Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Inspiration/The Painting in the Attic

When my husband and I lived in Germany for several years, we had two memorable encounters with one of his great-great-aunts, the wife of a painter. Twenty years later those memories have become the inspiration for one of my stories.

The first encounter took place on a brilliant fall day in a nursing home where we had gone to visit Tante M. We entered a long, dreary institutional hallway with beige tiled walls and closed doors and knocked at the room belonging to Tante M. The door was flung open by a vibrant and colorfully dressed woman of indeterminate age. Her black hair was pulled back into an artful knot at the nape of her neck. She wore a yellow blazer and white slacks, Birkenstock sandals and long earrings that dangled from her earlobes. Chunky bracelets and a ring or two completed her accessories. It took me a few seconds to comprehend that this was the 90-year-old Tante whom we had come to visit.

She welcomed us effusively into her room, filled with sunlight and lined from floor to ceiling with paintings. Her bed had been transformed into a sofa, draped in a richly patterned throw and piled with embroidered pillows. An oriental rug hid the dun-colored terrazzo floor. Every surface was covered with sculpture and books.

We took Tante M. to lunch at an open-air cafĂ© and were transported by her vivacious conversation to the salons she used to hold in Berlin, entertaining potential clients whom she charmed into purchasing her husband’s paintings.

The second encounter was a year or so later. We were spending Christmas at my mother-in-law’s home in Bavaria and were rummaging in the attic for the tree decorations that had been stored there. Leaning in a corner, its face to the wall, was a cobwebbed painting. We turned it over and discovered a languorous nude. It didn’t take long to identify who she was—Tante M., muse, manager and, we now understood, model, painted when she was in her twenties. We cleaned up the painting and took it home, where it still hangs above our bed.

Tante M. has been an inspiration to me—not only in shaping the spirit of the heroine of the novel I am writing now, but also in giving me a perspective on defying expectations as I grow older.

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