Inspired by Jan Comstock’s painting, “The Dreamer.”
Popcorn kernels are strewn about the carpet, as well as Isabella’s clothes – indigo jeans, a gray sweater with a turquoise peace symbol. She sits on the air mattress in her pure white pajamas, her legs straight in her ladybug sleeping bag as she leans against the small bookcase stuffed with thick novels – The Kite Runner, Middlesex, White Teeth, One Day – nothing for a restless six-year-old. I skim my DVD collection for something to distract her while I call Tessa – Dirty Dancing, Sixteen Candles, The Boondock Saints. Nothing appropriate. I settle on Amélie.
“This is a fun movie,” I reassure my niece, patting her golden hair. “It’s set in Paris. Ooh la la!” She smiles a confused, mildly entertained smile and turns her gaze to my 10-inch television. “Where’s Paris?”
“In France,” I say, shutting myself in the bathroom, switching on the buzzing florescent light. The ring on the other line quickens and thickens the dread pulsing in my veins since my sister and Isabella stood at my doorway just hours ago.
Wearing an unzipped coat and untied boots, Tessa’s eyes darted frantically from me to Isabella to their maroon mini-van where Luke sat with a cellphone to his ear. “I tried to call, but we just need you to hang out with Bell,” said Tessa, “just tonight, maybe tomorrow night.”
“What’s going on?” I wrapped my arms across my chest, blew out the icy air.
Tessa merely nodded her head toward Bella, who was smiling up at me. “Guess what Auntie Laura?”
“I can count to 200 now and say the alphabet backwards.”
Tessa handed me Isabella’s pink ballerina bag. She pulled her wool cap lower over her black curls like she wanted to hide, to disappear. “I love you,” she kissed my cheek. “I love you,” she kissed her daughter’s. “Your dad loves you too.”
Isabella sat on the linoleum floor while I tugged off her boots and mittens. “What’s going on, Bell?”
“Uh-oh. Well, sometimes dads cry.”
“Hello? Laura?” I can hear my sister’s voice, weak and shaky.
“What’s going on?”
“Burt’s dead,” she spit out. My reflection in the bathroom mirror – my freckles, the creases furrowed on my forehead – blur as tears cloud over my eyes, “What? What happened? How?”
“A heart attack. Myocardial infarction, they said,” she says bitterly.
“Oh my, god. Oh my, god,” I sit on the toilet lid. “How’s Luke?”
“He’s…I don’t know…he’s in the room with Burt and the doctor,” she cries. “I don’t know. Now he’s lost both his parents. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know.”
“I’m so sorry,” I whimper. Burt. Luke’s dad. Isabella’s other grandpa.
He just attended Isabella’s ballet recital last week, smelling of cigars and beef jerky. The heel of his cowboy boots squeaked against the waxed floor of the gymnasium as he set his heavy frame on the metal folding chair.
While we waited for the miniature dancers to shuffle and plié on stage, he asked me the same question he always asks, “You still work at that hippie food store?”
“Yes, Burt,” I smiled.
“Still not eating cows? I’m gonna get you to eat some cow one of these days, even if I gotta trick you,” he laughed loud.
“Still not eating cows,” I say, laughing, twirling a length of my golden hair around my finger.
“Let it go, dad,” said Luke, unbuttoning his tweed coat. “It’s not going to happen.” He digs in Tessa’s purse, pulls out a tube of pomegranate-flavored ChapStick and applies it to his thin lips.
“You hippie dippies, artsy fartsies. You’re not gonna turn my Bella ballerina into a hippie, are you?” Burt winked at Tessa, pulling on the jade stone of her necklace. I skimmed the pink program for Isabella’s name, mildly annoyed. Luke laughed.
I pull on the roll of toilet paper and wipe a wad under my eyes. Why was I annoyed? He was a nice guy. Isabella loved him, wrapping her skinny arms around his tight leather belt after the recital. “Did you see me, grandpa?”
“Bella ballerina,” he gripped the bun on the top of her head. “You’re a natural.”
Tap. Tap. Tap. “Auntie Laura, I don’t know what they are saying,” comes Isabella’s high voice. “And I saw boobies.”
“Oh, jeez. I forgot about that,” I shout, louder than necessary. “I’m coming, sweetie,” I say softer.
“Is that Bell? How’s Bell?” Tessa asks.
“You want to talk to her? You want to tell her?”
“No. Oh, no. I don’t want to tell her. I don’t know what to do. Laura, can you tell her?”
“I don’t think I should tell her.”
“I don’t want her to hear me like this.”
