and perhaps best of all, the Arctic Circle in Finland—that final Christmas—to see the real Santa Claus.
During our last spring living in Belgium, we had one more trip to make. We had to see the millions of tulips in the Keukenhof Gardens one last time. We had to see the Anne Frank museum now that the kids were a bit older, and we had to see my favorite artist’s work in the Van Gogh.
Amsterdam houses many wonderful art museums, but I knew the kids, then aged 4 and 8, would likely withstand only one, and the Van Gogh was the winner. He had been my favorite since high school, when my artist boyfriend introduced his paintings to me. I knew his colorful, bold paint strokes appealed to my children—they loved to imitate them in their coloring books and read about them in Camille and the Sunflowers by Laurence Anholt. I had bought the storybook for them a couple of years before, and I read it aloud to them every night the week before we left for Holland.
Out itinerary was set but we still had to make our hotel reservation.
“You have to stay at the Holiday Inn in Leiden,” so many friends said. We had been to the Netherlands previously but had never stayed in Leiden, a centuries-old university town. Why is there a Holiday Inn there? I wondered to myself.
“The kids will love the hotel!” we were assured.
It did look appealing from a kid’s point of view. It had an indoor swimming pool, a bowling alley, miniature golf, a movie theater, and a food buffet with options that would appeal to my carbs-only eaters. It even had a life-sized chess set in the lobby, right next to the buffet restaurant.
The open plan of the main floor was a godsend for parents wanting to keep their eyes on their children. The place was a kid’s heaven and a parent’s purgatory, kids running around loose everywhere. But they were happy, very happy.
Our friends and neighbors, the Finnegans, happened to be going to Leiden the same weekend and had been to the hotel before. I didn’t know their itinerary, but I did know that while we were at the hotel, Daniel would have his friend, Ryan, to play with. That would be a plus…or so I thought.
When we arrived Friday night, Daniel and Ryan quickly disappeared to explore the hotel's offerings. Ryan’s mom stayed close to them while I got our things settled in our two rooms and explored with Nicole. John found the bar.
Ryan and Daniel were beside themselves with excitement. There was so much to do! They watched a cartoon movie, went swimming, ate macaroni and cheese, and then bowled. That first night, my calm, mild, reasonable Daniel, was a wound-up spring ready to uncoil at any second. It was time for sleep.
He was so exhausted when we returned to the room that he fell into the twin bed next to Nicole without complaint. I told him our plans for the next day as he dozed off, foregoing his usual reading of Camille and the Sunflowers.
He woke early the next morning, so excited to join Ryan at breakfast in the lobby. We quickly got dressed, Daniel found Ryan and his family, and we all ate together. While the parents were finishing their coffee, Daniel asked to be excused from the table. He and Ryan ran over to the giant chess set. The pieces were bigger than the kids, and they struggled to slide them across the painted squares on the floor.
The Finnegans informed us that they were planning to spend the morning at the hotel, and I told them we were off to see the sights. After breakfast, the Van Gogh Museum would be our first stop. We called Daniel over so we could leave, and he came bounding across the floor. “Here, sweetie, put your jacket on. It’s time to go.”
I had always taken pride in the fact that Daniel was such a reasonable child. Even if he didn’t like something or didn’t want to do it, as long as you explained the reason, he would comply. I never had to resort to the fallback parental retort ‘Because I said so!’
“I don’t want to go," he told me. "I want to stay at the hotel.”
“But we’ve made this trip to see fun things," I implored, "not just hang around the hotel. It's time to go look at the Van Gogh paintings.”
“I don’t want to go, " he insisted. "I want to stay here with Ryan. He’s not going anywhere and I don’t want to either.”
“But then you’d miss seeing ‘Starry Night’ and the ‘Sunflowers.’”
I hoped to appeal to his rational side. He loved those paintings in the books. I knew he’d love the real thing.
“I want to stay here," he insisted. "Ryan’s parents can take care of me. He said so.”
