Christine pulled her car into the parking lot of the botanical gardens and parked under a tree. She looked up through the windshield at the tree she had chosen and it looked for all the world like someone had painstakingly painted every leaf a different color. There were shades of yellow from gold to maize to amber and everything in between and more shades of red than she could count. She spotted some stubborn green leaves and even some small tendrils closer to the trunk and they made her smile. She loved this time of year more than any other.
She popped her I Pod ear buds into her ears and tuned to her favorite folder. The first song to come on was “Feeling Groovy” by Simon and Garfunkel. “Slow down you move to fast, you’ve got to make the morning last …” she sang softly to herself as she climbed out of her car grabbed her messenger bag and hiked across the short span of parking lot to the entrance to the gardens.
This was one of her favorite places in the world to sit and sketch. She never ran out of material and no one ever bothered her. She had her camera in her bag too just in case she happened to see something worth shooting but drawing, even though she was mediocre, was the passion of the day. Much of her drawing time was admittedly spent in deep thought and introspection as well as some good old fashioned people watching and possibly even some plain old eavesdropping as well. She particularly enjoyed spying on families and children.
Children were funny. They either very much enjoyed their visit or they hated it. Christine’s favorites were the ones who wanted so much to please their parent or grandparent that they would wax poetic about everything they saw from a new rose in bloom to the dew on a leaf to a gum wrapper floating across a puddle. Well they were trying and that’s what counted.
To her the botanical garden was a refuge in the midst of a busy city where everyone was in a hurry and had too much to do. She didn’t get out here as much as she’d like to but then if she did come out here more maybe it wouldn’t feel so special when she did. When she could make time Christine would find a quiet spot, sitting down and pulling her sketchpad and bag of pencils from her bag. Two or three different shades of pencil would be tucked into her hair and she would start lightly sketching whatever it was she had spotted that day. Her passion was sculpture, mostly because she loved the line of a hand or a foot or a body as it arced in a graceful way whether the subject was diving or dancing or simply standing still. She didn’t want to sculpt; she wanted to draw what other people sculpted. She would flesh out the drawing lightly with large strokes and then use heavier strokes to put in the detail, the depth etc. She would sit with her I Pod on and become immersed in a world where it was the music, the subject of her drawing and her pad and pencils. Escape from the dreariness of an accounting job, this was just the ticket.
One thing she did not like was when people came and sat next to her while she was drawing. She wasn’t very good at it and was self conscious when people wanted to see. It made her drawings worse and they were just for her, not for public consumption. That was why when the older man came to sit next to her on this particular day she sighed quietly and prepared to pack her items to leave. She glanced up at her new bench-mate just as he said something to her so she pulled one ear plug out and asked him politely to repeat himself. He said “I hope you’re not leaving on my account.” Well, Christine was not a mean spirited or rude woman so of course she said “No, it is time for me to move on” as she stood to leave.
He looked at her for a moment with rheumy doubtful eyes and then authoritatively patted the bench where she had been sitting with a challenging smile. Christine smiled too and sat on the bench next to the older gentleman. He promptly introduced himself as Frank and extended his wiry, wrinkled hand for a handshake. She grasped his hand gingerly in hers and was surprised at the strength and sincerity of his grip. She told him her name was Christine and asked if he was a regular attendee at the gardens.
Frank’s eyes lit up and he gave her an even bigger smile at her question and Christine could see that he had dentures like her grandfather had. When he smiled his yellowish white smile she felt nostalgic for her Papa and the smell of his pipe. Papa had been gone a long time but she still thought of him fondly often. After a moment of consideration Frank answered her question. She would come to find out that this was a trait of Frank’s, carefully considering an answer before giving it. He claimed later that this habit of his drove his children crazy but he couldn’t seem to bring himself to change after so long.
He answered Christine’s question with an affirmative and then asked why he had never seen her there before today as she seemed so comfortable she must be a “regular”. Christine worked a lot so she only came to the gardens on weekends. She had taken some vacation time so she was here in the middle of the week. She explained all of this to her new friend Frank who seemed delighted at his good fortune at meeting someone new.
“I love it here Christine, I have been a regular attendee of these gardens since I came back from the service in 1964. My sweetheart and I would come here to walk the paths and steal a few seconds of alone time amongst the trees and vines.” “How sweet!” Christine exclaimed with heartfelt emotion “and what ever happened with your sweetheart Frank?” “Oh I married her he said with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes and a wicked grin, “I had to or her father would have shot me!” Christine who at that very moment had tried to take a swig of her water bottle nearly spit it across the cobbled walkway upon hearing this sweet little old man say this. She wasn’t sure how to respond so she just laughed along with him for a moment and promptly changed the subject.
