Andrew Wyeth died this week. I mourn his passing and I mourn the loss of the teenage me who lay in my father’s pasture looking back at our home the way his young girl does.
I loved Wyeth’s open spaces that reminded me so much of the Grande Ronde Valley where I grew up. Rolling hills of grasses where a single oak tree sprouted. Brown, weathered houses on the top of a hill backed by blue mountains and a bluer sky. Sun reflected by everything but shadow.
Why does every mention of the painting “Christina’s World” speak of the disabled girl in the field looking at her house in the background? The model for this girl, Andrew’s wife, was fully able to stand and walk. True, the real girl who lived in the house he painted was disabled, but why assume the girl in the grass was as well, just because she was reclining there gazing upon her house?
From my own experience, I can tell you with great certainty that Christina was not disabled. That you thought she was is fine with her. Your mistake gave her more time to be by herself out there in nature, her quite able body in repose.
When I’d had enough of the familial innards of my home, those grinding gizzards of parent versus child, I’d hike down to the bottom of our farthest pasture and lie down. In the spring, I’d smell the plowed dirt and feel it all crusty from the sun before it crumbled in my hand. I’d watch clouds scatter across the sky. Summers, I’d sit by the little creek looking for frogs under grassy clumps and pick watercress leaf by leaf to savor the peppery goodness. I’d watch birds bring food for their babies in the nests overlooking the slough. Come Fall, I’d lie on my back to watch the leafless limbs of the Alders rubbing against one another in the wind and when I stuck my legs straight up I’d notice how muddy, brown, and big my shoes looked framed by sky. I’d see the rusted barbed wire coils, iron rake and harrow and think about Time. Thoreau said we need room for our biggest thoughts and lying out in my father’s field I had space. Out there my mind was not defined by limits, I was not someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, or someone’s student. I was a soul who belonged to everything I saw. I let myself go into it, molecule by molecule. Out there, everything was possible. My thoughts were so big I sometimes had to let them pass, to roam some more until I could build a mind with stronger fences.
I could hear my sisters playing and calling each other names, hear Trixie and Stubbie barking, hear the Banty chickens clucking, the sheep bleating, my mother yelling—I could hear all that while pretending to be deaf so I wouldn’t have to go back quite yet. Lying belly to belly with the earth I heard a different sound and just then I could be part of both worlds at once or neither at all.
And who says Christina’s looking at her house by the way? She could just as well be looking somewhere beyond her nose in the space where it points towards her house, out there where thoughts swarm and you have to write fast to catch them. What we can’t see from our vantage point looking at the painting is that she has a small notebook in front of her in which she is composing a poem to lock in her diary that she will open only to show her true love when he comes along.
We can only imagine what Christina’s poem said. Maybe it was about unrequited love written in a Victorian tone. Maybe it was a simple one that floated in on the wind, like the one I wrote to my field.
“I never would stay
Because of your thistles.
Now I have them
Mostly dug away
In your lap
Cloud and sky
I know what’s going on with Christina, and so do you, really. That’s why we all like Wyeth’s painting. It’s a landscape where we’ve all been, lying in the grass or the beach or on a park bench, lost in a tornado of our own thoughts, looking toward home—or not.