Maid­en­hair

The Iowa Review - - THE IOWA REVIEW - Lau­rie J. Mur­ray

Is­tand peer­ing into a scene that is meant to be pri­vate. In an Old Ger­man Lutheran Church in Wal­doboro, Maine, a young bride-to-be sits alone in silent med­i­ta­tion. Head down. Eyes low­ered. Ex­pres­sion solemn. Around her shoul­ders, shafts of light touch her long flow­ing hair, giv­ing it the ap­pear­ance of strands of golden thread. A wreath of del­i­cate white flow­ers, a soli­tary oak leaf, and maid­en­hair fern cir­cle her head. In the quiet­ness of this mo­ment, no one else has joined me. I feel like an in­truder, view­ing some­thing that is meant only for the eyes of God, but I can’t tear my eyes from her. Maid­en­hair holds me cap­tive. I came to the Farnsworth Art Mu­seum, lo­cated in Rock­land, Maine, sev­eral hours ago. It has been over three years since I have been to the Farnsworth. I don’t re­mem­ber see­ing the paint­ing Maid­en­hair by An­drew Wyeth at that time, but to­day it was one of the first paint­ings that I no­ticed when I en­tered the Wyeth Cen­ter. Maid­en­hair is tem­pera on panel, a medium that Wyeth of­ten used in his work. The Old Ger­man Lutheran Church, built in 1772 near the Me­do­mak River and later moved to its present lo­ca­tion, be­came the set­ting for Maid­en­hair af­ter An­drew Wyeth saw the church and felt com­pelled to use it for this paint­ing. Set against a ghost-white wall, this paint­ing seemed to be draw­ing me to come closer. When I first ar­rived, I stood be­side Maid­en­hair for the long­est time be­fore mov­ing to an adjacent gallery room that held land­scapes of the black­ened craggy cliffs at Owl’s Head and the blue hills sur­round­ing Cam­den Har­bor. Next, I en­tered the mu­seum’s li­brary and sat for about a half hour in an over­stuffed leather chair lo­cated in front of a large fire­place. My thoughts kept re­turn­ing to Maid­en­hair. Af­ter look­ing at the spe­cial art ex­hi­bi­tions of Paul Capon­i­gro and Louise Nevel­son, I made my way back to the Wyeth Cen­ter and now stand once again in front of Maid­en­hair. I am glad the mu­seum is quiet, with no other visi­tors on Level 4 where other works of An­drew Wyeth are on ex­hibit. I am here alone with the young Maid­en­hair bride-to-be. I stand in the si­lence. The bride-to-be in Maid­en­hair seems to be wait­ing for her be­trothed, bound by re­li­gious con­vic­tions and tra­di­tion. There is no hint of cel­e­bra­tion in the church ex­cept for the wreath of flow­ers and ferns upon the bride-to-be’s head. The maid­en­hair fern has del­i­cate leaflets on black stems and once had been used as a medic­i­nal herb. To­day the fern is

rare in the state; its last known ex­is­tence is in Franklin County. I won­der if it had been so rare in the day when it had been placed on the head of the maiden. I see a young woman whose cheeks are ruddy and whose lips are full. There is a frag­ile sweet­ness about her oval-shaped face. Her eyes hold a hint of sub­tle blue. Her straight hair falls be­low her shoul­ders. She wears a cream-col­ored smocked dress that al­most blends with the in­side of the church. A dec­o­ra­tive de­sign runs the length of the bodice with fab­ric that is shaped through pleat­ing. Its em­bel­lish­ment con­trasts with the plain­ness of the church. The col­lar is but­toned tightly around her neck and down the length of the front of the dress.

Frayed worn flan­nel shirts. White T-shirts that had yel­lowed. Castoff work socks. Th­ese were the gar­ments in my wardrobe for the first twenty years of my mar­riage. I don’t re­mem­ber the day that I be­gan to wear my hus­band’s cloth­ing. I just did. Shortly af­ter I had my first child at the age of eigh­teen, I would pull one of my hus­band’s plaid, but­ton­down flan­nel shirts over my T-shirt for warmth. I had come from a large fam­ily, and most of the time I had worn hand-me-downs dur­ing those grow­ing-up years. Our bud­get had been tight dur­ing those first few years of mar­riage, and we worked hard to save enough money to buy our home. Two and a half years later, our home be­came a re­al­ity. We fi­nally had our house in the coun­try. We were still young, in our early twen­ties. It was around that time that I be­gan to wear Matt’s1 flan­nel shirts al­most ev­ery day. The shirts had served their pur­pose for him. He had put them to use and no longer needed them. Matt had told me re­peat­edly for years that his pref­er­ence for my cloth­ing was jeans and his flan­nel shirts, noth­ing else. I sought to please him, and so th­ese cast-off shirts be­came mine. Al­most all the other pieces in my wardrobe had been pur­chased from garage sales. Fre­quently, I paid only fifty cents for a dress or a quar­ter for a sweater. I thought I was get­ting a bar­gain. Some­times a hole would need to be mended or per­haps a but­ton sewed on, but I was a good seam­stress. I didn’t mind. Matt’s de­mands on things per­tain­ing to my ap­pear­ance tight­ened as the years wore on. No make-up. No pierced ears. No jew­elry. No per­fume. No con­tact lenses. He said I didn’t need them; they were not nec­es­sary. I re­mem­ber the only time I truly felt fem­i­nine was when I took the hair­brush that had be­longed to my grand­mother, stood in front of

