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Art History

Family Secrets Revealed

By Valerie KittellPublished 3 years ago 16 min read
Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Was the cat limping? Since Circe was a rotund Maine Coon who waddled all the time anyway, Stelle was unsure. It seemed to her that the tubby feline was listing to one side and putting less weight on her right front paw as she made her way into the kitchen.

“Does she look like she’s favoring the left paw to you?”

“Should we put her on a diet?” Dan asked. “Good Lord, her stomach is practically touching the ground. I really don’t want another four-figure vet bill."

“She doesn’t eat that much. I don’t know why she’s gotten so fat. Oh, sorry Circe. I know, you’re just big-boned.” Stelle scooped up the corpulent feline, who went limp and allowed herself to be slung over Stelle’s shoulder like a vintage fox fur piece.

She stroked the vibrating, purring blob. “Daddy’s only teasing, Puddy Tat. He likes his woman with some meat on their bones. Oh, yes he does, oh yes he does.” She did her imitation of foolish baby talk from a currently popular TV commercial. She walked to the bowl of cat food on the floor and slowly lowered the cat to the ground.

“Some meat, sure. But maybe not an entire pot roast.”

Stelle straightened up and turned to him. “Oh? An entire pot roast? Are you referring to the cat or do I have an entire pot roast on my bones, too?”

“Oh Christ. You’ll seize any opportunity won’t you? If you’re unhappy with your weight do something about it. For the record, I was talking about the cat.” Dan pushed back his chair impatiently and added his empty cereal bowl to the tower of unwashed dishes in the sink. “If you really want something to be depressed about, take a look at the real estate section.”

For five years they had been tracking the downward spiral of prices in their neighborhood. Last week, another sign had gone up.

“Oh shit. Was it in there? Did you see it? You know that house is almost exactly like ours. It might even have a little more square footage.” Stelle sank into a chair and picked up the weekly real estate guide with the same enthusiasm she would have picked up a towel covered in cat vomit. “Do I have to find it myself or are you going to save me the aggravation?”

“I can’t bring myself to say it out loud. Guess.”


Dan made a thumbs down gesture and Stelle frowned. “Does that mean I’m wrong or that it’s lower?”

“Both. You’re wrong AND it’s lower”

“Oh my God, you’re kidding. Lower? I thought we agreed nothing could ever go for lower than that in this neighborhood. How is that even possible?”

“Short Sale. 399. We’ve now gone from being underwater on the mortgage to deep sea diving. Stelle, I don’t know how long we can keep this up. We’re throwing money down a rat hole every month.”

Stelle looked at Dan in alarm. Voicing doubt or pessimism was forbidden in the Dan universe. If his family had a crest, she had always imagined it would feature a crossed pair of rose colored spectacles and the motto "Erit Omne Opum Ex" (Latin for "It'll All Work Out").

Seeing Dan morose shook Stelle’s inner compass. She could whine, moan and complain about their current finances but he could not. His well-defined role in their relationship was to shrug off adversity and soldier on. She saw him as the stalwart oak and herself as a blighted little sapling living in his shade. She felt like she had just seen the initial sign of a hidden Japanese beetle infestation. Were dark thoughts burrowing through his stolid exterior? Was he rotting from within? Was it remotely possible that he, like her father, was capable of uprooting himself unexpectedly and without warning?

She was the wallower, the gloom and doomer, the Eeyore. This was her family tradition, nurtured and expanded upon by a dour and cold mother who allowed no ray of optimism or cheerfulness to permeate the unrelenting sour gray hell they inhabited after her father’s desertion. Her family crest was a glass that was clearly less than half full with “Hoc Est?” (This is it?) as the motto.


Seven years before, when they were finally getting serious, she knew she would have to take Dan to meet her mother who was still ensconced in the old house, a safe full day’s drive and three states away.

“Brace yourself, “she told him. “Imagine you’re going to spend the night at the Bates Motel and it’s being run by Miss Havisham”.

