Friday, June 17, 2011

Within a Painting, Within the Heart

Written in 2008 and submitted to a Guideposts competition.  It wasn't chosen, so I published it on facebook June 20, 2010.  Linking it, today, with my friend Anne.

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My dad, an intense and philosophical man of few words, told me once of a place where he goes, in his mind, when he needs to center himself. He, an avid hunter, imagines himself inside a painting that hung in his childhood home: a painting of a hunter, deer slung over his shoulder, walking in the moonlight toward a cabin that is lit from within. Dad explained that he values the anticipation of rest and warmth, and the satisfaction of a successful hunt.

I listened to his words and, behind them, the longing that leans against resignation. “Dad,” I asked, “where is the painting, now?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” he said with a sigh. “The painting didn’t belong to Mother and Dad. It belonged to Mother’s cousin, and it was returned to him at some point. I asked him about it at the last family reunion, and he doesn’t have it anymore.”

“Who painted it?” I asked.

Again, he answered, “I don’t know.”

I could sense that Dad was done talking for the time being, but I felt the flutter of angel wings in my heart. “God,” I prayed in my mind, “Please help me find the painting for my dad.” I'd longed to connect with Dad for years, but we live far away from one another, and Dad’s hearing loss makes phone conversations—which he'd disliked even when he could hear well—even more difficult.

I started searching online for the painting. I didn’t know, of course, the name of the artist, so I used search terms like “deer,” “hunter,” “moonlight,” and “cabin”: nothing. At ***, where I teach composition, I often create scavenger hunts through which I challenge my students to find, online, the answers to difficult questions. For several quarters, I incorporated into their scavenger hunts a question about the painting, but my students, too, found nothing.

Then, a couple of years into my search, I meandered into an antique mall on a lunch break. It's a large building, but I hadn’t wandered far into it before my eyes met what I thought sure was the painting, hanging on the wall in an ornate, golden frame. I felt a rush in my head and, in my heart, wings beating. I hurried to the counter and informed the cashier of my interest in a painting in the adjoining room. She walked with me to the painting while I stammered that I thought sure it was something for which my dad had been looking for a very long time. She glanced at the price tag and said, “This item can’t be returned. Maybe you should call your dad before you buy it.”

“No,” I said. “I want it to be a surprise. I’ll take the chance.”

That Thanksgiving, my dad and brother hunted deer in northern Pennsylvania, but my mom and sister-in-law spent the holiday with me. My mom’s parents had been close family friends with my dad’s parents, and my mom had spent a significant amount of time in my dad’s childhood home, so I was excited for her to see the painting. She studied it, shook her head, and murmured, quietly, “This isn’t what I remember.” Then, seeing the disappointment on my face, she exclaimed, “But your dad’s going to love it, and it’s going to mean so much to him that you bought it!”

At Christmastime, I wrapped the painting in a quilt and took it with me to my parents’ house in East Tennessee. The time finally came to exchange gifts, and I told Dad, “I know this isn’t the right one, but I tried to find it for you.” As I helped him remove the quilt, I watched his expression change from one of confusion to one of disbelief.

Studying the painting, Dad asked, “How in the world did you ever find it?” The painting was, after all, an exact replica of the one that hung in Dad’s childhood home! He remains amazed that I could recognize this thing of his heart—a thing I had never seen—through his spoken words.

I know God led me to the painting. My presentation of it caused a shift in my relationship with Dad; I don’t know that, until that moment, he believed that I care about what matters to him. But, shortly after that Christmas, he asked me for the first time to hunt with him, and we have found other opportunities to connect, as well. Every time I see the painting hanging in my parents’ home, I am reminded: my Heavenly Father honors the desires of His children’s hearts, values earthly relationships, and performs—in intricate, wondrous ways—everyday miracles.

Photo Taken a Decade or So Ago, by Harriet Stone

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