by Helen Sitler


by Helen Sitler

The cat leapt from the dining room table toward the top shelf of the hutch, her lithe body stretched out in a graceful curve. Her paws hit the edge of the wood—the moveable shelf —flipping it up and catapulting a fragile clay pot. In its downward arc, the pot cracked against the edge of the table. Jagged pieces and small shards crashed to the carpet.

My husband and I stared at the wreckage, silent, recalling the pot’s origins. We had purchased the Acoma Pueblo artist’s piece during a trip to New Mexico. At that time, with Tom retired and me on sabbatical, we drove cross-country to Santa Fe. We reveled in sunny, spring-blue skies. We chattered on the ski lift after exhilarating runs on a favorite slope where we criss-crossed our turns, leaving an entwined pattern on the snow. On the lodge’s sunny deck, we giggled like naughty children at the skier who hurtled to the bottom of the slope, unable to stop. Holding hands, we strolled Santa Fe’s streets, drifting from shop to shop, talking about nothing, about everything. Back at the hotel, we cuddled in the light from the fireplace. Our time together after thirty-one years began to regain its lost poetry.

I knelt down to gather up the shattered pottery, thrusting pieces into my palm, letting one broken fragment bang against another, determined simply to clean up the mess that had intruded on the papers to be graded. I didn’t care if more shards broke off, didn’t care if a sharp edge cut me, almost hoped one would, so I could feel something other than intermingled fear and despair. I had trusted that Santa Fe had repaired us. But the high desert could not cast its spell far enough to reach our home.

A contentious election season came that fall. Tom and I, political opposites, were also both conflict-averse. We chose silence; thus, the tension in the house seldom abated. He ignored the candidate sign I planted in our yard, knowing his vote would cancel mine.

My post-sabbatical return to campus consumed me. There was teaching and advising and visiting secondary schools to observe student teachers and time-demanding committees and research and writing. And the grant-funded project I co-directed. While I clocked sixty-hour weeks, Tom spent days with his best friend practicing and competing at their target-shooting range. When I committed even more time to the project as it began to flounder, he said, “You’re doing two full-time jobs,” and bought a new guitar. A second guitar arrived a few months later, then a third.

More quietly Tom had also said, “I don’t always want to be second.” At the time, I was writing an article about perfectionism and its costs to a student I had taught. I could have been writing about myself. I was so far into saving the project and teaching and committee meetings and putting out all the fires those work tasks entailed that I could not grasp what I stood to lose at home.

I had presumed Tom would always be my constant. Now fragments lay before us.

“What are you doing?” Tom asked. He stood, hands resting on the back of a dining room chair, not coming near the breakage or me, clawing up pieces.

“Picking this up to throw away.”

“Why? We’ll try to fix it. Don’t throw it away. Put it here on the table. We can glue it back together.”

“Are you serious? Look at it.” I set the ruins on the table. “It’s all yours,” I said, walking away, guilty over Tom’s eagerness to preserve what I was willing to abandon.

He sat for days gluing one jagged edge to a matching jagged surface. He made supports to stabilize a curve. He guarded the workspace from the ever-curious cat. The dozens of lines and symbolic shapes typically painted on Acoma art reformed into mountains, rain, corn.

I resigned from the project.


Sometimes these days I hold the small pot and gently touch its scars. Those glued-together places that push one curve out beyond where it should be and make the top uneven. What would a pot representing Tom and me look like, I wonder. It would include a symbol for home. Some swirls for my favorite clove-scented rose that blooms each June. A representation of Tom’s guitar softly issuing a Civil War reel. A figure of a cat. Some dark paint strokes for our sadnesses: my infertility, his depression, our job losses. Some brighter lines to mark our survival after each blow. And one more darkness, for Tom’s death, three years after the cat leapt, three years after his patient commitment salvaged the pot.