“What is your favorite season Frank? Mine is autumn, right now when the leaves are almost all changed and there is a crispness in the air.” Frank’s favorite season was spring because he loved to watch the shoots of new growth coming out everywhere and hear the chirp of birds as they took up residence after a long absence. He fancied himself an amateur bird watcher and they spent a few pleasant moments while he pointed out different species to her as they sat among the plants and sculptures in the shady spot they had both chosen. Christine described her perfect afternoon for him “It’s fall and it’s about sixty degrees and I’m walking through the woods. In the trees above me I can hear the squirrels gathering their winter stores and chittering at me to keep me away from them. Under my feet there is a cushion of leaves that crunch as I walk and once in a while I take my booted foot and kick them in the air to watch them float around me in an array of bright colors. I know that things are dying but they’re beautiful, stunning in their colorful demise!” she exclaimed heartily. “The air is crisp and clean and if I take a deep breath through my nose it is almost painful. I can smell just a little bit of wood burning as if someone has lit their fireplace for the first time this season. There are still birds flying around and as I watch, more leaves come floating down from a large multicolored tree above me. I feel moisture on my face from the dew dripping from the trees and the ground is spongy under the crunchy leaves. This would be my perfect day.”
After they’d talked on a few subjects for a while Frank asked her to take out her pad and continue sketching. She was a bit self conscious but did it anyway. They sat in companionable silence for some time her sketching and him humming softly to himself and watching the birds and trees. Occasionally she would stop and take a drink of water and study the piece in front of her. Frank never infringed upon her concentration or asked if he could see what she was drawing. Eventually her eyes grew tired and her hand grew numb so she set down her materials and turned to face Frank, one knee bent and lying between them on the bench.
“Where is your wife now Frank if you don’t mind my asking? Does she know that you come here to flirt with innocent women?” Frank chuckled for a moment and startled a loud guffaw out of her when he mumbled “Busted” while staring at the ground in front of him intently. She had never heard an older person use that phrase before, what a neat person this old guy was turning out to be.
He immediately reverted to the stately older gentleman she had expected to see and said quietly and with old world charm “My wife has been gone from this earth for five years but I come here to see her every week. I don’t mourn her because I will never lose her as long as I can feel her and see her here in this beautiful place.” Christine was touched and a little misty eyed by the love she heard behind the words. She hoped someday that someone would feel that way about her and she told Frank as much.
He asked her if she wouldn’t mind letting him see what she had drawn so far of the sculpture in front of them. She was reluctant but did so all the same with a mock look of dread and self deprecating disclaimers about her lack of ability. As soon as he took her sketchpad from her his face transformed. He became more alert somehow and focused and almost excited. Christine really didn’t know what to make of it so she pretended as if she didn’t notice. She looked down into her messenger bag and suddenly felt a pencil being pulled from behind her left ear. Well she was flummoxed! She looked up with a look of horror wondering if possibly Frank was mentally incompetent and had escaped from his keepers as she watched him using that same pencil to draw swift, crisp, confident lines on her paper. Her paper! “Well of all the nerve!” she exclaimed to herself as she leaned back arms akimbo with a look of disapproval on her face for all the world to see, not that Frank would have noticed mind you as he was in his own world annihilating what she had just spent a good two hours working on.
Finally he seemed to notice that Christine was staring daggers at the side of his head so he relented and lowered the sketchpad. He moved his hand so she could see and took her through the changes he had made. As she looked at his handiwork she realized that he hadn’t ruined her sketch at all but had actually corrected it. She was looking at her sketch but with more depth and better lines and proper shadowing. With just a few strokes he had fixed what she had been missing. He took her through it slowly, explaining his changes and giving her encouragement for what she had accomplished on her own. He told her that he and his wife had been art teachers for a very long time before they had retired and before she became ill. He didn’t seem sad at all, just retrospective and a little tired as he told her about the children they had taught over the years. Christine saw him with different eyes now and, yes, he did seem like a teacher after all.
Frank pulled out a small old fashioned pocket watch and reluctantly said he had to leave for another engagement. He stood up from the bench slowly and stared at the piece that they had been drawing and discussing together. He smiled a slow sweet secretive smile and said “Take care Janie, see you next time” as though speaking to the sculpture. Suddenly it dawned upon Christine what Frank had meant when he said that he came here to see his wife. She darted from the bench with an accusing look at her grinning new friend and hustled to the small bronze plaque permanently placed in the cobblestone walkway below the sculpture of a nude woman dancing with a ribbon held above her unashamed head. Sure enough it read “Artist: Frank Michaels” as big as life. She shook her head and turned to see him walking away slowly and she could hear his hearty laugh as he waved over his shoulder without turning around. “See you next time Christine!” She had just spent the last hour or so sitting next to the artist who had sculpted the piece she was sketching! What an unbelievable turn of events. What a perfectly wonderful experience. She was truly humbled by his obvious talent and interest in her drawing skills.
He had asked her if he could help her more and they had arranged another date to meet. Christine and Frank became teacher and student that day but more importantly they became friends. They cherished their time and friendship together for some years until Frank was unable to make the trip any longer. Christine never became the artist that Frank was but she enjoyed the lessons a great deal and learned everything he was willing to teach.
Now when she sees a piece of art it’s not just a sculpture, it’s a piece of someone’s life or a look into their soul. She had always loved sculpture for the lines and the shadows and the fact that they stood still while she tried to draw them but now for the first time she saw past the art to the artist. What a beautiful world we live in and what beauty we can create. Thank god for artists.