Photo Op

Photo Photo Op

Late again! She ran through the house, grabbing her coffee and her car keys. Her arms were full, so she held her breakfast, a whole piece of toast, in her teeth. She gave her mom a thumbs-up and barely paid attention to her comments, only hearing that her mom and her beau were going out again (this time to the opera), so she was on her own for dinner.

Meredith took a deep breath and started her car. Even though she hated the commute from her mom’s suburban home into the city each day, it was the only time she had any peace. Her mom meant well, but she was tired of her eye rolling every time Meredith ate junk food. Her suggestions that Meredith get a haircut or try some new makeup or lose a little weight were not inspiring her to act on any of them in the near future.

She knew she would have to stay late again to make up the time. At first, she had thought herself lucky to be able to come and go unnoticed and set her own hours, but later realized that it was a measure of her insignificance to the hospital department that she was a part of.

On this particular day, she watched her copies run through the copy machine and, for a few minutes, lost herself in thought. How did her life become so mundane? Her growling stomach brought her back to reality. Walking to the cafeteria, she almost tripped on a frame that lay in the middle of the hall. She picked it up and was quite taken with the picture of the handsome man smiling back at her, even though it was the one that came with the frame. She stuck it in her purse and continued on.

The usual long line greeted her at the cafeteria door. With a big sigh, she prepared herself for the wait, when she heard a man’s voice behind her say “…Anything good here? I noticed your employee badge, so thought you might have some recommendations…” Meredith was speechless. Was she hallucinating or did this man look a little like the photo in the frame? She finally sputtered a few words and before she knew it, they were sharing a table and dining together.

Everything about him was charming. She hung on his every word and almost forgot to eat. He said he was a new volunteer, still trying to figure out what his calling would be. He seemed so interested in what she had to say. She cared little about what time it was when she finally returned to work and spent the rest of the afternoon daydreaming.

She surprised herself and her mom by being up early the next morning. She left right on time and couldn’t help but smile at her mom’s comments about her appearance. She had made sure to take extra time choosing an outfit, styling her hair and actually applying makeup. Maybe this weekend she would take her mom up on her offer to treat her to a new haircut.

Lunch couldn’t come quickly enough each day. All the next week, she found her handsome stranger on the cafeteria line. They’d trade smiles and sit together at the same table. She noticed that her lunch choices were now not only healthy, but half the size of what they used to be. From their conversations about her goals in life and how she could pursue them, she walked with a new-found confidence.

She purposefully kept the framed picture in her car’s glove compartment, away from her mom’s intrusive prying, so it was with surprise that she noticed it was gone that Saturday afternoon. She ran back into the house and, out of breath, asked her mom if she knew of its whereabouts. Nonchalantly, her mom responded “…I threw the picture away that came with the frame, cleaned it up and put it in your room, so you could make use of it…”

The words stung Meredith and as her mind raced through the past couple of days, she realized that yesterday, she had left her mom alone in her car when she ran into the drugstore to pick up a prescription for her. At that moment, she made up her mind that it was time for her to move to a place of her own.

Mondays were usually the worst day of her week, but Meredith rushed to the cafeteria with a spring in her step. She didn’t see her stranger, so waited at the entrance for a while. When he didn’t show up, she decided to sit and eat alone at their favorite table. Disappointed, she decided to walk over to the volunteer department to see if he was working today.

She realized that she only knew his first name and was startled when Sister Jean, the nun who sat at the front desk, stated that there was no Theodore listed as a volunteer. Determined to find him, Meredith took the time to describe her stranger and mention what little she knew about him. Sister Jean could only listen and nod, but felt as if she had to respond in some way to this agitated young woman. “…Did you know that the meaning of the name Theodore is God’s present?..,” she said softly.

Meredith smiled and thanked the nun for her time. She felt a wave of happiness wash over her and she walked back to her office with determination and wrote the resignation letter that she would send as soon as she was accepted into college. She called her sister and said she would take her up on her offer to live in her guesthouse if she took on some nanny duties for her nieces. It would be good practice for the teaching degree that she planned to receive.

She smiled, put her hands through her newly coifed hair, and said  “…Thank you…” out loud. She placed the frame on her desk and gazed at its cardboard backing. There was no need to replace the original photo with any other. In that way, she could picture just what she wanted to, as she made her way back into the world.

