When my father died, I learned the value of heritage. When I was assaulted, I learned I was so much more than my body. When my young friend took his own life, I learned forgiveness. When my unborn babies died, I learned a boundless capacity for love. And when my husband died, I learned that my life was blessed. Of course, I did not recognize any of these lessons until long after the experience had passed.
This is the story of one life lesson…
At midnight on my 45th birthday I was knee deep into a bottle of Ménage à Trois wine and fascinated with my birthday gifts – tubes of oil paint and soft sable brushes. I dipped one brush into my favorite color – Cadmium Red – and made one long curved brush stroke. Proud, I held up the canvas and said, “Look at how beautiful! What does it remind you of?”
Steve looked at the canvas for a long serious moment and said, “My extraordinary patience… and the audaciousness of you.”
“Huh… I’m not sure you and the word patience belong in the same sentence. But I’ll give you extraordinary,” I paused, slightly confused, “Also, when I asked the question, I was thinking of those red poppies in the pasture.”
“I know.” His face was partially hidden behind a book, but I saw the grin in his eyes, “Think back… that exact flavor of red, o’dark-thirty, twenty years ago…”
“Oh.” I poured another glass of wine.
We spent the rest of the night wrapped up in memories. Specifically, this one:
I had not seen or talked with Steve for three months, so at 4:00 in the morning when he woke me from a sound sleep to let me know he was home, I did exactly what was expected; I rolled over, stuck my hand under my pillow and mumbled, “Forty-five, finger on trigger… you feeling lucky tonight?”
He said, “That’s my girl.”
Years earlier, we agreed on this exchange just in case it was not him sitting on the edge of the bed. The truth is I always knew it was him. His presence changed the air. But once, just after we were married, he returned home in the middle of the night and met the wrong end of a shotgun at the bedroom door.
I do not like to be scared. He did not relish being shot. Fair is fair.
Correct verbal response received, I welcomed him home, got up and made coffee and in hushed tones told him about the moments I saved.
“Sheri took her first steps, Stephen discovered baseball and Lego’s, I jerry-rigged the bathtub faucet to work around the stuffed Lego piece I could not dislodge, I was hired to ghostwrite for a psychologist, and… an 18 year old Danish Au Pair is asleep in the guest bedroom.”
He held his coffee cup suspended midway between the counter and his mouth and asked, “What’s asleep in the guest bedroom?”
Before I could explain further, the 5 foot 11 inches, legs-up-to-her-ample-chest, blue-eyed-blonde Hella, sauntered into the family room wearing only a Cadmium red tank top and matching bikini underwear. She stopped in front of him, did a full model’s pivot, placed her hands on her hips and said, “I am Hella. You are Steve, yes?”
Steve glanced at her, swiveled on his stool, leaned across the bar until his face was inches from mine and whispered, “You are the finest woman in the universe. Now that you know that, I’m going to kill you, slowly. What the fuck?” Then he turned back around and without preamble said, “Go put some clothes on. Now!”
It was the beginning of a hate-hate relationship between the two of them that lasted just over two months.
I should mention here that Steve did not ever mince words, his normal voice was at a volume just under a roar, and he did not flirt with women if I was anywhere in the vicinity. He was both a gentleman and very good looking, so there was never any shortage of women trying to turn his head. But his head never turned because I am who I am and he was who he was. You can doubt that if you wish, but there truly are men and women who do not stray.
That said, I took a moment to absorb what I’d just witnessed: A young, beautiful woman had just presented herself to my husband as though I had moved her in solely for his pleasure. I gave the unsettling development half a thought and then dismissed the behavior as a cultural difference. I tend to be an optimist. Steve was a realist. I took a deep breath and explained why she was now in our home.
Hella had come to America two months earlier as part of an Au Pair program. I was told she wanted to increase her English skills, help with housework and provide child care in exchange for room and board. What wasn’t perfect about that? I needed someone to play with the kids while I was writing and we could not afford a babysitter. We could help her, she could help us. And okay, details were lacking as to why she did not get along with her first American family, but our neighbors – sponsors of many of these young ladies – asked for my help.
Steve’s sigh was room deep, “Babe… we need to talk about that “help” thing you have and… I do not think she’s here for the same reason you think she’s here.”
“Maybe not, but can we give it a try?”
He rubbed a hand over his face, gave me a weary smile and said, “Yes, we’ll give it a try.”
Steve told me once that coming home was often more adventurous than his day job. I took it as a compliment. In reality, it was a testament of his fortitude.
I’ll admit this now. I used to collect people. Other folks collect coffee mugs or teaspoons. Not me. I amassed people who asked for my help without weighing who they were, where they came from or what they wanted from me. In the beginning, Steve was charmed by this quirk, then exasperated, and finally, resigned. Out of necessity, he became my scoundrel detector and I counted on his keen ability to “sense” a person’s demeanor and motive in minutes. I had this gift too, but I leaned toward giving scoundrels a chance. When Steve intervened, they were sent on their way before I had time to protest.
This worked well when he was home. Not so much when he was away.
Hella’s stay with us became a battle of wits and wills. She did not like housework, enjoyed cooking even less and during her third week in our home, she lost Sheri. Granted, Sheri was a pistol, but to this day I am not sure how a baby wearing only diapers can open the front door, cross a busy street and manage to toddle four blocks from home without a caregiver noticing her absence. Apparently, Sheri wanted a cookie and was mercifully intercepted by a kind neighbor who had both a cookie and my number, which is how I found out she’d gone missing.
I relieved Hella that day from all duties having to do with our children and, much to Steve’s delight; I set about working with her sponsors to have her sent home. It would take four more weeks.
In all fairness, I still believe Hella was essentially a good girl, but terribly misled by two of her Au Pair peers. They advised her that American men tended to be weak and malleable. So, for girls who wanted to stay in America, but did not want to watch children, clean house or cook, the game plan was to win the man’s affections and thereby have all their wants and needs fulfilled. Wants and needs included an established man, a car to drive, money to shop and no rules and curfews.
When she finally broke down and admitted the game plan to both of us, Hella’s behavior made more sense, but I had to admit how badly I’d been duped.
Righteously, Steve only rubbed it in for the next twenty years.
It took me that long to learn how to balance my unrestrained capacity to see good in people with my own gift of discernment. And longer still, to notice that no matter how outrageous, traumatizing, unexpected, or agonizing, every experience we live through teaches us a lesson about ourselves or others.
How absolutely blessed I am to have been cherished by a man who knew my heart, endured my lessons and loved me still.
Lynnette Bukowski © 2013