“But who can say what’s best? That’s why you need to grab whatever chance you have of happiness where you find it, and not worry about other people too much. My experience tells me that we get no more than two or three such chances in a life time, and if we let them go, we regret it for the rest of our lives.”
— Haruki Murakami
“Is there anything special of Oma’s that you would want?”
“What? Oh…” I’m on the phone with my mom. We’re discussing my Oma, her mother, who is recently in declining health. She’s losing bits of her memory and we’re at the end of the time where she can live alone any more. My mom has been staying with her, part time, and helping her put together paperwork. They’ve just finished with the lawyer today, working on ironing out the will. “Well, some of her dirndl schmuck, I think…I know its not worth anything….”
“She has one with pink stones, actually…anything else” my mom asks. I’m sure she’s making a list of some kind. The woman has more lists of anyone I know, on the backs of envelopes and receipts she’s entered into the checkbook.
“Well, there’s the figurines on the sideboard…the”
“The Gossiping Girls, sure, your dad and I got them for Mom and Dad.”
“Yeah, I like those.”
My mom pauses. “I’d like the portrait of Stanley’s Mother in the hallway. I always thought the story behind it was so romantic.”
I know the painting she’s talking about. I had no idea it had a name.
“What’s the story about Stanley’s Mother?”
My mom seems surprised, sure she’s told me before. I enjoy strange family stories, so I’m surprised I don’t know this one.
“Well, when we lived in the old house, the duplex, right after I was born, on 26th Street, we were in the lower level of a duplex. Upstairs, lived Hildegard. She was an art teacher.
Her apartment was small, just a sitting room, kitchen, and a bedroom, though I never saw it. She was very pretty, in a Ingrid Bergman, old hollywood kind of way.
One day, Hildegard met Stanley. I remember them spending time together. The first I knew of her, Stanley had come to pick her up for a date and they went out into the country and stopped at a field.
Hildegard thought the field was so beautiful, she leapt from the car and ran into the field, singing and dancing as though she was in the Sound of Music.
Stanley yelled for her to stop. She finally listened when he said “Its all poison ivy!”
Hildegard has poison ivy rashes all over both of her legs. It was so bad, she was laid up for two weeks. I was only 8 or so at the time, and I remember my mother going upstairs, and tending to her poor legs with calamine lotion. As a thank you, she had me sit for her and painted the water color portrait of me that’s in the hallway.”
“I always liked that painting…was that something you wanted?” I asked.
“Oh of course, I very much would like that, when the time comes.” she said. “Anyway, we got to know her through that time, and Stanley would often come to visit. He played the violin. And as I got better at piano, he would play the violin with me.
They were older. She was probably in her 40’s, Stanley, in his 50’s. And, even a 8, I could see they were very much in love. You can just tell looking at some people. But Stanley still lived with his mother.
Hildegard very much wanted to marry him…and Stanley loved her. But…his mother would have nothing to do with it and she wouldn’t let him move out. Hildegard even painted the portrait of Stanley’s mother. But she hated it and refused to have it in the house. So Stanley couldn’t bring it home, and Hildegard didn’t want to keep it.
Eventually, Hildegard left. She went back to Germany. She never married. And Stanley stayed with his mother. Gosh, she didn’t die until she was 95. That’s how we ended up with the painting. Stanley’s mother didn’t it want it in the house, and well, Hildegard couldn’t…didn’t want to keep it. So we have it.”
“That’s…that’s so sad. That’s…how is that romantic?” I asked, feeling an unsettling emptiness in my heart for two people I’d never met and thinking of a painting I’ve stared at my entire life.
“I always thought of Hildegard and Stanley in comparison to my parents. They left behind everything. They only had each other. They left Germany with nothing, and without knowing any one. And Stanley could never leave his mother and Hildegard refused to be second.
And even at the age of 8, I remember seeing them come to dinners at our house together…I remember thinking about how in love they looked with each other. And that painting…of the mother who would never let her son go…not even for his own happiness.
It reminds me of how lucky we are, if we find the one person we’re supposed to love…and how we need to take that opportunity, no matter the difficulty. Otherwise…well…Hildegard died in Germany, Stanley died here. They never saw each other again.
But they always looked like they loved each other so much.”
“That’s. That’s sad. That’s Romeo and Juliet sad…or fairy tale sad.”
And I think of that painting, of Stanley’s Mother and how unhappy a woman she must have been to see a chance for her son to be happy and to be so wrapped up in whatever her own misery was that she couldn’t let him go. Not even in his 50’s. And beautiful Hildegard. With, I imagine, old hollywood red lips and fading glamor, up in her apartment, painting the portrait of a woman who likely hated her and thinking of the man she wanted more than anything in the world.
But not wanting to be second place.
I think of these sad people, who had a brief, shining moment of love…even if it had moments of poison ivy. And I have a picture in my head of my mother as a young girl, playing the piano and watching Stanley play the violin and seeing Hildegard sit down to dinner with them and basking in the glow of their love.
And then watching as they separated. Neither able to compromise with the either, neither able to move back, only able to move forward…alone.
I wonder about them, and the end of their lives…if they remember that trip to the field…or dinners at my Oma’s house and sitting across the table from each other. Maybe holding hands, or just simply catching the others eye, and smiling a couple’s smile. I think of the tentative love they must have had for each other. And I wonder if, in their last moments, they wanted to do things differently.
Would Stanley have left his mother, if he’d known he would never see Hildegard again? Would Hildegard have compromised? Knowing she’d return to Germany on her own? What about Stanley’s Mother? What had made her so unhappy, so insecure she could never let her son leave?
What did they regret in their last moments?
Lost love? Not being brave enough to make an important leap? Or maybe just the sun glinting off of Hildegard’s hair in the giddy moments before everything went wrong, and she was scratched and scarred?
I fear regret. Because its something you cannot ever fix. You cannot turn back the clock to find your lost loves. Sometimes…they are lost forever. And all that’s left is a memory and a picture on the wall.