“Unknown Woman” by Alvaro Cardona-Hine, 1993

The Middle Distance 11.30.12: Unknown Woman

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Photo by Sean Cayton

She resides in a painting — a simple stretched canvas, unframed — emerging from a slate blue background, her hair and dress the same silver-gray. Her breasts sag low, as if from the natural weight of years.

She hung in a corner of the bedroom wherever I lived for over a decade, cast in shadow. I moved her with me four times in eight years, always appreciating her soft gaze but not really seeing her. Now she hangs in the bathroom, opposite the sink where I brush my teeth. When I look in the mirror of that brightly-lighted room and see a lined, weathered face I barely recognize, my own, she looks back at me wordlessly.

She came to me in the way that the best of life happens: unexpectedly, gradually over time, out of terror and mystery and a willingness to say yes.

In the early 1990s, I’d moved from the American South of my upbringing to the Rocky Mountain West, four kids in tow and a 20-year marriage about to go bust. My husband and I, high school sweethearts who’d married at age 20, had tried one last time to resuscitate a dying marriage and were on the verge of moving on to the next stage: figuring out how to raise our children in separate households as single, divorced parents who would always remain friends.

I had left family and friends and the warmth of a familiar landscape only to find myself a stranger in a beautiful but harsh land. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas of that last married year, I took a trip to New Mexico to cry and shout and be silent and alone, to grieve and mobilize.

On a sunny high-altitude afternoon, my yellow Volkswagen Rabbit wound through banks of snow up the hairpin turns of the old High Road from Santa Fe to Taos, all the way to Truchas, the highest point. I turned into the first welcoming driveway I saw, a compound of low adobe buildings, smoke belching from their chimneys into the frigid air.

A dark-skinned man with a gun-metal gray beard greeted me and invited me into the art gallery he shared with his wife. His name was Alvaro Cardona-Hine. He was a poet with many published books, a composer, and a painter. He was Costa Rican by birth and upbringing, a sea-loving Latino living out the late middle distance of his life in the high desert mountains of New Mexico.

We talked a bit and warmed by the stove, then walked over an icy stone path to his studio, a barn behind the gallery. He pulled out a large canvas, about five-by-five feet and said, “Here, she needs a home.” An abstract form, the gray-brown face of a young girl, peered out from a cold purplish-pink landscape. Alvaro explained. Before New Mexico, he’d lived in Minnesota where many Cambodians, Laotians and Vietnamese were relocated after the American invasion of Southeast Asia. This young woman lived with her family in public housing on the edge of the desolate Minnesota prairie. He’d painted her loneliness, her isolation, her displacement, then tucked her away.

“Take her home and take care of her,” he said. I did. She lived for five years above an ornate tiled Victorian fireplace, warm and cozy in my living room. Then I moved to a smaller place that didn’t have a wall big enough for her, and she moved to a friend’s house where she still lives. Occasionally, I visit her. She seems contented in her Denver duplex.

I survived my exile from marriage and familiar geography, and eventually came to think of Colorado as home. A few years after I first visited Alvaro Cardona-Hine, I went back again to Truchas. This time, he pulled a small blue canvas from his studio and said, “Here. She needs a home.” The woman gazing out of the blue background looked old to my middle-aged eyes, a grandmother perhaps, an elegant silver-haired lady.

I took her home and she has lived with me ever since. I haven’t named her and Alvaro’s messy signature on the back dubs her: Unknown Woman.

But I can tell you this: She inhabits my home as surely as I do. When I see her unblinking black eye peering back at me in the bathroom mirror now, she doesn’t look so old. She glows like a wick buried deep in a half-burned candle, warm and soft and still alive.

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.


7 Responses to The Middle Distance 11/30/12: Unknown Woman

  1. joyce cheney says:

    At first she seemed young, early 20s, and deer-in-the-headlights about life. Then older, and worn down emotionally and physically.

  2. rose enyeart says:

    Lovely thoughts on a time of your life that fades and never goes away. What a lovely reminder of who that “Unknown woman” has become and is becoming.

  3. Paula says:

    whew! I thought it was a self portrait ;}

  4. Anne Lennox says:

    Another gorgeous, tender reminiscence. You touch my heart.

  5. Carmen says:

    Thanks Kathryn, just thanks!

  6. kathryn says:

    Correction: There is obviously a factual error here: either the painting of the Vietnamese girl is not as huge as I remember it, or I was driving my family’s Dodge Caravan at the time. A 5’x5′ canvas wouldn’t have fit in the VW Rabbit. The painting was large. Whether I was driving a big car or not remains in question and will have to be fact-checked beyond the fringe of memory.

  7. Liz Arnold says:

    We all have an unknown woman living in each of us don’t we? I like your woman in the bathroom – she is kind and quiet and comforting…just like you. xo


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