On a rainy October day when I was a child, my parents stopped in a small Massachusetts town on our way home from my uncle’s ski lodge in Vermont so that we could visit a Norman Rockwell exhibit. My mother had always loved growing up and looking at his realistic paintings on the covers of The Saturday Evening Post, and he had spent some time in the town where they were hosting the exhibit.
That weekend was one of the few where we were invited to pretend, via a fancy ski lodge in Vermont that boasted a sauna and private pond, that we were rich. We’d met our extended family there: aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents. The kids all slept on mattresses in the loft, the adults took one of the four bedrooms, and my uncle took the owner’s apartment with a separate entrance at the bottom of the house. We’d play in the woods, race around the pond, braid our hair on the deck, and enjoy an array of delicious food that each family contributed to.
And then we’d drive home to our house in upstate New York, away from it all–the pond, the food, the family… the wealth.
But on that particular Columbus Day, after meandering through the Rockwell exhibit and google-eyeing all the paintings, my mother and father hemmed and hawed over one of their favorite prints: Homecoming. It sat in the gift shop at the end of the exhibit, covered in glass, matted, and lined with a simple silver frame. I don’t remember how much it cost; it may have been $20 or $100, but no matter the amount, it was too much. We didn’t have extra money for luxuries like this–art for the wall??–when we were driving a 10-year-old rusted out Datsun across three states for a weekend getaway provided by my rich uncle.
“What do you think?” my mother asked.
“It’s up to you,” my father responded.
And so the print was rung up, wrapped in brown paper, and carried across the shiny black parking lot through streaks of rain. My mother carefully stacked it atop our possessions at the back of the Datsun and we weaved our way through northeastern storms back home.
As soon as the painting appeared on the wall in our living room, I became obsessed with it. The details. So many faces!! How could he fit so many faces into such a small painting? The redheaded family with open arms, welcoming their WWII soldier home. The old brick tenement and naked trees filled with dirty children. The multi-sized shirts and shorts hanging from the line. The girl pressed against the corner wall, ready to surprise him. The gratitude in everyone’s eyes after the weary war years.
I used to try to count the people. 19? 22? 20? There were silhouettes hidden in the shadows of the apartment’s windows, and it was difficult to determine exactly how many there could be. Homecoming became an ongoing mystery: How did he paint this? How many people did he mean for there to be? How long was the boy at war?
My grandfather, a mostly silent and grumpy man, had survived that war. Was his reception like this one–so filled with emphatic joy that all would be forgotten?
I doubted it.
I saw everything in that painting. The desire. The poverty. The hope.
It hangs in my house now because my mother tired of it, earned more money, moved on to different art, and because she knew how much I loved it as a child.
I pass by it on my way out the door in the morning. Sometimes I play the game with my girls–how many people are in the painting? It witnesses all our guests, all our arguments, all the laughter and joy and chaos that are our lives.
And in these ominous days since the election, it bears witness to my hopelessness. I fold laundry and cook dinner while listening to The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, one of the many books I have read about WWII. This one has yet another perspective–that of the takeover of France and the secret groups that defied the Nazis to try to stop the war. It focuses on women–women who had to host German soldiers in their family homes while their husbands were prisoners of war. Women who took risks to save the lives of fallen RAF British pilots. Women who had to wait in line for hours for food rations. Women who had to turn in their radios–their only communication with the outside world–and be prisoners in their own homes.
I think about, walk by, and examine Rockwell’s painting as I listen to Hannah’s words. As I remember that dreary day when we bought the print, knowing my parents’ meager salaries couldn’t really afford it. I imagine what it must have been like for my grandparents, living through the daily sacrifices that encompass a war.
I imagine what it might be like for us. As news floods in daily with human rights stripped away piece by piece, with constant comparisons to Nazi Germany, how can I avoid it?
How can I not put myself in that painting, arms open, ready to welcome home my long lost soldier?
Will there be a day in my lifetime that I am there, really there? Maybe one of the silhouettes in the back corner of the window, ready to finally come out?
Will there be an end to this madness that is only just beginning?
Will our country, our people, our democracy, ever have a homecoming?
I cannot answer these questions, just as I cannot accurately count the number of heads Rockwell painted. I can only guess. I can only imagine.
I can only hope that our homecoming is just around the corner, just like that redheaded girl, waiting for her savior to wrap his arms around her.