“Delightful. Is that how you’re marketing the place? No wonder traffic is down.” Dan gave a thumbs up and a cheerful honk to a passing car slathered with Red Sox decals and bumper stickers. “I always pictured your mother as more Medea than Miss Havisham. ”

Stelle paused her map study. They had added exits for new shopping malls since her last trip and the exit numbers were no longer what she was used to. “Uh-hmm… no. Fortunately for me, definitely Miss Havisham. She’s stuck in the past and can’t move forward. She became pickled with hatred when my dad left.”

Dan smirked and corrected her, “You mean when he ‘went Go Gan'. In my family we — OW!” A precipitous thump to his upper arm from Stelle stopped him midstream and caused him to take his eyes from the heavy traffic he was negotiating to see what had deranged his previously placid co-pilot, who had thrown the map on the floor and turned sideways in her bucket seat in order to get leverage for her assault.

The thump had been more emphatic than she had intended and she was embarrassed. She was also unnerved at her uncontrolled, Pavlovian reaction to verbal stimulus. She rubbed his arm in contrition. “I’m sorry. But Dan, don’t ever use that term in front of her. Ever. I think it could set her off.” She stopped her massage. “You need to get in the right lane. It’s gonna come up fast.” She grabbed her bag and began rummaging at the bottom for change to feed the tollbooth.


One autumn weekend morning in 1980, presumably like any other October morning with nothing to portend its upcoming Pearl Harbor- like infamy, Stelle’s father got up quietly and surreptitiously. He looked at his still-sleeping dictator wife Ruth, noting clinically the dried rivulet of burgundy stained drool around her mouth. He crept catburgerlike down the stairs and paused at the door of the den where he observed the two Fruit Loop festooned pre-school age children already planted in front of the TV. He went to the bay window and surveyed his overgrown lawn, then catburgled his way back upstairs into the bedroom. He quietly packed a small bag to the accompaniment of Ruth’s sleep apnea snorts and gurgles.

When he was done, he took the day planner from the top of the desk and turned to that day’s date. He sat in the wing chair in the corner of the room and scrawled an entry which took up the entire page. He put his pen back in his pocket, rose, replaced the open journal on the desk, grabbed his kit bag, went down the stairs and out the front door then down the driveway, never to be seen again.

On that historic day, the husband, father and breadwinner of the household “did a Go Gan” as the event was forever after memorialized by Ruth. This appellation was a direct result of the contents of the note he left for her to find upon waking. After reading it, she went downstairs, turned on a stove burner and incinerated it, an act later severely criticized by her divorce attorney. The actual wording of the note was never revealed to anyone, although it was powerful enough for a single reading to congeal the soul and shrivel the heart of its recipient like a slug getting dosed with salt.

Little Stelle accepted that her father had done something unspeakable but she had no clarity what the specifics of “going Gan” were, except that it was very very bad and involved either death or disgrace and possibly both. As she grew older, when she tried to pin her mother down on details as to Daddy’s absence, the response was always the same, “Someday you’ll find out”, leaving Stelle to form her own theories, some of them very dark.

Could a Go Gan be a form of Japanese ritual suicide? Her brother Ethan had his own paternal disappearance hypothesis; Go Gan was a secret sect his father belonged to that required it members to disappear when called upon to fight guerrilla wars against the forces of evil in the universe. This explanation was largely the fruit of GI Joe vs. COBRA ads, but it satisfied a small boy with a vanished father.

The Enlightenment occurred one night when Stelle was in sixth grade and Ethan was in fourth grade and their mother was gone for the evening to attend a wake. Their regular babysitter was unavailable but Ruth reluctantly decided to leave them unsupervised after extracting promises from them to keep the curtains closed, the doors locked and the telephone unanswered. This was in order to deter the packs of roaming homicidal maniacs and kidnappers she believed frequented their suburban neighborhood, despite the lack of reportage verifying her concerns.