“Auntie Laura! I saw more boobies!”
I switch off the television and decide I will tell her in the morning.
“It’s time for bed, Bell,” I say, forcing a smile.
My stomach aches as I slip my bare feet under the duvet. I exhale, pull off my rings and set them near a framed photo on my nightstand – Tessa in her ivory wedding dress, me in that gorgeous emerald green dress she let me choose. We are gripping our hems, revealing lacy garter belts around our sun-kissed thighs, the laughter almost visibly spilling from our open mouths. “Please tell her,” pleaded my sister.
“Auntie Laura. Auntie Laura,” a whisper comes from the door.
“Oh god, Bell. I didn’t hear you.” I cough, clear the congestion from the back of my throat and rub the sleep from my eyes. The moonlight fills my little chilled room, reflects off the pale cheeks of my niece.
I might confuse her for a ghost if not for the familiar crystal blue eyes, just like Tessa’s, thin lips like Luke’s. Faces I’ve known since middle school, falling into Tessa’s blue beanbag chair, listening to The Cranberries or Alanis Morissette while wisps of incense floated above our heads. Luke drew graffiti-like sketches in his art book, his blonde shoulder-length hair falling in front of his face. “You look like the Hanson brothers,” I would tease. Tessa would laugh, looking up from her calculator and open textbooks.
I see them now, red-eyed and sipping cheap coffee, maybe signing forms, calling a funeral director. How do these things work?
What I remember of death is the transfer from one house to another when grandma and grandpa “passed away” in a car accident. Tessa was eight, I was four – we stayed at Pastor White’s house for the afternoon and Aunt Susan’s for the night. We dressed Barbies, played Trouble, and munched on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, knowing something wasn’t right. Something was changing.
“Can I sleep with you?” Isabella asks.
“Of course, sweetie,” I lift the duvet and white sheets. A chill sweeps in against my bare legs. “Hurry, hurry,” I whisper. “Brrr, brrr, brrr.”
She giggles and scoots her bottom snug against my stomach, her back tight against my chest. Her golden hair fans over my neck, mingling with mine.
“Sweet dreams, Bell.”
I close my eyes and remember the weight of Isabella against my chest when she was just months old. Tessa and Luke drank beer from a friend’s microbrewery, chomped on carrots and hummus, cheering for Brett Favre while I rested one hand over my niece’s tiny spine, the other on the bulge of her diaper. Her weight warm and full against my chest, my eyelids heavy with peace, I decided I would be the best aunt ever, nothing would hurt my Bell.
I don’t even own one children’s book, one animated film, not even fun and colorful bed sheets. I’m supposed to tell her Grandpa Burt is no more, just a memory that will grow hazier with time.
“What was wrong with mommy?” Isabella asks.
“Why didn’t she say goodnight?”
“She’s having a tough night.”
“And dad, too.”
“Yeah,” my throat aches holding back the truth. I sit up and exhale, the covers loosening over Isabella. She stretches an arm across the mattress like she’s reaching for something, but her blues eyes gaze ahead vacant, serious.
“You look like an angel in all this white,” I say. “Do you believe in angels?”
“Angels watch over you when you sleep and tickle your toes,” she says with conviction, looking ahead, exposed, still.
“Grandpa Burt’s an angel now,” a hot tear slips from my eye, pools at my chin and splashes on Isabella.
“The Dreamer” by Jan Comstock
Writer Sally Slattery found herself captivated by “The Dreamer” when the painting was on exhibit at The Miller Art Museum in the fall of 2010, an experience she wrote about in the Peninsula Pulse.
There she was, this young girl in folds of white, radiating innocence while her expression held the seriousness of deep thought – a melancholy, in fact, which is not often associated with children.
Her seriousness is almost uncomfortable to me, who usually thinks of children in polarizing extremes – either bursting with happiness and smiles or crumbling apart with exhaustion or tears. This child rises above those clichés in a lovely, haunting way. Without artistic training, or even a psychology degree, I can only guess that my intrigue with the painting comes from particular emotions and memories the piece provokes in myself.
I can, on one hand, place myself in the image and recall the swirling confusion and disappointment childhood involves; on the other hand, I want to understand exactly what she is thinking and make it ‘all better,’ as the saying goes.
The image stayed with Slattery and inspired the short story “Telling Isabella” three years later.
“In my paintings, I strive to capture a mood or emotion,” writes Door County artist Jan Comstock. “I want to pull the viewer into the painting and have them react based on their own life experiences. It is always thought provoking to hear how different those reactions can be.”
For more information about Comstock and her work, visit jancomstock.com.