Bathroom Fixtures, James Stone

I was just a kid, but the import of the event wasn’t lost on me. My mum was making a special dinner. She’d scrubbed and vacuumed until our home shone. My grandfather, my Dad’s Dad, was coming to visit. There had been tentative outreach, but it would take some doing to melt the nearly two decades of silence between them. My mother was seeing to it that the visit would be seamless, and delicious. This new grandfather was bringing his wife…the woman he’d married immediately after my grandmother divorced him. I didn’t understand it then, but this was “the other woman.”

Still, she’d been with him faithfully for years. My father held no grudge against her; that was my grandmother’s forte. We, all five of us, were dressed and spit-shined. This would be one of those ‘best behavior’ days, more tedious than enjoyable. Only the curiosity of my father suddenly revealing a secret father of his own made it worthwhile. That, and the promise of dessert.

The actual visit is a bit of a whirlwind in my memory. They arrived and there were introductions and small talk. Everyone took seats in the living room, with my mum getting up to check the oven, from time to time. The table was set. It looked like Thanksgiving. The secret grandfather was tall, with the same piercing blue eyes as my Dad, and the same wispy, fine hair. He seemed as entranced with us, as we were with him, his eyes traveling from one tow-headed new grandchild to another. All the promise of five surprise grandchildren! The missus mostly sat quietly, jaw tight and lips pressed together. Perhaps it was a mistake that my mother politely refused her offer of help in the kitchen. Certainly my mum had no intention of reducing this honored guest to scullery help!

Finally, it was ready. My mum sent us all to wash our hands in the bathroom at the end of the hall. When we returned, the new grandmother, asked for directions to the bath, and my mum waved her down the hall. She never actually reached the bathroom–about halfway there, she shrieked like a gored animal, “Arthur!”

We all looked up in shock. Whatever could be the matter?!

“Dear God, Arthur, nudes! Obscenity! And in a house with children!” Her bony arm held outstretched, her finger pointing at the two, small, charcoal, nudes, tastefully framed, that hung at the end of our hall. “I cannot spend another minute under this Godless roof!”

My parents were both slackjawed, unable to comprehend the disaster unravelling before them. The woman turned, sprinted to the front entry and collected her jacket. She was out the front door before my new grandfather even knew what was up. Shaking his head, he apologized, before following his wife out to the car. They sat there, for some minutes, in heated discussion, before he eased the car back down the driveway and away.

Five little towheads, wide-eyed and shocked, lined up at the living room window, looking at the now-empty driveway. My mother quickly gathered up the extra place settings, returning the table to our normal set up for seven. My father quietly announced that, though he was surprised, it was true that some people might not appreciate our tastes in art. He suggested that we all sit down and enjoy the lovely meal that my mother had prepared. We ate mostly in silence. The apple pie was delicious.

Years passed before we visited with them again. She, of course, refused to come to our house. By then, though, the irony of this woman’s objections to nudity wasn’t lost on us.

My parents were always artsy people. I once heard a neighbor describe us as ‘Bohemians’…and I was never sure if it was a compliment. But my father was an amateur woodworker, and my mum became a potter of some artistic note. Their friends included potters and painters, weavers and sculptors. What can I say…it was the sixties. But that scene, halfway down the hall, always stuck in my mind.

Years later, my parents’ best friends, Jim and Irene, invited us to a special dinner. Some people become family, even without blood relations. These people were part of the fiber of our lives. This event was to celebrate the unveiling of his most recent painting. We arrived and while playing with their children, we peeked into the basement, where the easel stood…covered with a sheet. We’d have to wait until after dinner.

After dessert, we all trooped into the basement for the big moment. Jim adjusted the lighting and then, like a matador, dramatically swept the fabric up and away, revealing the canvas. It was a nude–a woman seated in a bathtub. Most importantly to me, breasts visible! Tits! Tits were okay! It was such a relief! If Jim and Irene could have tits in their artwork…we could, too! If there’d been any question left in my mind about the fallout from the unpleasantness in the hall, this erased it, made it all okay.

Decades later, as an adult who’d married, moved away, divorced, re-married and returned, my mother and I visited Irene. It’s a pleasure when someone has been in your sphere so long that they are a well-loved fixture in your life. Jim had since passed away, as had my Dad. But our families are inextricably interwoven. After dinner, Irene announced that she had a housewarming gift for Rick and I, for the home we were building. She left the room and returned with a painting, its back to me. And then, much like its first unveiling, four decades earlier, she dramatically flipped the painting and revealed…that very same painting of the woman in the tub.

She could never have known how much that particular painting had always meant to me. I was shocked…that she could offer me this painting, this special image, that was so deeply imbedded in our joined family history. I love it. It hangs in my bedroom, where I see it, and appreciate it and its history, every day.

Despite having tried, verbally to explain this and thank her–I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to convey how, in my mind, this painting accomplished a great healing for me. After all, without this confirmation, I might have gone through my entire life, wondering just what was meant by “Bohemian.”

To Irene, with eternal gratitude.