Once alone in their fortress, Stelle and Ethan took the opportunity to eat frozen dinners on TV trays and watch Jeopardy in the living room, an absolutely forbidden practice. That evening, the Final Jeopardy category was Art History and the Final Jeopardy answer was:

“He rejected his profession of stockbroker and deserted his bourgeoisie wife and family for the life of an artist in French Polynesia”.

All three contestants had the correct answer. One wrote “Who was Paul Gauguin?” while the other two had simply “Who was Gauguin?” By the time Alex Trebek had said the name ‘Gauguin’ for the third time out loud, Stelle and Ethan put down their forks and were staring at each other. “Go Gan,” Stelle whispered. She parroted the game show host’s summation, “Left his family. Gauguin left his family, moved to the South Seas and became a great artist.”

She went to the bookcase and pulled down a thick book about famous art. She rifled through the index and then flipped to “19th Century”. There were pictures of his paintings — vibrant, colorful, exotic, with tropical trees and beautiful women with little or no clothing.

“Let me see! I wanna see too!” Ethan was grabbing for the volume which Stelle was now holding above her head. She did not think the naked lady pictures should be shown to Ethan. He was running around her in circles and leaping and grabbing at the book. There was a tearing sound and they stopped, frozen. In his hands Ethan had the ripped halves of three full color plates of Gauguin paintings.

“Oh, Ethan, you are gonna get it. You are gonna get it so bad,” Stelle announced with sisterly Schadenfreude.

“How come only I’m gonna get it? It’s your fault too!” Ethan immediately began formulating a narrative of the vandalism to fully encompass them both. “You shouldn’t have teased me. You know you’re not supposed to tease me.”

He scrunched his face in exertion and Stelle knew what was coming. Her brother showed an uncanny control over his tear ducts and could normally cry on demand whenever the occasion demanded. “You’re a regular little Freddie Bartholomew, aren’t you?” Ruth had once observed with grudging admiration.

“If you start crying, I’ll give you something to cry about” Stelle hissed, in an extremely accurate imitation of her mother.

It was at this exact moment that the front door opened and their mother walked into the living room. Because she usually sat through the entire visiting hours at a wake, Stelle and Ethan were not even trying to listen for her car yet and thought they had plenty of time to remove the trays and any tell-tale signs of having enjoyed themselves in her absence.

Stelle lowered the hand she had been about to slap her brother with, and Ethan unscrunched his face and forced the salty flow backwards into the reservoir where it would remain on call should it be required. They stood side by side and looked at their mother with foolish, placating, obsequious grins.

Ruth eyed them both, then scanned the room like a killer robot, cataloging the art book lying on the rug, the torn pages in Ethan’s hands and finally the folding tables set up with the remnants of the food. “So, the little mousies set up trays and ate in the living room in front of the TV while the cat was away, did they?”

Her tone was light and mocking but Stelle and Ethan knew that this lilting intro could turn in seconds to a shrieking harangue that might continue in waves for hours. Both of the children were skilled in interpreting the different tones and nuances of Ruth’s voice. It was as though in her voice they had a private family version of Peter and the Wolf, where pitch and cadence represented different animals of varying danger. They were hearing a bird now, but a carnivore could show up at any minute. Ethan was the more skilled practitioner in diversion and deflection when he detected imminent hazard.

“Mom! We know what Go Gan is! We learned it on Jeopardy. Gauguin was a French painter guy who deserted his family for hula girls in Hawaii. Is that what Dad did? Is he living with Hula girls?” Brilliantly, Ethan had directed Ruth away from their current misdemeanors and onto their fathers far larger crimes for which he would never be forgiven or forgotten.

“No hula girls in Phoenix trailer parks that I’m aware of, “Ruth snorted. “Do you mean to tell me that you didn’t know who Gauguin was? What kind of little Philistines am I raising?”

She hung up her coat in the front closet and then walked right by the couch and the TV trays and into the kitchen from where within sixty seconds emanated the sounds of ice cubes in a cocktail shaker.


