Camille Pissaro, “The Artist’s Garden at Eragny” 1898 – Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington
Freda pulled another weed from the garden and then stood to rub her back. Another long hot day… I’m ready for some lemonade. I wonder if the painters are too?
She picked up her weed bucket and headed toward the house. She dumped the weeds in the trash receptacle, dropped the bucket next to the step below the kitchen door and entered the shady coolness. Freda gathered some lemons, sugar and a pitcher and proceeded to squeeze the lemons. That’s a good day’s work. The pain in my back proves it and should help me sleep well tonight. She hummed to herself as she worked. I wonder how Jeb’s doing. I’ll drop the lemonade off to the artists and then bring him a glass. Might even get a hug for my effort.
Freda stopped to chat with the three artists in residence for the week as she poured them each a glass of the cool tart lemonade. When Jeb had retired from his English professorship at a university upstate, they bought this small bed and breakfast. It had been a financial struggle to repair everything broken or run down when they moved in. Not quite in the city, and not quite on the coast, they had few guests registered those first few years.
One day, as Freda had been perusing a literary magazine, she had an epiphany – to advertise it as a quiet country residence for writers and artists. Since then, word had spread like wildfire and they kept a steady business – especially in the summer. They usually booked out their rooms by the week, nine or ten months in advance.
Freda and Jeb offered a clean quiet home with a full breakfast and an hors d’oeuvres cocktail hour every evening. Often, guests would call a cab or borrow their bicycles to ride the ten minutes to town for lunch or to see the sites if they didn’t have their own vehicle. Guests were lucky to taste the rich vegetables that Freda grew in the garden, which was her pride and joy.
Both Freda and Jeb considered themselves lucky, now that they had a steady business. It afforded them an opportunity for a weekly vacation away every year, and also allowed Jeb the free time to paint, which had been his dream since boyhood. Freda walked to the studio now with a glass of lemonade, taking in the sun reflecting off the windows and wiping her brow.
“Hello, my dear,” said Jeb, when she opened the door. “My, but you are a welcome sight with that lemonade.” He picked the glass from her hand and took a long swallow. “Mmm…just what I needed.”
Freda studied the portrait on the easel. “Who is that? And why have you painted her into a mermaid?”
Jeb chuckled at Freda’s sarcastic tone. “Don’t worry, love. It’s just a mermaid – no one in particular.”
Freda let out a long sigh. “I’m not sure why you think it necessary to paint all those fantastical portraits you paint. Why can’t you just paint the landscape. There’s so much beautiful land and country here, and the scene constantly changes with the seasons. You can even catch different creatures like deer and raccoons to put in the paintings.”
Jeb laughed, “Oh, Freda, there’s not much imagination in that, now, is there?”
Freda looked abashed. I don’t know why he so greatly values imagination, but it makes him happy, so I’ll try to be understanding. She pecked his cheek, gave a small wave and headed back to the kitchen.
“Freda,” said Jeb, six months later. “Let’s open presents.”
Freda laughed. “Oh, Jeb! You’re just like a little boy at Christmastime!”
She picked up a gift box from under their large Christmas tree and went to sit in her rocking chair in front of the fireplace, holding the gift in her lap. Jeb followed suit, sitting next to her in his own rocker. They both sat quietly for a moment, listening to the pop of the fire and admiring the twinkling lights on the tree. They never booked guests over Christmas week, instead keeping their pretty property quiet that one week per year for themselves.
“Well, I guess I’ll go first,” said Freda, handing Jeb the box. He opened it slowly and carefully, savoring the amount of preparation that had gone into the pretty packaging.
Lifting the box top he exclaimed, “Oh, Freda! These are perfect!” Jeb lifted three fine paint brushes. “They must’ve cost a pretty penny; however did you afford these?”
“I’ve been saving a little here and there this year. They are sable,” she answered shyly.
“My love, you always manage to surprise me. They are so soft, they almost feel too precious to use.”
Freda laughed. “You’d better use them! That’s what I bought them for, and I know you’ll take good care of them, just like you do of me.” Jeb stood and hugged her.
He sat back down in his chair and then pulled his gift box up from the floor where it had been leaning against an end table, and handed it to her.
She studied the wrapping paper and asked,”Did you paint this?” At his nod, she added,”It’s beautiful.” She stroked the paper intently.
“Open it, Freda.”
Freda slid her hand under the tape on the back of the package. She could tell it was a frame from the way her fingers caught on a wire. She gingerly slipped the paper off the edges and let it fall to the floor. Very carefully she turned the frame over.
She lost her breath for a moment. When she regained it she said, “Jeb, this is beautiful.” Tears sprang to her eyes and her hand flew to cover her mouth as she tried to regain her composure.
The painting was a landscape of their bed and breakfast, taken from the angle in front of the garden. In the picture, Freda stood turned toward the sun with a blissful smile on her face.
She continued, “I guess you did find a creature to paint, after all!”