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.
Thank you for sharing this lovely story. Having a dad who fastidiously repaired treasured bits of china and crockery through the years, those pieces sporting webs of fine cracks wax eloquent now that he’s gone…lasting reminders of his caring and devotion that continue to resonate warmly, as “Reconstruction” surely will.
Thank you, Virginia. Your own poems show that you know loss and how a place or an action can be treasured.
As I read how you touch the clay pot and recognize its cracks and imperfections, one word came to mi mind: kintsugi.
It is a centuries old japanese art technique that purposely highlights the “scars” as a part of the design by glueing together the broken pieces with melted gold. It is a metaphore with life and love as we embrace flaws and imperfections that come along with the good traits of our partner and friends. Just like Tom’s task precision and patience in fixing the pot, and what it symbolized -and still does.
In the process of repairing the broken pot, he actually created something more unique, beautiful and resilient, an even stronger! A beautiful memory. A story.
Love this piece, Helen! The careful patience you give to the unfolding of this story is wonderful, as is your willingness to be so open vulnerable with the reader.
Wow. Just wow.
Wow, Nan. This was exactly what I needed to read today. Thank you.
A heart touching piece Helen. many long marriages are like this I believe, the pot is cracked and broken and repaired many times, hopefully we can still find love and beauty
Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. Incredible.
Such a wonderful use of words to paint a picture of true love and life. Thank you, Helen, for taking the time to write this essay.
This piece is gorgeous and relatable. Each line fits perfectly with the next and reminds the reader of what we have to gain from the pieces we put together from the broken moments of life. Thank you for writing. I hope to see more!
This piece spoke to me in so many ways . . . good writing so often reminds us that we are not alone. Thank you for your craftsmanship in this.
This is one of THE best things I have read in many days. Thank you so much Helen. It’s a beautiful piece of writing. . . concise, inspirational and just plain lovely.
Helen you openness in the piece reminds me of why you were one of my absolute favorite teachers. This piece moved me. Ty
This was absolutely beautiful. The idea of the broken pot reminded me of Japanese Kintsugi—embracing the imperfections in the piece, just as we should in our own lives. It’s an interesting thought to wonder what our stories would look like projected in an art form like that.
I love your reference to the Japanese appreciation of imperfections. Thank you.
I seldom read anything that touches my own loss as a widow, but this has a hunting elegance that makes me want to try to create beauty out of suffering. Thank you for this gift: A story about broken pots and hearts.
From another widow, I totally agree!
sorry for the misspelling in my response. MY hand is casted.
That was beautiful, Helen! I could easily substitute my own marriage to Fred in your piece. The quarantine was our Santa Fe. Our huge dark spot was our loss of Christian. Keep writing, girlfriend!!
My face is suddenly all wet. This is quite moving. What an honest piece. Thank you for writing this!
Lynne, your comment touches my heart. You can connect so deeply with loss and love. I think of you often and cheer you on from a distance. Please say HI to Fred for me.
Thank you for this piece. In these troubling times, there remains hope that things can be put back together. Beautifully written!
This is a beautiful story. In a very short space you have captured so much about love and loss and the care that you and your husband took of each other.
The value of this piece lies, in part, from its richness. While brief, it provokes different ideas and thoughts, not only about marriage and its challenges but also about the inexorable pull of obligation and its effect on one’s personal life and mental state. There is much here, too, about human nature and its complexities. It warrants another read–and even more.
How beautiful! Thanks for sharing this piece of your history and for reminding me.
Helen, you have such a gift for weaving beauty into dark places and the circles of life. The tenderness along side your true human self is so real and so lovely.
Beautifully written and from the heart. I felt your deep love, regrets, loss and pain as if I had been the pot.