Wagon Boss

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It hangs on my living room wall because I am the only one in the family who couldn’t say no.  It hangs there and it mocks me, and I hate it.

“It” is a Charles Russell painting.  Or to be more accurate, among my family members it is the Charles Russell original.

According to family legend, it was my Grandmother’s prized possession.  I don’t remember Grandma Hyde, but I remember the stories of that painting.  How Grandma fell in love with it on a visit to the Charles Russell Museum, how the family all chipped in together to “invest” in it for her, how it would someday be a great inheritance for my sisters and me.  Every time we heard the story again, we nodded and promised to cherish it forever.

We gave our word.

Later, our inheritance was expanded to include figurines from Gorham, Grossman and others.  The aunts’ house became crowded with curio cabinets stuffed to overflowing with Norman Rockwells, Hummels, Lladros, Andreas, and Swarovskis.  Chubby pink-cheeked children in lederhosen peered out from behind graceful nuns in soft pastels; a cheerful cardinal sat on a porcelain tree branch beside a scene of small-town Americana.

There are Hallmark stores with fewer figurines than my aunts had in their home.  Aunt Marian also dabbled in Precious Moments, Fannie-kins, Snowbabies, and Royal Doultons.   She hung collectable plates from the Danbury Mint and Bradford Exchange and spoke of every new addition in a hushed voice, reminding us that these treasures would all be ours someday.

Someday came, and my sisters and I were left with a collection of useless tshotskes for which there is no resale market.

I sold some on Ebay. Traded some on Listia.  We set up a display in the back of the church at Aunt Marian’s memorial service and invited her friends to take one with them to help remember her.  And still, I have hundreds of figurines boxed up in the back of my closets.  Thousands of dollars’ worth of useless figurines that mean nothing to me.

And then there’s the painting.

It’s called “The Wagon Boss.”  My sister and her husband put on white gloves, wrapped it in a sheet, and took it to an expert to find out just how much it is worth, only to discover that the cherished Charles Russell “original” is a poster.  A beautiful poster, carefully mounted and framed, but a poster.

The fifty year-old frame has more value as an antique.

And there it hangs.

On my living room wall.

I hate it.

It is dark and dreary and it makes me sad.  I don’t want it, but I can’t seem to let it go.  When I think of dropping it off at the GoodWill, my heart aches. I get teary-eyed at the thought of it ending up in a Dumpster somewhere.  It has value.  It must have value to someone, somewhere.

I can’t just let go of something that I promised to love forever . . . can I?

I gave my word.

A promise is supposed to be forever.  I made a promise, gave my word, made a vow.  Going back on my word means I was wrong.  Gullible.  That I was fooled into seeing value in something utterly worthless. That I believed in a lie told by someone I shouldn’t have trusted.

Kind of like when I said my wedding vows.

I am fool.  A gullible, divorced fool surrounded by boxes of Norman Rockwell figurines and a dusty old Charles Russell poster, and nothing else.

A Mouse Tale

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Is there a painting or sculpture you’re drawn to?  What does it say to you?  Describe the experience.

There is a Lladro figurine named “Tuesday’s Child” that has spoken to me for years.  Since eleventh grade, in fact.

My aunts always collected figurines.  Hummels, Precious Moments, Royal Doultons, Andreas, and Norman Rockwells.  Especially Norman Rockwells. I couldn’t help but learn to recognize an artist’s work at a glance, although none of their figurines really struck me as being anything special.

Then I discovered Lladros.  Tall, with long flowing lines and graceful shapes, always in pastels and with a gentle simplicity that exudes a feeling a peace.  They are beautiful and delicate and they touch my soul in a way that no other piece of art has ever done.

The first one I saw, the one that drew me to the collection, was called “Tuesday’s Child”, and I saw it in the display case at a jewelry store at the mall.

As usual with me, there is a story.

I had a friend back then whose nickname was Mouse.  Mouse was a ballet dancer.  She was also what my aunts referred to as “a Toughie” because of a very rough start in life.  She looked so tiny and innocent, but she could swear like a sailor and she was certainly no stranger to drugs and alcohol at a young age.  She wore her hair spiked and multi-colored, totally embracing the fashion trends of the eighties.

We drifted apart in high school.  I’m ashamed to admit that I got wrapped up in the almost-almost-popular crowd, and Mouse had just gotten a little too offbeat for me.  She and her best friend talked tough and looked rougher, and she made out with her boyfriend in the hallways with so much gusto that some of us dubbed them “Kinko and Slinko.”

I heard that she gave up dancing, which was a shame, because I remember being moved to tears when she danced to her own choreography to “Anatevka” from Fiddler on the Roof.  She moved on the stage like some kind of mythical creature, something beyond human, something that defied gravity.  She took my breath away.

The last time I saw her, she was with her best friend at a festival in South Haven.  They were dressed like biker chicks, and Mouse regaled me with a tale of a recent fight that had left her with a fat lip.  I couldn’t get away from her fast enough.

She was only fifteen when she died a few weeks later in a fall at a party.  Rumors flew about drugs and alcohol and stupidity of the other partygoers who were too fried to call for help.  I never knew which parts of the stories were true or false, but I knew that Mouse was gone and that I had not been a good friend to her.

It was the first time we had lost a peer, and the reminder of our own mortality hit us all hard.  People who had snubbed her and mocked her suddenly portrayed themselves as her best friend, weeping dramatically in the halls.  Parents and teachers pounced on her death as a cautionary tale against drinking, and some of us were just quietly lost.

Then I saw “Tuesday’s Child” at the mall.  She was a delicate little ballerina, bent gracefully over to lace her pointe shoes.  There was something about the pose, and in the part-serious, part-amused expression on her face that just spoke to me of Mouse.  Looking at the beauty of that tiny figurine, I was reminded of Mouse’s grace and beauty in life, and I stopped focusing on the ugliness of her death; I could finally start forgiving myself for failing our friendship.

“Tuesday’s Child” helped me say goodbye to Mouse.

Of course, I have never been able to afford that specific figurine since it has long since been “retired”.   But I have managed to collect three genuine Lladros and a small handful of knockoffs made by NAO.  Someday . . . someday, I hope to own “Tuesday’s Child” but until then, I have my memories of a girl named Mouse.

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