Picture A Happy Life
Cathy sat on her parent’s large four poster bed, cuddled up in the pile of feather pillows stacked against the headboard. She held a framed picture of her parents and studied their laughing faces. Her father’s eyes were shut and his wide smile showed many of his teeth. Her mother’s face wasn’t actually visible. She was leaning forward as if she was about to throw her head back in a full belly laugh. Cathy had no idea why they were laughing in the picture, but she couldn’t help smiling whenever she looked at it.
It was nothing like the beautiful picture of her mother that sat in a place of honor on her father’s office desk, or even the handsome 8” by 10” headshot of her father that was across the room on her mother’s dresser. It wasn’t even a professional photograph, the kind that usually graced such an expensive and ornate frame. It was only an enlarged copy of a cheap photo booth picture that was taken when her parents had spent a day on Coney Island, before she was even born.
Cathy already knew why it was there. She had asked her mother about it many times before, but she never tired of hearing her mother’s answer.
“Mom, why do you keep this funny picture on your nightstand?”
Caroline Chandler climbed onto the bed, scooted next to her daughter and reached for the photograph. She didn’t mind answering her daughter’s question once again. She wanted Cathy to know what true happiness looked like, what true love looked like … even after she was gone. And she wanted to cherish every moment they had left.
Cathy watched as her mother gently stroked the image of her father’s laughing face, then turned the frame toward her daughter.
“This is my very favorite picture of Charles. You see Daddy’s face, Sweetheart?”
Cathy examined her father’s face. “Yes.”
“What do you see?”
“He’s laughing … you’re both laughing.”
“Mmm, hmmm,” her mother said. “We were so happy that day. We got into that photo booth and tried to strike a glamourous pose, like we were movie stars.” She chuckled again at the memory. “Daddy whispered something in my ear, and it made me laugh. Then we made each other laugh so hard that we couldn’t stop.”
“Why? What was so funny, Mom?”
Mother shook her head. “You know, I can’t even remember anymore.” She sighed and stroked the picture again. “All I remember is thinking at the moment the picture was taken, that I’d never imagined it was even possible for a person to be that happy or to feel so loved.”
She stroked her husband’s face again and her smile faded a little. Turning to her daughter she said, “I never wanted to forget that feeling. I kept the strip of pictures from the photo booth on my nightstand so that I could look at them every day and remember. They made me smile. Daddy couldn’t understand why I liked them so much. He didn’t. He said my face wasn’t showing and he looked silly. He didn’t think they were good pictures at all.”
“Then what happened, Mom?”
“One day, when I reached for them, they were gone. I was frantic. I looked under the bed and all around the room. When I couldn’t find them, I was heartbroken. Anyone would think I’d lost the Hope Diamond or something. To me … those pictures were worth more than any old diamonds. Daddy promised we could go back to Coney Island and take them over again.”
Caroline shook her head and sighed. “But I knew we would never be able to recapture that moment, no matter how many pictures we took. They would never be exactly the same.
“About a month later, Daddy took me out to dinner for my birthday. When he gave me my birthday present I opened the box and it was this picture frame, but it was face down in the box. He said, ‘It’s picture of me … for your nightstand to replace the ones you lost.’
“Oh, I tried to look happy. I appreciated that he wanted to make me feel better by giving me a new picture, but I knew there would never be any better than the ones I’d lost.”
“But then you turned it over? Right?” Cathy couldn’t wait for the end. It was her favorite part.
“Yes, that’s right,” Caroline said, pulling her daughter into her arms. “I turned it over and this is what it was.” She smiled again and laughed at the memory. “He had thought to move my nightstand and found the strip of pictures had somehow slipped behind it and was wedged against the wall. He decided that it needed a proper frame so that it wouldn’t happen again. So he took it to a photographer and asked him to enlarge my favorite one and he gave it to me for my birthday.”
“And you’ve kept it there on your nightstand ever since?”
“Mmmm hmmm.” She nodded.