 

 

 

 

 

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Isabel

Photo Isabel

She was born with just right balance of moxie and elegance, which served her well throughout the years. As a little girl in the orphanage, she was always the one chosen to be dressed up in a pinafore with a big bow in her hair and displayed to the wealthy families who came to view the children for possible adoption. Even thought she would curtsy and smile just as she was taught, the little boys were always the first choice. It was Columbia, South America after all and the year was 1908.

It wasn’t a terrible life. The nuns were kind enough and even though they were too busy to pay individual attention to all their charges on a daily basis, they treated Isabel with a certain reverence. In her quiet, confident way, she seemed to stand out from the others and they sensed this. Mother Superior would always pat her on the head as she walked by and whisper “Eres una estrella brillante” (“You are a shining star”). Isabel treasured those words and would remember them for the rest of her life.

She had little choice where she was to go once she outgrew the orphanage. Mother Superior took special care to make sure that her placement fit her distinctive personality. She had her assigned to a positon as a maid in the home of a wealthy Spanish family who just happened to have a son close to her age. The rest would take care of itself, she surmised, as she smiled to herself and made the sign of the cross.

While Isabel felt fortunate to live with such luxury around her and absorbed the refinement and  gentility into her nature, the years were passing by and she had a gnawing feeling that there was more to life. While the family was kind to her, and their son, Manolo, was noticeably infatuated with her, once he left for college, she felt it was also time for her to move on.

She had saved up enough money for a one-way ticket by ship to New York and set her plan in motion. Jobs did not come easy then, but with much determination, she found herself reporting to work at the National Biscuit Company a week later. Convinced that her factory job of sorting and packing cookies would be short term, she did so with that same style and grace that she was now becoming known for.

She met Florence on her very first day of work. Both strong-minded and full of dreams, they soon became best friends. Together, they made up for their lack of formal education with their uncanny ability to charm their way in (or out) of any situation. They would pool their money and smile coyly as they greeted the owner of the fabric store and then ask for a discount. Isabel would design the dresses that Florence would sew. Now, they felt confident enough to attend a dance at one of the big New York clubs or take in a movie together. They held hands as they had their hair cut off into a bob, the flapper style that was considered a bit rebellious.

Isabel had originally chosen New York for two reasons: it’s allure and the fact that Manolo was attending college there. It did not take long for him to respond in person to the note, scented with her perfume that she hand-delivered to the school office. They married as soon as he graduated and settled on Long Island, a suburban area of New York City. Hers was a charmed life in a beautiful home with a loving, successful husband.

She remained best friends with Florence her entire life, which is where I come in. Florence was my grandmother and that is how I got to know Titi Isabel (an affectionate term for aunt, in Spanish). Neither my parents nor my grandparents would dare make any decorating or fashion decisions without consulting her first. She was our very own Latin Coco Chanel.

I was used to the fact that my family did not allow sleepovers with minor exceptions; Titi Isabel and Manolo being one of them. As the oldest child in a household with a toddler and an infant, I was delighted to be invited to spend the weekend in such a sophisticated, adult world. Our scrambled eggs were prepared with just a dash of white wine. For lunch, we’d dine on buttered chicken sandwiches served on Pepperidge Farms bread (rather than the big loaf of no-name, sale white bread we’d have at home). Titi Isabel and I would dress together for our outings to New York City “Eres una estrella brillante” she would whisper to me as she’d dab some of her perfume behind my ear.

It was when Titi Isabel died that I was finally able to get my grandmother to divulge the name of her perfume. Just like her past, she wished to keep her scent a secret, hoping it would fade away with time. Likening her choice of fragrance to her elegant nature, my hunt, for the elusive product that now had a name, started at the most prestigious department stores. Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel; my search continued as I told myself that, in this instance, money was no object.

I cannot say that I was disappointed when I paid the cashier at Walgreens for the largest bottle of that perfume that I could find. It seemed a testament to a life well lived, made up of the top and the bottom, the good and the bad, the happy and the sad. One woman’s choices made with an inherent confidence that could elevate nothing into something all because of who she was.

I dab that perfume behind my ears every day with a smile, hoping its bouquet will give me a whiff of who I might become if I let myself unfold just a bit more elegantly and mysteriously.