Daniel had it all figured out. He and Ryan had probably been conspiring as they took turns moving their rooks and bishops. It was then that it hit me: Van Gogh's masterpieces were no competition for bowling, swimming, mini-golf, cartoons, and life-sized chess with another 8-year-old boy. Duh.
But I remained firm: “I’m sorry, Daniel, but you have to come with us. Ryan will be here when we get back, and you can play with him then.”
Daniel wasn’t happy, but to his credit, he didn’t scream or yell. He came along peacefully, albeit begrudgingly. I would learn that he had another plan, one he knew would gnaw at me more than any verbal protests.
In the car on the way to the Van Gogh museum, Nicole chattered and sang in the back seat next to her big brother. He was silent. His little sister’s attempts to engage him in song were for naught. My attempts to cheer him up and assure him he’d have a fun day—and my promises that he could play at the hotel as soon as we returned—had no impact. He stared out the window in silence at the old university buildings and the red tulips lining the road until we arrived at the museum about 45 minutes later.
John bought the tickets, and I held Daniel’s hand as we walked in. I was thrilled. Here they were—live—the paintings I had loved all these years. John held Nicole in his arms so she could get a better look. I squeezed Daniel’s hand.
“Look, honey, look! Aren’t these magnificent? Look there’s the painting of the sunflowers! Oh, and look over there! There’s ‘Starry Night.’ Isn’t this great?”
I tilted my head down to see the excitement in his eyes, but the only thing Daniel would look at were his black-and-white sneakers.
“Daniel, look up, honey. See!” He refused. Through three floors of the museum and over 200 paintings, he never once looked up. My heart sank thinking he might never again have the opportunity to see all these incredible paintings in one place, but his gaze held steadfast to his sneakers. This was my punishment.
When we returned to our home in Waterloo after that weekend, I was tempted to write the authors of Innocents Abroad to tell them they were right to have excluded the Holiday Inn in Leiden. It was too much damn fun.
Many years have passed since then, and I’ve told the story of Daniel and the Van Goghs whenever the subject of art or travel with children comes up. Daniel once told me he really did look up at the paintings that day, only not when I was looking at him. I suspect he only said that to try and make me feel better.
Now, Daniel is 25. He recently graduated from law school and moved back to DC. A few weeks ago, I read a review in the Washington Post of the new Van Gogh exhibit at the Phillips Collection, where multiple copies of his work—his variations on a theme—were displayed side by side. I knew I’d have to go.
On October 11, Daniel and I were text messaging about car insurance. As we wrapped up, I said: “On another note, everyone doesn’t get a second chance in life, but you may. There is a Van Gogh exhibit in town at the Phillips. Remember how you refused to look at the paintings at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam because you were pissed that we made you leave the fun at the Holiday Inn? Wanna go some time? No looking down at your sneakers though.”
My phone dinged seconds later.
“Haha yes I would like to go.”
And then after a few days, when I hadn’t gotten back to him with any arrangements, he nudged me: “When do you want to see the Van Goghs?” I bought tickets for the next day.
The name of the Phillips exhibit has special meaning for us—‘Van Gogh Repititions’—and this time Daniel never looked down.
Van Gogh Repetitions runs at the Phillips Collection until February 2, 2014.
Desirée Magney is a lawyer for the DC Volunteer Lawyers Project. She is married with two adult children—she writes about her daughter here—and she lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Still smitten with our beach vacation, I ask my husband if we might consider buying a place on the shore. His arm around my waist, he squints slightly into the setting autumn sun as if seeing into the future. The boys are a few steps in front of us, familiar with the after-dinner stroll.
The baby stops to pick up a rock then throws it into the street. My husband and I simultaneously remind him not to follow. A comfortable silence settles over us while he contemplates his answer, a canopy of autumn leaves overhead.
Our corner of Del Ray is quiet. We almost never see other pedestrians strolling through the neighborhood on our evening walks—a rarity in this town, to be surrounded by solitude. I haven't decided yet if I like it.
"I think it's feasible," he finally spits out, though I know the reason for the delay.