“But why, Mom? Don’t you like the one on the dresser?”
Caroline felt her heart flutter at the sight of his picture on the dresser. Twelve years of marriage had not diminished the love she felt for her husband. If anything it had only grown deeper. “Daddy is handsome isn’t he?”
Cathy nodded. “Mmm Hmm. Jenny and Nancy think he looks like Cary Grant,” she laughed.
Caroline smiled at the thought. “Really? …. I’ve always thought he was somewhere between Gregory Peck and Jimmy Stewart.
They both laughed at that.
“When Daddy and I first met, I thought he looked like Prince Charming,” she said wistfully.
Cathy looked up at her mother curiously. “Daddy told me you didn’t like him very much when you first met. He said that once you even slammed the door right in his face.”
Caroline laughed a little at the memory of their difficult beginnings. “Yes, well … back then I didn’t believe in Prince Charming or fairy tales. I didn’t believe that ‘happily ever after,’ was something that really existed, so I wanted him to stay away.”
Cathy snuggled closer to her mother. “But now you do … right?”
Caroline smiled at her daughter, and nodded. “Yes, I do. Daddy taught me that. She held up her nightstand picture again. I keep this picture because to me … this is what a happy life looks like. I never want to forget.”
Caroline paused and thought for a moment and looked at her daughter. “You know, Cathy, come to think of it, maybe I don’t really need this picture anymore after all. I want you to have it … for your nightstand.”
“Really, Mom?” Cathy looked at her mother searchingly. “I can have it? For keeps?”
“Yes, for keeps.” She nodded and handed the picture to her daughter.
Cathy held it to her chest and then tilted her head thoughtfully. “But, Mom, why don’t you need it anymore?”
Caroline froze for a moment. I can’t tell her yet. I don’t know how. I’m not ready, she thought in a panic. She pulled her daughter into her arms and hugged her tight, kissing her on top of the head, trying to remember the soft silkiness of her hair and the smell of her shampoo. “I don’t need it anymore, Cathy, because if I want to be reminded what a happy life looks like … all I need to do it look at you and Daddy. Someday, you’ll find a ‘Prince Charming’ of your own, and have your own happy life. Until then … I want you to keep this picture … to remind you … what true happiness looks like.”
“But how will I know when I find him, Mom? How will I know when it’s for real?”
Caroline buried her face in Cathy’s hair again and breathed in her sweetness. Stroking her hair, she spoke thoughtfully, “Never stop believing in it, Cathy. It might look a little different than mine and Daddy’s. And it might not be easy to find. Some people never do. But when you do find it, Honey, you will know … and then … you’ll never be able to picture yourself with anyone else. When you do find it … it will be worth everything.”
Caroline nodded emphatically. “Yes, everything!”
“So this is where my favorite girls are hiding!” Charles burst into the room.
Cathy pulled away from her mother and ran into her father’s arms, kissing both of his cheeks.
“Look what Mom gave me, Daddy,” she said, holding the picture up for him to see.
He looked at the gift and then realizing what it was, he looked to his wife with a question in his eyes. He knew what that picture had always meant to her. How much she cherished it. He felt his heart constrict a little. She’s beginning to let go, he thought. She’s beginning to say goodbye.
Trying to hold back the tears, he kissed his daughter on the cheek and said, “That is a very special gift, Cathy. Your mother must really love you a lot.”
Cathy smiled and nodded her head.
He stood looking at his beautiful wife. Except for her pale complexion and her increasingly thin frame, she didn’t really look ill. To him she was as beautiful as the first time he saw her. She still took his breath away.
She walked into his arms and lay her head on his chest. What are you thinking, Charles?”
He sighed deeply and held her close. “I was just thinking how beautiful you are … and how blessed I am that the two most beautiful women in the world love me so much.”
He couldn’t stop the tears from falling. How am I going to let her go? he wondered. I don’t think I can do it.
