The other day, Mark Attebery, Howie’s son, and I were discussing my proposed Christmas and birthday present to his dad. I was waiting for just the right moment to tell Howie about it. Mark and I were both curious to know Howie’s reaction, and I promised to let him know. Here’s my letter to my favorite, one and only, stepson:
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Here’s the report, in full up to date.
We were about to fix lunch today. Rather, I was, because when it got to be 1:30 or so, your dad figured (erroneously) that I was involved in some important project and fixed his own. But he came out of his lab to keep me company, and that’s when I sprang it on him.
“I’ve got to tell you now, Love of My Life, what your Christmas present is, because. . . well, because.”
Howie looked interested, the way he does. He waited.
We were standing next to the stove and I was slathering two slices of bread with butter and mayonnaise preparatory to adding slices of chicken and onion.
“It’s because Elizabeth Whelan, the painter, is coming over from Cuttyhunk on Monday to talk to you and make sketches of you for . . .” my voice trailed off.
Howie had frozen at the mention of “talk.”
I blurted out the rest. “It’s because she’s going to paint a portrait of you for your birthday and Christmas and our anniversary.”
He was silent for several seconds. “Oh, c’mon,” he said, with a mixture of disbelief and apprehension.
I licked the mayonnaise off my finger. “Elizabeth Whelan is going to paint your portrait.” I looked up at him. “Really, she is.”
Howie was standing very still. “I’m not important enough.”
“Yes, you are. ”
“I haven’t done a anything.”
“Yes, you have.”
“Is it too late to cancel?”
That was it.
We went into the cookroom where I began to eat my potato chips and chicken and onion sandwich. Howie was watching the birds at the feeder.
“A woodpecker,” he said, after some minutes of silence. He reached for his bird book. “Not sure which one. A downy, I think. You can get your picture on stamps, you know. Regular U.S. postage.”
I looked over at him. He had closed the book and was holding a finger in it to mark the woodpecker page.
I said, “No, I didn’t know that.”
“I’m not the president,” he said. “I haven’t made any scientific breakthroughs. I haven’t won a Pulitzer.”
I took another bite of my sandwich and chewed it. “You won me.”
“There’s that.” He moved his chair closer to mine and leaned toward me.
“I’m eating onions,” I warned.
“Yes.” And he kissed me.
An hour later, we were on our way to the post office to get the mail. The colors this time of year are rich. Brown from the oaks, gold from the beeches, tawny and red from the wild grasses. A flock of turkeys pecked away at whatever delicacies they’d found in the field across from the arboretum. We savored the sights and smells and the good feeling of being alive to appreciate it all. We drove in silence. Contented. Howie drives like a teenager — left hand on the wheel, right hand holding mine.
Out of the blue, he said, “Make sure it’s small. No bigger than eight by ten.”
“Feet?” I said.
“Inches.” He glanced briefly away from the road at me, not sure I was kidding. “You know that four by six photo of the two of us? I like that picture. That’s a good size.”
I didn’t say anything because Elizabeth and I had already agreed on a painting two feet by almost three feet.
Howie has an uncanny way of knowing what I’m thinking. “Where are we going to hang a big painting?”
“Two of them,” I said. “She’s painting me, too.”
“Two?” He sounded appalled.
“Yes. Two portraits.”
“Oh, my God!” said Howie. It was more prayer than exclamation. “Make sure we face each other.” He tried one final weak protest. “I’m just an ordinary guy. I’m not famous. I don’t have anything to talk to her about.”
He added something about being afraid he’d give her painters’ block because he was so blank — that was his word.
This is the man his granddaughter calls “The King of Romance.” The man interviewed by CBS News, talked about on The Moth Radio, who was featured on the Huffington Post’s New Year’s Eve program, was approached by the Hallmark Hall of Fame and a major ad agency doing a Valentine’s Day special for a chocolate company, who got an e-mail from “O’s” beauty editor, was featured in an article that appeared above the fold on the front page of the Boston Globe with a photo of the two of us, was interviewed by Fox News, and on and on. I don’t think there’s a soul on Martha’s Vineyard who doesn’t know him to speak to.
He’s done enough community, scientific, photographic, and artistic work in his long and productive life so he doesn’t need to go down in history for his romanticism.
Though come to think of it, that’s not a bad legacy to leave.
So Elizabeth will be coming by boat from Cuttyhunk to the Vineyard on Monday to start the process of painting Howie’s portrait.
I’ll keep you informed about developments.