Three Houses

by Nola Garrett 

For my birthday last month, my brother, Jerry, and his wife, Lisa, gave me a small acrylic painting they had bought a short walk from their home in Kensington, MD, at my favorite store, The Society for the Prevention of Blindness Thrift Shoppe.  They explained that they chose it because of the huge rough frame painted with a single coat of flat green porch paint which they thought I would hang in my green and white office. I really appreciated their thoughtfulness, but I found myself disliking the subject of the painting, the color of the frame, and even the placement of it within my writing space.

After their visit, I carried the painting into every room of my condo, all the while puzzling why I was resisting this gift. I set the painting near the door of my office, so that every time I passed or entered my office I would see it. Days slipped by. I considered changing out the painting or even keeping the frame empty though I still didn’t know where I would hang it. Gradually, I began to look more closely at the painting and to wonder what the artist, Madigal, saw in that small scene that I couldn’t or didn’t want to see. At first I had quickly rejected the scene because it reminded me of the tropics and of the fifteen years I had recently spent living in Florida before I thankfully returned to my family and my beloved Western Pennsylvania hills and river valleys I see every day from my condo’s windows.

As I began to look more carefully into the painting, I saw a much walked dirt path leading from two house corners on the left and on the right side a high solid blue concrete wall partially covered with red flowers. Next, I wondered about the absence of people. Maybe, the people really were there represented by the path’s foot prints? And, probably there was a third house hidden by the wall covered by what I now recognized was a hemorrhage of red bougainvillea dripping over the wall and onto the path. Of the two pictured houses, the white walled, red tiled roofed one closest to the viewer had a large window, a welcoming lantern style light, and two large clay pots overflowing with flowers. The farther yellow house presented a windowless facade, a shadowed, tan closed door, and an unkempt tiled roof with what appeared to be mildew seeping from under its eaves.

Three houses! Suddenly, I understood my resistance. This was a portrait of loss, of grief, of denial, of coming back too late.

More than eight years ago, my Macedonian daughter-in-law, Natasha and I translated a 1991 book of Macedonian poetry, Radovan Pavlovski’s GOD OF THE MORNING. It was a short book of only 42 poems that we worked through via email and lots of phone calls during a summer I still lived in Palm Harbor, Florida and she lived with my son, Chan, in Pittsburgh. Neither of us had ever translated poetry, but we both had a wonderful time with each other learning how. Natasha chose the order of poems she sent me, based on their linguistic difficulty from easy to complex. The last poem we translated was “Three Houses,” a brief poem neither of us has ever truly understood.

Three Houses

The leaf yellowed,
winter whitened,
and I told you
to wait for me;
now the rains pour,
and I’ve returned
with a scrap of gold
for a red apple:
one woman
in three
black houses.


Of course, there are a lot of ways to read this poem, one being political since Macedonians always read and argue and live their lives firmly and loudly believing “the personal is political.” Some Macedonians interpret the three houses to be the three states comprising the newly formed nation of Macedonia after the fall of Yugoslavia. Another, more private way to read this poem might be to hear the speaker as a lover or even a son who has returned home too late a year after a death either of a person or of a relationship. I don’t know. I’m not sure I have to or even want to know the meaning of this intense sad poem, but somehow now that I own the gift of Madrigal’s painting I understand some of my resistance to both the painting and the poem.

A few days later I again carried my painting into every room and nook of my condo, this time even into the closets and the bathrooms. Then, I realized there was still a ghost of my husband, who divorced me, in what used to be his bathroom and now has become my guest bath. Part of the reason that bathroom had been his was that it had a stall shower that was safer for him to use than the master bath with a tub/shower. Also, his bathroom had an extra glass shelf that allowed him extra space for his toiletries that he could see and remember more easily. However, now that he has moved out, if that shelf were removed there would be enough room to hang my painting over the guest toilet which has a black seat. What if the huge green frame were black?

My entire life, I’ve repainted lots of things: once a Florida living room, 15 foot high, popcorn, cathedral ceiling that I roller painted light pink before I knew it was considered by experts to be an impossible task. So, my real problem with painting the gift frame, other than defeating the original reason for the gift, was that when it came to painting frames, I had always masked and spray painted them. There was no place here in or out of my condo to carry out spray painting, especially what this frame and painting needed to become—black for grief, black for bringing out the shadows and the mildew and even the black outlines of the welcoming lantern light. Luckily, RiteAid was having a sale on Wet n Wild nail polish, so I bought 4 bottles of black and 4 bottles of clear; and on my dining room table over the next three days with 3 bottles of the clear I sealed the thin coat of green house paint on the raw wood frame and used the black nail polish to give the frame two coats to bring out the shine. With the last bottle of the clear I sealed and shined the thin, green inner frame next to the canvas, emphasizing the lush tropical foliage in the background and of the now symbolic bougainvillea.

One of those days while I waited for my polish/paint to dry I walked up to Market Square to the local Farmer’s Market for my usual purchases of flowers and fresh vegetables. I was surprised to find a beekeeper selling various kinds of honey, including not only the usual clover and wildflower flavors, but also buckwheat honey that is so dark it’s almost black. It’s hard to find, and I adore its deep flavor. I chatted a bit with the beekeeper, and I told him about my experience as a beekeeper decades ago when my husband and I had lived in Saegertown and had won first prize at the Crawford County Fair for our comb honey.

Carrying my produce on my walk back to my condo, I remembered the morning when together we had requeened one of our two hives of gentle Midnite bees. How the small wire cage about the size of three stacked candy bars was delivered to our back door, first thing that morning by the nervous, local postmaster. How an hour later sitting at the picnic table near one of our opened hives, the two of us, dressed in our white, beekeeper overhauls, bent over the small wire cage containing the long slender queen bee walled off with sugar candy from the half dozen smaller worker bees who would eat their way through the wall to free their queen to replenish eventually the entire population of the hive several times over the next three years. While admiring her, I noticed that her wings weren’t clipped, even though I had specified that service in my order and had paid extra. We knew that if one of her wings wasn’t clipped, when she was released inside the hive that she would be able fly away taking with her half of the bees from that hive. With that kind of population loss our hive wouldn’t be able to make enough honey to survive.

I ran inside for a pair of manicure scissors, and my husband and I carefully removed the tiny cork from her end of the cage. I gently grasped her thorax under her wings, but before I could clip one her wings, somehow she flew straight up, circling into the morning sky. We sat there sadly amazed and almost stunned. Gone forever. We knew the waiting open hive was weak, because the present queen was old and that we had just moments ago found her and killed her to ready the hive to receive a new queen. Would the hive make a new queen before we could order and receive a new queen? Would the newly hatched queen be a gentle or fierce hybrid? Would the entire hive of bees up and leave in search of a new queen? We just sat there. Unmoving. And, then the queen returned, landed on my white overhaul arm! My husband cupped his bare hand over her. I slid my hand under his, and this time I was able to grasp her a bit tighter, clip one of her wings, and we placed her back in her candy cage just as my husband replaced the cork.

All those years of working together gone. How could he have forgotten? Three houses. One woman alone. That’s what I was resisting.

I rarely use my condo’s guest bathroom, but now that I’ve hung my refurbished birthday gift in there, I find myself stopping and turning on the light to see how far I’ve come; how somehow everything takes on meaning and reveals its beauty, if one is willing to carefully observe.


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