A Painted Memory

Mornings in the lonely field, and I 
Would love the way you taught me to: 
Matching up my wobbly strength against 
What clime and time and space can do -- 

Gathering a bit of air inside 
The lungs that knew the breath of you -- 
Traveling the lonely field, and lost 
In what you didn't make it 


I am six years old, and we are entering a restaurant that looks like an unpainted barn. It is even newer than I am.

The ceiling is high and sloped, and all along the walls are gigantic paintings, all beautifully painted, of horses, cowboys, and buffalo. One of them is a painting of a cowboy lighting a cigarette next to a horse in a stable on a winter night. Light from the the match is shining on their faces.

We lived in Florida, so, I had never seen snow. It was another six years before my first glimpse of it for real. I had seen horses, but never very closely; my older sister took lessons. I could immediately “feel” that painting: I felt the cold, smelled the match, smelled the horse. I still remember.

The restaurant itself had a line we moved through: we picked up drinks and salads on trays, and ordered the rest of the food that was later to be brought out to us. The place was called the “Ponderosa Steak Barn”, and was unrelated to the restaurant chain that came out a few years later with a similar name.

We ate at the restaurant countless times when I was growing up; it eventually closed. Years later, as an adult, I was back in that town working, and the building had been converted to a Chinese Palace theme. Several of us from work went to eat there for lunch. I went back to use the restroom, and in the back hall were all the old paintings — including that one.

Leaned up against a wall, in a poorly lit hallway, were paintings almost as tall as I was — twelve of them. And there was that cowboy, and that horse, and that match lighting his cigarette. And for that brief second, I felt the cold, and remembered what it was like to step into a new restaurant with my family at six years old.

It was kind of like stepping back into a different world, and even more like stepping back into a different me. Six year old me appreciated art — and food — like I never quite have, since.

My mom used to say, “you never feel things as keenly as you did when you were young.” As a kid I head this, and thought nothing. As a teen and twenty-something, I interpreted it to mean she was now numb from life. Over time, it came more and more to be an observation about the nature of things: neither sad, nor hopeful, just… factual.

There was a second winter painting of the twelve in total (the rest were warm weather paintings) that I saw all those years later in that hallway: it was of a deer standing by a tree in the snow. The photo, above, was the closest thing I could find to it online; the original painting had mountains in the background, and the edge of a nearby forest. It was, my dad remarked, one of only two of the paintings to not have a human being in it.

I thought my dad was wrong, because, clearly, WE were in it, or we couldn’t have seen it, right?

Isn’t that how empathy works?

(Nano Poblano. It stretches us to the very limits of our limit-hood, but has been worth it nonetheless.)

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