We turn the corner, holding our boys' hands as we cross the street without a car in sight. I know what makes this a difficult question. It's the same reason we are not still in Buenos Aires, taking after-dinner walks through the Bosque de Palermo on the expansive walking path that encircles the lake and rose garden. It's the reason we lived with my in-laws in Springfield for eight months while we waited for my husband to heal, for decisions to be made, for our belongings to arrive. The same reason I am, somewhere buried deep, still scared to death. Cancer.
The uncertainty of the future, the complete loss of control, is not lost on me. And yet I ask him about the beach house in search of a false sense of security. He knows it. "We could do it, and then if we have to move, we'd make sure it's rented. But we could do it.” He placates me while he kicks a rock down the sidewalk holding a leaf in his left hand, a gift from our toddler: Here Daddy, hold this.
The boys stop to collect some fallen leaves; our toddler points out the red ones, and our baby collects the yellow but calls them pink. I watch my husband as he squats down alongside them to try and determine their origin: oak, maple, cherry. As they study the leaves, I study my husband. The glow in his cheeks and his muscular frame paint a picture of health. No evidence of disease for six months, and yet the evidence is everywhere.
I watch with a smile on my lips as my baby attaches a leaf to a stick, spearing it then waving it around overhead. But my thoughts are on those who hold our fate in their hands: Georgetown Hospital, the Air Force, and, primarily, my husband's body. The baby starts down the sidewalk once again, stick with speared leaf in hand, and we move with him.
"Daddy, where are we?" our toddler wonders, swinging his blonde hair out of his blue eyes. Haircut, I remind myself, the kid needs a haircut. We are walking our usual route, only in reverse. All the same houses, the same streets, but from a different point of view.
I am surprised at his confusion—the three year old who can tell me how to get to the grocery store. "It's the same walk as always, sweetie,” I say, “you'll know where you are in a few minutes." I’m certain he will recognize the house on the corner, the one he calls the castle.
I think back to a year ago, on a walk to the park after dinner in Buenos Aires. The air is damp and cool, a perfect spring evening. The jacarandas in full bloom proudly wave their vibrant purple blooms in the breeze, sprinkling their petals into lush carpets underfoot. We walk past the guards of the ambassador's residence, stopping so they can high-five our toddler, who is perched in the front of the double stroller. We wait for the light to turn and then quickly cross Libertador—a busy ten-lane thoroughfare—and then roll our way into the park, engulfed in a sea of people.
To say the Argentines are obsessed with fitness would be an understatement. We are always the only ones who simply stroll, and tonight is no exception. We are passed by runners, walkers of varying speeds, rollerbladers, cyclists, people on unicycles; we pass the nightly street-hockey game at the far end of the lake and the Argentines learning to tightrope walk on the other side of the rose garden between palm trees. A noisy flock of neon-green feathers flies low overhead, squawking loudly. "Mommy, look! Parrots!" our toddler shouts.
The familiar sound of castanets puts us all on alert—we know what this sound means. Suddenly, he appears behind us, and we stop in our tracks to watch him go by. On rollerblades and dressed in his usual black trousers and black T-shirt, his long, dark hair flowing out behind him, he dances toward us, performing a kind of rollerblading flamenco.
His headphones prevent us from hearing the same sounds that so inspire his dance, but the effect is the same: utter joy. His joyfulness, his total inhibition, it's infectious—everyone takes notice, and everyone smiles at the authentic happiness he exudes as he dances atop eight small wheels. We marvel at him as he rolls by, hands high over his head, stretching to hit the pose. Completely lost in his world, he brings such happiness to ours. "There he goes!" shouts our toddler, clapping his hands and kicking his feet. I squeeze my husband's hand, happy for our first four months here and not believing that this will be our life for another two and a half years.
And as it turns out, it wouldn't be.
The sun is almost gone, and I am keenly aware of the change of seasons as the breeze hits my cheeks. What was a refreshing wind a few weeks ago has now become winter's warning. My husband and I exchange a glance, reading each other's minds: We're not ready.
