The Calligrapher's Lover
One Saturday afternoon in December, my Chevy Cruze blazed down the country freeway past adorned front doors and ornamental reindeer. The pine trees sagged under the heavy snow. I was on my way to the Amana Colonies, in Eastern Iowa, for the Christmas Parade of Homes.
A week prior, my mailbox contained a bulletin promising cozy nineteenth century homes decorated with traditional German Christmas ornaments and nutcrackers. The owners of the houses would be opening their doors for one day to all paying visitors who wanted to experience traditional Amana farm life.
It was our first Christmas apart from family back in Colorado. The past few weekends were spent bustling around trying to create a perfect two person Christmas for my husband and me. My remaining to do list tamped down my excitement as each December day passed. I started to accept that the holidays were not going to be the same as they would be back home. After seeing the bulletin, I decided to go in search of a new Christmas tradition. I hoped to rekindle my holiday spirit and feel joyful despite being far away from our families.
Turning off the freeway into the village, I followed the road signs along the main street to the welcome center. Inside the ticketer offered me a map, a home directory, and a sparkling Christmas pin. The directory described the significance of each historic home on the tour. The first place to catch my attention was a converted granary. Tracing my finger over the route on the paper map, I put the car in drive. Looking around, I realized I could not orient myself without a westward mountain in site. I programmed Google Maps instead.
The granary proved to be as impressive as the directory let on. Original oak beams and an iron forged pulley system were incorporated into the aesthetics of the restored home. The owner was less interesting than his astonishing craftsmanship. He carried on about using wooden nails so I wrangled another visitor to continue on the conversation with him. I walked to the next house, a quarter of a mile down the lane. The parson’s home, preserved as it was in 1862, was stuffed with antique knick-knacks. The owner specialized in antique items and conducted her tour like a talking catalog, spouting off prices and brand names. I let myself out the front door before her tour moved from the first room.
I was not sure what I was hoping to find in these old houses. I did not feel Christmas tidings like I remembered from being with my family. So far every proud owner had shown off their stuff. I thought about How the Grinch Stole Christmas, “What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more.”
Deciding to visit one more house, I opened the directory to scan the list. The carpenter’s workshop, near the bottom of the list, caught my attention. The description stated the work shop was remodeled into a residential home in the 1970s. Due to a lack of resources, the home fell into disrepair until a couple purchased the place five years ago to restore it to a more traditional German style of architecture.
I glanced back through the frosty front window to the pack of sightseers oogling the antique dining set. I wanted to steer clear of the tour group and their interest in Christmas decorations. Entering the address into my phone, I walked back to my car to drive to the last house.
At the listed address, I craned my neck to get a better look at the two-story stone house out my passenger window. Support beams, fashioned from full sized logs, jutted out of the stonework. Hints of the original carpentry shop were visible in the details of the house. Original paned glass windows with custom shutters dotted the outside. A wrap-around porch and puffing fireplace made the shop seem cozy. Not a single car or loitering person was around. Tossing my directory and map into the back seat I got out to accept the invitation inside.
Knocking on the door before opening it, I saw a pile of worn shoes stashed under the coat rack to my left. I kicked my boots onto the pile. The welcomed warmth from inside beckoned me further into the foyer. My wool socks padded across the old hardwood flooring as I entered. One glance around the room and my gaze magnetized to a framed canvas of Chinese calligraphy. Surprised, I strode over for a closer look.
A moment later, “It is only one Chinese character, but it means word. Like a word in language.” A trim man with peppered hair said from my right. He looked at the art as he said this. His hands were tucked comfortably into his faded jean pockets.
His focus on the canvas made me look again for more details. Beautiful strokes of satin black contrasting crisp white spaces. Everything was exact. The shapes on the canvas seemed as if they had always existed, not as if they were ever created by a person.
“Want to see more of Gail’s art? It’s Dan, by the way.” He waved a calloused hand over his shoulder, welcoming me into his home.
I followed him into an airy, farmhouse kitchen. A heavy, barn workbench stood in the center as the table. Hung on the kitchen wall was a drawing of an apple. A big, red apple. At a second glance the drawn apple was filled in by line after line of lacy handwritten words spelling apple in red ink. The third line from the bottom of the fruit, a little from the edge, was one green word.
Gail created a picture with words, and it was funny. The worm was in the apple. The word worm was in the pile of words that formed the apple. I loved it. The precision of her skillful Chinese calligraphy appeared in this art work too. The tiny calligraphy words were each identical and the spacing was perfect. I admired the picture for a moment, before realizing Dan was high stepping his way up a steep set of narrow stairs.