Predictably, the initial meeting between Dan and Stelle’s mother did not go well. She had taken them upstairs and ushered Dan into Ethan’s old room, still furnished with cowboy print curtains and a bunk bed. Match box cars and Star Wars figures were crowded on shelves and window sills. The room could have been a diorama at the Smithsonian: 10-Year-Old Boys Room Circa 1985. Stelle of course would be staying in her old room, also unchanged, with evidence of habitation by a teenage girl as late as 1992.

When Ruth had gone back downstairs so that they could “freshen up” after their drive, Dan went into Stelle’s room, carrying his unpacked suitcase.

“I just can’t sleep there “Dan said. “There are Cub Scout shirts in the closet and Underoos in the drawers. It’s a shrine. I’m amazed that she would allow anyone to stay in there. Anyway, I’m going to go to that Motel Six on the main drag and stay there. I’ll come over in the morning and spend the day with you and her and toddle off in the evening. And, maybe we can find time to toddle off alone ourselves in the afternoon.”

In response, Stelle shrugged hopelessly. “Whatever. I knew this wasn’t a good idea.”

Seeing her spirits deflate, he reached into his never-fail arsenal of comic archetypes and assumed an exaggerated leering face and a yokel accent. “They have cable Tee Vee and that thar air conditioning and an ice machine and whooee we can get them colored lights going. Whatcha say to that, little lady?” He nuzzled her neck. To his relief, she responded to his attempt to lighten the situation.

“You’re breaking long standing family tradition by boldly announcing your defection from these premises, suh. It’s customary to leave quietly without drawing attention to yourself.” Stelle was doing her very best road show full on Tennessee Williams heroine.

She grabbed Dan’s arms and placed them around her waist and walked him over to the window. “Right down theyah is the very walk mah Daddy walked on when he walked out. Couldn’t keep that cat from walkin’ no, suh.”

They laughed and then kissed. The kisses continued and were just moving from a PG rating into R territory when the sound of a stagy cough interrupted them. They turned from the window. Ruth stood in the open doorway.

“I brought you both towels. But I guess you won’t be needing yours, “she said to Dan.” Don’t worry, you’re not hurting my feelings.” She looked at Stelle. “You’re no Julie Harris. I advise you to keep your day job.”

She put the pink towels on the pink bedspread and walked out with the blue set.


The cat was going crazy in the litter box, scratching and scratching and scratching. It woke up Stelle who got up and went into the hall bathroom where Dan had built a wooden cat box cupboard of which he was inordinately proud. “This is the kitty litter cupboard by which all other kitty litter cupboards will be judged and found wanting,” he announced at its unveiling ceremony. (In those days they seized on any excuse to have people over.)

Stelle opened the cupboard door and found Circe lying in the kitty litter, panting. On the whitewashed floor of the cupboard were several small pools of bloody urine.

“Oh no, Circe” she moaned. She gently lifted the cat up from the litter and cradled her. “My poor tubby tubbykins. You’re sick again. Damn!” She could feel the tears welling and she started crying, trying not to actually sob because she didn’t want to wake up Dan right away. It was Sunday, meaning they were doomed to another trip to the emergency vet who charged triple the fees of their regular vet.

Dan heard the scratching too and was awake when Stelle went down the hall. When she didn’t come back, he sighed and got up. He found her sitting on the floor with the cat in her lap and her shoulders heaving. He got down on the floor next to her and stroked the barely conscious Circe.

“Looks bad,” he said. Stelle nodded and continued weeping. “I’ll get dressed and we’ll take her in.” He put his arms around her. “Don’t worry. Everything will be alright.”

Copyright 2018 Valerie Kittell All Rights Reserved


About the Creator

Valerie Kittell

I live in a seaside New England village and am trying to become the writer I always wanted to be. I focus on writing short stories and personal essays and I hope you enjoy my efforts. Likes and tips are very encouraging.

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