What my husband calls "the dark days" literally were last year—the heart of winter spent undergoing surgery to remove 17 tumors in his groin; three subsequent skin infections, one rendering him septic; a clinical trial for stage III melanoma at Georgetown. Our memories of dark winter days in DC are not ones we often revisit.
But the spring, the warmth, the promise of growth and change: We devour that. I think back to the garden—the first finished project at our new townhouse—the need for my husband to cultivate, to get dirty after so much illness, so much sterility. The days lengthened by sunlight mirrored my husband's healing, each day a little brighter, until finally, summer. The warm, humid air filling our souls. The joy of watching our boys harvest small cherry tomatoes everyday, picking jalapeños and kale in our urban garden, popping mint leaves in their mouths. Relishing life.
I think back to our warm, summer's end beach vacation at Cape Charles, a small town where our history wasn't present, where cancer didn't exist, where we were free—all reasons I need to go back, need the promise of a beach house, the promise of an escape. A chance at happiness. A way to outrun the disease.
"I'm not ready for winter," my husband mumbles, zipping up his jacket.
We round another corner on our walk and I break the silence that has befallen us. "I'd like to stay here," I proclaim, partly because of his trial at Georgetown and partly because I'd like to live in one place for more than eight months, but mostly because I love this city. I hear the metro rails whine as the train slows into the station a few blocks away. So do my boys, who stop dead in their tracks and turn toward the sound.
"I know," he says, breaking the metro spell by lifting our baby onto his shoulders. The baby grabs hold of my husband's hair as if it were reins and then giggles, trying to push back against my husband's hands, which hold him firmly in place. "Me too. I'm glad we came back here for the trial," he finishes and then laughs, chiding our baby as he continues to giggle and lean back.
We are at Braddock Road, the "busy" street where I force my boys to hold our hands as we walk, listening to the fast cars pass, drivers intent on getting home. A stone wall emerges along the length of a front yard. My toddler sits here every night, just to feel the slick stone, to watch the cars. Tonight, he decides to wave.
I sit with him, half worried about the owners of the home, half exhausted from the weight of too many unknowns. My husband follows suit, and soon we are a family of four, seated on a stone wall in front of someone else's house, watching DC traffic heading home for the night.
A break in commuters allows us a moment to speak without being interrupted by zooming engines. "Let's wave at this car," my husband suggests, making a game of our stop. As the headlights approach, preparing for the sunset that's only minutes away, we wave. The toddler yells and waves furiously, the baby watches, hand up, frozen in the cooling air. The driver, caught off guard by this waving family, waves back, smiling, laughing. Our baby relishes this game—the cause and effect leaves him giddy: Wave to a passing car, watch people wave back. He erupts in laughter and doesn't stop.
We wave like this on and on, to both lanes of traffic, under a pink-hued sunset. Without fail, each driver is surprised and thrilled. Some lean over their passenger seats, some look up from texts, all with the same reaction—unrestrained joy. For those brief moments of surprise while the drivers are still trying to understand what they've seen, we glimpse the real humanity of this town. Everyone trying to get home, everyone eager for a smile, a laugh. We’re all so similar that way.
We stay and wave and laugh until the sun has finally set, until the drivers can hardly see us. Then we leave our stone seats and waving game behind. "Let's do that again tomorrow!" Our toddler bounces, gripping my hand, delighted by the happiness he's caused. He bounds ahead and then stops in his tracks, turns toward us, and shouts, "Hey! I know where we are! We are right here!"
I smile at his exclamation, the wisdom of his simple yet profound words. We are right here. Our life has been punctuated by a cancer diagnosis, but we know right where we are. We are waving at strangers and taking a stroll in a city we love. Because DC or Buenos Aires, it doesn't matter. We are seeking and creating joy. We, like drivers in those passing cars, are searching for certainty in a sea of unknowns, but tonight, we settle for commuter smiles.
Kate Reimann is a mother of two. She writes—between teaching cycling classes, cooking plant-based meals, and stepping on stray toy cars—from her home in Alexandria. She tweets at @KateReimann and posts stories of life in spite of cancer on her blog, effthec.com.