Voice raised so I could hear him, Dan called down, “The original workshop only had these small stairs to get to the supply loft. Everything else was ground level. The original renovator installed a staircase at the front of the house but it was so awkward and ugly, Gail and I ripped it out. I never did mind these stairs.” He rested his elbow on the handrail, looking across at a window as I finished climbing up to the second floor.
As my feet touched the upstairs landing, I got a three hundred sixty-degree view around the loft. Little, bright windows were spaced all the way around. Tucked into most of the windowsills were miniature house plants and vases with vines. Centered along the opposite wall was a large drafting desk. A leather pad was pinned down at all four corners of the table top with brass nails. Several ceramic cups were filled with calligraphy pens and brushes. Blotting pads, neatly folded clothes, colorful ink bottles, and rulers arranged in perfect order adorned the desk.
“A calligrapher never does anything without intention. Gail decides every detail and she executes them all. Her work station is the center of her perfect world.” Dan’s face was proud and tender. He gazed on the desk when he mentioned Gail’s things.
Gail had an impressive collection of books on art and ancient calligraphy from every culture. Each book was tucked into a space on the built-in bookshelves around the loft. Dan stepped back to let me enjoy the beautiful space. He unearthed Gail’s portfolio from the collection of books on the shelf and leafed through it, pulling pages out for me to wonder at.
“She is so talented. Does she create calligraphy for sale exclusively or does she teach?” I looked to Dan for the answer.
“She convinced the university to lighten her teaching load. She prefers restoration of historic documents. Her expertise is ancient calligraphy. Sometimes the university loans her out, to help places with less experienced personnel.” Dan’s eyes glimmered with pride.
Gail’s talents and Dan’s love for her swept me up. My mind snapped to the present and the reason I was in their home. I had not noticed a single Christmas decoration. The house had no lights or candles. Cookies had not been baked for guests to enjoy. Despite all the missing holiday details, the carpentry shop was the most welcoming of all the houses I had visited. The love between Dan and Gail warmed the entire place. The careful craft of writing beautiful words and showing them off replaced twinkling Christmas decorations and German inspired winter snacks. The last home in the directory offered a simple invitation to come in and slow down.
“Dan, why did you and Gail list your home for the tour?” I wanted to know. This home had everything wonderful inside, but I suspected the other sightseers would be less than impressed with Gail’s calligraphy. They seemed to enjoy the blinking bulbs and steaming hot chocolate with peppermints.
“Gail did not list our home. Gail died three years ago. The autumn after we bought the house together.” My head jerked up from the journal I was leafing through.
The astonishment on my face must have prompted Dan to continue.
“Gail and I were working outside. Raking leaves and trimming back plants for winter. I came around the house, right out there,” he pointed to a spot in the yard we could see from the window, “to bring her the empty trash bin. She was laying in the grass with no pulse. She landed so soft, I never even heard a noise. It took the doctors three days to convince me they were sure it was a brain aneurysm.”
Tears welled in the corners of my eyes, hazing my vision.
“It does not even seem possible. The way you talked about her, I imagined she would walk in the door at any minute. Three years ago?” I said words at him, not sure what sense I was trying to make.
“I’m one of the lucky ones. I never asked why she died. I watched her, for an entire life, make a conscious choice for everything she did. I loved her so much. I never wanted to control a single moment for her, just wanted to be a part of it all. Why would I question the way she left this life? It was split second and then it was final. Exactly like all the other decisions in her life.”
Dan stared out the window while he said this. Two tears dripped down my cheeks, and I wiped them away in a haste. One afternoon, Gail was gone. But Dan, he remained with her in every moment of his day. He treasured Gail in his every thought.
I was stunned by the way he loved his wife. His devotion convinced me she was still alive, participating in the relationship today. He dusted her things, spoke fervently about her work, challenged her personality quirks. But she was not loving him back any longer. She could not give him anything in return.
Maybe, she was giving him something still. The way Gail lived her life was her gift to him, peace of mind in her consistency. She would always be there for him in her art, her choices, and her legacy. He would never have to question her intentions.
The door opened downstairs and a cool draft swelled at the top of the stairs. The others were arriving, so I said goodbye to Dan. I crunched along their gravel path, pausing for the briefest moment to look over the grass where she had laid. Gail and Dan had shown me how to live with intentionality in every decision. Even though Christmas would be different this year, I could cherish it by choice. I could give my husband and family consistent love that never swayed in any season of life.