“Why are you crying, Dad? Is something wrong?” Cathy looked concerned. He only held them tighter. “No, Princess, nothing’s wrong,” he lied.
“Then why are you crying?” She didn’t like the feeling that something was squeezing her heart.
Caroline bent down a little to get closer to her daughter. “Because, Cathy, sometimes your heart gets so full of love and happiness that it overflows and comes out as tears.” She kissed her daughter on the cheek and said, “Why don’t you go and put that on your nightstand and I will be right in to read you a bedtime story.”
“Okay, Mom.” Then looking up at her father expectantly, she said, “Good night, Daddy.”
Charles bent down obediently and she kissed his cheek. Hugging his neck, she declared, “I love you, Daddy,” and then skipped happily out of the room.
Halfway down the hall, Cathy stopped. Something made her turn around and tiptoe back to her parent’s room. Hiding outside their door, she heard them speaking softly.”
“We have to tell her soon, Caroline.”
“I don’t know how, Charles. I’m not ready.”
Cathy heard a soft muffled sob.
“Shhh …” Daddy said, comforting her mother. “I know, I know, but Cathy isn’t a baby anymore. She’s smart. She’s going realize soon that something’s wrong.”
Cathy peeked around the door-jamb to see her parents still in each other’s arms and her father wiping a tear from her mother’s cheek.
“Let’s dry your tears then, or she’ll worry when you go read to her.”
Cathy turned and ran to her bedroom …
Catherine stepped out of the shower to hear the phone ringing. She quickly grabbed a towel and wrapped it around herself as she hurried to answer the phone.
Who in their right mind would be calling me this early on a Sunday morning? she wondered.
“Cathy, it’s me.”
Catherine laughed. “Hi, Nancy. I should have known it was you.”
“I just wanted to make sure you got home okay. I’ve been worried ever since you left that you might fall asleep at the wheel. I had to hear your voice or I would have worried all day, imagining you in a ditch somewhere between here and the city.”
Catherine laughed. “I guess that’s what happens when you become a mother, huh, Nance?”
“Uuuugh!” she groaned. “That is so true! I never imagined how many perils there were in the world before I became a mother. Now I see danger everywhere and I worry about everyone. I apologize for calling so early.”
Catherine laughed again. “There’s no need to apologize, Nance. It’s actually kind of nice to know you love me that much. You can stop worrying now that you know I’m back safe and sound. I only got back to my apartment a little while ago. Thanks again, for letting me cry on your shoulder last night. It really helped. ... and for letting me borrow the car. I’ll drive it to work tomorrow. If Paul comes up to the D.A.’s office I’ll give him the key. I think I’m going to go to bed now and see if I can catch a couple of hours of sleep.”
“Ok, Honey. I really hope things work out for you and Vincent. I love you, Cathy. I want you to be happy.”
“I love you too, Nancy. I feel much better now… about everything. We will find a way.”
As Catherine hung up the phone she spotted the picture next to her bed. It had been there on her nightstand for more than twenty years, so long that most of the time she didn’t really notice it anymore. But this morning the light seemed to glint off of it, calling it to her attention.
She sat on the edge of the bed and picked it up, reverently stroking the faces of the two laughing people in the frame. She was instantly transported back to her childhood and the night her mother had given it to her. Precious and bittersweet memories came flooding back.
Catherine she didn’t even realize that she was crying until she saw a single tear drop fall onto the glass.
She laughed when she saw it. Wiping it away, she said, “You were right, Mom, sometimes the love and happiness does overflow and come out as tears.”
She sighed heavily. “I miss you so much sometimes. I wish we could talk. I almost lost him this weekend … my Prince Charming. I wish you could meet him. You were right, Mom, my picture does look different than yours and Dad’s, but it’s finally starting to come into focus. Vincent is my happy life. I can’t even imagine what it would be like without him anymore. I don’t even want to. I guess you were right about that too.”
She kissed the picture and placed it back in its place on the nightstand. “I love you, Mom.”
Illustrations supplied by the author