When you sleep on the street, you never fully sleep. If you can make it until around 4 AM, you know you’re okay…at least for that one night. Once the sun begins to rise, your body naturally does the same, and you are back to your daily grind…until the next night.
Even if your eyes are closed, you train your ears to always stay awake and alert. So even now, in my comfortable dormitory bed, I never fully sleep. It’s become second nature for me to always be alert.
My first life goal was to earn a high school diploma. I accomplished that and, at 18, I was working to realize an even greater aspiration: to become a college graduate. I was into my first year at Delaware State University when things began to spiral out of my control. I have dealt with financial and health difficulties my entire life—I've been diagnosed with a heart condition as well as hypertension, asthma, and glaucoma. When my health began to decline and tuition at Delaware State increased, I had to leave school.
When I left DC for school, I was a child. But when I returned, I was considered to be an adult, so I needed to pull my weight as one. I had no clear direction; I could not find employment, so I knew what was next.
I found myself going from house to house, couch to couch. I stayed with my mother here and there, but we never got along and because I was unemployed and over 18, it was clear that I was a burden. In between staying with my mother and sometimes other family members, I realized I didn’t have anywhere else to go. There were plenty of nights when I slept outside, even during the winter. I remember being tired of trying to find ways to survive; I just remembered being really tired. Tired of the cold. Tired of managing all of these issues by myself. Tired of wearing a mask that I was a normal “teenager.” This was not normal.
I reached out to my college advisor Mr. E., from Friendship Public Charter School. He had recently participated in a Sleep Out at Covenant House Washington that encourages business professionals to sleep out for one night to raise awareness about youth homelessness. He referred me to Covenant House, and I called to explain my situation. I felt that they were my last hope. I was referred to the crisis center—an emergency shelter for youth—and I was given a stable place to stay immediately.
I no longer had to worry about where I was going to sleep, but I still had to deal with health and financial instabilities, and for the first two or three weeks, my caseworker could not get me to talk. She would ask me questions and I would meet her with silence. In retrospect, I realize that I was reluctant because, as I understood it, what I said and how I felt didn’t really matter to anyone. Nothing that I said was going to change my situation, so in my mind, sharing my thoughts served no real purpose. When I spoke, people didn’t really listen anyhow.
My caseworker was patient with me. She told me one day that my story was "worth hearing,” and that meant a lot to me. As a resident in the crisis center, I worked with my mentor and the staff at Covenant House Washington to get back on my feet. I was involved with all kinds of community service and volunteer efforts. As a volunteer at Friendship High School, where I graduated, I met a gentleman who was interested in hearing what I had to say. I told him my story and he offered me a job at Friendship Public Charter School in the corporate office. Things started to look up. I guess my caseworker was right. My story was worth hearing. Now that I had a stable environment, I was also ready to receive the moral support that I previously lacked. For the first time I didn’t feel like a burden.
I still keep in contact with a few of the workers from Covenant House Washington. Ms. Freeman from the Crisis Center reaches out and calls every now and then to check up on me. Ms. Alexis and Ms. Keller are important to me as well, always making sure I am okay. Ms. Keller even brought a care package to my dorm.
This experience of being without has made me very sensitive to others who have the same struggle. So when I encounter friends in similar situations, I always encourage them to at least consider Covenant House because I know how much they’ve helped me. As long as you are willing to try, the staff there is willing to help. They help you find your way, create a plan, and reach your goals. Most of all, they respect you and let you know that you count and you have a bright future.
My future is bright. I am currently a student at Bowie State University majoring in Biomedical Engineering. My relationship with my mom has gotten better over time. We have both grown. We understand each other a little better now. I am still working towards my goal of becoming a college graduate and then a biomedical engineer. I guess the rest of my story is to be continued…and I am okay with that.
Not long ago, Donte Davis was homeless youth in the District. He now lives in Bowie and writes to bring attention to National Homelessness Awareness Month, which takes place each November.