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  • by Janet St. John

Art & Soul Short #31

This Art & Soul Short is being presented in two installments. Please check back on September 15th for Part 2!

Museum Piece (Part 1)

The sash was an extravagance. Blood red and gold-coin silk, finely woven by hand, with trailing tassels like the train on a princess’s wedding gown, or like the long hennaed locks of a bride to be. Lana didn’t understand why a widow would purchase a wedding sash or place it in a corner of her bedroom, dangling from a thin bamboo hanger. Aunt Julie (whom she never called aunt and everyone called Jules) had told her the hanger was meant for a brilliant blue-orange-white print piece of Japanese kimono fabric. But Jules buried it with her dead husband twelve years ago.

Lana had visited Jules a lot in the past two years, taking her for groceries and to doctor appointments. Lana lived just two miles away, and while everyone said she “was a saint” to do so much for Jules, she secretly enjoyed the chance to get away from her own laundry and shopping and cooking and appointments. Jules fought the ovarian cancer until she didn’t want to anymore. She told Lana she had only gone through treatment for everyone else’s sake. She didn’t believe in chemo or drugs or doctors. But her sisters had begged her to try follow the doctors' recommendations. Lana’s mother had pleaded, “Don’t you want to live?”

Hadn’t Jules lived? Sure, she didn’t have children. But she had had a successful marketing career, a long marriage, and all kinds of adventures, especially after Uncle Max passed. Jules had taken four or five trips a year then, including her last solo trek to Morocco, before the digestive issues and weight loss, before reaching the bucket-bottom of her typically bottomless energy. Lana didn’t understand what provoked Jules to drink tea for two hours and bargain for a wedding sash in a Marrakech souk,. She didn't understand why Jules bequeathed it to her, nineteen years married to the same man with now bound-for-college twins.

Lana stood around the large hand-carved wood table in Jules’ dining room with her mother, second aunt, and cousins, sorting, packing, labeling items and boxes. That was the table upon which Jules once placed pottery tagines filled with stews of chicken, apricots, and rosemary, and olives and preserved lemons, and laid out her “pasta parties” with pans of lasagnas and bowls of colorful fragrant vegetables and meats and different shaped noodles. Her aunt had thrown many parties, and Lana took the chance to attend as many as she could, especially when her husband Scott wanted to watch or be at some sporting event, or when he was working late.

The table had seated professors, musicians, writers, artists, even a marine biologist. Jules had had so many fascinating friends. Lana stayed quiet and sipped wine at the table during her parties, just listening to all the stories, political debates, and discussions of art and cultures she couldn’t even imagine. Her life was modest by comparison. But then her dreams were never that big. Go to college. Get married. Have kids. Lately, she thought it might be fun to start a small food business. She was an excellent baker. Though she didn’t eat many sweets, she enjoyed baking and decorating them for others. Hearing sighs and ohs when she presented an eight-layered chocolate torte topped with a crown of sugar-glazed hazelnuts or a tray of cupcakes with frosting colors she hand mixed and swirled to look like the Milky Way just to accompany a children’s cosmic-themed party. Maybe she would travel with Scott instead, when he retired, though he never talked about retirement.

Sorting. Wrapping. Packing. Lana considered how she and her aunts and cousins were essentially dismantling Jule’s life, one day after an ocean-side ceremony to scatter her ashes. They would be done in a few weekends. Her realtor cousin Tom would put the house on the market. Charities would take the last staging items after it sold. Life would go on, but not for Jules.

Lana wondered how her life would progress. Her twin daughters, thin and beautiful like she was at their age, would be living on a college campus ten states east. Lana would have laundry and meals for just two, sometimes one when Scott was still working or out with the boys. Without Jules to care for, without the girls, she wouldn’t have excuses to slip away from her home and life. She would soon be the beautiful bird with the nest emptied of babies. She hated that metaphor for what was a natural life transition. What happened. What you had to deal with. Like death.

Maybe Lana would fire the cleaning crew that weekly swept, dusted, vacuumed, and scrubbed her 3000-square foot home. But getting on her hands and knees to suck up Nestle the Labrador’s dog fur from under the family room couch or climb tall ladders to dust the cathedral ceilings’ beams and corners or scrub three bathroom toilets wasn’t a way to spend time. Though people did it. The people she had employed for six years. People with big dreams, maybe dreaming of a life like Lana’s. A life, in truth, she had grown bored with, even come to despise, or at least question.

"Museum Piece" (Part 2) will post next Friday. Stay tuned!

Photo credit: Wedding Sash. Late 19th–early 20th century. Morocco. Silk. Woven. Textile without fringe: H. 107 in. (271.8 cm) W. 12 1/4 in. (31.1 cm) Fringe: H. 23 in. (58.4 cm) Credit Line: Louis E. and Theresa S. Seley Purchase Fund for Islamic Art, 2008. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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