1. Not his real name.

the mir­ror, and ran the bris­tles down the length of the flow­ing chest­nut­brown hair that fell down over my shoul­ders and hung down the mid­dle of my back. Ev­ery evening be­fore I went to bed, I would brush my hair un­til it shined. Maybe he was right. Fem­i­nine clothes aren’t nec­es­sary when you spend your day haul­ing arm­fuls of wood to stack for the wood­stove or when you butcher white-tailed deer. As a teen I had wanted so des­per­ately to be strong. I wanted to be able to do the things that my broth­ers did. Af­ter I got mar­ried, I pitched right in to help my hus­band, no mat­ter the task. When I first started to help Matt cut and stack the wood, I was en­rap­tured by his praise of my hard work. I could hold my own as far as any­thing re­quir­ing phys­i­cal la­bor, and my ap­parel seemed prac­ti­cal, at least at first. How­ever, slowly over the years, I also be­gan to wear some of his other cloth­ing. Look­ing back on it, I won­der if I wore this type of cloth­ing be­cause I wanted to please him, but it must have been more than that. I can understand wear­ing the flan­nel shirts when cut­ting wood or do­ing other chores around our home in the coun­try. What I still strug­gle to understand is why I wore his cast-off yel­lowed T-shirts and work socks. I don’t think it was about money. It is char­ac­ter­is­tic of abu­sive in­ti­mate part­ners to be ex­tremely jeal­ous and fiercely pos­ses­sive, and Matt was both. He ac­cused me of adul­tery on sev­eral oc­ca­sions. He in­sisted that since my mother had been un­faith­ful in her mar­riage to my fa­ther, I would fol­low suit. Matt made it quite clear that he did not want me to dress in a way that might at­tract the glances of other men. I think now that I must have worn his cast-off cloth­ing as a shield or a bar­rier so that no man would look at me. I re­mem­ber one day in par­tic­u­lar I wanted so des­per­ately to feel fem­i­nine. We had been in­vited to the wed­ding of Matt’s cousin. I had got­ten a pretty white dress with thin blue and red stripes that ran length­wise down the front of it at a garage sale. All it needed was a belt. I did not have one at the time, so I took a navy-blue satin rib­bon, cut just the right length of it, placed it around my waist, tied a bow, and hoped my dress would look like new. With birth­day money I had saved, I bought a new pair of tan san­dals with thin straps es­pe­cially for the oc­ca­sion. I still re­mem­ber how I looked in the mir­ror that day and how I saw the re­flec­tion of a beau­ti­ful woman stand­ing be­fore me. I stared at her for the long­est time. She had a flaw­less com­plex­ion and warm brown eyes. Her cheeks held an earthy glow, bronzed by hours in the sun while gar­den­ing. She looked like her mother. The woman in the mir­ror seemed like

some­one I once knew, a woman who had been hid­den for years. Those few, fleet­ing mo­ments of feel­ing beau­ti­ful did not last long. Matt hollered from in­side the house and told me to get our two chil­dren and put them in the car be­cause it was time to go to the wed­ding. Just be­fore I stepped into the car, he saw me. “What in the hell do you have on your feet.” “Look at my new san­dals. I bought them with my birth­day money,” I said ex­cit­edly as I twirled around, the wind catching my skirt. I saw his neck mus­cles tighten as his face be­gan to red­den, and he moved to­ward me, grabbed my right leg with a jerk, force­fully twisted the san­dal, and yanked it off my foot. He did the same with the left foot. I nearly lost my bal­ance and grabbed the side of the house as I sought to right my­self. I caught a glimpse of my young daugh­ter and son in the back­seat of the car and muf­fled out a plea: “No, Matt. Please. No.” Matt snatched the san­dals, walked across the dusty dirt road in front of our home, stopped at the barbed-wire fence, and heaved them into the neigh­bor’s pas­ture across the road where sev­eral Hol­steins grazed and cow dung lay strewn in the af­ter­noon sun. “Get into the house and put your other shoes on,” he screamed while he waved his hands in the air. “We are go­ing to be late and it’ll be your fault. Move it, I said.” I re­mem­ber how I ran up the warm side­walk in my bare feet be­fore I slipped into the house, the screen door bang­ing be­hind me. I trem­bled as a feel­ing of panic came over me. I knew the only other shoes I owned were my ten­nis shoes that were cov­ered in dried dirt from my gar­den, and I knew I didn’t have time to brush it away. For a few min­utes that felt like hours, I sat on the bot­tom step of the porch, rub­bing them re­peat­edly with the un­der­side of the hem of my dress be­fore I laced them up. On that warm July day, I went to the church for the wed­ding and tucked my feet un­der the pew in front of me so none of my hus­band’s rel­a­tives would see my shoes. I re­mem­ber the shame I felt as I sat there and how a shaft of sun­light shone through the stained-glass win­dow upon me as I en­twined the blue satin rib­bon through my fin­gers. Af­ter the wed­ding, I sat alone in the hot car dur­ing the re­cep­tion, wrapped my arms around my­self, rocked back and forth, and hummed. I al­ways hummed when he ex­ploded in anger. Al­ways.

The church where the young Maid­en­hair bride-to-be sits has no adorn­ment, no stained-glass win­dows or re­li­gious sym­bols. The shad­owed pres­ence of a bal­sam fir ap­pears to be mov­ing about by the wind

through a sin­gle-pane win­dow, and a sin­gle shaft of light, which fil­ters through the win­dow at the back of the Old Ger­man Lutheran Church, spills across the rear wall. In­side the church, box pews, en­cased in pan­el­ing and closed with metal latches, have been con­structed on the floor of the sanc­tu­ary un­til they fill the church. I won­der what the Maid­en­hair bride-to-be thinks about the box pews. She sits in hers alone. At the back of the church, a door is left slightly ajar. I won­der what lies on the other side. I no­tice the rough-cut frame that sur­rounds the paint­ing. A half-inch wood lin­ing gives the vis­ual ap­pear­ance of a win­dow. The ab­stract mo­tif on the frame is a se­ries of sim­ple oval geo­met­ric shapes that do not seem to con­nect, and they swirl around the paint­ing, end­lessly re­peat­ing the pat­tern. That is the way that the cy­cle of abuse works as well, all the phases re­peat­ing over and over again un­til the woman fi­nally be­gins to understand and hope­fully gains the courage and strength to leave. I stand once again peer­ing into a scene that is meant to be pri­vate. Past the wooden frame, I see her. Head down. Eyes low­ered. Ex­pres­sion solemn. Around her tem­ples, gray hair has be­gun to re­place the chest­nut-brown hair that sur­rounds her face. Lifting her grand­mother’s hair­brush, she slams it against the cold, hard mir­ror. “I hate you. I hate you,” she screams to the re­flec­tion in the mir­ror. I feel my pulse quicken, and ev­ery breath seems la­bored. It is just a mem­ory, I tell my­self, some­thing from my dis­tant past, an act that I did count­less times over the years. I look at the paint­ing. Part of me wants to un­latch the box pew where the Maid­en­hair bride-to-be sits, take her by the hand, and run out of the back of the church un­til we reach a meadow that bor­ders the Me­do­mak River. We could sit along the shore among the wild­flow­ers and the maid­en­hair fern. We could be safe. Oh God, I must tear her from this place. Please help her. Oh God, please help me. It is then that I re­mem­ber an­other woman who ran to a meadow be­side a river. On the day I left my home and my abu­sive mar­riage in Penn­syl­va­nia, I drove for three hours to Cook For­est along the Clar­ion River in the Al­legheny Na­tional For­est with my cocker spaniel sit­ting on the car seat be­side me. When I fi­nally stopped driv­ing, I shel­tered among ferns un­derneath a hem­lock tree. I stretched out my red-and-black plaid felt blan­ket over the pine-nee­dle for­est floor on the river­bank, sat upon it, and stared at the wa­ter mov­ing over the rocks. For the long­est time, I watched Amer­i­can goldfinches as they flit­ted among the laven­der phlox be­fore I fi­nally fell asleep with my dog cud­dled close be­side me. I did not think Matt would look for me there. It was my spe­cial spot, a place

that al­ways felt safe to me. On this same river­bank, my grand­par­ents used to take me and my broth­ers and sis­ters for pic­nics. We would run and play in the meadow and swim in the sun-warmed river wa­ter, but on that day in May more than seven years ago, I made my de­ci­sion not to re­turn to my home or to my hus­band. A tour guide at the Farnsworth Art Mu­seum en­ters the gallery, walks by, and nods in ac­knowl­edg­ment that I am there, stand­ing in front of Maid­en­hair. Slowly I zip my jacket, breathe deeply, and wrap my flo­ral silk scarf around my neck. As I be­gin to take a step down the gran­ite steps, a shaft of sun­shine comes through the mu­seum win­dow and lights the walk­way to the door. The tall white-haired tour guide looks my di­rec­tion once again and says, “That sure is a beau­ti­ful scarf you have on to­day.” “Thank you, sir. It sure is,” I say with a smile and step into the brisk Maine af­ter­noon.

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